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Writing the Landscape of Memory : Ina Cesaire's Memoires d'Isles.

Ina Cesaire's first play, Memoires d'Isles: Maman N. et Maman F., (1) that premiered in 1983, has now been out of print for nearly a decade, and yet it continues to inspire scholars and students as a seminal work that strives to read and write the Caribbean, specifically the French Antilles. It is a limitlessly diverse text that resists fixed or static meanings and identities, a text that vitally probes the nature of what Edouard Glissant called antillanite, or "caribbeanness." It is a text that brings together personal memory and collective history, a text that resonates with passion and lyrical beauty. In short, it is a text that encourages multiple readings and allows the reader to discover new layers of meaning at each reading.

Ina Cesaire has been celebrated for her extensive work in Antillean ethnology, and much of her written work is grounded in Caribbean mythology, folktales, and oral traditions. Memoires d'Isles, however, differs from her other writings in that it relates the "simple" stories of two old women, Aure and Hermance. These stories originated from the real-life stories of four Martinican grandmothers: Cesaire's two and the grandmothers of each of the actors in her original production, Myrrha Donzenac (Aure) and Mariann Matheus (Hermance). "Tout ce qu'elles racontent dans la piece est absolument vrai" (353), (2) states Cesaire in an interview with Suzanne Houyoux, "C'est une simple observation de la realite.Memoires d'lles, c'est une histoire vraie" (354). (3)

This theatricalized retelling of the stories and memories of real Antillean women can be seen as a celebration of women's lives in the French Antilles and as a tool for female--specifically Martinican--self-exploration, emancipation, and autonomy. By scripting the stories of her own grandmothers, as Miller points out, Cesaire "combats the negative mythical heritage of the folktales, with its attendant social consequences, by portraying women who are the heroes of their own lives" (Plays by French and Francophone Women 47).

Cesaire's interpretation of antillanite employs a variety of techniques, ranging from the use of Creole dialogue, poetry, myths, songs, and dances that help to express what the French language alone cannot. (4) Miller remarks:
   Cesaire, an anthropologist as well as a playwright, has researched
   extensively the importance of music and dance in Caribbean society.
   Island Memories includes references to some fourteen songs and seven
   dances, ranging from Creole ballads to popular dance music, such as
   the sentimental leroz, which lends its name to an entire evening's
   activities, held especially after the sugarcane harvest. (Plays 50)


The most significant manifestation of Cesaire's cultural braiding is the very structure and discourse of the play which epitomizes the interweaving of diverse stories, cultures, backgrounds, races, mythologies, and visions--an interweaving that succeeds in expressing at once the specificity and diversity of Caribbean subjectivity.

Of the different Creole components in Memoires d'Isles, the most striking is the use of the Martinican Carnaval. (5) The play opens with the two actors, dressed as carnival she-devils, adding the final touches to their makeup. As the drums begin to beat, they start dancing the vide, a fast-paced carnival strut traditionally performed by women. They soon launch into their lively repartee of jokes and riddles, hurled at each other and at the audience, sometimes in French, sometimes in Creole. While the mood and the music are festive, the reader/spectator can discern deeper messages behind the playful language. "Trois cents ans," they call out, "Trois cents ans que nous dansons carnaval" (12), (6) establishing Cesaire's first recording of Antillean history, a reference to the long years of survival under slavery and the decolonization process.

Gilbert and Tompkins state that the French word carnaval may derive its origin from the term, "cannes brulees" [burned canes], which became "canboulay" (7) in Creole. They base their argument on the finding that a "midnight procession in which ex-slaves carried flaming torches (flambeaux) through the streets accompanied by drumming, dancing, and singing" marked the start of carnival. "Canboulay" they argue, "remembered the brutalities of the colonial experience at the same time as it asserted the black population's right to take part in a festival from which they had previously been debarred" (79). Furthermore, they assert that "[t]his procession, originally held in August on the anniversary of emancipation, was derived from the slaves' experiences of being mustered into groups by the planters and then driven with whips to the cane fields to put out fires" (102-3).

The enactment of carnival as an introductory device in Cesaire's play, then, has a double function: It foregrounds a specific local culture and communal activity serving both as a reminder of past injustices and as a gesture of rebellion and emancipation. "Le texte de ce prologue est purement antillais, c'est une negation du temps et de l'age" (Houyoux 356), (8) states Cesaire. The two diablesses [shedevils] ageless and defiant, question the role of the past:
PREMIERE DIABLESSE.   ... Le passe est passe!...

DEUXIEME DIABLESSE.   (Chantonnant.) Il est passe parici...

PREMIERE DIABLESSE.   ... Il est passe par cila...

DEUXIEME DIABLESSE.   ... Le passe est depasse...

PREMIERE DIABLESSE.   ... Le passe s'est surpasse!...

DEUXIEME DIABLESSE.   ... Le passe a-t-il trepasse? (Elles rient.)

PREMIERE DIABLESSE.   ... Et en avant, ma Commere, pour la danse!

DEUXIEME DIABLESSE.   ... La danse du "Je serai jeune",
                      s'il plait a Dieu!

PREMIERE DIABLESSE.   ...La danse du "J'ai ete vieille",
                      malin qui le saura!

DEUXIEME DIABLESSE.   ... La danse du "Se pa tou di jodi

[FIRST SHE-DEVIL.     ... The past has passed!...

SECOND SHE-DEVIL.     (Humming) ... It passed by here...

