Tag Archives: Chamoiseau

Abani, Chamoiseau, and the Shifting Point of View

12 Apr

I hope this is okay, but I’m going to continue on my “theme” of comparing Texaco and Chris Abani’s GraceLand. The stylistic and thematic similarities are too prevalent to ignore. In that vein, the point of view shifts that are disrupting in Texaco – appearing in the middle of a paragraph, or right after the thoughts of another character, say – these perspective shifts are less disrupting, but just as noticeable, in Abani’s novel. Even though the book mainly takes place from an omniscient third person perspective on the protagonist, Elvis, the point of view in which Abani writes the story suggests a more “universal” perspective.

What I mean by this – and I think it’s relevant where Texaco is concerned as well – is that Abani wants to tell the story of a people, rather than the single story of a teenage boy. He could have put the novel in first person, but he chose to use an omniscient third, suggesting that, even though the story may most closely follow Elvis’s journey, his story is not the only one that needs to be told.

Further, the switches in point of view present in Chamoiseau’s novel abound in Abani’s novel as well. The reader will clearly be hearing Elvis’s thoughts, and will be following him on his tour with the King of the Beggars, say, or to his friend Redemption’s house; but suddenly, Abani will switch to what Elvis’s father is doing and thinking, or to what his stepmother is thinking. These switches are not only physical, but mental as well; Abani chooses to include descriptors such as, “she thought,” or “he was worried.” In doing this, Abani asserts that while Elvis may be his protagonist, the narrator is the main voice of the story, and his/her voice is able to tell the story of every character that populates Lagos.

A New Kind of Survival Narrative

12 Apr

In Texaco, Chamoiseau spins a narrative of survival from a framework of death and destruction, and in the process proposes a new kind of survival of a people that is divorced from concepts of procreation and Judeo-Christian ideals.

 There are few ways in which he does this, but one that I find to be particularly interesting is the way in which he uses Biblical juxtaposition to turn Marie-Sophie into an activist for survival. Though the Biblical allegory is thick and convoluted throughout the novel, I think a direct case can be made that Esternome and Idomene are reminiscent of Sarah and Abraham, who had a child at 90 something and 100 (respectively). God promised them that this child, Isaac, would be the patriarch of all of Israel and populate the promised land. In this way, I think that Chamoiseau is aligning Marie-Sophie and Isaac so as to make her denial of procreative survival even more obvious.  

 Probably the most obvious way that Chamoiseau contrasts Marie-Sophie and Isaac is through her multiple abortions. While Isaac is literally the life-blood of Israel, basing his patriarchy purely the seed of his loins, Marie-Sophie violently denies herself the ability to have children. Even when she wishes to later in the novel it is clear that this is a non-starter – it is always for the sake of men who disappear or die fairly quickly thereafter. It is also interesting to note the violence that she perpetrates against men’s genitals. Though it happens quite frequently, the violent acts are very specifically focused not on the phallus but on the testicles. This again drives home Marie-Sophie’s directed violence against reproduction.

 By equating Marie-Sophie with Isaac but divorcing the concept of survival of a people from procreation, Chamoiseau is proposing a very different kind of survival narrative than that of the people of Israel. Though Marie-Sophie is Isaac by birth, she is more Moses in action. With Texaco, she proves that the survival of a people is based not in simply literal “survival” – procreation – but through the action of carving out a physical space in which those people can survive. We can see this manifested also in smaller details in the book, as almost as often as Marie-Sophie is forcibly divorced from the concept of reproduction, she is aligned with the concept of creating physical space. She is constantly being thrown into situations in which carving out her own space in which to live safely (for example, in Alcibiade’s home) is critical to her happiness, but also to her ability to continue the narrative.

 This aligns with many of the theories and literature that we have read thus far this semester – I am thinking especially right now of Oil on Water and Sweet Crude. There are persistent undertones throughout these works which show that creating a physical space in which to live is key to not just the prosperity, but the continued existence of a community. By very pointedly separating Marie-Sophie’s survival narrative from reproductive survival, Chamoiseau emphasizes the urgency of this mission to re-claim physical space as a means for existence of a people. 

