Francosphères

Embodied Antillean women

Rejecting auto-exoticism and renegotiating opacité in Simone Schwarz-Bart’s Pluie et vent sur Télumée Miracle and Suzanne Dracius’s L’Autre qui danse

Francosphères (2020), 9, (2), 131–148.

Abstract

This article explores the intersection of gender and cultural identities in two novels, Simone Schwarz-Bart’s Pluie et vent sur Télumée Miracle (1972) and Suzanne Dracius’s L’Autre qui danse (1989). Through comparative and close analyses, this article demonstrates that these two Antillean francophone women writers reject and renegotiate sexist and essentialist tendencies, in particular the auto-exoticization and disembodiment of women characters across the body of Antillean literature. These tendencies are notably present within Antillanité and Créolité, two dominant concepts of twentieth-century Antillean literature and thought. This article first explores these two writers’ responses to auto-exoticization, demonstrating how their literary treatment of women’s sexuality diverges markedly from hypersexualized portrayals of women by certain Créoliste authors. The article also examines the representation of Creole cuisine and language, and calls into question Antillean literature scholar Celia Britton’s argument that these two elements tend to reduce Antillean texts to ‘edible’ objects of exotic pleasure. In its second section, this article investigates Édouard Glissant’s concept of opacité. It suggests that Schwarz-Bart and Dracius adapt Glissant’s opacité to present women as impervious human subjects whose bodies do not make them exotic stereotypes but rather figures of resistance to masculine violence and colonialism.

L’objectif de cet article est d’explorer l’intersection du genre et des identités culturelles dans deux romans: Pluie et vent sur Télumée Miracle (1972) de Simone Schwarz-Bart et L’Autre qui danse (1989) de Suzanne Dracius. En analysant ces deux romans, cet article démontre comment ces deux auteurs antillaises rejettent et renégocient certaines tendances sexistes et essentialistes, en particulier l’auto-exoticisation et la désincarnation des personnages féminins à l’œuvre dans la littérature antillaise. Ces tendances sont notamment présentes dans les concepts d’Antillanité et de Créolité, lesquels dominent la littérature et la pensée des Antilles au vingtième siècle. Cet article explore les réponses de Dracius et Schwarz-Bart à l’auto-exoticisation, en démontrant que leurs représentations littéraires de la sexualité des femmes antillaises divergent des portraits de femmes hyper-sexualisées qu’offrent certains auteurs créolistes. Cet article examine aussi la représentation de la gastronomie et de la langue créole, et nuance l’argument développé par Celia Britton, pour qui ces deux éléments tendent à réduire les textes antillais à des objets de plaisir « comestibles ». Enfin, cet article explore le concept d’opacité défini par Édouard Glissant en montrant comment Schwarz-Bart et Dracius adaptent l’opacité afin de donner corps à leurs personnages féminins, et les représenter comme des sujets complets qui peuvent résister à la violence masculine et coloniale sans jamais renoncer à leur intégrité physique ni à leur incarnation corporelle.

Embodied Antillean women

Rejecting auto-exoticism and renegotiating opacité in Simone Schwarz-Bart’s Pluie et vent sur Télumée Miracle and Suzanne Dracius’s L’Autre qui danse

Abstract

This article explores the intersection of gender and cultural identities in two novels, Simone Schwarz-Bart’s Pluie et vent sur Télumée Miracle (1972) and Suzanne Dracius’s L’Autre qui danse (1989). Through comparative and close analyses, this article demonstrates that these two Antillean francophone women writers reject and renegotiate sexist and essentialist tendencies, in particular the auto-exoticization and disembodiment of women characters across the body of Antillean literature. These tendencies are notably present within Antillanité and Créolité, two dominant concepts of twentieth-century Antillean literature and thought. This article first explores these two writers’ responses to auto-exoticization, demonstrating how their literary treatment of women’s sexuality diverges markedly from hypersexualized portrayals of women by certain Créoliste authors. The article also examines the representation of Creole cuisine and language, and calls into question Antillean literature scholar Celia Britton’s argument that these two elements tend to reduce Antillean texts to ‘edible’ objects of exotic pleasure. In its second section, this article investigates Édouard Glissant’s concept of opacité. It suggests that Schwarz-Bart and Dracius adapt Glissant’s opacité to present women as impervious human subjects whose bodies do not make them exotic stereotypes but rather figures of resistance to masculine violence and colonialism.

L’objectif de cet article est d’explorer l’intersection du genre et des identités culturelles dans deux romans: Pluie et vent sur Télumée Miracle (1972) de Simone Schwarz-Bart et L’Autre qui danse (1989) de Suzanne Dracius. En analysant ces deux romans, cet article démontre comment ces deux auteurs antillaises rejettent et renégocient certaines tendances sexistes et essentialistes, en particulier l’auto-exoticisation et la désincarnation des personnages féminins à l’œuvre dans la littérature antillaise. Ces tendances sont notamment présentes dans les concepts d’Antillanité et de Créolité, lesquels dominent la littérature et la pensée des Antilles au vingtième siècle. Cet article explore les réponses de Dracius et Schwarz-Bart à l’auto-exoticisation, en démontrant que leurs représentations littéraires de la sexualité des femmes antillaises divergent des portraits de femmes hyper-sexualisées qu’offrent certains auteurs créolistes. Cet article examine aussi la représentation de la gastronomie et de la langue créole, et nuance l’argument développé par Celia Britton, pour qui ces deux éléments tendent à réduire les textes antillais à des objets de plaisir « comestibles ». Enfin, cet article explore le concept d’opacité défini par Édouard Glissant en montrant comment Schwarz-Bart et Dracius adaptent l’opacité afin de donner corps à leurs personnages féminins, et les représenter comme des sujets complets qui peuvent résister à la violence masculine et coloniale sans jamais renoncer à leur intégrité physique ni à leur incarnation corporelle.

