Zobel, Joseph 1915–2006
Joseph Zobel 1915-2006
Martinican novelist and short story writer.
Zobel is remembered for his 1950 novel La Rue Cases-Nègres, which was translated into English in 1980 as Black Shack Alley. Adapted into an award-winning film in 1983, La Rue Cases-Nègres is an autobiographically based novel about Zobel's impoverished childhood on a sugar-cane plantation and his eventual success as a writer. Often discussed as part of the Negritude tradition, La Rue Cases-Nègres won the 1950 Prix des Lecteurs.
Zobel was born in 1915 in Rivière-Salée, Martinique, an island in the French West Indies. Zobel's family, including his father, grandmother, and mother, were employed by the white Des Grottes family, owners of a sugar plantation. Since his mother worked as a wet nurse for the family, Zobel was cared for by his grandmother. An exceptional student, he excelled at the village school, earning entrance into the Lycée Schoelcher in the city of Fort-de-France. Obtaining his baccalauréat, he worked for a time for the local government before accepting a position in 1938 as a supervisor at the Lycée Schoelcher. During the repressive, pro-Vichy government of Martinique during World War II, Zobel began writing articles, short fiction, and autobiographical accounts of his youth. His first novel, Diab'la ("The Devil's Garden"), was rejected by censors, and only published in 1947 after the demise of the Vichy regime. By that time Zobel had entered the Sorbonne in order to study drama and ethnology, and had begun writing La Rue Cases-Nègres. At the prompting of the internationally known Negritude writer Léopold Sédar Senghor, whom Zobel met while in Paris, Zobel moved to Africa, teaching and working as an administrator at schools in Senegal. After Senegal won its independence in 1960, Zobel obtained a position with the state radio service, where he worked as a producer. Continuing to write, he completed two collections of short stories, Et si la mer n'était pas bleue and Mas Badara, which eventually were published in 1982 and 1983, respectively. In the mid-1970s he moved to a small village in southern France, writing poetry and opening a pottery shop with one of his sons. He achieved sudden celebrity in 1983 with the release of the French film version of La Rue Cases-Nègres, which was awarded a Silver Lion from the Venice Film Festival, among numerous other awards. He continued writing poetry until his death in 2006 in Alès, France, at the age of ninety-one. A school in Rivière-Salée is named after him.
Zobel's first novel, Diab'la, treats the theme of colonial exploitation, detailing how a member of the proletariat escapes oppression by cultivating a garden. In Zobel's best-known work, La Rue Cases-Nègres, the author examined such motifs as race and class discrimination, the French colonial educational system, and cultural assimilation. Told from the perspective of José Hassam, the novel relates the extreme poverty of the narrator's childhood, when he was raised by his devoted and loving grandmother, M'man Tine, on a sugar-cane plantation. José has a strong support system in both M'man Tine and his own mother, Delia, both of whom sacrifice in order to give him the opportunity to escape the harsh and brutal realities of the plantation society through study at the lycée in Fort-de-France. By assimilating himself into the cultural system of the colonizer, José is able to break free from the confines of race and class discrimination and achieve the status of writer. A recurring motif in the novel is the contrast between orality and the written word: the literate (the white landowners) hold all the power, while the illiterate (the black peasantry) are subject to exploitation. Knowledge of the French language, therefore, is key to social and economic advancement. The novel also centers on liberation, as José refuses to remain trapped in a position of subjugation. In the sarcastic and critical Fête à Paris (1953), Zobel focused on race relations, colonialism, and French cultural values. Revolving around how a black colonial subject adjusts to city life, the novel has been linked to concepts of Negritude in its recognition of a purely African identity, its rejection of European values, and its condemnation of colonialism for both its financial exploitation and its efforts to erase black culture and identity.
La Rue Cases-Nègres, which was banned in Martinique for two decades following its publication, surged in popularity in 1983, when fellow Martinican Euzhan Palcy directed the film version of the novel. Released in the United States in 1984 under the title Sugar Cane Alley, the film has often been compared with the novel, with critics commenting specifically on how, in the thirty-three years between the release of the novel and the film, Caribbeans began to move away from an acceptance of cultural assimilation toward an opposition to it—an ideological shift that is reflected in the film. Scholars, including Ann Armstrong Scarboro, have considered Zobel a "modern-day maroon," linking the author with the West Indian folk hero of the runaway slave, who was revered for his bravery in surviving and resisting the brutality of slavery. Contemporary writers like Zobel, according to Scarboro, keep alive for Caribbeans the memories of the rebellions and revolts perpetrated by blacks, who actively challenged Western domination. In other critical discussions, commentators have debated whether or not the novel fits into the Negritude tradition, based on its depiction of a black hero who overcomes his destiny and on its expression of black pride. The contradictory forces under which Zobel wrote also have prompted discussion, with scholars recognizing the struggle French Caribbean writers faced in their attempts to reclaim their heritage while being forced to work within the confines of the Western literary community. Regarding the classification of the novel, critics are divided in their opinions: some call it a bildungsroman, since it traces the success of the protagonist despite the intrusion of the "Other," while others term it a psychological novel, based on its focus on the indoctrination of the colonial educational system, through which the narrator, in order to win his independence, must accept all things French.
Diab'la (novel) 1947
La Rue Cases-Nègres [Black Shack Alley] (novel) 1950
Fête à Paris (novel) 1953
Soleil partagé (short stories) 1964
Laghia de la mort (short stories) 1978
Mains pleines d'oiseaux (novel) 1978
Et si la mer n'était pas bleue (short stories) 1982
Mas Badara (short stories) 1983
Ann Armstrong Scarboro (essay date winter 1992)
SOURCE: Scarboro, Ann Armstrong. "A Shift toward the Inner Voice and Créolité in the French Caribbean Novel." Callaloo 15, no. 1 (winter 1992): 12-29.
[In the essay below, Scarboro discusses three French Caribbean writers—Zobel, Simone Schwarz-Bart, and Daniel Maximin—as examples of "modern-day maroon[s]," who "used their creative powers to claim authenticity and fashion pathways to freedom for the individual and the group."]
Ma bouche sera la bouche des malheurs qui n'ont point de bouche, ma voix, la liberté de celles qui s'affaissent au cachot du désespoir
[My mouth will be the mouth of misfortunes that have no mouth, my voice, the freedom of those that sink in the prison of despair]
Privileging the writer as modern-day maroon and porteparole of the collectivity, I show in this article how Joseph Zobel, Simone Schwarz-Bart and Daniel Maximin have used their creative powers to claim authenticity and fashion pathways to freedom for the individual and the group, just as Aimé Césaire did in Cahier d'un retour au pays natal. I assert moreover that an evolution in form and content in the contemporary French Caribbean novel can be demonstrated by the juxtaposition of Zobel's La Rue Cases-Nègres (1950) with Schwarz-Bart's Pluie et vent sur Télumée Miracle (1972) and Maximin's L'Isolé soleil (1981).
"Le Grand Camouflage," Suzanne Césaire's essay in the last issue of Tropiques (1945), is a revolutionary document.2 Sketching out the blueprint for a literature of liberation in a semi-cryptic fashion by incorporating descriptions of island beauty, Césaire proclaims a virtual manifesto of independence for the French Caribbean writer:
Et maintenant lucidité totale. Mon regard par delà ces formes et ces couleurs parfaites, surprend, sur le très beau visage antillais, ses tourments intérieurs.
Car la trame des désirs inassouvis a pris au piège les Antilles et l'Amérique. Depuis l'arrivée des conquistadors et l'essor de leurs techniques (à commencer par celle des armes à feu), les terres d'outre-Atlantique n'ont pas seulement changé de visage, mais de peur.
[And now complete lucidity. My gaze across these forms and perfect colors discovers her internal torments on the lovely West Indian face.
For the web of unappeased desires has caught the West Indies and America in its trap. Since the arrival of the conquistadors and the proliferation of their techniques (firearms to begin with), the lands of the outer Atlantic have changed not only in appearance but in fear.]
Depicting the "tourments intérieurs" of her beloved Martinique, Césaire asserts the need to speak out, saying that writers must dare to depict discrimination in a way that allows the message of revolution to get through to those who are not free.
Césaire points out that French Caribbean writers have to play hide and seek so that the dominant Other does not silence the messenger with censure before s/he speaks. She also says that writers must encourage everyone to join the revolt. Uttering her own call to action to those who are afraid to speak/write, she reminds them of the power they used to possess. Her metaphor of strength, which recalls A. Césaire's poem, "Les pur sangs," is one to which all of us can respond:
J'écoutais très attentivement, sans les entendre, vos voix perdues dans la symphonie carribbéene qui lançait les trombes à l'assaut des îles. Nous étions semblables à des purs-sangs, retenus, piaffant d'impatience, à la lisière de cette savane de sel.
[I listened very closely, without hearing them, to your voices lost in the Caribbean symphony that was hurling torrents to assault the islands. We were like thoroughbreds, restrained, pawing the ground with impatience, at the edge of this salt savannah.]
In writing her manifesto for a literature of liberation, Suzanne Césaire is like some of her ancestors—the maroons, runaway slaves who dared to proclaim their independence despite impossible circumstances and who used certain ploys of subterfuge to achieve their ends.
