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Literature of Martinique and Guadeloupe

Literature of Martinique and Guadeloupe

The award of the Prix Goncourt, France's foremost literary prize, to Patrick Chamoiseau of Martinique in 1992 for his novel Texaco highlighted the increase in literary output and artistic visibility that had characterized work from the region since the 1970s. Paradoxically, it also tended to highlight the geopolitical ambivalence of the status as French Overseas Department imposed on these territories in 1946, which arguably has provided the region some of its recent impetus toward asserting a nonmetropolitan identity. Given this legal limbo, these islands are neither independent nations nor territories fully integrated into the French mainland. However, after their colonization by France in 1635, documented literary output in these islands dates back at least to the mid-eighteenth century, and until the early twentieth century much of this production was the work of metropolitan settlers. This shift in discursive emphasis will prove the central point in this analysis.

Colonialism and Emancipation

The period that followed the European arrival was characterized by a preoccupation with colonization and settlement in order to enhance profit margins from agriculture. As virtual corollaries to this process, the indigenous Carib and Arawak Indian populations succumbed to overwork and Western disease and disappeared within a century of colonization and were replaced by African slave labor on a massive scale. In time they would be followed by other arrivals, including East Asian, Chinese, and Syro-Lebanese. Literature during this period consisted largely of European travel writing and a relative absence of a colonized voice. Even though the first generation of Creoles had already appeared, most literary endeavors of the period were the work of Europeans, written for metropolitan consumption. Indeed, whites virtually monopolized writing from these territories for centuries, especially since most slave laws forbade teaching slaves to read or write. Catholic priest Père Labat's 1742 work, Nouveau voyage aux isles d'Amérique (New voyage to the American islands), falls into this category. An exception that proves the rule is the "Speech made by a Black at Guardaloupe" (1709), a critique that provides an opening onto the world of the slave more than a century before emancipation in 1848. The harrowing picture it provided of the contemporary treatment of slaves became grist for the mill of anti-slavery discourse.

An exception to this pattern would be Les Bambous: Fables de La Fontaine travesties en patois martiniquais (Bamboo: La Fontaine's fables rendered in Martinican Creole), published in 1846 by François Achille Marbot. Les Bambous was the work of an indigenous author and a groundbreaking text in terms of its valorization and transcription of the Creole language that had been formed on the plantation through the exchanges both between the varied African ethnic groups and between these groups and their owners. Its scope, however, was limited because it was a translation of a classic metropolitan text, breaking down relatively few barriers as a result. In general, the midcentury era became marked by strong tendencies toward literary mimetism, encouraging island poets (in large part members of the planter class) to imitate the styles and themes of their more established metropolitan counterparts. This so-called "doudouiste " period produced such notables as Daniel Thaly (18791950) and Victor Duquesnay (18701920), whose works took the soaring flights of metropolitan romantic fancy as their models, praising the incomparable delights of the island's flora and fauna, its light and shadow. The result was an ongoing dichotomy between a vibrant lived Creole culture and its exclusion from modes of expression in local arts and letters, the result of a virtual monopoly of contemporary poesis by colonial barriers of race and class.

NÉgritude, AntillanitÉ, CrÉolitÉ

The twentieth century saw the emergence of the white Guadeloupean Saint-John Perse as a major poet, and his collection Anabase (1924) would eventually help to secure him the Nobel Prize for literature. Indeed, French Caribbean writing, such as it was, had become associated almost exclusively with whites. However, the postwar period of the 1920s and 1930s saw a marked shift in emphasis with regard to both writer and theme. A literary and cultural upheaval was produced by the launching in Paris of the Négritude movement, led by Martinique's Aimé Césaire and Senegal's Léopold Sédar Senghor, itself partly inspired by the publication in 1928 of the folklore collection Ainsi parla l'oncle (Thus spoke the uncle) by Haiti's Dr. Jean Price-Mars. The appearance in 1939 of Césaire's Cahier d'un retour au pays natal (Notebook of a return to the homeland) cleared the way for indigenous black Caribbean writers to finally express their Francophone identity. But given the Négritude movement's unfortunate construction in terms of a common or shared black essence, the better to contest long-standing claims of French universalism, it would ultimately be charged with ignoring the West Indian specificities of the French Overseas Departments.

The context provided by the Algerian war of independence during the 1950s, and its attendant corollaries of decolonization, brought the revolutionary writings of Martinique's Frantz Fanon to worldwide prominence. But the ambiguities of distance and domination brought about by French Caribbean departmentalization in 1946 would, over time, highlight the islands' lived dichotomies of Caribbean particularism and French universalism that even Césaire's rewriting of regional revolutionary history in the Haitian-themed La tragédie du Roi Christophe (The tragedy of King Christophe) could not completely eradicate. The burgeoning antillanité, or Caribbeanness, movement was, in a sense, born of these very contradictions and omissions. Meanwhile, the appearance of such works as Simone Schwarz-Bart's landmark novel Pluie et vent sur Télumée Miracle (The bridge of beyond) and her outstanding play Ton beau capitaine (Your handsome captain), Myriam Warner-Vieyra's Juletane, and Daniel Maximin's L'isolé soleil (Lone sun), all of Guadeloupe, and L'autre qui danse (The other who dances) by Martinique's Suzanne Dracius-Pinalie in the 1970s and 1980s, continued to demonstrate the dynamism and inventiveness of French Caribbean literary production.