Introduction

Nous sommes antillaises, nous sommes écartelées entre ces cultures […] ce double problème identitaire, en tant que fille, antillaise, métisse, française mais quand même de couleur et puis femme aussi.1

The feeling of being torn apart between competing cultures is central to Antillean literature.2 With Guadeloupe and Martinique ‘discovered’ by the Spanish in 1492 and 1502 respectively and settled as the earliest colonies of the French in 1635, Antillean history is a layering of violent extermination and exploitation of lives and freedoms. The genocide of the indigenous Carib people by Spanish and French colonizers was followed by the indentured servitude of white French workers, and then the trafficking, enslavement, and forced plantation labour of African people until slavery’s abolition in 1848. From 1854 to 1884, the slave labour force began to be replaced by indentured immigrant workers from India and China, further increasing the region’s cultural complexity. Its history as a colonized region, marked by forced displacement and exploitation of people from across the world, has made the region a global crossroads, with a complex and painful history. As such, cultural identity has been a central concern of the more recent literary theories that have dominated les Antilles: Antillanité (from 1964) and Créolité (from 1989). Critical discussions of Antillanité and Créolité have tended to focus solely on cultural and linguistic identity, overlooking its intersection with other aspects of individual experience, notably gender - which as Suzanne Dracius suggests in the above quotation amounts to a ‘double problème identitaire’. This ‘double problème’ is precisely the intersection of being Antillean and being a woman.

This article will explore the representation of Antillean women in two novels, Pluie et vent sur Télumée Miracle by Simone Schwarz-Bart (1972) and L’Autre qui danse by Suzanne Dracius (1989). It will examine how these authors negotiate two problematic trends in the representation of women by the men authors of Antillanité and Créolité: auto-exoticization and disembodiment. Firstly, it will focus on the rejection of auto-exoticization by Dracius and Schwarz-Bart, particularly in the representation of sexuality and food. Secondly, it will explore these authors’ negotiations of opacité, a concept key to anti-colonial resistance in Édouard Glissant’s Antillanité that relates to a representation of women as disembodied symbols in Glissant’s novels. It will argue that both authors use a strategy of embodied opacité, adapting Glissant’s opacité to include Antillean women’s physical bodies in representations of their resistant subjectivity, to emphasize that flesh need not reduce women to penetrable hypersexualized objects, but can strengthen resistance to masculine violence and colonialism. In this article, I use the words woman, man, feminine, and masculine to draw the reader’s attention to the relational social positions of the persons and characters being discussed, culturally-mediated positions which are nonetheless shaped by sexed female and male bodies. However, some of the scholars quoted collapse masculine into male, and feminine into female.

Navigating auto-exoticism: Women’s writing, sexual agency, and nourishing food

Auto-exoticism can be defined as internalized exoticism, whereby post-colonial societies come to see themselves as the exotic stereotypes made of them by the colonizer. Antillean exoticism is epitomized in colonial portrayals of hypersexualised métisses women and lush tropical landscapes, today ‘perpetuated [and] re-formed’, as Catriona Cunningham explains, in ‘glossy tourist brochures’ dominated by images of paradisiac beaches and spicy Creole cuisine.3 These stereotypes, often conflated, are incorporated into Antillean fiction, notably by the Créolistes, where they tend to essentialize and demean women characters. This exoticism is profoundly entangled in the feminization of the Caribbean islands. As Brinda Mehta writes,

the Caribbean reconfigured-as-woman becomes an object of consumption and defilement because of its alluring and innate nativeness (i.e. primitiveness) in the Western imaginary. Reduced to the materiality of presence through immobilising corporeal signifiers, the ‘Caribbean-as-woman’ trope colludes with the representational absences found in male-centred Caribbean theory.4

Further, Mehta indicates that despite men theorists’ ‘best efforts’ to disrupt universality through opacity and refusal of simplistic categorization, they have failed to explain the ‘important variables of gendered difference’ and indeed ‘writ[ten] women out of the foundational scripts of Caribbean discourse’.5 This section will explore how Schwarz-Bart and Dracius, two Antillean women writers, navigate auto-exoticism, especially as it occurs in the representation of sexuality and food, both intimately connected to consumption and corporeality.

According to Antillean literature scholar Celia Britton, exoticism relies on the conceptualization of an alien culture as premised on a ‘fundamental, fixed otherness’.6 Its culture is presented as distinctly foreign, but also attractive, thrilling rather than dangerous. Britton writes that exoticism ‘objectifies its characters […] in the case of female characters, this above all means presenting them as objects of sexual desire: [a] major feature […] is the ubiquity of desirable and available women’.7 Martinique and Guadeloupe were the earliest French colonies and thus, for metropolitan France, they figure as an idyllic, different-but-familiar Other, producing what Britton calls a ‘tame’ exoticism.8 Moreover, Antillean people, taught that they were the children of France, internalized the metropolitan perspective on les Antilles. According to Frantz Fanon, this created an ‘épidermisation’ of the racialized gaze of the Other, fixing the ‘nègre’ in a fetishistic and stereotyped dialectic which transforms Self into Other.9 René Ménil, similarly highlighting the inversion of Other and Self, calls this socio-psychological ‘aberration’ the ‘exotique-pour-moi’ complex:

La condition d’une telle aberration n’est pas autre chose que la situation coloniale […] Je me vois étranger, je me vois exotique, pourquoi? Parce que, ‘je’, c’est la conscience, ‘l’autre’, c’est moi. Je suis ‘exotique-pour-moi’, parce que mon regard sur moi c’est le regard du blanc devenu mien après trois siècles de conditionnement colonial.10