Edouard Glissant points out in Le Discours antillais that the group was deprived of a hero who could act as a catalyst for the collectivity when marronnage (cultural opposition) was treated as a deviation and punished. However, he also reminds us that the maroon is the only popular hero the French Caribbean people have ever had:
Il n'en reste pas moins, nous ne le soulignerons jamais assez, que le Nègre marron est le seul vrai héros populaire des Antilles, dont les effroyables supplices qui marquaient sa capture donnent la mesure du courage et de la détermination. Il y a là un exemple incontestable d'opposition systématique, de refus total.
[It nevertheless remains true, we can never emphasize it enough, that the black maroon or runaway slave is the only real folk hero of the West Indies. The terrible tortures that marked his capture are a measure of his courage and determination. In his action we have an indisputable example of systematic opposition, of complete refusal.]
Today it is the writers who are the heroes and heroines as they thrust aside the domination of the Other and claim their territory anew. Maryse Condé affirms this notion that Caribbean writers must be modern-day maroons in Le Roman antillais:
Le rôle de l'écrivain sera donc celui-là. Rappeler les révoltes, les soulèvements, les empoisonnements massifs des maîtres, en un mot la résistance et le marronage…. En fait, le marronage, c'est-à-dire le refus de la domination de l'Occident, symbolise une des constantes de l'attitude antillaise.
[The writer's role will thus be to remind us of the revolts, the uprisings, the massive poisonings of plantation owners, that is to remind us of resistance and rebellion…. In fact, marronage, i.e., the refusal of domination by the West, represents one of the constant aspects of the West Indian attitude.]
Glissant suggests that the contemporary artist is engaged in becoming the porte-parole of the collective consciousness of the people, recalling lived history and inspiring future action:
La parole de l'artiste antillais ne provient donc pas de l'obsession de chanter son être intime; cet intime est inséparable du devenir de la communauté.
Mais cela que l'artiste exprime, révèle et soutient, dans son oeuvre, les peuples n'ont pas cessé de la vivre dans le réel. Le problème est que cette vie collective a été contrainte dans la prise de conscience; l'artiste devient un réactiveur. C'est pourquoi il est à lui-même un ethnologue, un historien, un linguiste, un peintre des fresques, un architecte. L'art ne connaît pas ici la division des genres. Ce travail volontaire prépare aux floraisons communes. S'il est approximatif, il permet la réflexion critique; s'il réussit, il inspire.
[The language of the Caribbean artist does not originate in the obsession with celebrating his inner self; this inner self is inseparable from the future evolution of his community.
But what the artist expresses, reveals, and argues in his work, the people have not ceased to live in reality. The problem is that this collective life has been constrained by the process of consciousness; the artist acquires a capacity to reactivate. That is why he is his own ethnologist, historian, linguist, painter of frescoes, architect. Art for us has no sense of the division of genres. This conscious research creates the possibility of a collective effervescence. If he more or less succeeds, he makes critical thought possible; if he succeeds completely, he can inspire.
from Caribbean Discourse, trans. J. Michael Dash (1989), 236)]
The concept of the writer as modern-day maroon introduces the notion of becoming self-conscious, because the maroon had to assess his condition before he could run away. Jean Bernabé, Patrick Chamoiseau, and Raphaël Confiant suggest in Eloge de la créolité that contemporary writers have the opportunity and the obligation to reexamine their Caribbeanness, anchored in the richness of Creoleness:
Ici, nous ne nous imaginons pas hors du monde, en banlieue de l'Univers. Notre ancrage dans cette terre n'est pas une plongée dans un fond sans pardon. Notre vision intérieure exercée, notre créolité mise comme centre de créativité, nous permet de réexaminer notre existence, d'y voir les mécanismes de l'aliénation, d'en percevoir surtout les beautés. L'écrivain est un renifleur d'existence. Plus que tout autre, il a pour vocation d'identifier ce qui, dans notre quotidien, détermine les comportements et structure l'imaginaire. Voir notre existence c'est nous voir en situation dans notre histoire, dans notre quotidien, dans notre réel.
[Here we do not believe ourselves to be outside the world, in the suburbs of the Universe. Our anchoredness in this land is not a dive into the depths without forgiveness. Making use of our internal vision, putting our Creoleness at the center of our creativity, allows us to see the mechanisms of alienation, permits us to reexamine our existence, and especially permits us to perceive the beauty of that existence. The writer is one who breathes in existence and sniffs it. More than any other person, he has the task of identifying what it is in our daily lives that determines behavior and structures the imaginary. Seeing our existence means seeing ourselves in the context of our history, our daily life, our reality.]
In La Rue Cases-Nègres Zobel focuses on the external life of the collectivity rather than on his protagonists' inner lives, forcing his readers to see how racial and class prejudices dominate José's and M'man Tine's world. In Pluie et vent sur Télumée Miracle, Schwarz-Bart shows the development of an expanded self-awareness in both Reine Sans Nom and Télumée, and she portrays the group's life in detail. Rejuvenating the life of the collectivity through the exploration of its history, Maximin makes self-consciousness the primary focus in L'Isolé soleil because the protagonists' re-births structure the movement of the whole text.
As romans d'initiation, the three narratives teach lessons about how to live in a society where the presence of the Other, with its "mécanismes de l'aliénation" (Eloge de la créolité 39), has been a fundamental fact of daily life. Stressing the importance of the collectivity as a nourishing force for the individual, Zobel depicts young José's connection to M'man Tine and Medouze, Schwarz-Bart speaks of the invisible threads linking the village huts, and Maximin uses multiple excerpts from the works of previous generations of French Caribbean writers.
As romans d'initiation with an internal focus, Pluie et vent sur Télumée Miracle and L'Isolé soleil also teach the reader about the importance of the inner voice. Examining the relationship between the protagonist's internal, psychological growth and the world in which Télumée lives, Pluie et vent sur Télumée Miracle highlights the value of being true to oneself, staying in control of one's life, and keeping a secret part hidden, invulnerable to assault. As Maryse Condé put it in La Parole des femmes, Télumée "a su accepter la vie et par une secrète alchimie transfigurer les échecs, les angoisses et les souffrances" [knew how to accept life and by means of a secret alchemy transform its defeats, anguish and suffering] (36).
In L'Isolé soleil, Maximin tells us that the individual on his/her own path must look inside as deeply as possible to find his/her own voice if s/he wants real freedom: "Brise ce premier miroir et écoute bien le silence de ton double devant ta main qui saigne et ton regard aveugle" [Break this first mirror and listen carefully to the silence of your double standing before your bleeding hand and blind gaze] (285). Valorizing the inner voice and creating the framework for journeys—journeys by both "le même" and "l'autre" [the one who is the same and the one who is similar]—are among Schwarz-Bart's and Maximin's most meaningful contributions.3 The inner journey is essential to a literature of liberation, because only through such an exploration can the individual, and the collectivity, become free.
The novels also focus on how the individual can react against the Other. In La Rue Cases-Nègres, José appropriates the tool of the colonizer, the French language, using it to express his own value as a citizen and remaining in the white/black, master/slave world to make his statement. In Pluie et vent sur Télumée Miracle, Télumée learns to transcend suffering by creating her own space of spiritual peace, living apart from the world of the colonizer. In L'Isolé soleil, Marie-Gabriel recreates her roots by re-visioning her own history, freeing herself to journey forward in a world in which the Other can no longer hold all of the power.
José's journey of initiation moves outward toward the Other in confrontation, Télumée's moves inward toward her own center, and Marie-Gabriel's moves first inward and then outward, embracing the Other and celebrating communication. This evolution in movement reflects the change taking place in French Caribbean society today. In Zobel's era, the 1940s and 1950s, separation between classes and preferential treatment for the Other was the only way of life. Today, in Maximin's era of the 1980s and 1990s, the emphasis on multiplicity and diversity has created a climate where individual merit is appreciated with less regard to race and class, although economic and political independence have not yet been achieved.
When considered together as one unit, the novels portray an evolution in their relationship to cultural assimilation. Zobel's fictional world is based on assimilation—José works within the colonizer's system to proclaim his own identity by becoming a writer. Schwarz-Bart's characters reject cultural assimilation, but economic necessity forces them to labor for the Other whose presence continually limits their lives. Maximin's protagonists reject assimilation, creating their own psychological and economic independence. As the writers of Eloge de la créolité suggest, the new literature of liberation rejects assimilation, affirming instead Creoleness with its cultural difference and dynamic multiplicity:
Nous nous déclarons Créoles. Nous déclarons que la Créolité est le ciment de notre culture et qu'elle doit régir les fondations de notre antillanité. La Créolité est l'agrégat interactionnel ou transactionnel, des éléments culturels caraïbes, européens, africains, asiatiques, et levantins, que le joug de l'Histoire a réunis sur le même sol.
[We declare ourselves Creoles. We declare that Creoleness is the cement of our culture and that it should govern the foundations of our Caribbeanness. Creoleness is the interactional or transactional substance of cultural elements brought together on the same soil by the yoke of History, elements that are Caribbean, African, Asian and Levantine.]
