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  • 'The Natural Elements Unchained':Trauma, Disability, and Gisèle Pineau's Poetics of Disaster

The present article takes the theoretical frameworks of trauma studies and disability studies to consider Guadeloupian author Gisèle Pineau's use of disaster as a metaphor for mental illness and trauma, while at the same time commenting on historically and materially situated catastrophic events that mark and alter the bodies and psychological conditions of Caribbean women and their communities. In two recent works that shift between figurative and literal imagery of catastrophes, Folie, aller simple (2010), and Les voyages de Merry Sisal (2015), Pineau intersperses disaster imagery and the complex psychological trauma of catastrophic events in what I am calling here a "poetics of disaster." Whether disaster becomes the metaphor through which trauma and mental illness are articulated, or whether her text explores the lived experiences of survivors of historic disasters, these two texts plumb the depths of a discourse that is rooted heavily within the lexical field of disaster, a linguistic terrain where expressions of psychological trauma and physical disability are often inextricable. Pineau's work insists upon the necessary inevitability of eruptions, earthquakes, and storms in the Caribbean islands, and by using these events as foils or metaphors for the trauma and psychological disability that result from socio-economic, often gender-based oppression and violence, she brings the question of "natural" and "disastrous" cycles of human behavior into stark relief.

The Oxford English dictionary reminds us that "disaster" derives from the Italian disastro 'ill-starred event', from dis- (expressing negation) + astro 'star' (from Latin astrum) "ill-fated" as a disordering of "normal" processes and patterns. For scholars of trauma studies, figurative language is often the only vector through which an experience of life-altering trauma or an experience of disaster, can be put into language. In contrast, Western scholars in disability studies point out, figurative language normalizes disability as "disastrous." Is this language as problematic in the Caribbean context, and would evacuating the language of disaster from the embodied experiences of Caribbean citizens silence their environmental histories and ascribe a wholly European approach to disability representation? Guadeloupian author Gisèle Pineau's work sits at the nexus of these difficult questions of representation of trauma, disability, and disaster. Cycles of disaster lend their rhythm to her oeuvre—from volcanic eruptions in Morne Câpresse (2008) and in her young adult novel Les colères du volcan (2004) to the devastating sweep of cyclones in L'Espérance Macadam (1995), Pineau's fictional worlds are punctuated by the environmental and climatic events that shape islands and order geologic time in the Caribbean. Pineau repeatedly puts these environmental events in dialogue with the traumas that populate the interior psychological landscape of her protagonists. Her imagery leans heavily on the metaphor of environmental disasters that are common to Caribbean geography and seasons, often in order to comment upon the cycles, repetitions, and interconnected effects of event-based or prolonged psychological traumas that punctuate the lives of her female protagonists. The present article will consider the theoretical frameworks of disability and trauma studies in relation to Pineau's use of disaster as a metaphor for mental illness, disability, trauma, and her representation of historically and materially situated catastrophic events that mark and alter the bodies and psychological conditions of Caribbean women and their communities.

In two recent works that shift between figurative and literal imagery of catastrophes, Folie, aller simple (2010), and Les voyages de Merry Sisal (2015), Pineau intersperses disaster imagery and the complex psychological trauma of catastrophic events in what I am calling here a "poetics of disaster." Whether disaster becomes the metaphor through which trauma and mental illness are articulated, or whether her text explores the lived experiences of survivors of historic disasters, these two texts plumb the depths of a discourse that is rooted heavily within the lexical field of disaster, a linguistic terrain where expressions [End Page 34] of psychological trauma and physical disability are often inextricable. What exacerbates the "ill-fatedness" of such events, of course, is the human suffering that ensues due to poorly conceived, man-made approaches to land use, urban development, recovery efforts, and the like.1 Pineau's work insists upon the necessary inevitability of eruptions, earthquakes, and storms in the Caribbean islands, and by using these events as foils or metaphors for the trauma and psychological disability that result from socio-economic, often gender-based oppression and violence, she brings the question of "natural" and "disastrous" cycles of human behavior into stark relief. Pineau's insistence on patterns of disaster aligns itself with the contributions of feminist trauma theorist Laura S. Brown. Brown calls into question the assumed masculinity that underwrites the normative "human" experience of event-based trauma. Brown embraces a theory of "insidious trauma" based on the "private, secret experiences that women encounter in the interpersonal realm and at the hands of those [they] love and depend on" (100).2 As scholars of postcolonial studies evaluate the usefulness of trauma theory for understanding texts that address the multi-leveled historic, economic, political, social, environmental, and gendered experiences of psychological trauma in postcolonial settings, Brown's acknowledgement of the problematic nature of a trauma theory developed around one isolated moment or event is germane to the complex collages of trauma and disaster that Pineau pieces together in her novels.3