According to Ménil, the literature of Créolité is trapped in this Othering ‘exotique-pour-moi’ discourse. Patrick Chamoiseau, Jean Bernabé, and Raphaël Confiant’s Éloge de la créolité (1990), the manifesto of Créolité, proposed a model of universal creoleness to oppose the universality of Frenchness. Britton emphasizes that despite the declared interiority of Éloge, its authors essentialize creoleness, instrumentalizing Creole language and oral folklore to persuade an external audience of their authenticity.11 Indeed, Britton suggests that in their attempt to rescue creoleness from its perceived denigration by the metropolitan French, the Créolistes ignore a second threat: the belittling representation of Creole literature as exotic, ‘picturesque, or charmingly nostalgic’.12

Confiant is a notable participant in auto-exoticist representation, and his fiction is marked by what A. James Arnold calls a ‘masculinist erotics’ based on ‘aggressive heterosexual eroticism’ in an attempt to repudiate the ‘feminisation of colonised man’.13 Confiant’s treatment of sexuality in Le Nègre et l’amiral is particularly sexist, with women presented as promiscuous but lacking their own sexual desires. For example, Confiant’s character Amédée, a writer trying to ‘brosse une vaste fresque populaire où l’on retrouverait la saveur des chairs’, claims to fall madly in love with the woman he sees as he emerges from a prostitute’s house, ‘la braguette encore à moitié déboutonnée’.14 Confiant encourages the reader to sympathize with the womanizing Amédée by positioning him as ‘notre homme’: ‘Notre homme tomba amoureux d’elle nettement-et-proprement. Un amour fou’.15 Moreover, he exoticizes the object of Amédée’s infatuation as a superhuman, fairy-like creature: ‘une femme au corps féerique qui s’habille en soie bleue’.16 Confiant’s other protagonist Rigobert similarly reduces women to their bodies, scanning through a mental menu of prostitutes at the brothel in search of Amédée’s ‘négresse féerique’:

Il passa mentalement en revue les putaines de la Cour Fruit-à-Pain: Mérilise qui se défrisait au fer chaud matin, midi et soir, ‘en haut comme en bas’ précisait-elle, ‘car les clients n’aiment pas le fil de fer’; Ginette aux seins volumineux […]; Cécile, la petite coulie timide; Anita […] et puis toutes les autres, fleurs ravinées avant l’heure … non, décidément point de négresse féerique dans ce lot de femelles aux fesses chaloupées.17

This accumulation of bodies, whose sexual and ethnic particularities are prioritized above other personal attributes, encourages us to consider these women as delicacies to savour at the ‘Cour Fruit-à-Pain’. Moreover, while praising their physical beauty, Rigobert disrespects these women who work to satisfy men’s desires, emphasizing that they are tainted by their work as prostitutes, ‘fleurs ravinées avant l’heure’. He contrasts the mystical ‘négresse féerique’ with the prostitutes, whom he reduces to bodily fragments, namely their ‘fesses chaloupées’, portraying figments of erotica rather than women.

Schwarz-Bart and Dracius respond to this spectre of auto-exoticism in their portrayal of sexuality, rejecting both colonialist and Créoliste representations of Antillean women as perpetually sexually available, and instead writing women characters as human individuals who act according to their own sexual desires. In Pluie et vent sur Télumée Miracle, Schwarz-Bart explores four generations of women with a range of relationships to motherhood, a role typically deemed essential to femininity: women who love being mothers (Minèrve and Toussine), women who value romantic relationships over motherhood (Victoire), and women who cannot be mothers (Télumée). Notably, Victoire is an unwed mother who prioritizes her own sexual desire and romantic love over community-imposed duties of mothering. After having two children outside of wedlock, Victoire meets Haut-Colbi with whom she falls in love. Rather than sacrificing her desire, she sends her children away to elope with him. While the community cannot understand this choice, Télumée supports her mother:

[La] rumeur publique l’accusa de cracher sur son propre ventre […] Mais elle connaissait la vie depuis longtemps, mon amoureuse de mère […] et elle savait qu’il faut le plus souvent arracher ses entrailles et remplir son ventre de paille si l’on veut aller, un peu, sous le soleil.18

Victoire has the sexual desire, knowledge, and agency to make decisions for herself. Schwarz-Bart avoids exoticizing Victoire’s choice of passionate love by attributing it to a base impulse. Instead, she describes Victoire’s meeting with Haut-Colbi as a fated collision of spirits bringing together dream and reality, as though she is an audience member watching the performance of a romance: ‘On dit qu’ils restèrent une heure […] saisis de cet étonnement qui étreint le cœur humain quand, pour la première fois, le rêve coïncide avec la réalité’.19 Here, Schwarz-Bart emphasizes that women’s sexuality and reproductive capacity are components of a fuller life, prioritizing women’s agency and consent in sexual relationships.

In L’Autre qui danse, Dracius explicitly challenges the aggressive heterosexuality of Créolité through her protagonist Rehvana, a woman trying to become an ‘authentic’ Antillean woman through an adoption of the doudou stereotype. The doudou, created from the repetition of ‘dou’ (‘soft’, ‘gentle’ and ‘sweet to the taste’),20 is, according to Richard Burton, a colonial-era creation of a ‘smiling, sexually available black or coloured woman (usually the latter) who gives herself heart, mind, and body to a visiting Frenchman’.21 This trope not only exoticized women but also feminized les Antilles. According to Régis Antoine,

le doudouisme et ses variantes ont pendant toute une période gravement affecté l’image que la France se faisait des Antilles: des îles au féminin, et une féminité réduite à un stéréotype de caractère et de situation, l’épave de l’amour.22

As such, Antillean men intellectuals rejected the trope of doudouisme, and with it femininity, embracing a ‘masculinist erotics’ in order to overcome the conceptualization of the colonized man as feminized.23 However, according to Marina Magloire, these rejections of exoticizing doudouisme were due ‘as much to misogynist fears about emasculation as to anti-racism and anti-imperialism’.24 Thus Dracius, through Rehvana, reincarnates the doudou in order to both address the misogyny and the exoticism underpinning it, and to explore the dangers of reducing women to hypersexualized bodies, an auto-exoticist depiction also present in some Créoliste literary works.

