Caribbean insularization of identities in Maryse Conde's work: from 'En attendant le bonheur' to 'Les derniers rois mages.'(Maryse Conde: A Special Issue)
(La traversee de la Mangrove 245)
L'errant, n'est plus le voyageur, ni le decouvreur, ni le conquerant. [The wanderer is no longer a traveler nor a discoverer, nor a conqueror.]
(Poetique de la Relation 33)
"Ecrire n'a rien a voir avec signifier, mais avec arpenter, cartographier, meme des contrees a venir" [Writing has nothing to do with meaning, it has to do with surveys and cartography, including the mapping of countries yet to come] (Mille plateaux 11). And (to adopt or parody Deleuze and Guattari's aphoristic style), writing about writing has nothing to do with interpretation but with a reassessment of how writers make sense of the relationship between constructed bodies and constructed spaces, identities and "habitus" (Bourdieu). When the construction in question involves the Caribbean area, the previous proposition needs to be rephrased in a less universalistic tone: when I read the work of a francophone woman author such as Maryse Conde, I find myself powerfully drawn to systems of explanation that metaphorize the connection between geography and identity. A look at the titles of critical studies written about her work in the last decade makes me wonder why geographical and geometrical categories seem so relevant. From Puis's "L'Afrique en pointille" ["Africa, On and Off"], Smith's "A Triangular Structure of Alienation," Mouralis's "Thriller Immobile," to the most recent attempts at "Mapping the Mangrove" (Munley), Conde's work seems to elicit a critical discourse saturated with spatial metaphors or reflections on the theme of space and travel. Like other critics, I find it difficult to separate Conde's biographical narrative as a traveler from her literary representations of displacement, from her imaginary redefinitions of home, homeland, exile, belonging, ancestors, etc. As Veve Clark puts it:
Raised in Guadeloupe, having lived for many years in Guinea and Ghana, for periods in France and the United States, Maryse Conde has written extensively on the literature and socio-political culture issuing from four hemispheres of the African Diaspora. (304)
Even more characteristic of this recurrent spatial narrative is the underlying opposition between two geo-political entities: the island (Guadeloupe) and the Continent (especially Africa). I would argue that our attraction to such an opposition belongs to a historical episteme which is on the brink of being displaced by the most recent literary production of Caribbean authors. And since the category of identity is inextricably linked with one's relationship to institutionalized constructions of space (imagined nations, official maps), re-examining the Relation between the island and the land may provide some interesting insights into the evolving imaginary function of the "Caribbean" at the end of the 20th-century, within a context that some scholars define as transnational, post-industrial or post-colonial. In this article, I would like to suggest that Conde's latest novels, La traversee de la Mangrove (1989) and Les derniers rois mages (1992), could help us question some of our apparently most innocent assumptions about the relative identity of the island and its other (the continent?), the islander and his or her other (the powerful and integrated self?).
The Myth of the Return
Of course, it is still extremely tempting to account for Conde's novels in terms of identity-travel narratives. One could claim that her first three novels, Heremakhonon (1976), Une saison a Rihata (1981) and Segou (1984) represent an African phase, a search for some authentic (essentialized) Blackness, a return to the "Dark Continent," that is re- or mis-appropriated as legitimate origin. One could then interpret Moi, Tituba sorciere noire de Salem (1986) as a movement away from Africa and back to the New World, movement which could be said to prefigure a "reconciliation" with the alienated native island (Clark and Daheny). Although it may seem naive to draw conclusions from fictional plots and narrative setting, the public image of the author who went back home is also tied to literary issues, such as the reception and circulation of Conde's books. For example, the blurb on the cover of La vie scelerate (1987) triumphantly claims: "voici enfin le roman qui marque le retour de la grande romanciere a son pays natal, la Guadeloupe" [Finally, here is the novel that marks the famous novelist's return to her native land, Guadeloupe]. La traversee de la Mangrove (1989) could be seen as a confirmation that the author has finally come full circle and that her biographical narrative and fictional source of inspiration are now harmoniously blended. Responding to an emerging creole coalition, Conde's Caribbean novels seem to be answering Eloge de la Creolite's rallying cry: "Ni Europeens, ni Africains, ni Asiatiques, nous nous proclamons creoles" [Neither Europeans, nor Africans, nor Asians, we proclaim ourselves creole] (Bernabe 13).