The issue of translation and time in Chamoiseau’s movement from Créolité to Glissant’s ‘Relation’

9 Apr

While gathering scholarly articles, I came across a 2012 interview with Chamoiseau conducted by Olivia Sheringham for the the International Migration Institute at the University of Oxford, as part of the Oxford Diasporas Program(me), in which Chamoiseau talks about how more recently, he has in fact moved away from Créolité, for very similar reasons as to why he first stayed away from Negritude.

According to Sheringham, Glissant’s concept of ‘Relation’ “… refers to the interconnectedness and interdependence of the world and seeks to move beyond atavistic notions of identity”, which is now a stance adopted by Chamoiseau, who was a close friend and collaborator of Glissant, who died in 2011.

In the interview, Chamoiseau discusses his reasons for giving up Créolité in favor of Relation, mentioning the dilution of the original term that was used to discuss Creole language, and the false binary logic of Negritude that feeds into Créolité. Throughout the interview, Chamoiseau points outs the role of language in forming identities, Creole or otherwise, which then speaks to the points on the limitations of translation raised by Maryse Condé, an important Caribbean writer, in an conversation with Emily Apter, published in the journal of Public culture.

Chamoiseau responds to Sheringham’s question regarding the origin of the term ‘Creole’, by stating that in its original form, it was only meant by (Glissant, himself and others) to refer to “… the mechanical constitution of the creole language” and that Glissant himself claimed once “… that the mechanical constitution of the creole language is an echo of the world – showing that the creole language is formed of a mosaic of multiple languages and lexical presences.”

However, Chamoiseau book-ends this statement by saying that historically, the term was used to designate any object, animal, artifact, social identity or food that was created in or “acclimatized to” the Americas, though it first began as a way of describing “… the descendants of European colonisers.” For me personally, this explanation brings us directly to the doorstep of ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’, and fills in all the gaps left by Rhys in my understanding of the binary of white creole/black creole set up in her book.

Explaining why he prefers the concept of Relation as it allows for “relational identity, which is an identity that is defined by the fact that it changes all the time without losing anything or being distorted”, Chamoiseau states–

“… I would prefer to get rid of the term [creolization] and to use the term Relation instead. Because the idea of creolization presupposes that we are still in the former absolutes – racial absolutes, black/white, linguistic absolutes – all the former identity markers that elsewhere defined métissage: métissage is black/white that gives us grey.”

I feel that this concept of Relation really does bring the Post Colonial/Subaltern discussion directly into our current time, as it allows for a discussion of the influence of and relationship between multiple times and spaces that both Fabian and Nixon raise as issues faced by marginalized populations all throughout the Global South (in fact, it even challenges the static nature of the concept of the ‘Global South’!).

Chamoiseau stresses the fluidity allowed by Relation, and also when prompted by Sheringham, goes on to place ideas of Globalization, Fixed Identity and the falling away of Absolute concepts in this context of Relation. I feel that Maryse Condé raises many of the same issues in her discussion with Emily Apter of translating Caribbean writing, being as she is fully aware of the ‘Africa Chic’ co-opting within Euro-centric cultures throughout the 90’s and 2000’s.

When speaking with Apter about the translation of her work, conducted by her husband, Richard Philcox, Condé states–

“… if there is a phrase in Creole, he leaves it, but he also includes a translation in the notes (and most publishers resist this). And when he says his translations are market-driven, it really means only in this narrow sense of maximizing clarity and accessibility. He knows that I have resisted being “marketed” in America within the confines of the preestablished “black writers” niche.”

In response to Apter’s question regarding how her work is marketed, she responds with the following:

“Editors tend to see everything in black and white, and they have tried to target the African American reading public in marketing my fiction. But this really doesn’t work, since my books are concerned less with race and much more with the complexities of overlapping cultures, with conditions of diaspora, and with cross-racial, cross-generational encounters.”

Not to say that Conde agrees with everything Chamoiseau and Glissant claim regarding Relation– in fact, in response to Apter’s direct question regarding the Créolité manifesto penned by Chamoiseau and a few fellow writers in 1989, she claims that the term itself “… effaces the history of slavery, of the plantation culture, and the economic foundations of the island. The term créolité makes the cultural laboratory more important than the memory of a sugarbased economy.” While thus making a case for the inclusion of plantation memory in the discussion of the Creole language and culture, Condé still seems to be making a case for a movement away from binaries– It is easy to see how the very act of translation itself ensures that oral tradition, the heart of Creolite, “observes hierarchy as it can only be communicated in translation”, as claimed by Amy Emery in book, ‘The anthropological imagination in Latin American literature’. Emery states:

“The role of the anthropologist or the writer… is to transcribe the spontaneous richness of oral narrative with a minimal amount of authorial intervention. The positioning of the writer and his or her informant is meant to guarantee that the document will be an authentic expression of the informant’s voice, which the literate writer has facilitated, but not produced as such” (70).