Pineau engages with the "social, historical, economic, and cultural processes" that determine the way that the bodies of Caribbean women are codified, controlled, and represented both in the francophone Caribbean and in the European territory of France (Berger 564).4 The borderlands and crossroads of cultures inhabited by Caribbean epistemologies offer a number of invitations to explore the intersections of trauma and disability (Hewett 142). Pineau's autobiographical reflections in Folie, aller simple highlight her experiences as a Guadeloupian woman of color living and working in a psychiatric hospital in Paris. She represents her daily interactions as a woman of color with her (primarily white) patients and their families, with the national health care system, and with other French health care workers. The central trauma of Folie, aller simple involves the suicide of one of her long-term patients, who has left the clinic and thrown herself in front of a subway train. More broadly, however, the representation of trauma and chronic mental disability in her narrative embraces the shared experiences of mental health practitioners and their patients. As the title Folie, aller simple suggests, Pineau is comfortable with the suggestion that the mental illness of her patients may have lasting effects on her own psychological state. Within the essay, Pineau the nurse parses her own reaction to the trauma of losing a patient to suicide, while Pineau the writer navigates the racial trauma of living in contemporary France as a woman of color, both inside and outside the psychiatric hospital.

While describing her experiences within the French educational system and the medical establishment, Pineau narrates a series of moments charged with racial discrimination that fall squarely within the notion of "trauma" as it is understood by the field of trauma studies and which are permeated by a discourse [End Page 35] of disaster. Preparing to administer an injection to a patient for the first time, she herself receives a reciprocal injection of racial hatred: "Madame X fait un bond dans son lit et se met à hurler. 'Je veux pas la négresse! Pas la négresse! Pas la négresse !' Il y a un moment de stupeur collective. Dans mon souvenir, le temps se fige soudain. Et puis je crois que les infirmières me repoussent vers la porte, me demandant à mi-voix de quitter la chambre. Je suis effondrée" (149).5 Writing about the Haiti earthquake of 2010, psychoanalyst Lucie Cantin defines trauma as "un événement, imprévisible, invraisemblable et inassimilable [qui] marque une rupture avec tout ce qui a précédé. Imprévisible, il surgit; invraisemblable, on n'aurait jamais pu l'imaginer et inassimilable, il demeure comme un corps étranger, sans pouvoir être intégré" (89). The event is "unassimilable," yet as James Berger theorizes, the literature of trauma is a literature that attempts to return to the moment of the traumatic experience, a moment that cannot be remembered fully and, as Cantin suggests, can never be fully expressed. The moment exists out of time and any representation is always a frustrated reconstruction; "it can only be reconstructed in retrospect, is always belated, at a distance" (Berger 565). In Pineau's encounter above, the narrating voice has undergone foundational shaking ("Je suis effondrée"). The moment stands fixed in time in her memory ("le temps se fige soudain"), a moment of "collective stupor" and of "devastation." The reconstruction of the event through language and narrative calls for a "new symbolic order," as Berger puts it—here, one that borrows from the vocabulary of disaster. Berger suggests that with the representation of trauma, "all that preceded it and all that follows after now take meaning from that single moment; the historical rupture now functions also as a distorting-revealing conduit" (566). One important distinction from Cantin's formula should be noted in Pineau's attempt to describe the traumatic moment of racial hatred. While Cantin's own theorizing of trauma uses figurative language to describe the event as a "foreign body," Pineau's trauma takes its origins in the fact that her body itself becomes the "corps étranger" (designated as "la négresse,") that is "unassimilable" by the racist gaze of her patient and by the surprise of her colleagues, who rush her out of the room. Like so much of her work with metaphor and disaster, Pineau's description of trauma here in Folie, aller simple moves seamlessly from figurative to flesh and back again.6

The disaster lexicon that shores up this moment of racial violence is picked up in other more overt moments as Pineau articulates her understanding of mental illness and her exposure to it: "Trente ans à fréquenter de si près la folie, la violence, le désespoir aussi. Trente ans au bord des gouffres, au pied des montagnes de douleur, au chevet des corps morcelés. Trente ans à regarder la folie aller et venir […] se cristalliser, s'endormir, se réveiller, revenir en force, enragée et brulante, volcanique et superbe comme aux premiers jours" (95). Patterns of natural geologic events and their violent impact on human bodies co-exist in Pineau's description of the mentally ill—the patient is both the event and the destruction caused by it. At the same time, her repetition of "trente ans" emphasizes the assimilation of this cycle of anticipation and release in her own conception of time. In a later passage, the discourse of disaster returns to articulate [End Page 36] the particular responsibilities of the psychiatric staff in the hospital—as passengers and crew on a violent journey, as first responders to an emergency:

Nous sommes tous embarqués dans la même galère. […] les infirmiers doivent garantir la sécurité des patients. Les protéger d'eux-mêmes, de leurs pulsions mortifères. Les suivre dans les zones de turbulences. Les aider à traverser les déserts et les mers. Les porter à bout de bras. Les redresser après la tempête.