FIRST SHE-DEVIL.      ... It passed by there...

SECOND SHE-DEVIL.     . The past has been trespassed.

FIRST SHE-DEVIL.      ... The past has been surpassed...

SECOND SHE-DEVIL.     ... But has the past passed away?
                      (They laugh.)

FIRST SHE-DEVIL.      ... Let's get on with our dance, my
                      friend!

SECOND SHE-DEVIL.     ... Let's dance to "I'll Be Young,"
                      God willing!

FIRST SHE-DEVIL.      ... Let's dance to "I've Been Old," the
                      devil only knows!

SECOND SHE-DEVIL.     ... Let's dance to "It's Not All Said
                      and Done" (Plays 51-2)]


Playing with the multiple meanings of the verb passer and its derivatives, the diablesses seem to say that the propagation of a Francocentric history is, indeed, outmoded, depasse. An inclusive French Caribbean history has been erased, passed up, surpasse by a canonical French history that has omitted Antillean-specific events. The past, however, the past that includes the legacy of slavery and European domination, the violence of the slave rebellions and repressions, the Antillean role in the Resistance during World War II, the devastation of hurricanes, and the reality of everyday life has not simply "passed away."

The dialogue of the two characters is the site for exposing and exploding myths and uncovering an "erased" collective memory marked by the specificity of the Antillean experience. Glissant asserts that the Antilles has been marked by a sort of non-history and that this must be transformed into a true history:

Les Antilles sont le lieu d'une histoire faite de ruptures et dont le commencement est un arrachement brutal, la Traite. Notre conscience historique ne pouvait pas "sedimenter", si on peut ainsi dire, de maniere progressive et continue, comme chez les peuples qui ont engendre une philosophie souvent totalitaire de l'histoire, les peuples europeens, mais s'agregeait sous les auspices du choc, de la contraction, de la negation douloureuse et de l'explosion. Ce discontinu dans le continu, et l'impossibilite pour la conscience collective d'en faire le tour caracterisent ce que j'appelle une nonhistoire. (130-1)

[The French Antilles is the site of a history shaped by ruptures and that has as its beginning a brutal uprooting, the slave trade. Our historical conscience could not "sediment," as it were, progressively and continuously, as for those peoples who have often produced a totalitarian philosophy of history, the European peoples, but rather, came together in the context of shock, contraction, painful negation and explosion. This discontinuous in the continuous, and the impossibility for the collective conscience to absorb it all, characterize what I call a non-history.]

This privation of history, or rather the inscription of a non history, contributes heavily to the boundless sense of alienation experienced by the Antilles which, being island nations, already experience a certain alienation due to geographical isolation. Glissant argues that, in order for a true antillanite to emerge--that is, for the Franco-Caribbean peoples to become aware of and claim their own history/ histories, heritage, experiences, and memories that have shaped the present-day Antillean culture--this "histoire imposee, subie (non pas seulement d'une domination, mais d'une non-histoire)" must first be deposed (87). (9)

In choosing carnival as the opening device, Cesaire immediately inscribes not only the specificity of Antillean history, but also the subversive potential of theater. Miller adds:
   This short "overture" establishes the rules of the performance and
   a certain theoretical underpinning: that women's roles are
   consciously chosen and can be entertaining for the performers too;
   that theater (like Carnival) can be the site of subversive
   activity; that Caribbean culture and Creole language must also be
   subjects of dramatic expression; and that life might just be a
   series of metamorphoses and processes--far from stagnant, far from
   fixed, and far from stable; finally, that this instability is
   precisely the stuff of "life." (Plays 47)


"Not all is said and done," (10) the two women say, and it is now their turn to dance, to make their voices heard, to record their own history.

Furthermore, Cesaire's use of carnival to frame her play suggests the association of the two women characters with the open, transformative, and communal nature of the carnival body. Mikhail Bakhtin has pointed out in his discussion of the medieval carnival that it celebrated a temporary liberation from the established order and fixed social images, codes, and hierarchies (10). Cesaire explains that in the Caribbean in particular, carnival was and continues to be a festival of change and transformation where time and social orders come to a standstill:
   Qui n'a pas vu un carnaval antillais ne sait pas ce qu'est un
   carnaval. Je ne parle pas, comme a Rio, de debauche d'argent. Les
   gens se transforment, il y a un jour ou tous les hommes sont femmes
   et ou les femmes sont hommes, les sexes s'inversent et les pauvres
   deviennent riches ... c'est le gout du masque primaire, on prend ce
   qu'on a a la maison. Le visage peint, on ne reconnait personne,
   c'est un moment different, delirant. (Houyoux 355) [Anyone who has
   not seen an Antillean carnival does not know what a carnival is. I
   am not speaking about the decadent use of money, as in Rio. People
   are transformed; there is a day when all the men are women, all the
   women are men, the sexes are reversed and the poor become rich ...
   it is the pleasure of the simple mask--people put on what they
   have at home. With painted faces, no one is recognizable. It is a
   unique moment, a delirious moment.]