I am not objecting to such a characterization of Conde's work on the ground that this would be a "mere" biographical sketch or a thematic reading of her novels. Given the complexity of racial, gender and literary issues involved, stories about the end of a physical exile should not be dismissed as a biographical detail: while keeping in mind the proliferation of sophisticated definitions of (discursive) exile and nationalism produced in the past decade, I cannot help thinking that the author's physical return to the native land does participate in a celebratory rhetoric of self-realization, it signifies the discovery of a Caribbean identity, the forceful affirmation of a Caribbean literature or "discourse" (Glissant, Discours). When Maryse Conde remarks that "Les iles, une a une, recuperent leurs ecrivains vivant a l'etranger" [one by one, the islands reclaim their writers in exile], she concludes that "le paysage litteraire des petites Antilles de langue francaise est loin d'etre sombre" [the literary landscape of the French speaking lesser Antilles is far from gloomy].(2) Landscape and literature are thus associated in what turns out to be a complex definition of the relationship between a Caribbean author's identity and her (literary, geographic, racial and economic) island.
The problem with such narratives, however, is that they are both attractively obvious and problematically teleological and linear. On the one hand, I find nothing incorrect or even undesirable in the following micro-narratives: "Maryse Conde, who is becoming more and more internationally known as a first-rate novelist and essayist, reported recently that she had returned to her native Guadeloupe in July 1986 to resume her permanent residence" (Smith 45); "Ayant quitte son ile natale a l'age de seize ans, en 1953, elle [Maryse Conde] n'est revenue s'y installer qu'en 1986, trentetrois ans plus tard" [Having left her native island at the age of sixteen, in 1953, she (Maryse Conde) only came back to live there in 1986, thirty-three years later] (Lionnet, "Traversee" 476).
After all, such stories are confirmed by Maryse Conde herself ("Notes" , "Habiter ce pays" , "Je me suis reconciliee" ), and even if the author's experience is not necessarily authoritative since it is itself governed by the same laws of fictionalization, it lends credence to the travel narrative interpretation. I do wonder, however, whether such happy-ending structures have not become a slightly predictable grammar of Caribbean literature and I would like to explain to myself why such descriptions are so seductive.
I don't think, for example, that this is a necessary reaction to themes and plots in the early "African" novels: the "fact" that Conde's protagonists (Veronica, Marie-Helene) are travelers and autobiographical fictionalized selves in search of their real Caribbean identity is really a narrative: they are remembered and presented as such. I also wonder about our tendency to solve Veronica's problems or supposed "failure" by comparing her to posterior fictional characters from other books. A certain relatively dominant critical discourse (to which my voice implicitly belongs) is now ready to consider the trip to Africa as a step in the wrong historical and cultural direction, as a denial of some true, more authentic Caribbean identity (Puis, Smith). But why is the island a new and improved center? Why does it seem meaningless and petty to point out that Les derniers rois mages are no longer neatly confined within the symbolized borderland of the "mangrove" and that the "return narrative" does not really work? Why does the idea of a "permanent residence" in Guadeloupe acquire solid symbolic overtones while the fact that Maryse Conde regularly teaches in American universities does not seem to become a relevant bio-critical factor? If I chart Conde's biography and her novels according to such linear trajectories, am I not confirming that my critical discourse is obsessed with what Glissant calls the "Obsession for the One," or what Deleuze calls the "racine" and the inability to imagine plurality (11)?(3)
My ambivalence with respect to spatialialized narratives of "return to the island" comes from the suspicion that a geographical politics of identity is indispensable to Caribbean authors, even if the pattern suggests a powerful urge for a unitary resolution, a final closure which does not fundamentally change the definitions of belonging somewhere, the traditional concept of one's island. In other words, returns are both indispensable and undesirable. In the same way as the reception of Quebecois literature (especially in metropolitan France) is plagued by what has been called a Maria Chapdelaine syndrome, I wonder if Caribbean literature is not suffering from some kind of Cesairian complex of the return to the native land.