By evoking the communities that arise after violent hurricanes pass over the Caribbean archipelago, Pineau insists on the existence of a micro-community within the hospital that is bound together by the shared trauma of these tumultuous moments of psychosis.

The notion of reciprocity, trauma, and community resurfaces in Folie, aller simple. Her reflections on "folie" extend outward to societal pressures in continental France and turn inward in an exploration and expression of relationality. As she continues, her personal reflections explore questions of mental health and its connection to her two professions. Borrowing the potentially dismissive reference to "insanity" in relation to the patients in the hospital, she confesses that "quand j'étais petite, je croyais parfois que je pouvais devenir une folle" (107). She confesses to having imagined harming her family, having magical powers, and committing suicide—all conditions that are eventually explored in the narrative in relation to the patients who populate the memoir. Finally, she settles on an understanding of the imbricated reciprocity of her careers as psychiatric nurse and author: "Je finis par confier à mes lecteurs—et je le pense au plus profond de moi—que si je n'avais pas eu l'écriture, j'aurais pu moi-même être atteinte d'une 'affection psychiatrique', comme on dit maintenant pour ne pas éveiller les images des fous, déments, insensés, aliénés d'antan" (171). With imagery that hearkens back to the discourse of disaster and disability that she employs to explore the conditions of her patients, she explains, "J'écris furieusement comme une rivière creuse son lit. […] J'écris tel le vent qui souffle sans fin et charrie en vrac les parfums et les pestilences…" (172). The image of her own writing as a creative force expressed in destructive terms again upends the traditional use of disaster discourse. Moreover, this reflection on writing as "disastrous" invites us to turn back to the disaster metaphors she has previously used to describe the situations of the patients in the psychiatric hospital, and their traumas, mental illness and disabilities. Inflecting her contemplations of the permeable boundaries between patient and caregiver, "sane" and "crazy," creation and destruction, Pineau recalls once again the "natural" (dis)order of the Caribbean landscape, one in which "disaster" is part of the natural order of geologic time and meteorological rhythms, rendered catastrophic by language, representation, rhetoric, and a vast network of socio-economic conditions that favor some and condemn others to lifelong struggle.

In a passage that reunites the disordering of environmental, physical structures and the "disorder" of mental illness, Pineau situates the text's ultimate disaster reference in the words of an experienced nurse in Guadeloupe who [End Page 37] declares that "folie" is as natural as any other phenomenon, an expected and natural expression of the human condition:

En fait, ajoutait le très vieil infirmier, on n'est jamais en paix en ce monde, tout le temps tourmenté et déchiré à l'intérieur par des questions existentielles et des pensées poisseuses, et à l'extérieur par l'enfer des autres et les éléments naturels déchainés : cyclones, tremblements de terre, éruption volcanique, raz de marée…C'est sûr, il faut être complètement inconscient pour supporter tout cela.


It is tempting to focus on Pineau's use of the familiar clichés of the insane being the sanest among us, or on her reference to Jean-Paul Sartre's oft-borrowed observation that "hell" is part and parcel of the modern human condition. What I find significant, given the discourse of disaster that has been deployed throughout the text to articulate the cycles of disturbance and calm that punctuate life in the psychiatric hospital, is that a Guadeloupian ontology shapes the final image of a text that is set, primarily, in the European territory of France. Pineau's poetics of disaster "unchains" itself from the figurative language of catastrophe to join the real environmental sources of grief and trauma that threaten daily life in the Caribbean. In a relational transition reminiscent of Edouard Glissant's Poetics of Relation, Pineau claims a space for a Caribbean model of interconnectedness between land and inhabitant, between overseas collectivité and metropolitan "center" that reverses the model of imposed European systems of interpretation. Caribbean environmental and human dynamics have become the guiding metaphor that orders her representation of the waves and eruptions of mental illness in her European patients. Her poetics of disaster in Folie, aller simple ultimately claims a space for psychological trauma and mental illness as part of a broader order of human experience, informed and represented within Pineau's Caribbean epistemology.