Carnival represents an ability to resist and persist, to express modes of behavior that are emancipatory and self-acclaiming. As Gilbert and Tompkins suggest, "Carnival is thus suitable as a model for post-colonial representations of the body politic that seek to dismantle the hierarchised corpus of imperial culture" (83). Moreover, for an Antillean woman, "doubly colonized," we might say, both as Black and as female, carnival may serve as a site for liberating and affirming herself from both imperial and male cultures. Cesaire, therefore, chooses the vide danced by two diablesses as the setting for her carnival scene, highlighting the metamorphoses of the Antillean woman. By embodying the spirit of Carnival, the two women's animated dance suggests their liberation from a socially and politically imposed order. (11)

When the vide comes to an end, the two actors return to the makeup stands onstage and transform themselves into elderly women, adopting all the appropriate physical and vocal traits. The lights come up on a typically Martinican veranda at nightfall (33), and the women are silhouetted against the bright moonlight streaming in through shuttered windows. It is the evening of a family wedding, and the music of a mazurka fills the house. As the women, ostensibly exhausted from the day's goings-on settle in their chairs, they begin to unravel their stories. In the course of the play, as Miller notes, "they will remember the past and reinscribe the history of the island under the sign of women's quotidian reality" (Plays 47).

The reader/spectator learns almost immediately that the two women have experienced drastically contrasting fates because of the difference in their skin color, suggesting that a hierarchy based on class and color is the bitter heritage of colonization. Beginning with this recognition, the women begin to unveil their secrets, exposing what time has concealed. While these two lives are, indeed, diametrically opposed, Cesaire tells us that they are "a la fois paralleles et divergentes... Profondement feminines et profondement antillaises et de tout un 'arriere-monde' culturel et symbolique enserre dans une realite historique (non loin, dans le passe, rode l'esclavage), politique, sociale et economique" (10). (12) The converging and diverging aspects of their personalities and life experiences, the specificity of their differences--as well as the universality of their common experiences--merge to create the portrait of a contemporary Antillean woman.

This "Martinican Everywoman," to use Miller's term, is a "legendary but not exoticized figure" (Plays 48). Their elemental characterization is set up by Cesaire as two facets of the same woman, of a composite Martinican woman. Cesaire's everywoman is mythic and metaphoric, in a constant state of flux and transformation, but firmly anchored in reality. Throughout the play, the two actresses transform themselves into the various characters evoked in their stories. While the notion of a single subjectivity for each woman is present, each is multiplied and fragmented, built up and broken down, and the experiences of the two diverge and converge much like the carnival body. The rich textures of their discourse also allow Cesaire to create characters that are metaphorical, as well as real. Their stories are at once autobiography, myth, folktale, and legend. As the diablesses in the carnival scene claim, they are "les femmes hors du temps" [women outside of time] (13), the sacred carriers of history. Glissant tells us that, in the case of the colonized, "[p]arce que la memoire historique fut trop souvent raturee, l'ecrivain antillais doit 'fouiller' cette memoire, a partir de traces parfois latentes qu'il a reperees dans le reel" (133). (13) It is precisely this that Cesaire accomplishes through her characters as they sift through their individual memories.

But these timeless carriers of history are solidly rooted in the land. Glissant sees landscape as a structuring force, and as J. Michael Dash points out, nature and landscape are not merely decor. Rather, they are an essential means to self-discovery and formulation:
   Landscape in the imagination of New World writers ... [i]n its
   uncharted profusion it translates the intricate and polysemic
   nature of collective experience. In contrast to the cataloged,
   monolingual, monochrome world that Glissant identifies with Europe,
   New World landscape offers the creative imagination a kind of
   metalanguage in which a new grammar of feeling and sensation is
   externalized. (Dash, Introduction xxxv)


Cesaire exploits this notion to the fullest, and her descriptions of the regions in which Aure and Hermance have spent their lives echo their life experiences and self-images. Cesaire sets Aure's origin in the southern part of Martinique, and the adjectives the author chooses in her description of the area reflect Aure's cultured upbringing, superior social status, and discreet elegance: "[U]ne mer etale, transparente, au sable blanc, a la discrete vegetation due a un climat chaud et sec, dans le fief du palmier et de l'agave" (9). (14) On the contrary, Hermance is dark-skinned, tough, and charismatic. She spent her life in the rougher, northern part of the island, and Cesaire's choice of adjectives foregrounds the turbulent nature of her experiences. "[L]e nord sauvage de l'ile, pres d'une merfrenetique, au sable volcanique et sombre, au pied de la Montagne Pelee de sinistre memoire, a l'ombre epaisse de la luxuriante vegetation tropicale: fougeres arborescentes, bambous geants et fromagers arides, terre tellurique et violente" (9). (15) These are not merely geographical landscapes, but a deeper, emotional landscape as well. Cesaire, speaking of the profound differences between her two grandmothers--one from the south and one from the north--observes:
   En Martinique, il y a un esprit caraibe et l'esprit atlantique; il
   y a meme deux creoles, proches mais differents; il y a des
   traditions differentes; il y a une facon de poser le regard sur
   l'entourage qui est differente ... Eh bien les personnages sont
   ainsi, eux aussi. (Houyeux 354)

   [In Martinique, there is a Caribbean and an Atlantic spirit; there
   are even two creoles, similar but different; there are different
   traditions; there is a way of looking around at one's surroundings
   that is different ... And so the characters, they, too, are like
   this.]