The focus on social realism diminishes from La Rue Cases-Nègres to L'Isolé soleil as the emphasis on the inner journey and Creoleness expands. Not even addressing Creoleness, Zobel depicts the ravages created by the plantation society in extensive detail, and José's journey is primarily outward. While Schwarz-Bart's novel also portrays the poverty of rural society, her concentration is on Télumée's inner psychic journey. Maximin highlights the inner journey and Creoleness, privileging re-birth and bringing in international connections among black writers and musicians. His incorporation of history includes instances of social realism, but he concentrates on the collectivity and the individual's relationship to history rather than on the horrors of the past.
Taken as a unit, the three novels represent an evolution from a focus on confrontation to a focus on celebration of difference. This shift has been possible because writers like A. Césaire and Zobel set the stage for the newer generations by defining the reality that existed. Until that initial portrait had been made, no re-ordering of external reality could take place, because someone had to dare to be the first to proclaim the truth. Once the ravages of the plantation system had been depicted, authenticating the past experience of the collectivity, other writers could begin to focus on the individual as well as the group, describing the potential of the present-day situation.
Addressed to the writers' compatriots and to the literature's international audience, the call to action that characterizes the innovative force in French Caribbean literature springs from the protagonists' own private journeys. The texts of all three writers encourage the narratee to become a modern-day maroon him/herself, to take up the "conques de lambis" [conch shells] and signal revolt like Amboise and his fellow strikers in Pluie et vent sur Télumée Miracle (221). Although Zobel, Schwarz-Bart and Maximin use different narrative strategies, they all succeed in bringing about a new awareness for "le même," "l'autre" and perhaps even "l'Autre" [the one who is different].
Speaking through example, Zobel details the courage of M'man Tine's prise de conscience as she refuses to let her grandson work in the cane fields. José defines his own call to action: "C'est aux aveugles et à ceux qui se bouchent les oreilles qu'il me faudrait … crier cette histoire" [It is to those who are blind and those who block their ears that I must cry out this story] (311).
Schwarz-Bart embeds her challenge in Amboise's courage as head of the striking cane cutters and in Télumée's ability to persevere in the face of terrible losses:
Mais pluies et vents ne sont rien si une première étoile se lève pour vous dans le ciel, et puis une seconde, une troisième, ainsi qu'il advint pour moi qui ai bien faillir ravir tout le bonheur de la terre. Et même si les étoiles se couchent, elles ont brillé et leur lumière clignote, encore, lâ où elle est venue se déposer dans votre deuxième coeur.
[But rains and winds are nothing. If first one star rises for you in the sky, then another, then another as happened to me, who very nearly carried off all the happiness in the world. And even if the stars set, they have shone, and their light still twinkles there where it has come to rest: in your second heart.
(from Bridge of Beyond, trans. Barbara Bray (1974), 167)]
Maximin's call to action is spoken by Marie-Gabriel:
Accepte, accepte tout ce que tu peux de ton trésor. Ensuite, donne-le. Plus tu donnes, plus tu es….
Mais surtout ne donne jamais une miette de ce qu'en toi tu refuses ou n'acceptes pas encore….
Calcule tes forces et fais confiance à ta fragilité. Accepte la vie comme une vague….
Chaque vague touche au destin d'une autre.
[Accept, accept all you can of your treasure. Then give it. The more you give, the more you are….
And especially don't ever give a crumb of something in yourself that you refuse or don't yet accept….
Calculate your strengths and trust your fragility.
Accept life like a wave….
Each wave touches the destiny of another.
(from Lone Sun, ed. Clarisse Zimra (1989), 259-60)]
As with the focus on the inner voice, Maximin's call to action is stronger and more direct than are Zobel's and Schwarz-Bart's, because Maximin examines the inner voices of the individual and the history of the collectivity more deeply and then moves back out to the external world.
Embedded in Caribbeanness and Creoleness is the idea of an authentic, positive self-conscious expression of the collectivity and the individual. In Eloge de la créolité Bernabé, Chamoiseau and Confiant speak of a "regard libre":
Il émerge d'une projection de l'intime et traite chaque parcelle de notre réalité comme un événement dans la perspective d'en briser la vision traditionelle, en l'occurrence extérieure et soumise aux envoûtements de l'aliénation…. C'est en cela que la vision intérieure est révélatrice, donc révolutionnaire. Réapprendre à visualiser nos profondeurs. Réapprendre à regarder positivement ce qui palpite autour de nous…. C'est un bouleversement intérieur et sacré à la manière de Joyce. C'est dire: une liberté. Mais, tentant vainement de l'exercer, nous nous aperçûmes qu'il ne pouvait pas y avoir de vision intérieure sans une préalable acceptation de soi. On pourrait même dire que la vision intérieure en est la résultante.
[It emerges from a projection of the intimate and treats each fragment of our reality as an event from the perspective of breaking apart the established vision we have of that reality as external occurrence submissive to the bewitchment of alienation…. It is in this aspect that the internal vision is revealing, hence revolutionary. Relearning how to envision our own depths. Relearning to look positively at what palpates all around us…. It is an internal, sacred upheaval in the style of Joyce. That is to say: a freedom. And, trying in vain to use it, we perceived that there could be no internal vision without a prior acceptance of the self. One could even say that the internal vision is the direct result of this acceptance.]
This "acceptation de soi," which is precisely what Schwarz-Bart and Maximin's protagonists experience as the result of their inner journeys, is related to A. Césaire's positive vision of himself in Cahier d'un retour au pays natal:
Et nous sommes debout maintenant, mon pays et moi, les cheveux dans le vent, ma main petite maintenant dans son poing énorme et la force n'est pas en nous, mais au-dessus de nous, dans une voix qui vrille la nuit et l'audience comme la pénétrance d'une guêpe apocalyptique.
[And we are standing now, my country and I, hair in the wind, my hand puny in its enormous fist and now the strength is not in us but above us, in a voice that drills the night and the hearing like the penetrance of an apocalyptic wasp.
(from Aimé Césaire, the Collected Poetry, trans. Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith (1983), 76-77)]
Coming to self-consciousness generates new freedom of action and creates new spaces for interaction. Télumée is free to use her healing arts to help her neighbors; Siméa, Marie-Gabriel's mother, can travel to Paris to help the Soledad brothers; Marie-Gabriel can write her novel. All of them are free to love and cherish other human beings and the land that surrounds them, carrying out the first steps of "le bouleversement intérieur" described by Bernabé, Chamoiseau and Confiant.
If Creoleness is to succeed, the "acceptation de soi" must characterize the group's attitude toward itself as well. L'Isolé soleil exemplifies this vision more fully than La Rue Cases-Nègres and Pluie et vent sur Télumée Miracle, because it affirms French Caribbean historical and literary figures, showing how extensive this heritage is. Maximin's second novel, Soufrières, affirms the group more completely, because it focuses on the group experience of enduring the eruption of Guadeloupe's volcano, La Soufrière.4
These three novels taken together also depict an evolution in the portrayal of female space, if we define that space in Hélène Cixous's terms as an aversion to fixed formulas, the celebration of openness and a renewed inner sensitivity.5 Zobel tells M'man Tine's story as well as José's, but both are told by José's linear, factual voice in a setting where action takes precedence over feeling. Schwarz-Bart virtually omits male space, privileging female bonding, circular, mythical time and an emotional response to life. Maximin uses an androgynous combination, as he both affirms emotional sensitivity and invents his own version of Caribbean écriture féminine and as he uses action and linear thinking. Reflecting the hybrid, heteroglot reality of French Caribbean existence today, Maximin's androgynous fictional world exemplifies Caribbeanness and Creoleness.
A similar evolution from limitation to expansion appears in the way the three texts appropriate the world of nature and the world of the human body. All three novels use nature and the human body as "livres de lecture" [primers],6 but Zobel's use of both is less frequent and less intense than are Schwarz-Bart's and Maximin's. Schwarz-Bart anchors her text in a specifically Caribbean space by using rivers, trees, flowers and natural phenomena as metaphoric representations of life patterns:
Toutes les rivières, même les plus éclatantes, celles qui prennent le soleil dans leur courant, toutes les rivières descendent dans la mer et se noient. Et la vie attend l'homme comme la mer attend la rivière. On peut prendre méandre sur méandre, tourner, contourner, s'insinuer dans la terre, vos méandres vous appartiennent mais la vie est là, patiente, sans commencement et sans fin, à vous attendre, pareille à l'océan.
[All rivers, even the most dazzling, those that catch the sun in their streams, go down to and are drowned in the sea. And life awaits man as the sea awaits the river. You can make meander after meander, twist, turn, seep into the earth—your meanders are your own affair. But life is there, patient, without beginning or end, waiting for you, like the ocean.
(from Bridge of Beyond, trans. Barbara Bray (1974), 52)]
Maximin's descriptions of trees, islands, cyclones and volcanic eruptions reflect the Caribbean landscape while they also mirror the condition of the Caribbean individual and the collectivity. Comparing her body to Guadeloupe and the abortion forced upon her by her white lover (and her own mother) to a cyclone, Siméa shows us the power of the Other:
Tout en déluge, en séisme et en raz-de-marée, le cyclone de 1928 vient de repasser onze ans après au pays de mon corps; la maison de mon ventre culbutée, son coeur éventré, mes rues encombrées de débris de toutes sortes, mes artères déracinées. Toute ma terre dévastée, vagin roussi. Ton cadavre arraché à mes décombres. Et maintenant, c'est l'isolement sans lumière, toutes les communications interrompues, la famine de toi parmi les fers tordus, les poutres rompues, mon visage renversé sur un sommier rouge de mes eaux et de ton sang mêlés.