As I have suggested earlier, Pineau's poetics of disaster brings historic catastrophic events to the fore as pressures that have lasting effects on human lives—particularly the psychological conditions of Caribbean women living in situations of poverty or abuse. In the following section, I will examine Pineau's portrayal of trauma, loss, and disability in the event of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti as it figures in Les Voyages de Merry Sisal. Pineau's poetics of disaster highlight the earthquake of 2010 as one thread in a tapestry of historic and personally traumatic events that shape the body and psyche of her disabled protagonist. While discussing the extent of the psychological impact of the Haiti earthquake, Franco-Haitian psychologist Daniel Derivois argues that the trauma of 2010 reawakened "collective, national, institutional, state, familial, and individual" traumas that reach back into early colonial times (74). Pineau has long explored interconnected traumas in her fictional works. The recurring forms of oppression and violence that shape the experiences of her female protagonists repeatedly troubles European trauma theory's neat separation between "before" and "after" the traumatic event, and embraces Laura Brown's feminist approach to "insidious trauma," mentioned earlier. Pineau's works acknowledge the cyclical violence of Caribbean history (slavery and the plantation economy, [End Page 38] colonial and neocolonial oppression and exploitation, poverty, climate change and environmental crisis, etc.), and these historic patterns are often the backdrop for contemporary socio-economic obstacles faced by vulnerable segments of the Caribbean population, particularly women. These obstacles include, but are not limited to, drug and alcohol addiction, sexual violence and abusive relationships, incest, and social and economic isolation. "Natural" and "unnatural" patterns of behavior and experience become increasingly difficult to extricate for characters who are socialized in abusive conditions, either historical or familial. For example, in Pineau's L'Espérance-macadam, patterns of family violence often mimic the cycles of disastrous geologic events; however, events that are cataclysmic on a community-wide scale also create ruptures that allow her characters to break out of patterns of trauma and violence (Loth 36-53).

In "Disabling Postcolonialism: Global Disability Cultures and Democratic Criticism," Clare Barker and Stuart Murray assert that "the history of colonialism (and its post/neocolonial aftermath) is indeed a history of mass disablement, and that the acquisition of disability may be tied into wider patterns of dispossession—the loss of family, home, land, community, employment." Moreover, Barker and Murray argue that "there is a pressing need […] to resist the too-easy censure of narratives that construct disability as loss" (230). Barker and Murray align their theorizing of disability with James Berger's position, and point to a problematic chasm that exists between disability and trauma studies concerning the treatment of loss. They argue that disability criticism should consider "a more robust and inclusive theorization of how 'loss' may be constituted within disability experiences" when disability criticism is considered under the aegis of postcolonial studies (231). Les voyages de Merry Sisal engages with the potential losses and ensuing traumas that permeate the experience of a disabled Haitian woman living in contemporary Port-au-Prince. Merry leaves Haiti as an economic refugee after the 2010 earthquake and soon experiences exploitation in a neighboring francophone Caribbean island. Pineau reflects at length upon, as Barker and Murray suggest, "wider patterns of dispossession" that have affected Haitian women. The novel theorizes disability through a disaster poetics while emphasizing Caribbean and European complicity in the racial, economic, and environmental exploitation of Haitians, both historically and in the specific context of the 2010 earthquake.

Most of the post-earthquake literary works that emerged after 2010 were scathing indictments of international organizations' and local institutions' failures to bring post-quake aid to Haitians who were displaced or experienced grave loss in the earthquake. Pineau's novel explores the gendered experience of preearthquake isolation of a single mother who lives at an intersection of disadvantages due to her status as a disabled person and single mother. Only occasionally does she benefit from the help of a benevolent aunt who assists with childcare and financial support. Post-earthquake, Merry is buffeted from one experience of disenfranchisement to the next, marginalized due to her disability, and traumatized again when she is raped in an IDP camp. Once away from Haiti, having made a decision to seek employment as an undocumented domestic worker on a neighboring island, she is exploited economically and sexually by her new [End Page 39] French employers. As Mark Schuller's work has illustrated, specifically in his documentary Poto Mitan: Haitian Woman, Pillars of the Global Economy (2009), Haitian women bore the brunt of neoliberal economies, social injustice, and widespread exploitation long before the earthquake ever struck. In his subsequent work Humanitarian Aftershocks in Haiti, Schuller (as well as a number of other disaster scholars) has noted that, "gender as a social construct renders women more vulnerable in disaster situations, particularly to gender-based violence" (105). Pineau's novel emphasizes that Merry's disability, her trauma, and her marginalization are lived as profoundly gendered experiences. Schuller points out that in the rebuilding efforts and their mishandling by the humanitarian aid groups that arrived in Haiti after the earthquake, the situation "deteriorated for most women" after the earthquake (108). Anne-Christine d'Adesky has emphasized the importance of first-person testimony of women who have disproportionately been affected by the earthquake due to their roles as caregivers, primary breadwinners, and homemakers as they ensure the survival of their families and face the threat of rape and physical violence in her work Beyond Shock, published in collaboration with PotoFanm+Fi intitiative.

In one of the few moments when Merry openly contemplates her disability, Pineau inserts a reflection on the socially constructed nature of disability, underscoring Merry's understanding of her body's particular abilities as highly useful after the earthquake. Merry fantasizes that if her children's father, François-Jean, hadn't abandoned her, he also would have been one of the Haitians disabled by falling debris in the earthquake.