The idea that Conde and her work have returned to Guadeloupe is apparently more appealing than a tale of detours and "errance" [wandering] (Glissant, La Poetique 23), more attractive than the potentiality of the eccentric non-birth of a non-national Caribbean literature. Perhaps neither Conde nor her novels have finally anchored themselves in the island like Cesaire's octopus clinging to his rock or town-hall (Moi, laminaire . . .). Perhaps the end of a trip was never meant to be the end of the story. The identity of a post 1950s Caribbean text may precisely be capable of escaping such predictable closures. In "Notes sur un retour au pays natal," whose title obviously pays homage to and displaces Cesaire's poem, Maryse Conde admits that she is haunted by the unresolved question of an (imagined) Caribbean identity: "Estce qu'un ecrivain doit avoir un pays natal?" ("Notes" 23).
Apparently, the question remains tentative, unanswered, as if a "no" remained blasphemous and taboo. I am tempted to conclude that, at this moment in time, we are not quite capable of conceiving of a Guadeloupean literature that would not reproduce (or perhaps mimic) traditional definitions of national literatures. And if national literatures are themselves both produced by and reflected in the imagined communities as described by Anderson, then, our imaginary canon may be dominated by the dream of a "limited," "fraternal" and "sovereign" form of text (Anderson). Does Maryse Conde's work invite the reader to imagine a "litterature sans frontieres" [transnational literature] ("Notes" 23), a literature that does not have to be based on the imagined nation?
In a study of the Haitian novel in the last ten years, Hoffman wonders, for example, what is Haitian (except the nationality or origins of the author) about Jean Metellus's last novels "in which no Haitian appears and which takes place in Switzerland (Une eau forte ) and in the Metz area (La parole prisonniere )" (Hoffman 761). As Conde puts it, Jean Metellus "disait d'une facon assez moqueuse que nous n'etions pas condamnes a parler d'acras et de boudins vitam aeternam" [used to joke about the fact that we are not doomed to talk about "acras" and "boudins" for the rest of our lives] ("Notes" 22).(4) But, as Hoffman suggests, the study of the history of literary reception would reveal interesting variations.
It is also significant that Delorme had been sharply attacked in 1873 for seeking inspiration outside his native country, whereas no one has criticized those who have done the same a century later. (Hoffman 762)(5)
I do not want to propose "errance" [wandering], a final (lack of) destination, as the true and hidden discovery of Conde's ambiguous return. Rather, I want to focus on the way in which we have described the journey toward identity. I suspect that Conde's work offers us the opportunity to reconceptualize the relationship between what we have seen as two poles in a voyage, the "island" as the site of weak identity, and the "Continent" as the origin, the root, the powerful land. Critics have often made the point that, in Conde's case, the search for the continent has remained an unfulfilled quest (Lionnet, Autobiographical). In his study of Conde's alleged "nihilism," Miller remarks for example that "she seems to have renounced cultural affiliation with the continent once and for all" (1). I would now like to explore this "renunciation" as a re-invention of the constructed opposition between the island and the continent.
As James Arnold puts it,
[Because Maryse Conde insists on widening the scope of the novel to include not only the declining West African empires but also the sugar colonies of Northeastern Brazil, she transcends the usual limits of the "Caribbean" novel which shows a tendency towards conceptual and thematic insularity.]
I suggest that the so-called failure to adopt the Continent or be adopted by it, is, in fact, a powerful re-appropriation of the function of the island as a provider of identity, a move from "insularity" to what I will call the insularization of identity.