[Deluge, quake, and tidal wave, the cyclone of 1928 has just hit again, eleven years later, passing right through my body: the house of my womb turned upside down, its heart gutted, my streets cluttered with every kind of debris, my arteries uprooted. My whole land devastated, my vagina pummeled. Your corpse ripped out of my ruins; and now, isolation and darkness; all communications disrupted; famine for you here among the twisted irons, broken beams, my head thrown back on a bedspring red with my waters mixed with your blood.
(from Lone Sun, ed. Clarisse Zimra (1989), 111)]
The relationship of La Rue Cases-Nègres, Pluie et vent sur Télumée Miracle and L'Isolé soleil to history presents another shift in emphasis. José tells the story of his own life and his grandmother's prise de conscience, anchoring his text in realistic details. Schwarz-Bart depicts Télumée's quest for internal harmony, showing how she eventually exemplifies the wisdom of her community as she achieves individuation or self-understanding. Clearly, Zobel, Schwarz-Bart and Maximin all use real history to present the negative experience of colonial life. However, the third writer explores the resonance between the past and the present much more fully.
Maximin's protagonists journey to self-understanding and re-birth, but they engage as well in a quest to find the historical roots of the collectivity. The history of the collectivity is merged with Marie-Gabriel's personal story, because she re-creates herself in telling Siméa's story, and Siméa's story re-creates part of the collectivity's story. Making a double point about truth, Maximin shows that although a full-blown history written by Caribbean people cannot exist because those who would write it died long ago, the truth of the people's resistance to oppression can be affirmed by reading between the lines of colonial history books. This revisioning of French Caribbean history, which reflects the polyvalent dimension of contemporary life, fulfills the impetus of Caribbeanness and Creoleness, because it repairs gaping holes and redefines part of the fabric of Caribbean reality. Thomas Mpoyi-Buatu explains:
Les Antilles constituent une société pluri-culturelle. Et l'émergence da sa spécificité culturelle a longtemps fait problème. En restituant les vertigineux méandres de l'émergence de l'identité antillaise, Maximin, à travers son roman, institute l'unique itinéraire que doit emprunter la mémoire critique.
[The West Indies constitute a pluricultural society. And the emergence of this society's cultural specificity has long been a problem. In restoring the dizzying meanders of the emergence of West Indian identity, Maximin, through his novel, institutes the unique itinerary that the critical memory should adopt.]
An evolution in form corresponds with the shifts in content I have just explored. With regard to physical structure, La Rue Cases-Nègres and Pluie et vent sur Télumée Miracle are divided into sections whose individual relationships to each other are logical and sequential. L'Isolé soleil, on the other hand, is composed of non-sequential fragments whose relationships seem to have little internal logic, but whose organization forces the reader to decipher what connections s/he can. This shift from easily accessible structure to labyrinthine form reflects the changes from external focus to internal focus, simplicity to complexity, and singularity to multiplicity that we have seen with regard to all elements of content—the inner journey, the call to action, the uses of social realism and writing, female space, the worlds of nature and the human body, and the portrayal of history.
A similar transformation appears when we compare other aspects of form—narrative voice, time and textual language. The traditional form of a first-person narrator and a linear time frame in La Rue Cases-Nègres and Pluie et vent sur Télumée Miracle is replaced in L'Isolé soleil with an innovative juxtaposition of multiple voices and a postmodern, zig-zagging, fragmented time frame. Moreover, the ramifications of Maximin's narrative strategy go far beyond the fact that it reflects the complicated, polymorphic nature of Creolized society today and marginalizes the reader.
Prohibiting easy entry into the text, Maximin's strategy limits his audience. In this cryptic design to confound readers and pay attention to multiple levels of meaning, Maximin is following the example set by A. Césaire in his poetry. Speaking of Moi, laminaire …, the volume of poetry A. Césaire published in 1982, Jacques Rancourt asserts that the poet protects his writing from easy access by peeping toms:
l'on dira que la communication n'est pas le but principal de ce recueil.
C'est vrai, mais c'est faux. Parlons plutôt d'une communication semée d'écueils. Propre à décourager quiconque aurait seulement envie d'aller fouiller dans l'intimité de Césaire. Et là, c'est l'intransigeance; les poèmes ne donnent pas prise à lecture voyeuse.
[One would say that communication is not the primary goal of this collection. This is true, but it is also false. Let us speak rather of a communication strewn with reefs and stumbling blocks. Suitable for discouraging whoever desires only to go rummaging around in Césaire's intimacy. And therein lies the intransigence; the poems cannot be grasped by a voyeuristic reading.]
Rancourt's multivalent image of "une communication semée d'écueils" fits well with the works of both A. Césaire and Maximin, whose portrayals of island space are full of reefs and stumbling blocks that impede the reader from having a full understanding of the text on first encounter.
The variety of textual languages in these novels demonstrates a transition from classical French in La Rue Cases-Nègres to Creolized French in Pluie et vent sur Télumée Miracle to a combination of the two in L'Isolé soleil. Roger Toumson explains the history of the importance of language in the Caribbean setting:
Dans l'espace énonciatif antillais, la parole est l'enjeu d'un conflit brutal entre deux histoires, deux cultures, deux pensées. Elle énonce une solution de continuité, une émergence.
[In the West Indian space of enunciation, the word is at stake in a brutal conflict between two histories, two cultures, two ways of thinking. It enunciates a solution of continuity, of emergence.]
Zobel uses a French language space to re-create himself as a separate, but still fundamentally Caribbean, individual, who dominates the language in order to celebrate his Caribbeanness and exhort others to action. The vocabulary he chooses, his sentence structure and his use of verbs illustrate his mastery of the language, while the details he depicts inscribe a Caribbean reality:
Après tout, j'eus bientôt pour copain un chauffeur d'auto du quartier. Nous avions lié connaissance non pas dans le Petit-Fond, où il habitait pourtant, mais sur la route….
C'était chaque fois une bonne aubaine parce que, quatre fois par jour, je devais faire à pied, sous des averses pendant l'hivernage, et les soleils du Carème qui amollissaient le bitume, les deux kilomètres qui me séparaient de la ville.
[I soon had as a pal a car driver from the district. We had become acquainted not in Petit-Fond where he lived, however, but on the road….
On every occasion, it would be a godsend, because four times a day, either in the heavy rain during the rainy season or in the sun of the dry season that softened the asphalt, I would have to trudge on foot the two kilometers that separated me from the town.
(from Black Shack Alley, trans. Keith Q. Warner (1980), 148)]
Schwarz-Bart incorporates mythical and philosophical language within the fabric of her Creolized and classical French, creating a multi-dimensional framework of expression that invites the reader to explore hidden aspects of reality at the same time s/he is made aware of details of daily peasant life:
Ainsi suis-je à mon rôle d'ancienne, faisant mon jardin, grillant mes cacahuètes, recevant les uns et les autres, debout sur mes deux jambes, toute garnie de jupons empesés pour leur masquer ma maigreur. Et puis le soir, tandis que le soleil décline, je réchauffe mon manger, j'arrache ici et là une mauvaise herbe, et je pense à la vie du nègre et à son mystère. Nous n'avons, pour nous aider, pas davantage de traces que l'oiseau dans l'air, le poisson dans l'eau, et au beau milieu de cette incertitude nous vivons, et certains rient et d'autres chantent.
[And so I have reached my role as an old woman, tending my garden, roasting my peanuts, receiving visitors standing up on my two legs, and decked in starched skirts so that they can't see how thin I am. And then in the evening as the sun goes down, I warm up my supper, I pull up a weed or two, and I think of the Negro's life and of its mystery. We have no more marks to guide us than the bird in the air or the fish in the water, and in the midst of this uncertainty we live, and some laugh and others sing.
(from Bridge of Beyond, trans. Barbara Bray (1974), 168-69)]
The shift in language parallels the movement toward opacity noted by Toumson:
L'évolution de la littérature antillaise, du mimétisme exotisant originel, tant décrié, à l'affirmation de leur originalité culturelle par les écrivains de la négritude et de l'après-négritude, marque un passage progressif d'une transparence maximale à une opacité maximale.
[The evolution of West Indian literature, from the early exotic mimicry that was disparaged to the affirmation of their cultural originality by the negritude and postnegritude writers, marks a progressive passage from maximum transparency to maximum opacity.]
Maximin's textual language functions to carry out his strategy of camouflage as well as to portray contemporary French Caribbean space. In the following conversation between Siméa and Louis Gabriel, Maximin criticizes André Breton, the first writer to bring A. Césaire's work to the attention of French readers,7 he praises S. Césaire, he parodies exoticism, and he conveys a sense of place:
—Vous connaissez Suzanne Césaire?
—Non, je ne l'ai jamais vue. Je lui ai écrit une fois à propos de Tropiques. Vous connaissez cette revue qu'ils font à Fort-de-France?