Ils auraient été presque semblables, d'un coup. Deux boiteux…Lui, maladroit avec une béquille rutilante offerte par Handicap International, son moignon emmanché dans une prothèse flambant neuve. Elle, avec sa jambe fine qu'elle avait su apprivoiser depuis longtemps—une petite infirmité comparée à celle de son homme. Et si tout cela était arrivé, Merry se serait sentie tellement forte et solide sur ses jambes. A l'aise, il aurait pu s'appuyer de tout son poids sur elle qui serait devenue sa canne en même temps que sa bonne fortune.


In this passage, Pineau treats the question of the newly disabled in the earthquake, the ill-conceived interventions of international aid organizations after the earthquake, and gender hierarchies and women's social conditioning as poto mitan, or supporting pillars of the family.7 Pineau suggests that women like Merry, displaced by catastrophe and disadvantaged politically and economically, are at once particularly vulnerable to exploitation and yet are particularly capable of negotiating the new reality of post-quake Port-au-Prince. This reverie of Merry's interrogates the binaries of "handicapped" and "able-bodied," insisting upon the fluid and relational definition of "disability" as a social and cultural construct. As her character Merry seeks solidarity with her lost lover through a relativity of disabilities, Pineau subverts the category of disability all together, pointing to an even broader range of embodied experiences that will be negotiated post-earthquake in Haiti.

At the same time, however, Pineau juxtaposes this moment of (ambiguous) empowerment with examples of local gender-based exclusion and with broader [End Page 40] Caribbean profiteering in relation to the vulnerability of displaced Haitian women seeking work after the earthquake. Pineau sends Merry to the fictional island of "Bonne-Terre, cette île française de la Caraïbe" (82), introducing the difficulties of displaced Haitian women who find themselves without legal rights or protections in the neighboring overseas French departments, subjected to significant administrative and social exclusion.8 In so doing, the text underscores the failure of these same islands to claim a possible role as advocates for Haitian women, rather than European oppressors. Pineau explains that while Haitian migrants in the overseas French Caribbean collectivities looked out for one another, they and other migrant groups were prey to the attentions of immigration police: "ils devaient se diluer dans la nature, se rendre invisibles aux yeux des gendarmes français dont la principale occupation était de traquer les étrangers, Dominiquais, Haïtiens, Dominicains, Africains…" (83). Haitian migrants in Bonne-Terre were underpaid by their employers and exploited by their landlords. As for women, Pineau asserts once again their particular vulnerability to sexual violence: "elles se faisaient prendre par les hommes, comme partout" (84).

In several of her novels, Pineau explores the paradoxes of pan-Caribbean community, lamenting lost opportunities for solidarity in times of crisis, reflecting upon the vestiges of colonial institutions and neocolonial structures that divide Caribbean communities rather than foster solidarity. Merry Sisal resonates with Pineau's earlier contemplations of Caribbean community in moments of disaster in L'Espérance macadam and Les colères du volcan.9 She shows us again and again that moments of disaster-related crisis are as likely to divide as to unify disparate Caribbean communities. To the contrary of the romanticized vision of spirit of community engendered by disaster espoused by male writers such as Daniel Maximin in Les Fruits du cyclone, Pineau's novels often assert that women's communities are deeply fractured by the socio-economic conditions that are exacerbated in times of shared trauma.

In Merry Sisal, Merry goes to work for a French couple that has settled into a white, expatriate community in Bonne-Terre and who profit from the affordable labor that undocumented Haitian workers are forced to provide due to their precarious legal status. Pineau juxtaposes Merry's situation with the past traumas of Merry's new employer, Anna Legris. Anna, like Merry, has lost a child—her own, stillborn. The daughter of an African father and a white, French mother, Anna was raised by a grandmother who keeps her lineage a secret from her after her mother's suicide. Merry and Anna, profoundly traumatized by racism, their own mothers' suicides, family violence and secrecy, and the loss of their children, experience a strong sense of kinship. And yet, Pineau's text emphasizes the sociopolitical conditions that render any notion of sisterhood unsustainable: "Sans papiers ni titre de séjour, elle ne pouvait prétendre être l'égale de cette femme. Cependant, il y avait des instants où des fils cachés les reliaient intimement l'une à l'autre. De manière insidieuse, presque équivoque" (144). Pineau's interrogation of parallel trauma and vastly diverging social conditions highlights social stratification in the Caribbean as a major factor in disaster experience and recovery. The lived experience of catastrophe here becomes an indicator of wealth and status; due to her economic privilege and her geographic positioning high in [End Page 41] a wealthy, hill-side community, Anna's experience of disaster would be nothing like that of the Haitian migrant workers who climb the hill each morning and descend to their improvised housing closer to the littoral every evening.