The women's recollections of their respective father figures, as well as those of their husbands, seem to parallel those of their homelands. Aure remembers the men in her life with fondness and genuine nostalgia, while Hermance recalls hers with bitterness and ridicule. While Aure's husband passed away too soon, Hermance's would not die soon enough. Plagued with a bad leg and no longer able to walk (and too proud to be seen in a wheelchair), Ferdinand shut himself up in his third-floor bedroom for fifteen years. It is Hermance who, despite her resentment, cares for him dutifully. Contrastingly, Aure's depiction of the night of Benoit's death reveals her genuine affection and compassion for him. Only once did he ever raise so much as his voice to her, and even that was resolved without drama:
   Il a eleve la voix, il a tape sur la table. Je me suis retournee,
   interloquee. Je ne m'attendais pas a ca. Je l'ai regarde tout
   simplement. Il a compris. Tu sais qu'il a demande pardon? Il parait
   qu'avec les autres femmes cela se passait ainsi. Ca, c'etait leur
   affaire! Moi, je n'ai jamais compris pourquoi la femme devait etre
   plus soumise que l'homme. (68-9)

   [His voice rose. He banged on the table. I turned around in shock.
   I didn't expect anything like that. I simply looked at him. He
   understood. Do you know he even apologized! I'm told that seems
   normal to other women. Well, that's their problem! I, for one, have
   never understood why the woman should be more submissive than the
   man. (Plays 67)]


With these words, Cesaire locates Aure as the site for a feminist understanding and evolution. Aure would not tolerate even once her husband's loss of temper; Hermance, on the contrary, endured Ferdinand's constant ridicule and beatings. Furthermore, because Aure herself is unaware of taking a feminist stance, Cesaire is perhaps proposing that feminism (16) is nascent in all women: Women must not only examine their own daily lives and behaviors and learn to empower themselves, but they must also take the initiative in questioning the behaviors of men.

The fathers and husbands, however, are merely floaters in their universe, and it is the line of formidable women from whom they have descended that have shaped and strengthened Aure and Hermance. As the two women trade stories about their mothers and their mothers' mothers, they establish a certain feminine genealogy and history. They share their matriarchal affirmation. They also reveal a historical memory common to all women of enslaved peoples: the rape of a slave by his or her master. Aure speaks of her great grandmother, a former slave named Amante who bore several children by her white master, the last of which was Malvina, Aure's mother's mother. As Aure recounts this story, the two actors silently play out the archetypal rape scene. Cesaire's stage directions read: "Malvina sursaute lorsque s'ouvre la porte. On entend le grincement d'un lit sur lequel se jette un corps. Malvina se leve lentement et se penche sur le lit. Elle leve la main, geste d'amour ou d'agression?" (51). (17) Although this scene, Cesaire asserts, will be the sole recollection of the slavery period, the audience is made profoundly aware that the effects of that era are constantly present in the lives of these women. Miller writes:
   Without commenting on it, this telling moment of horror foregrounds
   the double victimization of the African woman, slave for European
   colonizers and sexual property for men in general. This one
   reference to slavery has a double function: it reminds the audience
   of something that must never be forgotten; but it also demonstrates
   that lives can be built on something other than unspeakable
   memories. The formidable tragedy of African peoples does not, then,
   overshadow the play's focus on the fabric of aged Caribbean women's
   lives. (Plays 48)


Cesaire's stage direction--"gesture of love or of aggression?"--implies the profound complexity of the relationship between master and slave, between man and woman, which prevents the author and reader/spectator from essentializing the colonization experience. The poetic manner in which Cesaire presents this rape scene recasts the European/white presence as the presence of a wound, one that can and must be healed. It is a wound that has, indeed, left an immeasurable scar, but must not be forever debilitating. (18)

In the second part of Memoires d'Isles, Aure and Hermance contemplate the various incidents that have touched their lives as women: courtship, marriage, birthing, mothering, losses, and deaths. One of Hermance's fondest memories is that of the communal dances that provided interludes of escape and joy in an otherwise stark life. "La vie n'etait pas si bonne," she confesses, "Le seul moment de plaisir, Messieurs! C'etait le bal" (45). (19) Proudly she states that on occasion she had even organized her own balls and had been crowned "queen of the ball" several times. These communal balls represent, for Antilleans, an expression of self-affirmation and defiance, and Hermance's passion for these dances symbolizes her vibrant, resilient nature and Cesaire's search for Antillean female autonomy.

Aure, on the contrary, claims she disliked dances. The reader/spectator perceives, however, that underlying this assertion is a secret regret. As Hermance, lost in her fond memories, hums a dance tune and traces a few steps, Aure adds quietly: "Mon pere ne souhaitait pas pour moi les contacts avec les jeunes gens" (46). (20) Instead, she tells Hermance, during carnival time, she would sometimes attend classical music concerts held in town: "Mais pour moi, les etudes passaient avant tout! Non, je n'ai jamais aime le bal" (47). (21) This denial of dance represents the female subjugation to the forces of Eurocentric and androcentric cultures. It is Aure's father who forbids her to attend the balls, who attempts to suppress her desires and her need for self-expression. Furthermore, her alternative to the dynamic character of the Martinican ball is attending classical music concerts, a sign of European colonization. Nevertheless, Aure holds the dance in her being, along with her classical music and studies. She is unquestionably metisee, "culturally hybrid."