Rehvana’s quest for an ‘Antillean’ identity begins with her departure for Martinique with Éric, a métis man born on the island.25 There, Rehvana transforms herself into the métisse doudou waiting languidly for her absent neo-colonialist husband: ‘Elle s’est parée pour l’homme, elle l’attend. Elle a, sous ses yeux en amande, de grands cernes bleutés ainsi qu’une femme de harem comme une esclave très demandée, comme une esclave de lit’.26 Initially, she appears as the epitome of Magloire’s description of the colonialist doudou: ‘all soft obeisance to her colonial lover without ever a demand for reciprocity’.27 She tries to reinscribe her aspirational identity as a dutiful, ‘traditional’ housewife, eschewing modern technologies to clean by hand: ‘Rehvana a lavé, lessivé à grand eau, rincé dix fois, récuré, dépoussiéré, désinfecté’.28 However, Rehvana’s attempt to embody this doudou stereotype becomes untenable as she recognizes that she is performing an Antillean femininity as though part of ‘une étrange pantomime’.29 She begins to doubt Éric and the authenticity he can bring to her, and to recognize the neo-colonialist connotations of Éric’s ‘immense villa coloniale’ in which Rehvana has effectively encaged herself in an effort to unlock an elusive Antillean authenticity. Thus, Dracius criticizes both the ‘exotique-pour-moi’ complex which underlies Rehvana’s attempt to embody the doudou, as well as the doudou trope itself, demonstrating through Rehvana’s critique of Éric that métisse women are neither thoughtless nor infinitely compliant, but rather able to resist auto-exoticism.

According to Britton, auto-exoticism is also manifest in the treatment of Creole food and language in Caribbean literature. Britton argues that, in correlation with the Caribbean’s historical economic reliance on selling luxury food products such as sugar, spices, and rum, Caribbean literature is also an ‘exotic’ export, with both its marketing and the images within the novels focusing on oral pleasure and consumption.30 Creole language is implicated in these ‘edible’ texts, with the inclusion of Creole language often marketed as offering an exotic ‘taste’ to the reader. Britton argues that Creole language is included in Caribbean texts purely for aesthetic, even exhibitory, purposes, noting that such texts are rarely written entirely in Creole, and always include translations for the anticipated non-creolophone reader.31 Another linguistic strategy is the employment of interlectal forms of creolized French, which, in some cases, produces what Marie N’Zengou-Tayo calls an ‘effet de créole’, creating a new language that is ‘strange and familiar at the same time’, epitomizing ‘tame’ exoticism.32

However, the value that Dracius attributes to mixing together Creole and French languages nuances Britton’s assessment of Créoliste constructions of Creole-French interlects as mere marketing of Creole language as a ‘source of exotic pleasure’.33 Dracius has asserted that her practice of mixing languages is not an appeal to French audiences, but an essential part of her writing process as a métisse Antillean woman. In an interview with Carole Edwards, Dracius states that ‘je rends au créole ce qui est créole, rendant en créole les realia de mon environnement’.34 Her insistence on using Creole language for ‘ce qui est créole’ indicates that Dracius is motivated not by a programmatic conviction that Creole language is the only way to capture the essence of les Antilles, but by a desire to best reflect her lived experience. Further, Dracius’s inhabitation of a multilingual space inverts the colonizer’s fantasy of penetrating the unknown: ‘Je pénètre dans le français comme dans une habitation offerte, une habitation ouverte, où, de mon île volcanique et de ma formation classique, font irruption la langue, la culture créoles, mais aussi […] le latin et le grec’.35 Dracius’s perspective on her own language choices casts into doubt N’Zengou-Tayo’s dismissal of the ‘effet de créole’ as pandering to French desire for the tame exotic, as well as Britton’s correlation of auto-exoticization and Creole-French language mixing.

The blurb of Éditions du Seuil’s 1972 edition of Schwarz-Bart’s Pluie et vent sur Télumée Miracle provides a clear example of just what Britton condemns, promising that the reader will uncover an exotic world portrayed in a Creole ‘appropriation’ of French:

Voici l’univers des Antilles, avec ses couleurs, ses odeurs, sa vérité secrète, livrées pour la première fois par une romancière qui s’approprie la langue française pour la soumettre à la musique noire.36