—Oui, moi aussi j'en possêde des numéros, mais mon ami musicien dont je vous ai parlé tout à l'heure les connaît bien, puisqu'il vient lui-même du lycée de Fort-de-France où il était répétiteur. Il a même accompagné André Breton en excursion à la montagne Pelée! A l'entendre, Breton s'émerveillait de tout comme un enfant: les colibris et les pommes-lianes, la statue bleue de Joséphine et les cheveux des écolières chabines, le Cahier de Césaire, les lucioles, les orchidées, le diamant vert au soleil couchant …
—Laissons Breton admirer et même recopier: les Antilles sont dix fois plus surréalistes que lui…. Pour en revenir à Suzanne, c'est le ton de ce qu'elle écrit que j'aime. Il est si rare qu'une femme épanouisse volontairement ses sentiments dans ses écrits.
["You know Suzanne Césaire?"
"No, I've never met her. I wrote to her once about Tropiques. You know, that magazine they're doing in Fort-de-France."
"Yes, I have a few issues, too. But the musician friend I told you about knows them well, he was a tutor at the lycée in Fort-de-France. He even accompanied André Breton on an excursion to Mount Pelée! The way he tells it, Breton was like a child, marveling at everything, the colibri and passionfruit, the blue statue of Josephine and the blond hair of chabine schoolchildren, Césaire's Cahier, lightning bugs, orchids, the last, emerald-green ray at sunset …"
"Let him admire. He can even copy. The Antilles are ten times more surrealistic than Breton…. To get back to Suzanne, what I like about her writing is the tone. It's so unusual to read a woman whose sentiments blossom in her writing."
(from Lone Sun, ed. Clarisse Zimra (1989), 177-78)]
Obscuring the criticism of Breton and the literature of exoticism, the flow of lighthearted conversation and colloquial language encourages the reader to focus on the relationship between the two speakers.
Just as the maroons of the French Caribbean had to hide in order to undermine the plantation system, these writers have to build opacity into their texts. Sometimes this is necessary for political reasons—the Vichy regime forbade the publication of Zobel's Diab'là in 1941, for instance, and the French climate during World War II was not friendly toward black writers who wanted to speak out. Jacqueline Leiner explains why this might be true:
Césaire, who has experienced unconditional European domination, obstinately seeks to recover the "West Indian self" smothered by colonization. He cannot view the latter as a valid matter of establishing contact between cultures; in fact "la colonisation ne réussit qu'à déciviliser le colonisateur" [colonialism succeeds only in uncivilizing the colonizer] as well as the colonized. The radicalism of Césaire and of the Tropiques contributors, which is characteristic of a number of West Indians, stands in stark opposition to the Senghorian compromise—which is not necessarily African.
At other times, the camouflage hides part of the writer's meaning until the reader has been seduced by the narrative, as in the example quoted above from Maximin about André Breton and the literature of exoticism. In this case, the delay in the reader's understanding of the full meaning magnifies the text's impact on the reader. Such is the situation in Pluie et vent sur Télumée Miracle where we do not realize at first that Schwarz-Bart is subverting the dominant orders of the male and the Other.
Secrecy can also function as a structural technique that reinforces the writer's meaning as in L'Isolé soleil where Maximin confuses the reader, forcing him/her to experience the difficulty of the protagonist's, and thus the collectivity's, search for his/her own roots. At other times, the opacity is used to reflect the reality that the French Caribbean individual's knowledge of history can never be fully known, as Glissant points out: "L'Histoire de la Martinique est une histoire perdue: oblitérée dans la conscience (la mémoire) collective par l'acte concerté du colonisateur" [The History of Martinique is a lost story: obliterated in the collective consciousness (memory) by the concerted act of the colonizer] (106).
Opacity in the text produces curious results. Writing in 1971, Jack Corzani described La Rue Cases-Nègres as a work that is "émouvante" [moving] but "souffre de son orientation populaire et paraît un peu précheur et larmoyant" [suffers from its popular orientation and seems a bit moralizing and maudlin] (194). Corzani's virtual dismissal of the text may well be related to Zobel's ability to use the tactics of the maroon—Zobel camouflages the narrative's intent so well, by a realistic depiction of Martinican life in the cane fields and Fort-de-France of the 1930s, that Corzani does not even perceive the novel for the document of liberation that it is, even though he has clearly studied it.
The circumstances of publishing this literature demonstrate the ambiguously dependent relationship between the French Caribbean and France. The firms of Editions Caribéennes, Présence Africaine, l'Harmattan and Hâtier are bringing out the works of more and more writers today, but the large establishments like Seuil and Gallimard have greater power of dissemination. Although they do publish the novels of some of the new writers—Chamoiseau, Confiant and Maximin—they tend to focus on the well-established writers like Glissant and Condé, so that most new writers cannot reach the broadest audience.
The socio-political space from which French Caribbean writers speak today is evolving quickly. In 1979 Julie Lirus focused on assimilation in Identité antillaise:
Les questions que se posent les Antillais sur leur "être en situation" qu'on veuille l'entendre ou pas, prennent racines dans la société esclavagiste et coloniale. Elles se poursuivent de nos jours dans le cadre de la politique d'assimilation, qui tente de récupérer à son profit, c'est-à-dire au profit de la Métropole, toute action, organisation et idée pouvant aider au surgissement d'une identité antillaise nationale, envisageable malgré les différences dues à la spécificité de chaque île.
[The questions West Indians ask themselves about their "circumstances," whether one wants to acknowledge it or not, are rooted in colonial slave society. This continues today in the context of the politics of assimilation which tries to take over for the profit of the metropole every action, organization and idea that could lead to the sudden emergence of a national West Indian identity. Such an identity can be envisaged in spite of the differences emanating from the specificity of each island.]
In 1986, Micheline Rice-Maximin highlighted Caribbeanness in her study of Guadeloupean literature, "Koko sek toujou ni dlo":
Le désir d'assimilation a cédé le pas à l'Antillanité. C'est en cela que cette littérature fait preuve de plus d'autonomie, autre grand thème de la pensée guadeloupéenne. L'autonomie, qu'elle soit sociale ou politique est elle aussi reflétée dans le mouvement littéraire des dernières décennies où l'on voit les écrivains et les artistes prendre leur distance à l'égard de la métropole. Les liens et contacts intercaribéens par contre, se développement précisément grâce à cette distanciation.
[The desire for assimilation has given way to Caribbeanness. It is here that this literature demonstrates more autonomy, another important theme of Guadeloupean thought. Autonomy, whether it is social or political, is also reflected in the literary movement of recent decades where one sees writers and artists distancing themselves from the metropole. Inter-Caribbean links and contexts, on the other hand, are developing precisely because of this separation.]
Strongly implying that political and artistic independence are intimately intertwined for the Caribbean writer, Rice-Maximin presages what Bernabé, Chamoiseau and Confiant say in 1989 in Eloge de la créolité:
La Créolité dessine l'espoir d'un premier regroupement possible au sein de l'Archipel caribéen: celui des peuples créolophones d'Haïti, de Martinique, de Sainte-Lucie, de Dominique, de Guadeloupe et de Guyane, rapprochement qui n'est que le prélude à une union plus large avec nos voisins anglophones et hispanophones. C'est dire que pour nous, l'acquisition d'une éventuelle souveraineté monoinsulaire ne saurait être qu'une étape (que nous souhaiterions la plus brève possible) sur la route d'une fédération ou d'une confédération caraïbe, seul moyen de lutter efficacement contre les différents blocs à vocation hégémonique qui se partagent la planète. Dans cette perspective, nous affirmons notre opposition au processus actuel d'intégration sans consultation populaire des peuples desdits départements français d'Amérique au sein de la Communauté européenne. Notre première solidarité est d'abord avec nos frères des îles avoisinantes et dans un deuxième temps avec les nations d'Amérique du Sud.
[Creoleness sketches out the hope for a first possible regrouping at the center of the Caribbean archipelago, that of the Creole-speaking people of Haiti, Martinique, St. Lucia, Dominica, Guadeloupe and Guyana, a drawing together which is only the prelude to a larger union with our English-speaking and Spanish-speaking neighbors. This is to say that for us, the acquisition of an eventual monoinsular sovereignty would only be one stage (which we hope would be as brief as possible) on the road toward a Caribbean federation or confederation. Such a union is the only means of fighting effectively against the different blocks of hegemonic calling that divide the planet among themselves. In this perspective we affirm our opposition to the present-day process of integration without popular consultation of the people who live in the French départements of America into the center of the European community. Our solidarity is first and foremost with our brothers of the neighboring islands and secondly with the countries of South America.]
The novels examined here differ in their relationships to the concepts of Negritude, Caribbeanness and Creoleness. Exemplifying the period in which it was engendered as well as the spirit of the particular writer, Zobel's novel belongs to Negritude, Schwarz-Bart's to Negritude and Caribbeanness and Maximin's to Negritude, Caribbeanness and Creoleness. Despite their differences, however, all three writers join in taking the kind of responsibility A. Césaire envisions in his interview with Daniel Maximin:
S'il y a, je crois, quelque chose qui s'impose, c'est de se convaincre encore une fois, chacun à notre niveau, chacun dans nos rôles respectifs, et cela dans tous les domaines, qu'il y a la nécessité de prendre conscience d'une responsabilité. Et une volonté non pas de détruire, c'est le plus facile, mais de construire précisément à partir de ce qui a été détruit par la violence de l'Histoire.