As Aure and Hermance continue their discourse, they interweave their personal narratives with memories of historical events that have punctuated their lives. In so doing, they inscribe and reconfigure events that have been erased from French history but have remained constant and significant in the collective memory of the Antilles: the hurricanes that have devastated the islands, the assassination of Desetages and the subsequent uprisings, (22) the Dissidence (23) and the presence of the Vichy government in the Caribbean, and the formation of the Socialist party in the Antilles. The women narrate these events through the fabric of their personal lives, and the personal becomes collective and vice versa. Hermance recalls how her seventeen-year-old son, Xenio, left one night without warning to enlist in De Gaulle's forces. Neither she nor her husband knew about Xenio's departure until a neighbor told them about it, and they did not see him again for fifteen years. In telling Xenio's story, Hermance recounts at once the story of an individual and of hundreds of families who lived through similar experiences during that period.

As the two women talk about the Cyclone-28, the hurricane of 1928 that nearly destroyed their lives, and about the miseries during the days of '"lamiral Robe," Admiral Robert, representative of the Vichy government in Martinique during the period of the Collaboration. One woman's memories juxtapose with the other's, such that at times Aure and Hermance seem to be one. Each woman's rejoinders flow into the other's thoughts, and their quick-paced dialogue gives the impression of one voice:

AURE. Il y avait des cartes d'alimentation.

HERMANCE. Pour avoir du pain ou du sel, tu donnes ta carte. On n'etait pas habitue a ce genre-la!

AURE. Mais il y avait de la misere parce que beaucoup de gens n'arrivaient pas a avoir tout ce qu'il fal lait, pour manger, surtout a la ville!

HERMANCE. Quand j'allais voir ma mere a la campagne, Toussine--c'etait la voisine--apportait souvent des vers palmistes frits. C'etait tellement bon...

AURE. On ne mange guere ca, actuellement ... Les chenilles avaient macere toute la nuit dans la saumure: citron, oignons-pays, graines bois dinde, gro-di-tin...

HERMANCE. Et piment ... (61-2)

[AURE. Then there were the ration cards.

HERMANCE. To get bread or salt, you presented your card. We weren't used to that!

AURE. But there was a lot of hardship because many people didn't manage to get all they needed to eat, especially in the towns!

HERMANCE. When I went to see my mother in the country, Toussine--that was the neighbor--she often brought fried palm worms over. They were so good...

AURE. Nobody eats them anymore ... You marinated the caterpillars all night in salt brine with lime, green onions, spicy Indian wood seed, thyme...

HERMANCE. And hot pepper ... (Plays 63)]

If the dialogue structure were eliminated in such a passage, one could easily imagine a monologue delivered by one woman. Cesaire successfully underscores the universality of these experiences among Martinican women without negating the specificity of each woman's memories.

What is perhaps most telling is that these women remember these events through stories about food, the stuff of life: what they ate just before the hurricane arrived, how there was nothing left to eat after the hurricane destroyed the island, how they survived on meager rations during the Dissidence. "Il n'y avait plus que des racines a manger ... On a eu aussi faim que pendant la Dissidence, bien plus tard" (58) (24) recollects Aure, as she starts singing a song popular during that era: "Bouch nou oxyde" [our mouth is rusted]. She adds laughingly, "Notre bouche est oxydee! L'antillais aime trop a se moquer de sa propre faim!" (59). (25) As they share their recipes, they complain that the younger generation has lost touch with such ancient customs. In a tribute to the past, Hermance says: "Les anciens savaient preparer ca! Maintenant, un cocotier est a terre, il est plein de chenilles. La personne ne sait meme pas ca, elle passe sans le regarder" (62). (26)

Martinicans of the past were more enterprising, these women seem to say, and they mock the notion that the French were responsible for giving them skills and teaching them workmanship. Aure sneers, "Il y en a qui disaient que l'Amiral Robert faisait du bien a la Martinique! Ils disaient que c'est lui qui a montre aux gens la maniere de travailler et qu'on ne savait plus comment s'y prendre!" (60). (27) Hermance extends this narrative and recollects the resourcefulness and creativity demonstrated by the Martinicans to offset the hardships of the Occupation:
   On prenait de l'eau de mer pour faire salaisons. On faisait des
   paniers et des chapeaux avec le latanier, avec la paille de bakoua.
   On vendait, on faisait un peu d'argent. On faisait des semelles de
   chaussures avec des roues de voiture, des roues en caoutchouc, yo
   te ka kriye sa "Michelin" ... On faisait des sandales avec la
   feuille d'un arbre ... ki non-i, anko? ... un arbre a grandes
   feuilles ... Je ne me souviens plus son nom ... on nettoyait la
   feuille, on la battait pour avoir le fil et les os, on faisait
   bouillir et blanchir. On faisait avec des tas de choses! (60-1)

   [We used seawater to make salt preserves. We made baskets and hats
   with palm leaves, with pine straw. We sold things, made a little
   money. We made shoe soles with car wheels, wheels made of rubber;
   they called them "Michelin soles" ... We made sandals with the
   leaves of a tree ... What's it called again?* ... a tree with big
   leaves ... I can't remember the name ... You cleaned the leaf, you
   beat it to extract the string and the fiber, you boiled it and
   bleached it. It was used for a lot of things." (Plays 63) (28)]