The Continentalization of the Island
Since the middle of the 20th century, the meaning of the (exotic) island has constantly shifted in our collective imagination. Caribbean literature first had to challenge the favorite topoi of metropolitan literary constructions, the island as utopian space of social or sexual experimentation in the 17th century and the island as exotic paradise that continues to dominate touristic discourses ("the multitude of images that tire the imagination and petrify the Antilles as the turf of fanatical exoticism . . . the touristico-political mythology that deports it to the domain of the world suburb" [Shelton 167]). According to Clarisse Zimra, the "ironical reversal of the blessed isles topos inherited from the Renaissance" is one of the two "identifying figures" provided by C.L.R. James and Aime Cesaire (Zimra 144). When, during an interview with Edouard Maunick, Cesaire suggests that "toute ile est veuve" [every island is a widow] and that "toute ile appelle le continent" [every island calls for the continent], when he goes as far as using the word "concentration camp" to describe the feeling of claustrophobia associated with the island, it seems to me that the images represent a welcome departure from the beaches and coconut-trees stereotypes but that they consolidate a vision of the island as naturally inferior version of a more real and more meaningful land: the Continent (even if it is now Africa rather than Europe). What is interesting, however, in Conde's trajectory is that she inherited that vision as a starting point in a symbolic and metaphoric evolution, and that her most recent work proposes new models of Relation between the two imagined territories. In 1960, before Conde's departure for Africa, the island is still a prison, "le pays natal se reduisait pour nous a un decor; le decor d'un ennui constant" [the native land was nothing more than the scenery of our constant boredom] ("Notes" 10). In her study of "Island and Journey as Metaphor" in the works of francophone Caribbean writers published between 1972 and 1981, Elizabeth Wilson remarks that the island is always imagined as a "closed space" (46). For Conde, the island is a prison to which she forces herself to come back out of a sense of political responsibility, but it remains "the suffocating island with its prejudices of race and color and false alienating values" (Wilson 47). Her catastrophic vision of a claustrophobic space finds echoes in Michele Lacrosil's novels (Sapotille and Le Serin d'Argile) and in Mayote Capetia's work. As Wilson puts it, "the situation of the black Antillais is portrayed as one of confinement and frustration" (47). But, during the next decade, the generation of Maryse Conde was able to reverse this image, too: the island as prison, as miserable and powerless supplement to the main or motherland is re-imagined.
Whereas Cesaire still perceives the island as the "natural" widow searching in vain for some Missing Piece a la Shel Silverstein, Conde's discourse shows that she is keenly aware that the island is a discursive, symbolic and evolving construction rather than a natural reality. The search for the Continent may thus be illusory not so much because all quests for roots are always an elusive search for the authority of origins but also because they imply accepting the representations of territories as "naturally" dominated (if they are "small" islands) or powerful (if they are huge continents). Caribbean writers and post-colonial critics may thus have drawn their own specific post-structuralist conclusions when they argue that the island as natural supplement to the Continent corresponds to a specific historical context: Snitgen suggests for example that the Caribbean is (also) a "geographical and discursive entity" (58) and Munley, in her article on "Mapping the Mangrove," states that Maryse Conde's latest novel "furnishes the reader with a metaphoric map" (157).
The island's natural attributes no longer appear as natural. Even "nature" itself, supposedly the most natural element of all, is now described as a by-product of colonization. Maryse Conde's vision of the island is thus stripped of exoticism, not because she looks away from the coconut-trees and beaches toward a supposedly more authentic native culture but because she reveals the palm-trees themselves as part of a political reality.
[If we study Caribbean flora and if we take the time to make a list of all the plants introduced by the Europeans, we realize that before them, there were no palm-trees, no flamboyants. These plants were imported by the Spaniards who took them from Africa or from the Indian Ocean . . . It feels like the whole landscape has been invented].
It is then little wonder that a "return" to the island should not miraculously provide instant West Indian authenticity but generate instead a complexification and a theorization of what is specific about insular identities: "Certains ont la chance d'etre Antillais en naissant, moi je dirais en parodiant Simone de Beauvoir que je ne suis pas nee Antillaise, je le suis devenue" [Some were lucky to be born West Indians; I would say, after Simone de Beauvoir, that I was not born West Indian, I became West Indian] ("Notes" 8).