This suggestion that Schwarz-Bart ‘appropriates’ the French language to submit it to ‘black music’ clearly centres metropolitan French in contrast to an exoticized, racialized Caribbean French, which becomes a delicious ‘secret’ for the presumed-white European reader to discover. The portrayal of Schwarz-Bart’s novel by the publishing house illustrates precisely the exoticization of Caribbean food and language that Britton denounces. However, Schwarz-Bart’s actual text emphasizes the power of flavourful Creole food to give characters substance and life, without shying away from gustatory and olfactory metaphors which are used in both sexual and nonsexual contexts. Significantly, Schwarz-Bart uses the food of the colonizers to criticize colonialism. Working as a maid for the descendants of white planters, Télumée is reduced to a tool, a ‘faiseuse de béchamel’.37 Béchamel itself, a stereotypically French, creamy thick white sauce that smothers food hidden underneath, has connotations of the power imbalance of colonialism. Moreover, it is the comparison of béchamel to breadfruit that restores life to Télumée. Reine Sans Nom mocks béchamel, assuring the community that ‘il n’y a rien de bon dans la béchamel’, and comparing it unfavourably to a quick meal of ‘deux tranches de fruit à pain au gros sel, [cuites] sur du bois’.38 Through her grandmother’s public mocking of the béchamel, Télumée is reintegrated into her community and becomes a full person again: ‘je redevenais une personne humaine, pas une faiseuse de béchamel’.39 While their novels may be promoted as sources of exotic pleasure for foreigners, food is an important part of Schwarz-Bart and Dracius’s creation of fully fleshed women characters. It is the creation of women who are neither reduced to social roles, nor to bodies, that enables a form of resistance, which, as will be discussed, both critiques and expands on Glissant’s key concept of opacité.

Embodied opacité: Women’s bodies enacting resistance

In the opening page of Le Discours antillais, Glissant writes that ‘la tentative d’approcher une réalité tant de fois occultée ne s’ordonne pas tout de suite autour d’une série de clartés. Nous réclamons le droit à l’opacité’.40 Opacité is a means for (de)colonized subjects to resist the penetrative European desire to study and understand the Other. While opacité leans towards celebrating distinct otherness, it differs markedly from auto-exoticism as it enshrines the right to an existence outside of European knowledge systems. Further, Glissant’s aesthetic project is not a retreat into the abstract, but an incursion into the concrete. Indeed, he writes in L’Intention poétique: ‘Je bâtis à roches mon langage’.41 Glissant’s model of resisting the imperialist gaze through a concrete poetics which maintains the centrality of specific, bodily experience can thus offer a powerful alternative to auto-exoticized portrayals of Antillean women characters. Indeed, Jane Hiddleston applies Glissant’s opacité as a partial framework for reading Arab women authors Assia Djebar and Nawal El Saadawi, considering opacité ‘a retreat from absolute (colonial or Western) values, and a commitment to the “non-reducible”, […] not to stereotypical fixing’.42 However, as Hiddleston also observes, Glissant has a ‘blind spot’ when it comes to the representation of women characters.43 In what is perhaps an overbalancing away from auto-exoticization, Glissant portrays women characters as disembodied symbols, eliding women’s bodies as sites of agency and resistance.

The absence of embodied women from Antillean literature speaks to an underlying sexist infrastructure which prevents representing women as full human beings. Ernest Pépin, a Guadeloupian author ‘en marge de la Créolité’,44 wrote in 1987 that Antillean literature is dominated by abstract and disincarnated women:

La littérature […] donne une large place à la femme, mais souvent elle ne prend en compte que le rôle social de la femme. L’écrivain antillais ne regarde pas la femme antillaise, il ne la contemple pas, craignant sans doute de tomber dans l’exotisme. Les Fidéline (Zobel), Man Tine (Zobel), Mycéa (Glissant) n’ont pas véritablement de corps. Elles incarnent un type abstrait ou désincarné. Il n’existe pas davantage une statuaire de la femme antillaise. Tout se passe comme si son trop plein d’existence engendrait un silence de la représentation.45

Pépin’s categorization of Antillean representation of women is distinct from the Créolistes’ reduction of Antillean women to exotic, sexual bodies. Indeed, Beverley Ormerod suggests that Glissant’s women characters are countercultural, opposing the representation of women as ‘incarnations of sensuality […] essentially […] physical, conjured up by a male narrator as the focus of sexual desire’ which dominated Antillean literature in the 1980s.46 Ormerod positions Glissant’s recurring woman character Mycéa as ‘the opposite extreme’ to this dominant representation: ‘restrained [and] physically imprecise’.47 Moreover, while J. Michael Dash argues that Glissant later shifts away from solo masculine marronage to explore more ‘anonymous and pedestrian’, ‘feminine’ forms of resistance, Glissant’s women characters must shed their bodies and exercise only their social function in this resistance.48 In Glissant’s Mahogany (1987) for example, women play crucial supportive roles to enable young men’s successful resistance through marronage. The women’s roles, while indispensable, are as background support for the men leads, and significantly, the extensive organicist metaphors throughout the stories effectively align women with the natural landscape, rather than exploring their human subjectivity. Glissant’s mythologization of the feminine is particularly evident in the recurring character of Mycéa, present in both Mahogany and Glissant’s poetry collection Pays revé, pays réel, whom Glissant elegizes as the incarnation of the land: ‘Je t’ai nommée Terre blessée, dont la fêlure n’est pas gouvernable, et t’ai vêtue de mélopées dessouchées des recoins d’hier’.49 Dash writes that ‘Mycéa is the elusive opacity of this land, the fictional evocation of Laoka who forces the poet to confess his impotence’.50 Glissant thus renders women as silent symbols rather than fully developed characters.