The second half of the novel becomes an exploration of emotional, familial, and social trauma as they are lived and inherited in contrasting milieus. Anna's mother had committed suicide by throwing herself in front of a subway train, a victim of her family and her culture's profound racism.10 A biracial child, Anna was raised in an alienating environment of imposed self-loathing by grandparents who refuse to claim her as a blood relative. Her own baby is stillborn, hydrocephalic, and dark-skinned. Anna is then hospitalized for depression, ceaselessly referring to her baby as "monstrous," an externalized reminder of the false lure of Enlightenment universalism in France and the profound racism that contorts her own self-image. Herein lies Pineau's "disastrous" discourse of disability as a metaphorical device used to signify "social and individual collapse," a phenomenon that David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder have termed "narrative prosthesis." Mitchell and Snyder explain that "narrative prosthesis is meant to indicate that disability has been used throughout history as a crutch upon which literary narratives lean for their representational power, disruptive potentiality, and analytical insight" (49). For John Berger, "metaphor as prosthesis is the mechanism by which disability is naturalized and its social construction is obscured" (570). In comparison to this "prosthetic" use of Anna's child as a manifestation of her race-driven psychosis, Pineau's representation of disability in the case of the novel's protagonist is quite different. Born with a body that is one in a panoply of impediments that shape her life, Merry does not know the origins of her disability, nor does she dwell on them. Later, Merry's mother, unable to escape the profound desperation of chronic poverty, hanged herself in the presence of her small daughter, consigning her daughter to a lifetime of solitary psychological and material struggle. Between Anna and Merry, then, Pineau's portrayal of disability straddles what Mitchell and Snyder lament in their work on discursive representations of disability and what they call for. In Pineau's construction of Anna, we observe her novel's tendency to "rely upon the potency of disability as a symbolic figure" while with Merry, we see Pineau "take up disability as an experience of social [and] political dimensions" (48).

In contrast, Pineau pays far more attention to Merry's debilitating grief and trauma as the more pressing condition. Pineau's portrait of trauma draws from a vast mosaic of causes: environmental, political, racial, economic, physical, and familial. Both Anna and Merry bear out the trauma of France's colonial past and France's continued refusal to acknowledge this racist legacy in its neocolonial present. In a relational flow that is reminiscent of Edouard Glissant's Poetics of Relation, Merry and Anna remain open to sharing the suffering and survival of their socio-economic "Other," particularly as it relates to their thwarted relationships with their own mothers, as well as their grief-ridden experiences of motherhood. However, in a less relational manner, Pineau reminds us of the political and economic chasm that separates the two. One woman, Anna, holds the privilege of lingering in her grief, while the other, Merry, must incessantly subvert this impulse and channel her energy towards survival. As a result, Pineau [End Page 42] renders any extended juxtaposition of their two lives as much a critique of the traumatic legacy of racism in France as a critique of the discriminatory, neocolonial conditions that continually oppress afro-descendent citizens of France's former colonies.

The setting of the encounter between these two women in the wake of the Haiti earthquake serves as a contemplation of individual and collective trauma and trauma's varied effects across social classes. Both women are haunted by memories of dismembered bodies—Anna's memories of her mother's suicide by subway train are marked by the image of "des morceaux ramassés" (218) while Merry recounts visions of decomposition and dismemberment after the earthquake (208-209). The refrain that Anna repeats as she mourns the loss of her stillborn child, "notre enfant est mort" is transformed in Anna's revelation to Merry when she reveals to Merry that her children, too, have perished in the earthquake: "Ils sont tous morts" (246). Pineau places Merry's experience of grief, abandonment, and poverty against the backdrop of the 2010 earthquake, and again against the broader tableau of collective and personal trauma lived by women of color in the French diaspora. Her poetics of disaster becomes a commentary on exponential trauma as part and parcel of the postcolonial condition. This allows for slippage between her character's lived experiences of environmental catastrophe and the poetic use of disaster metaphors to express the devastating effects of human grief, trauma, and exclusion due to oppression and discrimination, both in the contemporary Caribbean and in the European territory of France.

Finally, Pineau embeds this collective trauma in the Caribbean landscape itself, insisting that this deliberate slippage between historic and contemporary trauma finds a material bridge in the environment:

Ils étaient bien là, incarnés dans le minéral et le végétal. Chaque roche avait l'aspect d'un enfant mort-né, d'un agonisant pelotonné sur sa douleur. Chaque cocotier échevelé était un revenant échappé d'une catastrophe et malmené par les vents. Les bois morts étendus sur le sable comme des cadavres hélaient le ciel du bout de leurs branches, implorant un secours auprès de l'âme charitable du soleil.