Hermance's monologue echoes Glissant's observation of how Martinicans, faced with the shortage of supplies during the Occupation, invented ingenious methods of survival. "Avec une flotte de marins francais qui mettaient le pays en coupe reglee, les Martiniquais apprirent, en meme temps que les pratiques du marche noir, les ressources de l'autoproduction" (39-40). (29) Furthermore, as in Hermance's laments, Glissant adds that "le peuple martiniquais resista et connut a l'epoque une unanimite qu'il a sans doute perdue" (40). (30) Glissant blames the modernization process brought to Martinique from France and the miserable conditions of existence under a servile economy for this loss of a collective creative spirit:
   Ensuite, la stereotypie technique, qui s'installe avec
   l'emiettement des pratiques de survie et la disparition des metiers
   traditionnels, entraine une inertie technique telle que le
   Martiniquais se persuade qu'il n'a rien a inventer dans son pays et
   que d'ailleurs il ne le pourra pas. J'ai entendu affirmer dans a
   peu pres tous les milieux, vers les annees soixante-soixante-dix,
   qu'il etait impossible de creer en Martinique, d'ecrire, de
   peindre, de faire de la musique, de produire des objets ou des
   idees. (42-3)

   [Further, technical conventionalization, that settles in with the
   degeneration of survival skills and the disappearance of
   traditional trades, leads to a technical inertia such that the
   Martinican convinces himself that he has nothing to invent in his
   country and, besides, he would not be capable of it. During the
   sixties and seventies,I have heard, in practically every milieu,
   that it was iimpossible to create in Martinique, to write, to
   paint, to make music, to produce things or ideas.]


Cesaire's call, as is Glissant's, is for an innovative, resourceful Martinique once again, a creative force that has the power to resist mere mimetism of or assimila tion with the dominant culture and to engender new forms of expression that are specifically Antillean.

Furthermore, in the context of Memoires d'Isles, we can posit that Cesaire's call is for women to claim agency, to find their own voices, and to celebrate their lives. As a woman, as a Martinican, and as a writer, Cesaire speaks through Aure and Hermance, placing herself within this quest. Perhaps the most powerful metaphor for this new woman is the image of the race horse that Aure evokes:
   J'avais cette jument que mon pere m'avait offerte ... Princesse ..
   . Une belle haquenee blanche, le poil brillant, douce comme un
   agneau, mais rapide comme l'eclair. Elle ne connaissait que moi.
   Personne d'autre n'aurait pu la monter ... Il fallait la voir voler
   dans la descente: la fumee la charroyait. Je montais en amazone. Je
   me penchais sur son cou, je lui disais tout doucement a l'oreille:
   "En avant, ma fille! Rattrape le temps!" Et elle filait comme une
   fleche blanche. Ses sabots lancaient des eclairs sur les roches du
   petit chemin. (74)

   [I had that mare my father gave me ... Princess ... a beautiful,
   white hackney mare, with a glossy coat, as gentle as a lamb but
   fast as lightning. She'd only listen to me. Nobody else could ride
   her [ ... ] You should have seen her fly downhill: dust carried her
   along. I rode her sidesaddle. I would lean over her neck and
   whisper into her ear: "Forward girl, catch time for me!" And she
   dashed like a white arrow. Her hooves threw sparks when they hit
   the rocks in the trail. (Plays 69)]


The horse is within the woman, Cesaire implies: It is up to the woman to harness that energy and strength. As Aure states, "[m]oi, je savais que je ne risquais rien: j'avais la bete en main et elle savait mieux que personne ce qu'elle avait a faire"(74). (31)

The play draws to a close on the two womens' memories of the sea of their youth. For Caribbean islanders, the sea represents their history and experiences, their fears and sufferings as well as their joys. Glissant writes: "Il y a ainsi des temps qui s'echelonnent sous nos apparences, des Hauts a la mer, du Nord au Sud, de la foret au sables. Le marronnage et le refus, l'ancrage et l'endurance, l'Ailleurs et le reve" (21). (32) The eternal yet ever-changing sea symbolizes, for them, the legacy of slavery as well as that of emancipation. From slave ships to maroon boats to present-day refugee boats, the sea is the carrier of history as well as its shaping force. For Aure, it was a calm, southern sea, blue and clear, a place for family picnics where children could swim without danger. For Hermance, it was a fierce, northern sea where she could hear the waves crashing against the jetty all night long, waves that would often claim lives. "Je n'aime guere les mers plates qu'on trouve dans le sud," says Hermance, and her overpowering laughter echoes the rumbles of the sea. "La mer ici, chez nous autres, gens du nord, c'est l'Ocean. C'est comme un cheval: c'est beau a regarder, c'est fier, mais c'est tellement vicieux!" (83). (33) If the racehorse represents the image of strength, agency, and subjectivity for Aure, it is the sea that does so for Hermance. The juxtaposition of these two images in Hermance's narrative serves to further juxtapose the two lives, underscoring the mythic structure of Cesaire's woman.

At the end of the play, Aure and Hermance leave their reminiscences and return to the setting of the wedding that had launched them onto this journey of memories and self-exploration. Using a family wedding as a framing device, Cesaire has structured Memoires d'Isles to construct a sense of community at the beginning and end of this emotional voyage. As the final notes of the music offstage begin to die away, the lights slowly fade out. Cesaire details the final moments of the play in her stage directions:
   Elles s'immobilisent ensemble et seuls leurs visages demeurent
   cernes par deux halos lumineux qui vont s'eteindre brusquement et
   simultanement. On n'entend plus, dans l'obscurite, que les bruits
   de la nuit antillaise qui envahissent la scene et la salle. Puis
   c'est, brutalement, le silence. (85)