[If there is anything, I believe, that is important, it is to convince ourselves one more time, each at our own level, each in our respective roles and in all areas of endeavour, that there is a necessity to become conscious of a responsibility. And the desire not to destroy, that is the easiest, but to build precisely out of that which has been destroyed by the violence of History.]
In privileging the contemporary French Caribbean writer as modern-day maroon, I have emphasized the importance of the prise de conscience, the inner voice and a call to action. Each of the writers studied in this article participates in his/her own way in the development of a literature of liberation: Zobel's protagonist refuses condemnation to the cane fields, Schwarz-Bart's women triumph over crushing misfortunes, and Maximin's characters create renewal out of physical and historical losses.
Like their maroon ancestors, these writers respond to Suzanne Césaire's call to action, producing an "exemple incontestable d'opposition systématique, de refus total," [incontestable example of systematic opposition, of total refusal] (Glissant 104) and contribute to the "floraisons communes" [effervescence of the collective] (Glissant 438) hoped for by Glissant when he wrote of the potential power of the Caribbean artist.8 This literature, with its island shapes and forms, its dedication to breaking down barriers and its portrait of a multilayered, multi-racial society, opens doors of discovery for everyone who reads it.
2.Tropiques is the magazine of Martinican culture which Aimé and Suzanne Césaire edited in Fort-de-France with René Ménil from 1941 to 1945. In this journal, they and their closest collaborators "spelled out very clearly the ideological connections between the evolving Martinican version of negritude and the culture of European modernism" [A. James Arnold, Negritude and Modernism: The Poetry and Poetics of Aimé Césaire (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1981), 13].
3. Daniel Maximin, personal interview, 19 April 1990. Maximin explains that he writes for several narratees, "le même," "l'autre" and "l'Autre." My interpretation of his comments is that "le même" is his Caribbean compatriot, "l'autre" is a person from another part of the world who has a sensitivity to the issues Maximin writes about, and "l'Autre" is the person who refuses to listen because s/he is not interested. Please note that the excerpts from this private interview convey certain of Daniel Maximin's ideas, but they are in unpolished form.
4. Daniel Maximin, Soufrières (Paris: Seuil, 1987). See, for example, his description of the residents fleeing the volcano's eruption which begins like this: "Seuls les yeux et les phares des voitures restent visibles. Noirs, Blancs, Indiens, Mulâtres, tous les visages sont de cendre. Les cris sont rares et les gestes sont glacés. L'heure est trop grave pour les terreurs paniques…. Comme tout peuple d'exilés, vous savez comment durer pour vaincre, fuir vers d'autres armes à forger dans le répit des frayeurs passagères, fissurer les héroïsmes pour la garde des enfants, aller vers la fin du monde toujours en avançant, plutôt déménager que couler le navire et capituler en pleine récolte. Les peuples trouvés ne savent pas se perdre" [Only the eyes and the lights of the cars remain visible. Blacks, whites, Indians, mulattoes, all the faces are made of ashes. Cries are rare and gestures are frozen. The moment is too serious for panic-stricken terror … as all exiled people, you know how to endure in order to conquer, to flee toward other weapons, to forge in the respite of temporary frights, to fissure heroisms in order to save children, to go toward the end of the world always moving forward, to move rather than to submerge the boat and to capitulate while in full harvest. People who have been found don't know how to lose themselves] (150).
5. See Hélène Cixous, "Castration or Decapitation?" Signs (Autumn 1981): 41-55.
6. Daniel Maximin, Personal interview, 19 April 1990. Maximin explained the genesis of the vital connection between Caribbean writers and the natural world: "Il y a un rapport élémentaire à la nature. L'air, l'eau, la terre, le feu, dans leur état pur, pas transformés ni ritualisés…. On retrouve des relais culturels pour exprimer les sentiments dans la littérature européenne. Ici on est nu. Le seul point de comparaison, c'est la nature. Le premier livre de lecture de l'écriture antillaise, c'est la nature. L'autre livre de lecture, c'est le corps" [There is an elementary relationship with nature. Air, water, earth, and fire, in their pure state, neither transformed nor ritualized…. You find cultural connections to express emotions in European literature. Here we are naked. The only point of comparison is nature. The first primer of Caribbean writing is nature. The other primer is the body].
7. See Arnold, 16-17. See also André Breton, "Un grand poète noir," preface, Cahier d'un retour au pays natal (1947; Paris: Présence Africaine, 1983), 77-87.
8. See Glissant's discussion of the artist's role in society, 438-39.
Arnold, A. James. Modernism and Negritude: The Poetry and Poetics of Aimé Césaire. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1981.
Bernabé, Jean, Patrick Chamoiseau, and Raphaël Confiant. Eloge de la Créolité. Paris: Gallimard, 1989.
Breton, André. "Un grand poète noir." Preface. Cahier d'un retour au pays natal. 1947; Paris: Présence Africaine, 1983. 77-87.
Césaire, Aimé. Cahier d'un retour au pays natal. 1947; Paris: Présence Africaine, 1983.
Césaire, Suzanne. "Le Grand Camouflage." Tropiques 13-14 (1945): 267-73; Paris: Présence Africaine, 1978.
Cixous, Hélène. "Castration or Decapitation?" Signs (Autumn 1981): 41-55.
Condé, Maryse. La Parole des femmes. Paris: L'Harmattan, 1979.
———. Le Roman antillais. Paris: Fernand Nathan, 1977.
Corzani, Jack. Prosateurs des Antilles et de la Guyane Françaises. Fortde France: Desormeaux, 1971.
Glissant, Edouard. Le Discours antillais. Paris: Seuil, 1981.
Leiner, Jacqueline. "Africa and the West Indies: Two Negritudes." European Language Writing in Sub-Saharan Africa. Ed. Albert S. Gerard. Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1986. 1135-53.
Lirus, Julie. Identité antillaise. Paris: Caribéennes, 1979.
Maximin, Daniel. "Aimé Césaire: La Poésie, parole essentielle." Présence Africaine 126 (1983): 7-23.
———. L'Isolé soleil. Paris: Seuil, 1981.
———. Personal interview. 19 April 1990.
———. Soufrières. Paris: Seuil, 1987.
Mpoyi-Buatu, Thomas. "Entretien avec Daniel Maximin." Nouvelles du Sud 3 (1986): 31-50.
Rancourt, Jacques. "Moi, laminaire … d'Aimé Césaire." Notre Librairie 104 (Jan.-Mar. 1991): 69-71.
Rice-Maximin, Micheline. "‘Koko sek toujou ni dlo’: Contribution à l'étude des caractères spécifiques de la littérature guadeloupéenne." Diss. U Texas at Austin, 1986.
Schwarz-Bart, Simone. Pluie et vent sur Télumée Miracle. Paris: Seuil, 1972.
Toumson, Roger. "La littérature antillaise d'expression française." Présence Africaine 121/122 (1982): 130-34.
Zobel, Joseph. Diab'là. Paris: Bellenand, 1946. Paris: Nouvelles Editions Latines, 1947.
———. La Rue Cases-Nègres. Paris: Froissart, 1950. Paris: Présence Africaine, 1974.
Haseenah Ebrahim (essay date 2002)
SOURCE: Ebrahim, Haseenah. "Sugar Cane Alley: Rereading Race, Class and Identity in Zobel's La Rue Cases Nègres." Literature/Film Quarterly 30, no. 2 (2002): 146-53.
[In the following essay, Ebrahim outlines the ideological changes director Euzhan Palcy incorporated into the 1983 film version of Zobel's La Rue Cases Negres, which the critic claims is told from a "pan-African feminist" viewpoint.]
In this essay, I explore issues relating to race, gender, class and identity in the film adaptation of Joseph Zobel's novel, La Rue Cases Negres (translated, by Keith Warner, into English under the title Black Shack Alley ). The film, Rue Cases Negres (released under the English title Sugar Cane Alley), was directed by Euzhan Palcy, a filmmaker who, like Zobel, was born and raised on the island of Martinique in the French West Indies. Zobel's novel was published in 1950, and banned on the island for 20 years after its publication. I argue that Palcy's film adaptation reflects ideological differences with the novel, differences that reveal a "pan-African feminist" perspective—albeit somewhat ambivalently at times. Some of these ideological differences emerge from her identity as a woman with exposure to both Caribbean and other feminist/womanist discourses, and from having grown up in a post-departmentalization Martinique in which attitudes toward assimilation have become less optimistic.
Some characteristic features of a "pan-African feminist" critical praxis1 include the recognition of the mutifaceted nature of black women's oppression, and consequently, the need to fight oppression on multiple fronts, involvement in the struggle for social transformation, the notion of "womanish" behavior (including the everyday defiances of oppression by ordinary black women), a form of feminism stressing male-female complementarity, and the totality of human experience (not just issues of gender). Other characteristics include values emphasizing survival, female autonomy and self-reliance, collectivity over individualism, recognition and respect for alternative systems of knowledge (such as the oral tradition), cultural expression as a major forum for political struggle for black women, and an emphasis on contextualization of cultural production, dissemination, and consumption.