Françoise Lionnet asserts that the ‘silence de la représentation’ observed by Pépin exists ‘only in the male texts [of Antillean literature]’.51 Notably, she emphasizes that Dracius centres the body in L’Autre qui danse, giving ‘the female body a sensuousness and presence which is both striking and disturbing: […] this body is a revealing text’.52 Dracius does not expose Rehvana’s body as an object from which to glean meaning, but as part of a living subject performing repeated acts which construct gender and culture. This aligns with Judith Butler’s understanding of gender as ‘performative, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeals over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being’.53 Lionnet’s characterization of Rehvana’s bodily performance of Antillean femininity as ‘both striking and disturbing’ evokes Gladys M. Francis’s analysis of the ‘embodied odious aesthetic’ of Antillean women’s writing.54 In Odious Caribbean Women and the Palpable Aesthetics of Transgression, Francis analyses ‘repulsive’ depictions of ‘deglamorified’ female bodies, often in pain, to argue for an ‘emancipatory politics of corporeality’.55 She considers these depictions to be transgressive, not because they ‘feed into a culture of shock that commodifies violence’, but rather because they ‘put forth complex processes that call for conscientious witnessing and agency’ of ‘sickening details […] from which it is difficult to conveniently disengage’.56 Correspondingly, Dracius emphasizes that it is Rehvana’s ‘antillanité militante’,57 manifest in her determination to cook Creole meals from scratch for her husband every night and to wash laundry by hand, that drives her to destroy her hands:

Elle n’a curé de ses ongles rognés, érodés, misérables, et quand, à ses doigts cisaillés - crevassés par le mordant du savon de palme - perle le sang d’une coupure, alors qu’elle écaillait le poisson pour le blaff, c’est à peine si elle interrompt son travail.58

Rehvana incurs bodily harm through the preparation of Creole cuisine without the aid of modern cooking appliances or electricity. Further, Rehvana refuses to consume the food she cooks: ‘Elle fait tout ça pour Éric, et parce que c’est antillais. Pour elle, elle ne mange presque rien’.59 She destroys her hands not to achieve opacité through ingesting culturally and physically nourishing food, but to embody a transparent caricature of authenticity. Indeed, because she cooks only to please her husband, not eating to become full herself, the consequences of her efforts to live ‘authentically’ are ‘pullulements malsains aussi favorables à de promptes cicatrisations - si ce n’est acharné à maintenir béantes les lèvres ouvertes de ses plaies’.60 These weeping wounds and scars, the result of attempting to embody a caricature that actually undermines embodied opacité, attack her flesh, endangering her body’s integrity. The ‘sickening details’ of Rehvana’s attempt to cook ‘authentic’ Creole food force the recognition that flawed theories of cultural identity which reduce women to mythologized supporting figures have corporeal consequences: when women attempt to embody such caricatures of authenticity, they are physically and emotionally harmed. Indeed, Dracius’s representation of Rehvana emphasizes that Antillean women cannot be separated into two halves - spirit and body - without endangering their status as full subjects.

Thus, while Lionnet’s description of Dracius’s representation of the female body as a ‘revealing text’ signals a potential divergence from opacité, Dracius’s text indicates that women in substantial bodies present no inherent challenge to opacité’s strategy of incomprehensibility. Indeed, a second layer of unintelligibility is manifest in the relationship between Rehvana and her older sister Matildana. Reflecting the text’s title, L’Autre qui danse, Dracius stages a dance between the Self and Other of Rehvana and Matildana that defers comprehension, refusing the reduction of (de)colonized subjects to objects of study. Similarly, Hiddleston emphasizes that El Saadawi and Djebar’s writings are not solely ‘documentary’ affirmations of oppression,61 but rather that these authors ‘use their writing to conceive women’s convoluted and at times opaque self-expression as a direct form of resistance to both patriarchal and colonial oppression’.62 Similarly, Matildana is not simply an idealized ‘Other’, extolling the benefits of creolization, nor is Rehvana an abject and pitiful ‘Other’, documenting the violence of an oppressive ‘third-world’ patriarchal society. Dracius offers instead a more complicated, and opaque, dance between identities, resisting the urge to completely ‘other’ either woman. Indeed, from the perspective of Rehvana, it appears that Matildana is the ‘Other’, flitting between the metropole and the periphery, bringing the Caribbean into France through her choice to study Martiniquan Creole as a Sorbonne professor. Notably, Matildana is the focus of the chapter entitled ‘L’Autre’, in which she is described as ‘l’irréductible déjà vive, l’intrépide déjà finie, l’impeccable déjà parfaite, la grande sœur supérieure et déjà faite’.63 This emphasis on Matildana as a finished product - already perfect, with no need to search for identity like Rehvana - seems to enshrine her as the idealized Other.

Contrastingly, Matildana could be interpreted as a version of the Self, owing notably to her similarity to Dracius. Indeed, both Matildana and Dracius are, or have been, professors of Classics, both are Martiniquan ‘kalazaza’,64 and both have lived between Martinique and Paris. Susan Gubar argues that because ‘many women experience their own bodies as the only available medium for their art’, the distance between the woman artist and her art is ‘radically diminished’, and women artists may experience their bodies as both their own and as Other.65 Lionnet advocates an interpretation of Matildana as Self and Rehvana as Other, suggesting that there is ‘an indication that Rehvana is the other, the “sister” which the author carries within, and who incorporates the temptation of a sometimes poorly repressed tradition and the lure of a passively lived femininity’.66 However, Dracius’s inclusion of a quote from Rimbaud - ‘Car je est un autre’ - preceding the text proper indicates that the division between Other and Self is even more complex.67 Significantly, Glissant also invokes this quote from Rimbaud in Poétique de la relation:

Nous ‘savons’ que l’Autre est en Nous, […] Le ‘Je est un autre’ de Rimbaud est historiquement littéral. […] Une sorte de la ‘conscience de la conscience’ nous ouvre malgré nous et fait de chacun l’acteur troublé de la poétique de la Relation.68

In the relationship between Rehvana and Matildana, Dracius incorporates the Other into the Self, much as Glissant indicates that his notion of Relation, foundational to opacité, involves knowing that the Other is within us, and in turn that we are present in the Other. While Dracius makes Rehvana’s body a ‘revealing text’, her corporeality cannot be exoticized or consumed. Rather it makes its reader, as Francis might say, a ‘conscientious witness’69 to her impenetrability, her embodied opacité.