The Playful Insularization of the Continent
"Insularity" could thus be rethought in terms of insularization which I propose as the process by which identities and islands are re-imagined. Insularization would be the realization that the rest of the world can be insularized in the same way as the Continent always continentalized the islands. It means seeing each (is)land as an island, each continent as a form of island. It is not a mere reversal, for insularization is not oblivious to the power structure that dominates the present relationship between the island and the continent. When Maryse Conde situates La traversee de la Mangrove in Riviere au sel, she is not re-imagining the island as a rediscovered coherent center. Rather, through complex narrative techniques and structure, she depicts a fragmented and diverse society, whose "differences within" (as Barbara Johnson would put it) are neither erased not naively celebrated as always already desirable. Alternating between "I" narrators for female characters and third person narrators for male characters, the novel is attentive to gender but also racial origins and ethnicities. The by now simplistic white/black, colonized/colonizer paradigms lose their relevance. As Lionnet notices, in this novel, "la Guadeloupe est un lieu d'immigration qui attire Haitiens et Dominicains venant y chercher du travail" [Guadeloupe is a country of immigration for Haitians and Dominicans looking for jobs] (Lionnet, "Traversee" 477). La traversee de la Mangrove also shows how a family of Indian origin (the Ramsarans) is discriminated against, or how a rural community resents the presence of a "stranger" even if the stranger in question is from another Caribbean island. The novel does not so much "focus on" the island (as if our photographic gaze could miraculously produce a continental entity), as imagine the world, creating a paratactic "constellation" of identities.(6) Francis Sancher, who remains a stranger although he has woven intricate links with all the other characters, is the symbolic point to which everyone converges in their differences: Sancher is dead when the novel opens but the wake is the moment when all divergences and conflicts are united in one diverse discursive universe. Insularization also applies to style: as Miller notices, Herema-khonon is dominated by an apparently silent (or silenced) heroine who, in fact, "monopolizes" discourse by means of "the power of [her] thoughtful irony" (Miller 8). I suggest that we could call such narrational coup de force "continental" because Veronica's voice seeks to unify and supersede other voices. By contrast, La traversee de la Mangrove appears to critics as an "egalitarian parcelling out of the style" (Miller 8) or an "ecriture mosaique" [mosaic writing] (Perret). "Parcels" and "mosaics" evoke discontinuities rather than coherence; they remind me of the little gardens cultivated by slaves on the plantation. They are neither similar to formalist experiments of the nouveau roman type nor do they subscribe to realism, be it magical.
In Les derniers rois mages the insularization of style, structure and identity is even more striking. In a sense Conde's latest work both reflects and produces insularization by forcing me to displace apparently obvious categories which suddenly lose their power of explanation and meaningfulness. For example, it occurs to me that if this novel is a Caribbean text, it is not because the story is set in the Caribbean (it is not as exclusively recentered as La traversee de la Mangrove and the narration wanders all over the world) nor because the heroes are Caribbean (not all of them are; many are metisses or of unknown origin) or because the author is Guadeloupean (this is not an autobiographical account) but rather because the perspective moves from the island outwards, toward other sites which find themselves constituted as islands. In fact, Les derniers rois mages is the story of a story, the story of how a story travels and is displaced: an African king, Tengisu, exiled from Benin after his kingdom was invaded by the French, spent six years in Martinique before going back to Africa and dying in Algeria, far from his homeland. For all we know, however, that story could be a myth. Perhaps the king never existed. No character, no narrator, no omniscient voice will ever authorize it or definitively expose it as a fabrication. In fact, the narration does not seem to know whether the story is true or not and cultivates this remarkable ambivalence: the text as a whole does not know the truth about its founding narrative unit. It is as if the question of the origin of Caribbean population before slavery