A palimpsestic landscape imprinted with a legacy of oppression and grief shifts from a literal to a symbolic contemplation of the disastrous. Wave-beaten rocks are transformed into images of stillborn children and dying bodies, recalling the violence of the passage and the Atlantic slave trade while also reflecting Anna and Merry's personal histories of loss. Each palm tree bears the very real traces of cyclones and damaging winds, but each in its dishevelment stands in as proxy for the individuals who survive adversity and mental illness. The driftwood testifies to storms, churning seas, as well as to the many Haitians whose lives ended in those same waters as they attempted for decades to escape dictatorship and poverty. Haitian-American novelist Edwidge Danticat, describing Port-au-Prince, evokes a similarly transformed, disabled, post-traumatic landscape. She calls Port-au-Prince [End Page 43]

a city of tremors, tremors that are sometimes felt based on your level of experience with previous tremors, where you might be sitting with someone and that person feels the earth shake and you don't feel a thing. It is a city where sometimes you both feel the tremors and panic equally, especially when others have dashed outside or leaped out of windows in fear. Traumas are sometimes as visible as amputated limbs in Port-au-Prince and sometimes they linger deep beneath the surface, like phantom limbs.


As Berger has asserted, trauma and disability are often linked to disaster events, and separating one from the other denies a recognition of the full range of experience of individuals living with disability (Berger 572). As Mark Schuller, Robert McRuer, and many others have pointed out, amputations and disablement, while present before 2010, became highly visible in Haiti following the earthquake (Schuller 50, McRuer 327). Pineau and Danticat evoke the enduring effects of disaster, both psychological and physical, while also insisting upon the metaphor of the disaster as a regionally and rhetorically specific site of mourning, disability, and survival. The literary metaphor of the disaster becomes a site of a multitude of interconnected reflections, critiques, and testimonies—some communal, some solitary, some historic, some contemporary.

Viewed together, Folie, aller simple and Les voyages de Merry Sisal mark a deliberate reflection on the continuum of traumas and disability experiences lived by francophone Caribbean women. Pineau's reflections on her encounters with mental illness as a psychiatric nurse emphasize the social alienation of the mentally ill and the power structures, cultural models, and economic imbalances that are perpetuated within mental health practices in France. She articulates her unique vantage point as a woman of color within a Western tradition of psychiatric treatment and as a Caribbean writer who uses her art to mitigate the effects of the traumas she witnesses and experiences as a healthcare practitioner. By using metaphors of disaster to intervene in such reflections, Pineau inserts a Caribbean ontology that lends a lyric and political dimension to her critique of Parisian mental health practices. Moreover, as Pineau's figurative tempests travel from the "new" world back to the "old," her disaster metaphors advance a distinctly Caribbean and relational means of interrogating, from her Franco-Guadeloupian perspective, the multidirectional connections between treatment and illness, between practitioner and patient. In Les voyages de Merry Sisal, disability and trauma are represented in a similarly relational manner. While the representation of disaster shifts from poetic means of expression to environmental catalyst and historic context, interrogations of trauma and disability are put into relation with a variety of "disastrous" historic, economic, political, and geographic conditions that precede the earthquake's damage. Before the earthquake, Merry's social exclusion is no more attributable to her impairment than to any number of factors that exclude her from a position of socio-economic stability. In the aftermath of the earthquake, her impairment shifts in her own perspective to a skill that will allow her to adapt to the new post-earthquake landscape. Once that psychological shift occurs, subsequent mention of her physical disability more or less disappears from the narrative. I am not suggesting that this novel engages in any radical types of disability representation that forwards new approaches to disability studies in [End Page 44] Caribbean literature, nor does it particularly challenge uses of disability metaphors that disability scholars would read as problematic. What Pineau's novel does do, importantly, as Heather Hewett has noted of Edwidge Danticat's juxtaposition of trauma and disability in The Farming of Bones, is present Merry's impairment as a relational embodied condition, one factor in the fluctuating self-image of a grieving, traumatized Haitian woman. The representations of traumatic conditions, precipitated either by "natural" disasters in Les Voyages de Merry Sisal or socially unjust practices articulated through disaster metaphors in Folie, aller simple join an increasingly complex body of Caribbean literature that attempt to unveil social conditions lived by underrepresented and underserved groups, particularly those living with disabilities. Pineau's literal and figurative treatments of disability and disaster show us how interconnected social, psychological, and environmental injustices often are in the francophone Caribbean.

At the novel's close, Merry's wealthy French employer seeks to transgress social conventions in Bonne-Terre by inviting Merry, along with several of her displaced Haitian friends, to a dinner at her home. The optimism of such a utopian gesture is countered by Merry's descent into her depressive fantasies of returning to life before her children died and her husband left: "Et, dans son esprit, elle n'était plus là, prisonnière de son corps, orpheline de ses petits, anéantie par les événements" (263). Rather than project Merry into a future of overcoming her trauma, of being "cured" of her grief by invitation into a socially diverse community, Pineau represents Merry surrounded by a community of Caribbean women reconfiguring their own social and national boundaries, yet they cannot penetrate the protagonist's depression, loss, and disconnection. Merry repeats that she will emerge from this state, but this escape seems to come with the complete rejection of an embodied existence ("dans son esprit, elle n'était plus là, prisonnière de son corps"). Pineau has shown in Folie, aller simple that disaster as metaphor can uproot white European epistemologies to reveal alternative means to treat the trauma of its diverse constituents. In this final bleak psychological retreat by Merry Sisal, Pineau's literary landscape insists on Caribbean disaster as much more than an upheaval or event. Disaster is shown ultimately as a psychologically disabling condition stemming from material and political inequalities that exacerbate situations of trauma and impairment, ultimately eclipsing any portrayal of the embodied (dis)abilities of her narrative's protagonist. Her readers are left to wonder if the specificities of one disabled body are deliberately effaced in the narrative in favor of an acute attention to the effects of trauma, or if Pineau's poetics of disaster function more efficiently as a means of thinking through a vast range of psychological conditions and embodied abilities that are fundamental to an understanding of Caribbean experiences, yet that ultimately cast disabled bodies away. [End Page 45]

