- Childhood, Autobiography and the Francophone Caribbean by Louise Hardwick
Hardwick examines récits d’enfance by six major writers from the Francophone Caribbean, noting at the outset that this genre suffers from critical neglect, to the extent that the texts under discussion occupy an “annexed literary status” within their authors’ respective œuvre (7).
After tracing the motif of childhood “as a politicized literary conceit” (54) in the region back to St-John Perse, Damas, Césaire, Tirolien, Lacrosil, Ega, Virassamy, and Glissant, Hardwick identifies Zobel’s La rue cases-nègres as the foundational récit d’enfance, a tradition she regards as virtually inexistent in Haiti. The genre relies on specific narrative devices, including the autobiographical pact and the scene of recognition, which stage the child narrator’s dawning awareness of the prevailing ethnoclass hierarchy. Other characteristics are aesthetic traits such as intertextuality and shared thematic concerns, most notably the topoi of memory, slavery and its legacy, ethnicity, the status of Creole culture and language, and an alienating school system.
Like Antonio Benítez Rojo’s repeating island, the post-1990 childhood autobiography seems repeated from one author to the next, each time with a difference. Unlike Joseph Zobel’s novel, Patrick Chamoiseau’s trilogy is exclusively urban. While the first volumes showcase cultural resistance in true créoliste fashion, in the final volume identity is informed instead by Glissant’s Relation and Tout-monde, and the denunciation of the French assimilationist onslaught is more subdued. Raphaël Confiant’s texts on childhood are inflected by ethnic difference, as they underline the narrator‘s minority mixed-race status. Maryse Condé’s autobiographical account of her bourgeois upbringing introduces social difference; here performativity and the trope of the mask reveal the narrator’s growing realization of the incongruousness of the identity she is expected to assume. Spatial distance and the connection to Caribbean topography are crucial to the récits d’enfance from exile by Daniel Maximin and Gisèle Pineau. Historical and sociopolitical difference accounts for Haitian diasporic writer Dany Laferrière’s departure from issues involving cultural and political agency so critical to his French Antillean counterparts. Instead, Laferrière’s recollections oscillate between the evocation of an immutable, happy childhood and the tacit recognition of impending doom following the rise of Duvalier. Hardwick’s final chapter focuses on parental paradigms and gender stereotypes in childhood autobiographies and fictions from the area.
Hardwick’s discussion of intertextuality—both among writers and self-referential—and her contextualization of the childhood memoirs within their authors’ larger œuvre are most illuminating. Nevertheless, a detailed examination of how gender factors in the child narrator’s identity formation might be the major omission of this book. The abundant childhood autobiographies from the Anglophone Caribbean could also have been better represented. While more firmly grounded in the realm of fiction than the récits d’enfance under study, this tradition is arguably closer to Zobel’s foundational masterpiece, used as a reference throughout, than the African American texts on which Hardwick draws for comparison. As Hardwick herself maintains, a pan-Caribbean approach to this hitherto underappreciated genre could be extremely fruitful. Hardwick’s book nonetheless constitutes a significant contribution to Francophone Caribbean literary criticism. [End Page 152]