refused to be settled: one will never know anymore whether Spiro did have African ancestors of royal blood or not, and in fact what matters now is what he does with the impossibility to prove the historical truth of his origins and the symmetrical impossibility to disprove any myth. History and historical knowledge are thus constituted of little pieces of incomplete narratives, little islands of knowledge spread over many different places, under many different forms. And the novel is not even interested in centralizing a combination of all the incomplete tales. Rather, Les derniers rois mages tells the story of what the story does to each of the characters, and also of what each character does to the story, how each one rewrites it, starts believing or disbelieving the other's versions, how each chooses to commemorate or forget it, how the story transforms itself. Djere, the ancestor's son, frantically writes his Cahiers but the general narrator (perhaps hiding behind indirect speech) cannot guarantee that he is a reliable story-teller ("Djere n'avait pas cinq ans quand son pere avait quitte la Martinique, et pourtant, il croyait avoir en memoire chaque detail de son apparence et chaque parole de sa bouche" [Djere was barely five years old when his father had left Martinique, and yet he believed that he could remember every detail of his physical appearance and each word he had ever said] [68, my emphasis]). There is no authoritative ("continental" if you will) master narrative to destroy either because, from the very first page, each character has his/her own unshakable or changing opinion about the king's story. The ancestor has not been erased by colonial and canonical constructions. In Guadeloupe, many make fun of the alleged royal legacy, "des betises d'ancetre royal" [nonsense about some ancestor of royal blood] (48), especially the women who see the myth as an excuse for the men's laziness, drunkenness and sexual escapades. Djere's Cahiers are unreal even for his own son until a trip to the Shoelcher library in Martinique convinces him of the existence of "ce roi africain exile par les Francais et sa suite" [this African king exiled by the French and his court] (51). His own relationship to the king, however, remains a missing link. The story does not belong to anyone in particular, although many authoritative voices try to appropriate it or to circulate their own versions: from the "professeur d'histoire" [professor of history] who convinces Spiro that his father's stories are true (17-18) to M. Bodriol, director of the "bibliotheque des mondes d'Outre-mer" [library of Overseas territories] who later dismisses his narrative on the (rather catch 22) ground that "Si votre histoire etait vraie, nous en aurions eu vent" [If your story were true, we would have heard about it] (127). Debbie, Spero's American wife, celebrates the anniversary of the ancestor's death, religiously adhering to the ceremony celebrated by her in-laws while her husband realizes that he is beginning to forget the importance of the date. No one agrees on the legitimacy of the ritual. Debbie's faithfulness appears as a sacrilege to Spiro who insists that the "anniversaire du 10 decembre etait une ceremonie strictement familiale" [the December 10 anniversary was strictly a family ceremony] and that she should not "s'en meler" [that she should mind her own business] (67). He cannot even control the way in which the story is passed on to his child, Anita. He accuses Debbie of idealizing the ancestor (32) and would rather not fill "la tete de l'enfant avec ces histoires anciennes et qu'il fallait oublier" [the child's head with old stories that must be forgotten] (32). The narrative voice provides no reassuring continuity as it openly admits that parts of the overall story remain unknown and mysterious: "On ne saurait dire ce qui finit Djere" [It is impossible to say what ended Djere] (56), or "Comment [Ruby] parvint a survivre, personne ne le sut. (Certains assurent qu'elle passa du temps dans une maison de redressement)" [How (Ruby) managed to survive nobody ever knew. (Some claim that she spent some time in a detention center)] (42).
This apparently male Saga (Tengisu, Djere, Justin, Spiro) undermines its own male-centeredness by emphasizing the uncertain and illusory character of the lineage. Even if Djere is indeed the son of an African king, he is the bastard of a dethroned king. Africa provides no glamorous origin; and, at the same time, the desire for such origin never disappears, and the story cannot be ruled out. Djere is both the son of an African king and "le batard sans papa d'une servante" [the fatherless bastard of a servant] (71).