The formulation of a pan-African feminist framework is intended to counter the tendency of mainstream Western feminists to dismiss work that does not privilege gender as the most worthy focus of analysis. For example, in one of the earliest film anthologies on women filmmakers to actually include women of color, Quart labels their work as "pre-feminist," remarking that for Third World women filmmakers, "often other social problems in these cultures seem more pressing" (241). Precisely. This accusation has been made against Palcy too; for example, Pallister criticizes Palcy for being insufficiently concerned with the alienation of black women. Such criticisms reflect a Western mainstream feminist perspective that is rooted in a dissatisfaction with those women directors who do not place gender issues at the center of their agendas. However, African/Diaspora feminisms attempt to integrate feminist activism with other struggles, and acknowledge the multiplicity of oppressions, and concerns, of black women.
In this essay, I will focus on questions of female autonomy and self-reliance, collectivity versus individualism, and recognition and respect for the oral tradition, as they relate to race, gender, class and issues of identity in the film, Sugar Cane Alley, and the novel on which it is based, Black Shack Alley. 2
Palcy's first feature film, Sugar Cane Alley, is a story of colonial oppression in Martinique. It is based on Joseph Zobel's novel, La Rue Cases Negres, first published in 1950 and translated into English under the title, Black Shack Alley. Palcy's film adaptation, Rue Cases Negres (1983), was released in the United States under the catchier title, Sugar Cane Alley (1984), a title which, it may be argued, serves to "sweeten" (or, romanticize) the harsh material existence of black peasants in colonial Martinique.3
Sugar Cane Alley is set in the 1930s, and depicts a short period in the life of Jose Hassam, the grandson of a brusque but loving sugarcane worker on a Martinican plantation. The old lady, Ma Tine, is determined to give her grandson the formal education necessary to pull him out of the harsh world of material deprivation and physical labor that constitutes her own lot in life. As a result, she makes a number of sacrifices to ensure Jose is successful at school, including moving to the capital, Fort-de-France, a world of urban sophistication in which she herself is uncomfortable. Here, she has to take in washing to make enough money to supplement the meager scholarship Jose has received to attend the lycee, which would prepare him to either enter the civil service or further his education in France. Subplots include the story of a mulatto boy who is a classmate and friend of Jose's, and the deep bond between Jose and his spiritual father, the old man, Medouze.
In her analysis of three French Caribbean novels, Scarboro observes that in the novel, Black Shack Alley "Zobel's fictional world is based on assimilation, i.e., Josh works within the colonizer's system to proclaim his own identity by becoming a writer" (16). Palcy's version, however, minimizes this acceptance of cultural assimilation as the path to liberation from the canefields by enhancing the role of Medouze as the guardian of popular memory. Medouze's counternarratives of history draw on both his own experiences, and that of a popular collective memory, to challenge the emphasis on French history that the children of Martinique are inundated with at their local schools.
There are two, seemingly minor changes that Palcy makes to the role of Medouze. In the first, the novel has Medouze recounting to Jose tales told him by his own father. As a young man, Medouze's father had—together with all the other blacks—fled from the plantations upon hearing that slavery was over. However, they soon found themselves back in the position of having to work for the whites, for a pitiable wage, because the whites still owned the land (Zobel 32-33). In the film, however, Medouze's version of black Caribbean history gives agency to blacks themselves for their role in ending slavery through their rebellions, while also exposing the mechanisms by which the whites continue to wield power. During one of their regular conversations, the camera lingers on Jose's enraptured expression at the passion in old Medouze's voice as he explains (in the words of his father):
I was a young boy like you, Medouze. All the blacks came down from the hills with sticks, machetes, guns, and torches. They invaded the town of St. Pierre. They burned all the homes. For the first time, blacks saw whites shake with fear, lock themselves in their mansions and die. That was how slavery ended […].
After slavery, the master had become the boss […] Nothing has changed, son. The whites own all the land. The law forbids their beating us, but it doesn't force them to pay us a decent wage.
Both stories (i.e., as told in the novel and in the film) end by emphasizing how the basic economic relationship in which black labor produced profits for white owners remained the same after emancipation. The primary function of Medouze's storytelling in the film's version, however, is to develop a consciousness that challenges the immutability of official versions of history, versions that do not acknowledge the role of black resistance to slavery. Medouze's invocation of an antislavery rebellion attempts to develop a culture of questioning and of resistance. Palcy presents the act of storytelling, and this invocation of the antislavery rebellion of May 1848 (Herndon; Desalles), as an intervention in the colonial logic described by her countryman, Frantz Fanon, who noted that "colonialism is not simply content to impose its rule upon the present and the future…. By a kind of perverted logic, it turns to the past of the oppressed people, and distorts, disfigures, and destroys it" (210). Kubayanda notes that the history of slave rebellions and "marooning" or "marronage" has, in recent years, become an important paradigm in many Caribbean and Latin American nations in the effort to re-examine the history of Africans in the Americas. Palcy assigns this task to the village elder, Medouze.
Martinique had officially become an "overseas department" of France in 1946. The early years of departmentalization which occurred when the novel was written, brought with it a hope that assimilation into French society would bring escape from racial discrimination. The politics of this assimilationist approach, and resistances to it, would come later. Nevertheless, within the context of Martinique, Frenchness has always been considered a path to upward social mobility, with French schooling and fluency in—and use of—the French language being crucial to self-advancement (Burton). This, in fact, is the major theme of Zobel's Black Shack Alley.
Certainly, a celebration of the African-derived elements of black Martinican society is present in the novel. However, its value in the development of a unique Caribbean identity is strengthened by the changes made by Palcy. Medouze's stories provide the foundation for a strong sense of identity to counter the inroads made on the self-esteem of a young black child by the French educational system and by the Martinican social structure, both of which denigrate African heritage. Palcy's narrative strategy draws heavily on orality, storytelling and the elided historical consciousness, to reveal that Jose's identity—and Caribbean identity—requires negotiating a path between two cultures, an imperial one and an ancestral one. Cultural elements drawn from the African oral tradition, such as the laghia and the storytelling at wakes, compete with the elite's elevation of the French language, and of French customs and practices. Against French cultural imposition is juxtaposed the fabrication of charms, the singing of chants to ward off evil, work songs that ridicule "whitey," and the riddles and tales told by Medouze, all of which can be considered to constitute a discursive space representing what novelist Maryse Conde defines as "a pedagogy of survival in a hostile environment" (Shelton 718).
The second change Paley makes with regard to Medouze is that she retains his living influence on Jose for a more extended period. Indeed, the novel portrays Medouze in a similar manner to that in the film, but in the novel he dies before Jose even begins attending school. Palcy, however, presents Medouze as a countervailing force to that of the school and French colonial culture, so that Jose is able to move from one geographical/cultural space to the other with the fluidity of a hybridized identity. In doing so, Palcy engages in what Lionnet has referred to as "the deconstruction of hierarchies, not their reversal" (6). Thus, both Medouze—representing ancestral knowledge and memory—and Monsieur Stephen Roc—representing the world of colonial literacy and French culture—are presented as characters much admired by the young Jose.
Palcy's depiction of the continuing presence of the oral tradition in the New World echoes the childhood reminiscences of Kenyan writer, Ngugi wa Thiong'o:
Our appreciation of the suggestive magical power of language was reinforced by the games we played with words through fiddles, proverbs, transposition of syllables…. So we learned the music of our language on top of the content … The home and the field were then our preprimary school but what is important … is that the language of our evening teach-ins, and the language of our immediate and wider community, and the language of our work in the fields were one.
The novel, on the other hand, draws a clearer connection than does the film of the correlation between literacy and the ability to recognize one's oppression. In the novel, Jose's former schoolmate, Jojo, discovers that the manager's account books at the sugar factory have been doctored. He also understands that his ability to recognize the falsification of the records results from having retained some of his "learning" from his painful schooldays. Literacy and numeracy enable him to draw the workers' attention to their exploitation. As Kande notes, "orality in Black Shack Alley, imposed as a mode of exclusive knowledge by the peonage system, also perpetuates the segregation of bike landowners, who possess writing skills, and workers of African origin, who are illiterate and therefore subject to merciless pressures" (40). Ma Tine clearly recognizes the role of literacy in the social stratification of Martinican society, and in the mechanics of oppression, when she openly proclaims her contempt for those blacks who condemn their children to a life of hardship in the canefields by pulling them out of school.
Menil observes that "one cannot help but be surprised by the fact that M'man Tine's discourse is received differently than in 1950. Emancipation through schooling was perhaps the only solution for the sons of slaves rejecting their disguised slave condition, but we also know the price that was paid, maybe the price of our country" (168-9). This difference in reception to the value placed on French schooling could be ascribed to the fact that the novel was written at a time when literacy could not be taken for granted by black Martinicans, whereas Palcy's generation does not have to question its right to an education. It is a generation which is, instead, highly conscious of the need to acknowledge the importance of orality in Martinican culture. Today, the hopes pinned on the French-imposed formal education as a means of empowerment may seem a little overoptimistic, even naive, with the hindsight that neo-colonialism has brought, but the significance of illiteracy as a tool in the maintenance of exploitation and oppression cannot be underestimated.
Noticeably more pronounced in the film, too, is the racialized nature of Martinican social stratification. Martinique's population has historically consisted of three principal strata: the white/bike upper class, the mulatto middle class and a predominantly black lower class. According to Burton "to be light-skinned still confers definite social and sexual advantages in Martinique (especially) and Guadeloupe, and, despite the rise of a substantial middle class since 1946, a high degree of correlation still obtains between class and colour" (11).