Schwarz-Bart also employs embodied opacité in her depiction of Télumée’s resistance to and recovery from physical and emotional abuse by her husband Élie. Télumée’s identity is thrown into flux as her loving marriage with Élie, initially presented as the culmination of her femininity, becomes physically and emotionally abusive. At first, Télumée copes with her abuse, and her feeling that she has failed to embody resilient Antillean womanhood, through dissociation: she becomes physically transparent. Schwarz-Bart writes:

Alors je m’allongeais à même le sol et m’efforçais de dissoudre ma chair, je m’emplissais de bulles et tout à coup je me sentais légère, une jambe m’abandonnait puis un bras, ma tête et mon corps entier se dissipaient dans l’air et je planais, je survolais Fond-Zombi de si haut qu’il ne m’apparaissait plus que comme un grain de pollen dans l’espace.70

Schwarz-Bart emphasizes that Télumée’s body is being dissolved and dismembered by her abuse through the accumulative listing of each body part abandoning her until she is light enough to fly above and escape the earthly plane. The reflexive verbs suggest that, on some level, Télumée desires this dismemberment, this dissipation into transparency. Yet, this transparent state does not protect Télumée from re-violation; it merely provides her with temporary escape. By contrast, with the aid of magical healing from Reine Sans Nom and Man Cia, Télumée becomes fully fleshed and opaque, preventing further violation of body and soul:

Grand-mère […] y fit brûler […] des feuilles magiques qui produisaient une belle fumée verte […] qui entoura bientôt ma case d’un halo protecteur […] il me sembla voir Élie […] admette qu’une négresse n’est pas un nuage, et qu’il n’est pas un vent assez violent pour dissiper quoi que ce soit. Et déjà, pour la première fois depuis bien longtemps, je prenais un peigne et coiffais mes cheveux en paillasse, les lavais, les lustrais d’huile, me remettais aux soins de mon corps et de ma case qui le jour même reprit son aspect d’autrefois.71

Alluding to the titular ‘vent’ of Pluie et vent sur Télumée Miracle, Télumée discovers she can weather the storm of marital abuse not through becoming air herself, but by returning from easily dissipated ‘nuage’ to solid form. She engages in bodily self-care, notably combing her hair ‘pour la première fois depuis bien longtemps’. Ingrid Banks highlights in Hair Matters that the hair of enslaved people was used to justify the subordination of Africans, and emphasizes that hair care is an important aspect of claiming Black womanhood.72 Thus, Télumée’s care for her hair after escaping Élie posits a parallel between slavery and being stripped of her agency and womanhood by her abusive husband. Télumée reinscribes her freedom through the ritual of combing and oiling of her hair, bringing together cultural specificity and individual physicality.

Conclusion

In their navigation of Antillanité and Créolité in each of these novels, Schwarz-Bart and Dracius offer potent alternatives to the auto-exoticization of Caribbean women and Creole food. Both authors challenge exoticizing representations of women’s sexuality. In the character of Victoire, Schwarz-Bart does not demonize sex, but instead renegotiates its meaning as a consensual act between mutually desiring partners, bringing pleasure to both participants. Dracius actively demonstrates the damage wrought by exotic stereotypes through the character of Rehvana, who, in attempting to fit into colonial stereotypes and the ‘masculinist erotics’ of Créolité, is physically and emotionally harmed. This denunciation of the portrayal of women as delectable sexual objects is reinforced by the rehabilitation of Creole cuisine and language as vital rather than titillating. Challenging the reduction of women to a menu of perpetually consumable female bodies, Dracius and Schwarz-Bart create characters for whom opaque embodiment is a means of resisting the penetrating masculine and colonial, or neo-colonial, gaze. For Schwarz-Bart, flavoursome Creole food is represented as nourishing and culturally restorative. In a different way, Dracius too demonstrates the power of Creole food, by demonstrating that the preparation of exotic Caribbean food solely for men’s consumption is not enough; indeed, Rehvana’s performance of her French impression of the role of a good Martiniquan wife wounds and erodes Rehvana’s body and identity. These novels, despite their marketing to metropolitan French audiences, are not insubstantial sources of exotic pleasure, but critiques of colonial and auto-exoticist stereotypes, full of characters who are nourished by Antillean food and culture in order to become opaque and impenetrable, resisting auto-exoticization.

Moreover, in their navigation of Glissant’s opacité, which prioritizes the right to unintelligibility, these authors establish that women’s bodies are key actors in anti-colonial resistance. In exploring how Rehvana’s body is marked in her quest for Antillean authenticity, Dracius critiques cultural discourses which promote disembodied caricatures of ‘authentic’ women. Obscuring the roles of Rehvana and Matildana as simultaneously Self and Other, she reveals bodies which simultaneously elicit and resist understanding. Schwarz-Bart demonstrates that Télumée’s transparency provides only temporary relief, and that physical escape and embodiment, accessed through the opaque magics of her grandmother, the ever obscure Reine Sans Nom, and the witch Man Cia, is the only lasting means of resistance to abuse. Thus, these authors adapt Glissant’s opacité, which reclaims otherness as inviolable cultural specificity, to centre women as fully fleshed subjects enacting resistance. They demonstrate that when Antillean women are not separated into two halves - the perpetually sensuous body and the mystical spirit - but represented as full individuals, they can confront the violence of abusive husbands, colonialism, and androcentric concepts of cultural identity.

Suzanne Dracius qtd. in Jennifer Jahn and Suzanne Dracius, ‘Femmes, féminitude, féminisme: An afternoon with Suzanne Dracius’, International Journal of Francophone Studies, 11.3 (2008), 417-50 (p. 422).