Edouard Glissant's theory of antillanité, first propounded in his Discours antillais (Caribbean discourse) in 1981, draws on the common Caribbean experience of uprooting, transformation, and cultural exchange to posit a principle of creativity grounded in the composite, where fragmentation and pluralism enable a new geopolitical vision for French Caribbean identity. Meanwhile, the writings of Guadeloupe's Maryse Condé, the prolific author of over a dozen novels, including En attendant le bonheur (Heremakhonon), Moi, Tituba, sorcière noire de Salem (I, Tituba, black witch of Salem), and Traversée de la man-grove (Crossing the mangrove), insisted on the centrality of women to the literary and cultural Caribbean canon. In addition, Xavier Orville's novels of the same period inscribed themes of poverty and social injustice within a framework of folk history to invoke issues of identity and collective memory within a Martinican framework.

The extent to which Glissant's articulation of antillanité provided a basis for Jean Bernabé, Patrick Chamoiseau, and Raphaël Confiant to construct their Eloge de la créolité (In praise of Creoleness) in 1989 is well known. In theoretical terms, however, the rather programmatic folkloric framework embraced by créolité makes it much more contested than its precursor. More artistically than geopolitically focused, it takes the compound ethnic, linguistic, and cultural structures undergirding the Creole language as the enabling metaphor for a broad-based aesthetic framework, valorizing the creative expression of diversity in the Caribbean Creole mosaic over the exclusionary oneness implicit in Western universalism. From a linguistic perspective, Jean Bernabé's pioneering work on the grammatical structures of French Creole has led both to its rehabilitation as a langue véhiculaire and to its increased acceptance in both the literary and the pedagogical domains.

Finally, it should be noted that whereas male writers certainly have dominated the literary output of these islands over time, this pattern has been overturned with the relative ascendancy of female writers since the early 1980s. Geopolitical perspectives can also be somewhat divergent, as very generally Guadeloupeans are seen as hewing to a more autonomous mind-set than their Martinican counterparts. Taken together, these authors trace the trajectory of tensions and hierarchies that frame the task of defining an indigenous yet hybrid French Caribbean identity; despite daunting geopolitical odds, their evolving vision of regional realities has helped create a permanent place in the pantheon of letters for the islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique.

See also Caribbean/North American Writers (Contemporary); Caribbean Theater, Anglophone; Césaire, Aimé; Chamoiseau, Patrick; Condé, Maryse; Creole Languages of the Americas; Glissant, Edouard; Literature of Haiti; Négritude; Women Writers of the Caribbean


Arnold, A. James. Modernism and Negritude: The Poetry and Poetics of Aimé Césaire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981.

Balutansky, Kathleen M., and Marie-Agnès Sourieau, eds. Caribbean Creolizations: Reflections on the Cultural Dynamics of Language, Literature, and Identity. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1998.

Bernabé, Jean, Patrick Chamoiseau, and Rafaël Confiant. Eloge de la Créolité/In Praise of Creoleness. Bilingual edition, translated by M. B. Taleb-Khyar. Paris: Gallimard, 1993.

Britton, Celia. Edouard Glissant and Postcolonial Theory. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999.

Burton, Richard D. E. Le roman marron: études sur la littérature martiniquaise contemporaine. Paris: L'Harmattan, 1997.

Burton, Richard D. E., and Fred Reno, eds. French and West Indian: Martinique, Guadeloupe and French Guiana Today. London: Macmillan Caribbean, 1995.

Chamoiseau, Patrick, and Raphaël Confiant. Lettres Créoles: Tracées antillaises et continentales de la littérature, 16351975. Paris: Hatier, 1991.

Condé, Maryse. La Parole des femmes: Essai sur des romancières des antilles de langue française. Paris: L'Harmattan, 1979.

Dash, J. Michael. Edouard Glissant. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

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

Glissant, Edouard. Caribbean Discourse: Selected Essays. Translated by J. Michael Dash. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1989.

Glissant, Edouard. Poétique de la relation. Paris: Gallimard, 1990. Poetics of Relation. Translated by Betsy Wing. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997.

Haigh, Sam, ed. An Introduction to Caribbean Francophone Writing: Guadeloupe and Martinique. Oxford, U.K.: Berg, 1999.

Murdoch, H. Adlai. Creole Identity in the French Caribbean Novel. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2001.

Rosello, Mireille. Littérature et identité créole aux Antilles. Paris: Editions Karthala, 1992.

h. adlai murdoch (2005)

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