While racial and class issues are certainly addressed in the novel, the film chooses to confront the subject much more directly. Palcy creates a new character, Leopold, to illustrate the liminal political and social position occupied by the mulatto in Martinican society. Leopold, the child of a white Frenchman and his black mistress, is deeply hurt when he overhears his father, even as he lies on his deathbed, refusing to give his son his French family name, de Thorail. For the Frenchman, his name is too noble to be given to a mulatto, even if s/he is his own child.
Leopold's story combines—with some changes—what appears in the novel as scattered references to issues of racial and social stratification. By consolidating these elements into a coherent character and subplot, Palcy is able to develop a story which merely takes up a few paragraphs in the novel into an exploration of the contradictions of the mulatto experience, privileged in Martinican society as compared to blacks, but also—in the words of a worksong heard in the film—"whitey's nigger." The introduction of this subplot permits Palcy to portray the development of a color-based stratifica- tion through little vignettes in which both his black mother and his white father scold Leopold for playing with the black children. His parents' chastisements denigrate both blackness and the use of Creole, the language spoken by most blacks in 1930s Martinique. Menil notes that "Leopold challenges racial taboo, while Georges Roc [the character in the novel on whom Leopold is partially based] expresses only the rejection of social hierarchy" (170). Palcy also captures the complexity and irony of the position of Honorine, Leopold's mother, when she proudly puts on a new song by Josephine Baker, the black American singer who had achieved fame in Paris. As Pauly notes, "in two bars of a song, Palcy generates a multi-layered anti-colonial intertext with a legendary black female [also] caught between two worlds" (249).
Leopold exemplifies the hybrid but troubled nature of Caribbean identity. The film draws a direct connection between Leopold's coming to political consciousness and his white father's rejection. However, it is only after his father's betrayal that Leopold begins to identify with the oppressed segments of Martinican society, having up to this point steadfastly defended the reputation of whites against his little black friends' beliefs about their evil nature.
The character of Leopold—who is arrested after he attempts to steal the ledger at his father's sugar factory in order to expose the doctored books that deny the sugarcane workers their rightful pay—also departs from the archetypal mulatto-as-betrayer of blacks, as he himself becomes the one betrayed through the rejection of the white father he loves. While Zobel's novel was written at a time when Negritude was at its height in the black Francophone world, Palcy's film was made over 30 years later when cultural attitudes tended to emphasize Creolite as the synthesis of the various cultures that make up the Caribbean. While much of the celebratory discourse of Creolite tends to mask inequalities of power, it remains a concern of Palcy's. Although acknowledging the hybridity of Caribbean identity and culture, Paley is careful to expose the underlying biases against African cultural heritage concealed by the discourses of hybridity.
Cesar has noted that the representation of the social and racial environments in novel and film are further supported by the linguistic changes made by Paley. Shelton argues that the Caribbean has now entered an era that could be considered post-Negritude, one in which the Caribbean is increasingly being viewed as "neither a detached piece of Africa nor a remote province of France nor the backyard of the USA" (717). This view constitutes the foundation for the notion of antillanite, which reformulates historical agency in terms of metissage, one which emphasizes mixture and diversity, with its linguistic parallel in the concepts of creolite or oralite. While the language of the novel is French, with a few Creole expressions translated at the bottom of the pages, the film uses both French and Creole, acknowledging its prevalence among the non-elite of Martinique.
Paley expands Zobel's exploration of racial and class stratification in Martinican society to include gender. In the novel, Jose is the only child chosen to sit for the scholarship exam, but Paley includes the young girl, Tortilla, as one of two children invited by the teacher to do so. This allows Paley to address directly how Tortilla's experiences and opportunities differ from those afforded Jose. Gendered expectations with regard to education allow Tortilla to simply accept her father's decision not to let her continue with her education.
The depiction of women in Sugar Cane Alley generally reflects the pan-African feminist celebration of female autonomy and self-reliance through female networks, and collectivity over individualism. Generally, women play a prominent role in Jose's life—Madame Leonce, Mam'zelle Delice, Madame Fusil, etc., all take care of him from time to time. Except for Madame Leonce, the love of the women for Jose, as well as for each other, is reflected in the care that other women take of Ma Tine and of Jose when the former is ill. Paley has remarked that "women in Martinique are lovers, they are very kind, very lovely. But they are proud, very strong, very hard. They don't let you see their tenderness" (Linfield 44).
However, Paley's pan-African feminist sensibilities appear somewhat ambivalent at times. Perhaps the most interesting departure from the novel is one that is least explicable, except as a possible consequence of budgetary constraints. In the novel, two women, his mother (Delia) and grandmother (Ma Tine) feature prominently as pillars of strength and support in young Jose's life—the latter in the earlier years, and the former during the phase of city life. Both women are resolute in their determination to ensure social mobility for Jose through education. Ma Tine had ensured her daughter's life would not be as harsh as her own, by placing her to be trained in domestic duties in order to be employed in the homes of her employers instead of in their fields. But Paley combines their characters into one and focuses on the matriarchal figure of Ma Tine as the primary female source of the grit and determination crucial to Jose's success, thereby undermining—albeit to a limited extent—the pan-African feminist recognition of the importance of collective support. Nevertheless, the pan-African feminist notion of womanish defiance is unforgettably captured in Ma Tine's dismayed, but determined, retort upon hearing that the promised scholarship was only a fraction of the cost of Jose's schooling. "You will go to their school," she states, before embarking on a grueling life of washing and ironing in the city.
In addition, the novel describes the sexual harassment faced by Carmen, an older friend of Jose's. Carmen is forced to deal with the unwelcome sexual advances of the white mistress of the household in which he is employed. The film, however, depicts Carmen as a flighty young man who has no problem satisfying his white mistress's sexual needs—and who even revels in the affair—in a scene in which he displays great insensitivity to Jose's distress at being accused of cheating at school. The film's transformation of what is clearly a painful problem for Carmen in the novel ("It's bothering me a lot," Carmen says to Jose) into a frivolous interracial sexual dalliance, masks the racialized nature of sexual harassment, which makes both men and women its targets, in what is clearly a display of racial and class power. In the novel, Carmen reflects on the politeness that he must maintain in the face of his employer's sexual advances, politeness "due to a boss, politeness imposed by the whiteness of her skin" (Zobel 176). A pan-African feminist framework necessitates addressing the issues facing black men and women, not just women. Race and class privileges permit Carmen's mistress to circumvent the usual restraints imposed on white women by gender inequalities, in a clear illustration of both the potential, and historical reality, of the participation of white middle-and upper-class women in the oppression of blacks.
A pan-African feminist consciousness also shares with black men concerns regarding racial and other forms of oppression. Thus, when Tortilla's mother gives birth to a stillborn child, the event is met with the sentiment that another black child has been saved from the white man's canefields. However, Paley obviously shares with Zobel and her best known countryman, Frantz Fanon, a concern for the self-hatred or identity confusion of black Martinicans whose internalization of white racist ideologies leads them to aspire to marriage with whites and a desire to "lighten the race." The film reproduces a scene in the novel when Jose confronts a young woman employed at the local movie theater who declares that she may have a black skin, but that she is white inside—clearly an invocation of Fanon's analysis of questions of racial identity in Black Skin, White Masks.
Ultimately, Paley draws the protagonist in what one suspects is her own image rather than Zobel's. In the novel, Jose appears as a somewhat passive child, things happen to him. In Paley's portrayal, however, Jose is more than just a resilient child. He can be quite rebellious. Thus, an incident in the novel in which Jose flees in fear when a pitcher accidentally breaks in his hand at Madame Leonce's house is transformed into Jose's rebellion against his exploitation—he sneaks out of class to throw stones at her dishes drying out in the sun. In addition, Ma Tine chastises Jose for staring at her, arguing that children should not stare at adults—a reminder of bell hooks's idea of the "oppositional gaze" (116)—the looks of children at adults, and of slaves at slave owners—which hooks sees as constituting a form of resistance.
The changes Paley makes in the shift from novel to screen constitute a conscious—if not always cohesive or coherent—change in perspective, perhaps even inevitably so, considering that the feisty Paley is a product of a later generation than the novelist, of post-departmentalization Martinique, and of a generation of highly educated women who have been exposed to feminist and nationalist ideologies, as well as the paradigm of "marooning" in which the rebel figure becomes the icon of black Caribbean identity. Paley's pan-African feminist sensibilities once again motivate a rereading of race and gender issues in her second feature film, A Dry White Season, an adaptation of the novel of the same name by the South African writer, Andre Brink.
1. I discuss the notion of a pan-African feminist critical praxis in much greater detail, and with greater contextualization, in my Ph.D. dissertation entitled Re-Viewing the Tropical Paradise: Afro-Caribbean Women Filmmakers, Northwestern University, 1998.
2. In this article, I use the English titles of both novel and film for consistency, and to avoid confusion.
3. I thank the anonymous reader who brought this to my attention.
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Assesses the manner in which Zobel treated themes of colonialism, race relations, and French culture in Fête à Paris.
Kande, Sylvie and Kwaku Gyasi. "Renunciation and Victory in Black Shack Alley." Research in African Literatures 25, no. 2 (summer 1994): 33-52.
Examining the novel as a communal autobiography, looks at orality and the written word within the context of societal oppression.