Les derniers rois mages insularizes the very idea of a quest for identity: this is not the story of a search for origins but the story of what the quest for origins does to different people in different places at different times. Sometimes it makes them triumphant and happy (as when Debbie appropriates Spero's ancestor and links it to her own political struggle), sometimes it disempowers them and increases their loneliness and misery (as when Spiro imagines that his ancestor is responsible for his child's departure for Africa: "c'est l'ancetre et l'ancetre seul qui punissait Spiro en s'emparant de ce qu'il cherissait le plus sur la terre et en ne lui laissant qu'un coeur et un esprit vides" [the ancestor and the ancestor alone was punishing Spiro, taking away what he loved the most and leaving him with but an empty heart and mind] (253).
The story seems both incomplete and excessive until one sees it as a proliferation of fragments which no one can hope to centralize. This is neither a reversal nor a simple parody of the "nos ancetres les gaulois" [our ancestors the Gauls] syndrome. No character has enough power or even faith in the story to impose it outside their own little island of influence. But the story also circulates, through its own strange power of seduction, linking individuals and communities, leaving them connected and disconnected, in Relation but never centralized. Needless to say, conflicts, racial and gender problems, are neither solved nor ignored; but a new geography of relations is invented.
Each geographical place in the book is like an island, related to every other island by means of complex and ambivalent connections. None is really more important, or more original, or more authentic than any other. Echoing the paratactic structure of the novel (the constant and sudden leaps from one character to another, one story to another, the retelling of episodes at various times and various junctures in the book), the constellation of geographic names creates a strangely incomplete and seemingly haphazardly organized map of the novel's universe. Martinique and Guadeloupe are on the same footing as Benin, Charleston, Crocker Island, Algeria, Lille, Marseille, Puerto Rico, Memphis or New York. Each is-land occupies a different function for each character at different points in his/her life. Martinique means exile for the mythic ancestor, but it is also the cradle of Spero's Caribbean family even if the great grandson's homeland is Guadeloupe. And if Guadeloupe is home to Spero, it is originally a tourist's paradise for Debbie, whose parents wanted to reward her for the completion of her studies. No place is home to all or even a majority of the characters, and each place's status changes drastically as the narration shifts from one hero to the next, from one story to another.
If one tried to visualize the kind of map drawn in this novel, the result might be something like this:
Clipped from a magazine distributed free of charge to passengers on board a plane to Martinique, this represents a collection of free-floating island-like territories of equivalent size and importance, haphazardly spread on an arbitrarily closed circle and revolving around another island. This is undoubtedly no great work of art, but its imaginary possibilities are theoretically boundless. On closer examination, the reader will recognize what we usually think of as islands (Antigua, Dominique, Martinique, Guadeloupe, Barbados) but also, on the same model, Illinois, Texas, Florida, Michigan (a selection of states which we usually see represented as parts of a larger land) and Japan, France, or Canada (which we think of as nations, countries, continental spaces).
When I instinctively object to the flee-floating icons on the ground that this is a fantastically inauthentic and irritating depiction of a known reality, I wonder what values and forms of knowledge are challenged by the image. Visions of mutilation and dismemberment may come to mind (Michigan is "torn out" from its natural setting). But my reaction immediately alerts me to the fact that I have never been so sensitive to how geography routinely treats islands. When did I ever start to wonder why they were so often "torn from" their own contexts? Martinique, Guadeloupe, La Reunion and even Corsica always look "normal" when they appear in little squares at the bottom of maps of "France." The map plays with our strongly educated sense of what we consider "natural frontiers," inviting us to think about, not so much what would happen if some Power did insularize the rest of the world, but what did happen to the islands because of our unformulated belief in the supposedly universal superiority of the continent. The icons on the map do not respect a global scale or even a systematic sense of orientation (Martinique appears to be "lying in its flank" and Canada is not bigger than Illinois) which further complexities our memories of geographical norms and natural categories.