Laura Loth
Rhodes College
Laura Loth

Laura Loth is an Associate Professor of French and Francophone Studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. Her research interests include Trauma Studies, Disaster Studies, and Environmental Studies within the context of Francophone Literature, particularly the literature of women writers in the Caribbean, the Maghreb, and Quebec. She has published on the literature of disasters in Women in French Studies, Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, and Research in African Literatures. Currently, she is pursuing a project that seeks to find models for making sense of our futures in the face of climate change through a better understanding of narratives of early disasters in the Francophone Caribbean.


1. As Evelyn Trouillot and numerous scholars pointed out after the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, "the failings of urbanism, the concentration of the population, the degradation of the environment, the failure to raise awareness in and train the public," undoubtedly exacerbate the devastation wrought by such catastrophes, particularly in Haiti (55). Scholarly contributions analyzing the impact of centuries of socio-economic stratification due to foreign policy, neoliberal economic policies, and foreign aid interventions in Haiti on the loss of life after the earthquake are too numerous to list here. For some important overviews, see Shuller and Morales's Tectonic Shifts: Haiti Since the Earthquake and Sepinwall's Haitian History: New Perspectives. For early reflections on political and social reconstruction following the 2010 earthquake, see Refonder Haiti? Eds. Pierre Buteau, Rodney Saint-Eloi, and Lyonel Trouillot. and Robert Fatton, Jr. "Haiti in the Aftermath of the Earthquake: The Politics of Catastrophe." For discussions on narrative, representation, and disciplinary practices in Haitian Studies see Gina Ulysse's Why Haiti Needs New Narratives and The Haiti Exception: Anthropology and the Predicaments of Narrative. Eds. Alessandra Benedicty-Kokken, Jhon Picard Byron, Kaiama L. Glover, and Mark Schuller.

2. Event-based trauma theory and its importance in the field of cultural studies crystalized in Cathy Caruth's Trauma: Explorations in Memory. Caruth contends that literature allows for important insights on the psychological processes of narrating traumatic events. Since, scholars have indicated the importance of interrogating Western trauma theory's suitability for discussing trauma in non-Western and, particularly, in postcolonial contexts.

3. For a recent collection of essays examining the complex relationship between trauma studies and postcolonial studies, see Decolonizing Trauma Studies: Trauma and Postcolonialism, edited by Sonya Andermahr.

4. This expression by Lennard Davis is quoted by Berger. Davis argues that social, historical, economic, and cultural processes of representation of bodies creates the concept of disability.

5. Here, Pineau no doubt invites us to recall Frantz Fanon's reflections of black identity in France and his study of the psychic effects of racism and racial othering within the context of the psychiatric hospital in Black Skin, White Masks.

6. Ranjanna Khanna's work is helpful for approaching the intersections of the feminine, race, colonization, and psychoanalysis in her contemplation of the intersection of historic events and traumatic events. Khanna particularly questions the lack of scholarly attention within psychoanalysis given to the struggle of the "everyday" for women, particularly non-Western women and women of color. See her work on transnational feminism in her Dark Continent: Psychoanalysis and Colonialism.

7. The poto mitan is the central pillar of the sacred vodou temple. The concept has been adopted widely in the francophone Caribbean as a metaphor to designate women as the central pillars of the family home and more broadly of Caribbean communities. More recently, this metaphor has been revisited as a cliché that consigns Caribbean women, and particularly Haitian women, to roles of support that have the potential to deny their agency and eclipse the socio-political conditions that do not adequately support Caribbean families.

8. Pineau eventually refers to this imaginary island as Guadeloupe in an interview given on 7 December 2015. Gisèle Pineau, 'Rencontres avec les étudiants de Lettres Modernes: Conférence, Novembre-Décembre 2015, Université des Antilles' in Manioc <> [accessed 6 July 6 2017].

9. See my "Re-Thinking Caribbean Communities : The Dynamics of Natural Disasters in the works of Gisèle Pineau."

10. Here, we see the vectors that link Pineau's fiction to her personal experiences as a psychiatric nurse outlined in Folie, aller simple.

Works Cited

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