   [They freeze, and only their faces remain circled by two luminous
   halos that will go out abruptly and simultaneously. The only sounds
   to be heard in the dark are those of the Caribbean night. These
   take over the stage and the theater. Then, suddenly, silence.
   (Plays 74)]


The two women do not leave the stage at the end. As their bodies disappear into the darkness, the audience sees only the two womens' faces, as though they belonged to a single body. And what the audience sees are these haloed heads, faces that show a strength--womanly and Antillean, Black and Mulatto--that have endured and continue to endure. There is nothing here of the vilified sorceresses of traditional Caribbean mythology. Miller states:
   They are mothers and wives, of course, but the metaphors they
   relish for themselves: woman-dance, woman-sea, woman-force,
   woman-racehorse, and woman-daughter of other women, put forward a
   multidimensional human being, undeterred by any given
   representation and irrepressibly committed to the act of living
   itself. (Plays 48)


This multidimensional woman is at once from the past and new, young and old. She is the vision of an old Antillean woman, one who has always been there and been too long ignored. "J'ai aussi voulu marquer la jeunesse interne des vieilles femmes antillaises," states Cesaire. "Elles ont une fraicheur d'esprit, une verdeur d'ame qui est extraordinaire" (Houyoux 356). (34) It is this very youth of the soul that can succeed in resisting the images of imperial and male representations. As much brutality, pain, grief, and privations as Aure and especially Hermance have suffered, they have endured this ascent and have created their own landscape of laughter, survival, and memory. Through the vehicle of Memoires d'Isles, the sharing of personal memories, the recording of collective memories, Cesaire imparts an optimistic vision that illustrates the struggles of the postcolonial era as an upward climb, one that can laugh in the face of its many obstacles and hardships. "La souf-france de l'oppression n'est pas prise ici en larmoyant, parce qu'il n'a pas fallu la prendre comme cela, sans quoi on serait mort, et que l'humour est devenue partie de la vie, de l'instinct de survie," states Cesaire (qtd. in Houyoux 350). (35) But Aure and Hermance's voices ringing with laughter and reminiscences are more than a simple survival instinct; they are, rather, indispensable tools for uncovering the landscape of their souls, of their histories, and of a collective Martinican history.

Works Cited

Adell, Sandra. "Word/Song and Nommo Force in Two Black Francophone Plays: Simone Schwarz-Bart's Ton beau capitaine and Ina Cesaire's Memoires d'Isles" Journal of Caribbean Studies 8.1-2 (Winter 1990/Summer 1991): 61-9.

Bada, Valerie. "Slavery and Silence in Ina Cesaire's Memoires d'Isles and Dennis Scott's An Echo in the Bone" Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association 33.3 (Fall 2000): 86-93.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Trans. Helene Iswolsky. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1984.

Cesaire, Ina. Memoires d'Isles: Maman N. et Maman F. Paris: Editions Caribeennes, 1985.

Dash, J. Michael. Caribbean Discourse: Selected Essays. Trans. Michael J. Dash. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1989.

De Souza, Pascale. "Discours carnavalesque chez Ina Cesaire: deferler les Memoires d'Iles." Oeuvres et Critiques XXVI. 1 (2001): 122-33.

Gilbert, Helen & Joanne Tompkins. Postcolonial Drama: Theory, Practice, Politics. London: Routledge, 1996.

Glissant, Edouard. Le Discours Antillais. Seuil: Paris, 1981.

Houyoux, Suzanne. "Un Entretien avec Ina Cesaire, Fort-de-France, Martinique, 5 juin 1990."Elles ecrivent des Antilles. Ed. Suzanne Rinne & Joelle Vitiello. L'Harmattan: Paris, 1997: 349-57.

Makward, Christiane P. and Judith Graves Miller, eds & trans. New French Language Plays. New York: Ubu Rep Theatre Publications, 1993.

Miller, Judith Graves. "Caribbean Women Playwrights: Madness, Memory, But Not Melancholia." Theatre Research International 23.3: 225-32.

--. Plays by French and Francophone Women: A Critical Anthology. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1994.

(1) This play opened in Bagneux in the suburbs south of Paris, presented by the Theatre du Campagnol under the direction of Jean-Claude Penchenat, formerly of the Theatre du Soleil. It then moved to Martinique where it played during the summer of 1983. The production was revived in the fall at the Theatre 18 in Paris, and in Guadeloupe the following summer. The English translation by Judith G. Miller and Christiane Makward, New French Language Plays, was performed by the Ubu Repertory Theatre in New York City in 1991.

(2) "Everything that they talk about in the play is absolutely true."

(3) "It's a simple observation of reality. Memoires d'Iles is a true story."

(4) Cesaire differs from Glissant in that she exploits more fully, as Sandra Adell points out, "[a]t the level of spoken discourse or dialogue, ... that which is most indigenous to the Caribbean environment: the Carnaval, and Creole as it is spoken in Martinique" (67). Glissant sets up a paradox that remains unresolved. While he calls to Antilleans to expose and exploit their "antillanite," he is opposed to the formal instruction of Creole and to writing in Creole. He believes that such practices would poison the flow of oral tradition and, in turn, Creole as a language and mode of "true" expression would stagnate and become, simply, a form of folklore. He writes:

Le mouvement se fait donc, vers l'ecrit. Malheureusement, il s'accompagne d'un mouvement inverse: la langue parlee tend a se stereotyper. La pratique del'image, de la parabole, disparait peu a peu du creole quotidien. Si c'est la le tribut a payer pour l'entree dans l'ecrit, on se demande si la chose en vaut la peine. (415)

The movement, then, is toward writing. Unfortunately, it is accompanied by a reverse movement: Spoken language tends to become stereotypical. The use of imagery, of parables, gradually disappears from everyday Creole. If that is the price to pay for its admission into the written world, we must ask ourselves if it is worth it. Writers like Cesaire, however, succeed in using Creole without condemning it to a static form or cadence precisely because their medium is theater, the site of movement and transformation.