Although recognizing the multilingualism of the region, for the purposes of this article ‘Antillean’ is used interchangeably with ‘French Caribbean’.

Catriona Cunningham, ‘Reclaiming “Paradise Lost” in the Writings of Patrick Chamoiseau and Édouard Glissant’, French Cultural Studies, 18.3 (2007), 277-91 (pp. 278-79).

Brinda Mehta, Notions of Identity, Diaspora, and Gender in Caribbean Women’s Writing (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), p. 4.

Ibid., p. 4.

Celia Britton, Language and Literary Form in French Caribbean Writing (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2014), p. 29.

Ibid., p. 29.

Ibid., p. 30.

Frantz Fanon, Peau noire, masques blancs (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1952), p. 8.

René Ménil, ‘De l’exotisme colonial’, La Nouvelle Critique (May 1959), p. 21; in Britton, p. 27.

Britton, pp. 32-33.

Ibid., p. 35.

A. James Arnold, ‘The Erotics of Colonialism in Contemporary French West Indian Literary Culture’, New West Indian Guide / Nieuwe West-Indische Gids, 68.1-2 (1994), 5-22 (p. 17).

Raphaël Confiant, Le Nègre et l’amiral (Paris: Éditions Grasset and Fasquelle, 1988), p. 52.

Ibid., p. 52.

Ibid., p. 52.

Ibid., p. 53.

Simone Schwarz-Bart, Pluie et vent sur Télumée Miracle (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1972), p. 46.

Ibid., p. 45.

Marina Magloire, ‘Witchcrafts of Color’, Meridians, 17.1 (September 2018), 107-30 (p. 108).

Richard D. Burton, ‘“Maman-France Doudou”: Family Images in French West Indian Colonial Discourse’, Diacritics, 23.3 (Fall 1993), 69-90 (p. 81).

Régis Antoine, Les Écrivains français et les Antilles: des premiers pères blancs aux surréalistes noirs (Paris: C.P. Maisonneuve et Larose, 1978), p. 354.

Arnold, p. 8.

Magloire, p. 108.

After the first edition of L’Autre qui danse (1989), Dracius changed Éric’s name to Enryck.

Suzanne Dracius, L’Autre qui danse (Paris: Éditions Seghers, 1989), p. 114.

Magloire, p. 108.

Dracius, p. 115.

Ibid., p. 115.

Britton, p. 49.

Ibid., p. 52.

Marie J. N’Zengou-Tayo, ‘Literature and Diglossia: The Poetics of French and Creole “Interlect” in Patrick Chamoiseau’s Texaco’, Caribbean Quarterly, 43.4 (1997), 81-101 (p. 90).

Britton, p. 53.

Carole Edwards and Suzanne Dracius, ‘Entretien avec Suzanne Dracius: La Kalazaza grécolatine’, Women in French Studies, 19.1 (2011), 120-32 (p. 124).

Ibid., p. 124.

Schwarz-Bart, blurb.

Ibid., p. 102.

Ibid., p. 102.

Ibid., p. 102.

Édouard Glissant, Le Discours antillais (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1981), p. 11.

Édouard Glissant, L’Intention poétique, Poétique II (Paris: Gallimard, 1969), p. 49.

Jane Hiddleston, ‘Imprisonment, Freedom, and Literary Opacity in the Work of Nawal El Saadawi and Assia Djebar’, Feminist Theory, 11.2 (2010): 171-87 (p. 173).

Ibid., p. 173.

Emanuela Cacchioli, ‘Ernest Pépin: un romancier-poète à l’écriture protéiforme’, Archipélies, 7 (June 2019), 1-7 (p. 1).

Ernest Pépin, ‘La femme antillaise et son corps’, Présence Africaine, 141.1 (1987), 181-93 (p. 193).

Beverley Ormerod, ‘The Representation of Women’, in An Introduction to Caribbean Francophone Writing: Guadeloupe and Martinique, ed. by Sam Haigh (Oxford: Berg Publishers, 1999), pp. 101-18 (p. 112).

Ibid., p. 112.

J. Michael Dash, Édouard Glissant (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 156.

Édouárd Glissant, Pays rêvé, pays réel (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1985), p. 83.

Dash, p. 162.

Françoise Lionnet, ‘Inscriptions of Exile: The Body’s Knowledge and the Myth of Authenticity’, Callaloo, 15.1 (Winter 1992), 30-40 (p. 35).

Ibid., p. 35.

Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (London: Routledge, 2006), ProQuest Ebook, p. 45.

Gladys M. Francis, Odious Caribbean Women and the Palpable Aesthetics of Transgression (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2017), p. xiv.

Ibid., p. xx.

Ibid., pp. xiv-xv.

Dracius, p. 119.

Ibid., p. 121.

Ibid., p. 122.

Ibid., p. 126.

Hiddleston, p. 171.

Ibid., p. 174.

Dracius, p. 44.

In Edwards and Dracius, p. 121, Dracius explains that ‘kalazaza’ or ‘calazaza’ is her preferred term for self-description, an old Martiniquan term which designates ‘une métisse à peau claire et cheveux frisés ou bouclés d’une certaine blondeur ou rousseur tropicale’.

Susan Gubar, ‘“The Blank Page” and the Issues of Female Creativity’, Lectora, 20 (2014), 249-69 (p. 254).

Lionnet, p. 39.

Dracius, p. 9.

Glissant, Poétique de la Relation, p. 39.

Francis, p. xv.

Schwarz-Bart, p. 152.

Ibid., pp. 157-58.

Ingrid Banks, Hair Matters: Beauty, Power, and Black Women’s Consciousness (New York: New York University Press, 2000), pp. 7-11.


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Author details

Goldman, Josephine