This point raised by Emery speaks to the problem of allogenic time as raised by Fabian, which leads me to believe that more than any other sub-set (if you will) of Post Colonial writing, Caribbean Writing addresses the issues highlighted in ‘Time and the Other’ as well as Nixon’s ‘Slow Violence’ by discusses ways in which to decrease the distance between center and periphery caused by the binary oppositions within language and discussions about language, as well as resists the forced hierarchy of translation.


Amy Emery, The anthropological imagination in Latin American literature, 1996.

Emily Apter, Crossover Texts/Creole Tongues: A Conversation with Maryse Condé, 2001. Public Culture 13(1): 89–96.

From Creolization to Relation: An interview with Patrick Chamoiseau http://www.migration.ox.ac.uk/odp/pdfs/PatrickChamoiseauInterview_F.pdf

Sex as Metaphor: Violence and Identity

5 Apr

In a few of the novels we’ve read, sex is described through a metaphor. In Season of Migration to the North, Lalami explains Mustafa’s sex scenes as “a theatre of war” (29). Sex becomes a symbol to the bigger picture of Mustafa’s attempt to conquer Englishwomen and regain masculinity to the African identity. Mustafa explains, “I would stay awake all night warring with bow and sword and spear and arrows” (29). His identity transforms throughout the novel as he performs identity through name changes and sexual metaphors.

In Chamoiseau’s Texaco, the sex metaphor is very different from Mustafa’s violent battles. Sex in this case is described through images of the water—-birds, the tide, a shipwreck and canoes. Oselia is “a starving bird pecking at his skin, pecking his sweet juice, pecking a bit of his blood and the rest of his soul” (66). He becomes a shipwreck that continually needs to be saved from the depths of the water. The violence of Mustafa’s sexual encounters is not seen in the same sense here. The water is a source of violence and in a way can be seen as a reason why Oselia can’t repeat this act with the narrator’s father. Metaphors and phrases of water are continued through the novel. Yet, going back to this specific scene, at the end of that same paragraph the narrator makes herself known again and says that she can only “make a sketch of what happened” because her father “hadn’t done school.” This break in the metaphor shows the reader that the identity of the novel is not fixed—there are tales of others, of herself, and in other voices. Sex in a way, is a means to invoking violence and challenging identity.

In the big picture of this novel, identity is a main concern. As we began reading Texaco, it was at first difficult because it seems natural to ground identity to understand where the novel is going. Chamoiseau makes this attempt difficult for his reader. In “Re-Imagining Diversity and Connection in the Chaos World,” Chamoiseau explains identity as, “In the past, people thought a cultural identity was powerful when it enclosed and defined what belonged to me and not to others; today it is powerful when one is—and recognizes that one is—in relationship with the diversity of cultures. And the more a cultural identity is capable of putting itself into connection with diversity, the more powerful it will be—that’s our big issue, that’s what we want to examine today in our literature.” This is what we see in the structure and voices Chamoiseau uses in Texaco.

The Rise of Slums and the Fall of Gardens

5 Apr

In “Planet of the Slums” Mike Davis describes the rapid growth of slums – urbanization decoupled from industrialization and development – in the developing world since the debt crises of the 1970’s and the resulting IMF structural adjustment programs.  However, Patrick Chamoiseau shows in Texaco that this process began long before the 1970’s, with roots in the slavery-based sugar and coffee plantation system.   The structural conditions that facilitated the urban poverty of modern slums began with the exploitive plantation system, where both the fertility of the land and the life of the slaves working the land were extracted in the form of sugar and coffee exported to Europe.  However, because of the rural nature of the plantations, slaves sustained themselves with the agricultural knowledge they brought with them from Africa; even after the natural disasters (e.g. hurricanes and droughts) that devastated the cash crops of Esternome’s béké, the slaves were managed to survive off the food of their “invisible gardens” and knowledge of the land:

The slaves, used to sagging bellies, brought back from invisible gardens enough to stand on their legs.  What’s more, they were able to grab the river’s crayfish, make the lapia fish drunk with a bark juice, trap the flesh of migrating prey.  And though it wasn’t enough for a feast of first communion, this averted the famine for the Béké and his servants on top of hectares of cane and coffee. (45)

After emancipation in 1848, the newly freed slaves temporarily escaped the exploitive French colonial system by fleeing to hills like Noutéka, but after the industrialization of sugar production and the rise of the Factor, “The great conquests of the hills was piteously going down the Factory’s heap of connecting rods, its greasy straps, its tanks and pipes” (140).  The gardens of the hills and the knowledge needed to cultivate them were the only means to truly attain independence from colonial exploitation in Martinique; by abandoning the gardens and their knowledge, many former slaves returned to the new slavery of the Factory.

Yet this knowledge was not completely forgotten, because even in the Quarter of the Wretched, Esternome tells Marie-Sophie through her narration to “the Christ,” “We still held on to scraps of our survival instincts” (191).  Esternome and other former slaves who had remembered how to garden grew “subsistence gardens around Fort-de-France, like in the old days around the plantation…But it wasn’t enough to feed all of City” (191).  Even though they retain some independence through food, the inhabitants of the Quarter of the Wretched still depend on the City for their livelihoods, since “City composed the Quarter with its mound of scraps, made-in-here, made-in-there” (172).  Eventually, as the rate of urbanization increases and more of the marginalized concentrate themselves on the City’s periphery, land available for the gardens declines, creating the modern slums described by Davis.

Chamoiseau, Habila, and Structure

5 Apr

I keep going back to the way Patrick Chamoiseau structures Texaco – the inclusion of diary/journal pages, the subtitled sections, the altering points of view – and how this structure is both completely different but also similar to the way Helon Habila structures Oil on Water.  Both structures do work in authenticating the stories Chamoiseau and Habila are telling.

In Habila’s case, the narrator is a journalist; his journey both mirrors his own personal story, as well as his journalistic discoveries. We talked a lot in class about the use of fog, how both its physical presence and metaphoric presence conceal reality from the reader and the narrator. By telling Rufus’s story in a non-linear fashion, Habila emphasizes this inability to see clearly until one moves closer to the source; but even when Rufus delves further into the story he is pursuing, there remains mystery – a “fog” – that cannot be dissipated by the truth.

Chamoiseau’s structure does similar work. While Habila uses non-linearity to his advantage, Chamoiseau uses varying techniques in order to keep the reader guessing – and to keep the reader invested in his story. I’m most struck by the diary/manuscript/journal pages, and how they are not only included in the story, but are also archived in a way as to increase their authenticity. Chamoiseau does not just drop the excerpts into the story; he chooses to label them in a way that gives the reader an informative edge. For example, on page 148, there is an excerpt from the urban planner’s notes to the “word scratcher,” archived as “File No. 6. Sheet XVIII. 1987. Schelcher Library.” This level of detail stops the reader in the dramatic present of the story and makes him or her stop to consider where this piece of evidence fits in. It is a discovery and a journey, much in the way Rufus’s story is as well.

This structure is also of special interest to me in regards to the novel I’ve chosen for my Amazon book review. Chris Abani’s GraceLand includes recipes and proverb-like epigraphs that on the one hand, seem to have no decipherable purpose in the story, but on the other hand, seem to say more about the protagonist and his family. It’s an interesting stylistic choice, and it’s one I’m intrigued by moving forward for the final paper.

Distinctly French: the Subaltern travel to and from City in ‘Texaco’ and ‘Pere Goriot’

5 Apr

Patrick Chamoiseau, in choosing to write ‘Texaco’ using shifting points of view, jumps in time, switches in tone and dialect and circularity, achieves what Spivak upholds in her seminal ‘Can the Subaltern Speak (1)?’, which is the creation of a multi-facted narrative where the multiple Creole identities represented (in ‘Texaco’) tell their own story in their own language, at their own pace and in a manner closer to their own oral traditions versus the format or style of western fiction. (Spivak’s criticism was that ‘benevolent’ Western intellectuals can silence the subaltern by attempting to speak for them).

