Literature of French Guiana
Literature of French Guiana
French Guiana is France's oldest overseas possession (dating from the seventeenth century). Along with Martinique, Guadeloupe, and Reunion, it has been a department of France since 1946. Yet, unlike these other French overseas departments, it is the only French territory on the American mainland. French Guiana (approximately 35,000 square miles), is located in the equatorial forest zone of South America. The country is bounded on the north by the Atlantic Ocean, to the east and the south by Brazil, and to the west by Suriname. Because of its complex and treacherous geography, it was particularly well suited to function as a penal colony, which it was from 1852 until 1938. This part of French Guiana's history was dramatically depicted in Henri Charrière's 1969 novel, Papillon, and in the 1973 movie of the same name.
Although the country is small, the literary landscape of French Guiana is broad and mirrors faithfully the complexities of its diverse population, which comprises persons of mixed white, Amerindian, and African descent (Creoles), as well as descendants of Arawak and Carib Indians. From this perspective, there is not one literature, but several literary components that make up this vast body of works. Under this umbrella are pieces written in French by writers who reside in France, works in French by writers who reside in Guiana, works written in Creole, and, to some extent, works emerging from the Bushinenge and Amerindian communities found along the border of Suriname. It is not surprising then, that conflicts about identity—including color, class, language, and ethnicity—appear frequently as themes within the literature. Their objective is to carve out a more accurate definition of the Guianese self—what is referred to as their guyanité. While debate continues around this critical issue, most contemporary scholars from that region tend to agree that a writer's ability to express the Guianese experience is more important than the geographical community from which he or she emerges.
Among French Guiana's many writers, Alfred Parépou (author of the first novel in Creole, Atipa ) is less well known outside of the country, though his contribution to this body of literature is considerable. By writing exclusively in Creole, he was able to accurately portray daily life in the Guianese community and vividly capture the spirit of its inhabitants. René Maran (winner of the 1921 Prix Goncourt for his novel Batouala) is more familiar to readers outside of French Guiana. Although he was born in Martinique (in 1887) to Guianese parents and lived most of his life in France (he died in Paris in 1960), Maran is still acclaimed as one of French Guiana's most notable writers. His pioneering novel, Batouala, which unapologetically portrayed the realities of the colonial system in French West Africa, remains a classic. The reader's attention is artfully turned away from the European colonizer, and the story is told instead through the eyes of the indigenous people of Oubangui-Chari. By bringing them to center stage, he brought meaning to their customs, traditions, and values. It is because of his innovative approach that René Maran is considered to be one of the important precursors of the Négritude movement.
Perhaps the most memorable of writers from French Guiana is Léon-Gontran Damas (1912–1978), who, along with Aimé Césaire (Martinique) and Léopold Sédar Senghor (Senegal), was one of the principal founders of the Négritude movement. Damas was a native of the capital city, Cayenne. After the death of his mother, in 1913, he was raised by his aunt, the formidable Man Gabi, whose penchant for strict adherence to the codes of bourgeois behavior were vividly brought to life in the poem "Hoquet." Damas continued his secondary studies in Martinique, at the renowned Lycée Schoelcher, where he first met Aimé Césaire. He then went on to continue his studies in Paris, where he became inspired by the liberated thinking current among young African and Caribbean students. Together with Césaire and Senghor, he helped to establish the journal L'Etudiant noir (1934), an important vehicle for the articulation of these new thoughts. In 1937 Damas published a collection of poems titled Pigments, which both symbolized and launched the Négritude movement. His literary portfolio includes essays, such as Retour de Guyane (1938); poetic collections, such as Veillées noires (1942), Graffiti (1953), and Black Label (1956); and an anthology of works by poets from the French colonies (1957).
Damas was both inspired and intrigued by the racial problems in America. In his poetry, he showed a particular ability to comprehend the pain and suffering caused by racial prejudice, Jim Crow, and lynching, as well as to communicate the essence of the blues and jazz. His memorable syncopated style captures the frustrations of the blacks of the period as they sought to exist within white societies. Many of his poems are dedicated to black American artists, writers, and musicians such as Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, Alain Locke, Richard Wright, Louis Armstrong, and others. Eventually, Damas settled in the United States, where he lectured and taught at many universities. He was eventually named Distinguished Professor of African Literature at Howard University, in Washington. D.C., a position he held until his death in 1978.
Another of French Guiana's giants was Bertène Juminer (1927–2003), who was acclaimed for his novel Les bâtards (1961), which describes the psychological struggle of an Antillean who leaves home to study in metropolitan France, and who later returns to Guiana and attempts to readjust to that society. Juminer is also noted for his contributions as an academic and a physician, and as a man of conviction who fought tirelessly for the betterment of Guiana and the French West Indies.
French Guiana's contemporary literary landscape continues to expand and includes the poet and dramatist Elie Stephenson (Où se trouvent les orangers, 2000), and the poet and novelist Serge Patient (Le Nègre du Gouverneur, 2001).
Burton, Richard, and Fred Reno, eds. French and West Indian: Martinique, Guadeloupe, and French Guiana Today. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995.
Ormerod, Beverly. An Introduction to the French Caribbean Novel. London: Heinemann, 1985.
karen smyley wallace (2005)