(5) Here, I use "Carnaval" instead of the English word "carnival" to show its significance as I introduce the notion and begin discussing the origins of the word itself.

(6) "Three hundred years," of "Three hundred years of dancing Carnival" (51). All translations of the play are from Makward and Miller's Plays by French and Francophone Women.

(7) There is no translation for this word because it doesn't mean anything. This passage explains how the French words sounded and became transformed in Antillean Creole.

(8) "The text of this prologue is purely Antillean; it is a negation of time and age."

(9) Glissant argues, "imposed history, subjected to (non only to domination, but to non-history)."

(10) "C'est pas tout dit."

(11) For an excellent discussion of the use of carnival in this play, see "Discours carnavalesque chez Ina Cesaire: deferler les Memoires d'Iles" by Pascale De Souza.

(12) Cesaire's tells us that "at once parallel and divergent ... Profoundly feminine and profoundly Caribbean, they belong to an entire cultural and symbolic 'noumenal world' clasped within a political, social, economic and historical reality (not far behind, in the past, lurks slavery)."

(13) Glissant tell us that "because historical memory was too often erased, the Caribbean writer must 'dig through' this memory, starting with its sometimes latent traces that he has been able to find in the real."

(14) "A calm, transparent sea, with white sand and inconspicuous vegetation, due to a hot and dry climate, in the realm of palm trees and agave."

(15) This translates as, "The wild northern side of the island, bordering a frenetic sea, with dark, volcanic sand, at the foot of the very Mount Pelee of sinister memories, in the thick shade of its lush, tropical vegetation: tree ferns, giant bamboo trees, stark ceiba trees, an uneven and violent land." Emphasis mine.

(16) I use this term loosely, and am not referring to any particular feminist ideology. As Miller discusses in her article, "Caribbean Women Playwrights: Madness, Memory, but Not Melancholia," what is commonly thought of as French feminism "does not apprehend a certain kind of indomitability of the spirit prevalent in their plays and the concerted attempt within each play to regenerate the male in the midst of the focal female characters" (226).

(17) "Malvina is startled when the door opens. We can hear the creaking of a bed across which a body has thrown itself. Malvina stands up slowly and leans over the bed. She raises her arm; is it a gesture of love or aggression?" (Plays 58).

(18) For a fuller discussion of this scene, see Valerie Bada's "Slavery and Silence in Ina Cesaire's Memoires d'Isles and Dennis Scott's An Echo in the Bone."

(19) "Life wasn't so good," she confesses, "The only fun we had, I'll tell you, was the balls!"

(Plays 56).

(20) "My father didn't want me to mix with young men" (Plays 57).

(21) "But for me studying came before everything else! No, I never liked balls" (Plays 57).

(22) Miller explains: "Desetages was a member of one of the most important Martinican families. His assassination in 1930 led to a series of popular uprisings, which have remained very important to the political memory of the Martinican Left" (Plays 71).

(23) As Miller notes that while the word Dissidence immediately connotes the Antillean Resistance movement during World War II, "the word Resistance in the Caribbean usually connotes local political activity against colonial powers" (Plays 62).

(24) "All there was left to eat was roots ... we were as hungry as during the Dissidence, much later" (Plays 62).

(25) "Our mouth is rusty! Caribbean people are too ready to laugh at their own hunger!"

(Plays 62).

(26) "Old folks knew how to fix them! Now a coconut tree comes down, and it's full of caterpillars. People don't even know. They walk by without a glance. But they're even better than fish!" (Plays 63).

(27) "Some people used to say that Admiral Robert was good for Martinique! They said he's the one who showed people how to work, because people didn't know how to go about it anymore!" (Plays 63).

(28) The italics represent those phrases that are written in Creole in the original text.

(29) "With a fleet of French sailors that were systematically exploiting the country, the Martinicans learned, at the same time as the ins and outs of the black market, the means for autoproduction."

(30) "The Martinican people resisted and at the time felt a collectivity that it has now manifestly lost."

(31) "I knew I wasn't in danger: I had the animal well in hand, and she knew better than anybody what her business was" (Plays 69).

(32) "So history is spread out beneath this surface, from the mountains to the sea, from north to south, from the forest to the beaches. Maroon resistance and denial, entrenchment and endurance, the world beyond and dream" (Dash 11).

(33) "I really don't like the flat seas that you have in the south," says Hermance, and her overpowering laughter echoes the rumbles of the sea. "The sea, for us northerners, means the ocean. It's like a horse: beautiful to watch, proud, but perverse, too!" (Plays 74).

(34) "I also wanted to underline the internal youth of old Antillean women," states Cesaire. "They have a freshness of spirit, a greenness of the soul that is extraordinary."

(35) "Here, we do not whimper about suffering under oppression, because we shouldn't; we would be dead if we did, and humor has become a part of life, an instinct of survival."
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Publication:Journal of Caribbean Literatures
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Date:Jun 22, 2009
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