Because insularization has to react against strongly established conventions, it cannot pass for the truth of geography. No one in their right (strategic) mind would spend any time arguing that this map should replace the current canonical versions that appear in geography textbooks. But insularization makes the point that the original continental vision tells a political story of dominance. When most maps claim that "toute ile appelle la terre" [every island calls for the land], this imagined archipelago says that each is-land needs to be in Relation with other is-lands, even if this means bringing together, through new fictions and narratives, a whole collection of entities which, according to old metaphors and paradigms, do not belong to one overarching coherent totality. By reversing the opposition between dominant mainland and dominated (smaller, supplementary) island, the map does not create a new center, a new truth: the "hub" is self-consciously relative as a temporary center. But the critique of the first continental center (today, more than ever, "Europe" as a new economic unit) makes every new center a parody, an act of mimicry. The model thus ironizes on the construction itself and temporarily liberates itself from what Glissant would call "the Obsession of the One." Insularization is an imaginary process which turns each territory into an island. Insularization is no longer the island (a far away, exotic, incomplete parcel) calling for the (self-contained, original) continent to make it complete, but a way for the island (or any reading subject) to read continents as islands. In a sense, this is both deconstructive and usurpative (carnivalesque): the authority and legitimacy of the center is shattered while its symbolic power is appropriated through the metonymy of its own presence (to use Bhabha's terminology). The continent is now, at least temporarily, the supplement to the island. All continents dream of being free-floating, detachable, self-contained, surrounded by diffracting waters (Discours Antillais 495).
Insularity (the negative side of insularization) is now seen as continentally conservative because it sees identity on an island as equivalent to identity with an island. Insularization, on the other hand, means inventing islands and identifications; it remains an unfinished and open-ended process. It could not be equated with the successful quest for identity, at least not the kind of identity that Veronica fails to recapture in Africa. The process of re-imagining the relationship between identities and lands must perhaps remain ironic, tentative, as it is a dissolution rather than a solution. But insularization also tangentially belongs to a tradition, to the evolution and displacement of new geographies - from Negritude to Antillanite, to creolite, to creolization, to mosaique (Chamoiseau) or "tracees" [traces] (Confiant). Insularization might be a way of avoiding the tricky "-te" and "-tudes" suffixes which put an end to wandering: the emphasis is on the process rather than on a transcendental Being, origin, presence. Insularization and insularity will not necessarily go together: "Les creolisations introduisent a la Relation, mais ce n'est pas pour universaliser; la "creolite", dans son principe, regresserait vers des negritudes, des francites, des latinites, toutes generalisantes - plus ou moins innocemment" [Creolisations lead to Relation but they do not universalize; the principle of "creolity" would be a regression towards negritudes, francities, latinities - all more or less innocently generalizing principles] (Glissant, La Poetique 103).
1. All translations are mine unless otherwise indicated.
2. The passage is from Maryse Conde's "Paysage litteraire des Antilles" (Centre d'Etudes sur la litterature africaine et caribeenne d'expression francaise 1.1:2-3) and is quoted by Arlette Smith (45).
3. See the beginning of La Poetique de la Relation for Glissant's discussion of Deleuze and Guattari's "rhizome" in a Caribbean context (23-34).
4. She also quotes a young Antillais who says that he is tired of Rue Cases-Negres and will not go see Caribbean movies until someone produces a Caribbean Mad Max. But just as the desire to promote neglected Caribbean literature and its quest for authenticity cannot be dismissed, I find it difficult to reduce a young reader's desire for science-fiction material to the unmistakable sign that he is either uneducated or westernized or both.
5. The reference is to "Demesvar Delorme's 1873 Francesca, a historical novel in the style of Alexandre Dumas, set in Turkey and Renaissance Italy" (Hoffman 761).
6. I borrow the word "constellation" from Francoise Lionnet who uses it to describe the difficulty experienced by Veronica in search of what would be a unified identity: she "represents the impasse of exile of the colonized self and the difficulty of finding a viable position within the cultural constellation of the 'other'" (Lionnet, Autobiographical 175).
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MIREILLE ROSELLO is author of Litterature et identite creole aux Antilles, L'indifference chez Michel Tournier: "L'un de ces types est le frere jumeau de l'autre, lequel? and L'Humour noir selon Andre Breton: "Apres avoir assassine mon pauvre pere." She is an associate professor in the Department of Romance Languages at the University of Michigan.
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|Date:||Jun 22, 1995|
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