In ‘Texaco’, City is evoked frequently, and one such time is when the “city which was not City” is described in opposition to the Quarter and its hutches—“There was a constant going and coming between the Quarter of the Wretched and the City’s heart. City was the open ocean. The Quarter was the port of registry” (172). We are also given Esternome’s own version of City—

“City’s a quake. A tremor. There all things are possible, and there all things are mean. City sweeps and carries you along, never lets go of you, gets you mixed up in its old secrets. In the end you take them in without ever understanding them. You tell those just-off-the-hills that that’s how it is and they eat it up: but City has just gulped you in without showing you the ropes. A City is the ages all gathered in one place, not just in the names, houses, statues, but in the not-visible. A City sips the joys, the pain, the thoughts, ever feeling, it makes its dew out of them, which you see without being able to point to it. That’s what City is and that was Saint-Pierre.” (173-174).

With this thought in mind while reading Chamoiseau’s ‘Texaco’, I was immediately struck by the similarities between its thread involving descriptions of movement to and from City, and a similar thread in works of French Realism, such as Stendhal’s ‘The Red and the Black’ and Zola’s ‘Germinal’, but for the purpose of this blog post, specifically, Balzac’s ‘Pere Goriot’.
While ‘Pere Goriot’ is not considered part of the post-colonial canon, I’d like to argue that the issues of class, economic status, place and identity raised by the inhabitants of Maison Vauquer, and Eugène de Rastignac’s own constant battle to enter and be accepted by the bon-ton in Paris, in an effort to move away from both the Bucolic South of his youth as well as from the stench of poverty of the neighborhood in which the Maison Vauquer stands, speak to concepts of Subaltern, a field of Post-Colonial studies that focuses on individuals and/or communities that exist outside the hegemonic Center, often but not always represented as City.
Balzac himself was said to have been influenced while writing ‘Pere Goriot’ by the writing of James Fenimore Cooper, who at the time was known for his representation of Native Americans and their often violent interaction with civilization, a theme that certainly influenced Balzac’s use of characterization and dichotomies within ‘Pere Goriot’. It is in the juxtaposition of ordinary citizens against an omnipresent, all-powerful, mysterious City that I feel contains some of the seeds of Subaltern Studies and literature.
At the end of Pere Goriot, the reader is shown an incredibly epic scene: Goriot is dead, and Rastignac finds himself on a hill (I believe he reached here after a walk through the Père-Lachaise cemetery, post-funeral) overlooking Paris, which Balzac lays before him as a glittering, beautiful entity. He starts off towards his dinner with Delphine de Nucingen (which has social implications all of its own) but not before (at least in Loesberg’s interpretation) yelling out, “À nous deux, maintenant!” (“It’s between you and me now!”), presumably directing this challenge at Paris.
Chamoiseau gives Marie-Sophie the ability to co-opt and subvert this idea of challenging a city:

We shoved our way about next to City, holding on to it by its thousand survival cracks. But City ignored us. Its activity, glances, the facets of its life (from every day’s morning to the beautiful night neon) ignored us. We had vied for its promises, its destiny; we were denied its promises, its destiny. Nothing was given, everything was to be wrung out. We spoke to those who looked like us. We answered their call for help and they answered ours. The old Quarters held hands, going around City, families joined them, exchanges linked them. We wandered around City, going in to draw from it, going around it to live. We saw City from above, but in reality we lived at the bottom of its indifference which was often hostile.

The descriptions of movement to and from City gives Chamoiseau’s characters the agency to vocalize what they win and lose in every movement, and allows for multiple narrators and identities in a way that creates a multilinear and thus more authentic subaltern narrative. This more authentic narrative is a feature that distinctly belongs to writing that arises out of the “Overseas Departments” of France, which according to the New Internationalist, Chamoiseau interprets as another form of colonialism (2). I’d like to argue that Subaltern Literature written from within these Overseas Departments (like Martinique) is uniquely placed to vocalize multidimensional stories and narratives in a way other colonies or ex-colonies are not, because of the outlier moving to City (outside moving in) aesthetic that is so firmly a part of French culture, including French colonizing culture, first written about by French Realism authors such as Zola and Balzac.

(1) http://www.mcgill.ca/files/crclaw-discourse/Can_the_subaltern_speak.pdf
(2) http://newint.org/features/2001/10/05/texaco/