../Portals


CURRENT ISSUE 2005

Chantal Carleton

Maksim Hanukai

Nidesh Lawtoo

Elisabeth Lore

Michael A. Mikita III

Giovanna Montenegro

Benjamin Morris and Ari Messer

Wendy Salters

Laurel Seely

Olga Zilberbourg

 

Folly or Fantasy?
A Look at Polyphony in Francophone Literature

Email this article

Elisabeth Lore
San Francisco State University

C’est par la différence et dans le divers que s’exalte l’Existence.
Le Divers décroit.
C’est là le grand danger.
-V. SEGALEN

It is through difference and in diversity that Existence is elated.
Diversity decreases.
That is the great danger.
-V. SEGALEN

“Paròl gin pié zèl.” Unless you are familiar with the Creole language of Haiti, this sentence has no meaning to you. It’s gibberish, unintelligible, and could even be considered the ramblings of a madman by those who cannot interpret it. In “The Discourse on Language” Michel Foucault supposes “that in every society the production of discourse is at once controlled, selected, organized and redistributed according to a certain number of procedures, whose role is to avert its powers and its dangers, to cope with chance events, [and] to evade its ponderous, awesome materiality” (216); he states that the control manifests itself in the form of three rules of exclusion: prohibition of words, the division of madness, and the will to truth. What I propose in this essay is that Foucault’s second rule of exclusion, that of reason and folly, can be applied to anyone speaking a language foreign to the ears of their listeners or, in the case of literature, foreign to the eyes of their readers. Though Foucault asserts that this rule of exclusion assimilates over time into the will to truth, I believe that, from the perspective of the other and the other’s language, society still tends to exclude through the principles of reason and folly. The opposition of reason versus folly, according to Foucault, states that “from the depths of the Middle Ages, a man was mad if his speech could not be said to form part of the common discourse of men. His words were considered null and void, without truth or significance, worthless as evidence, inadmissible in the authentication of acts or contracts [. . .]” (217). I am in no way inferring that those who write in lesser-known languages are insane; I am simply stating that, to anyone who cannot comprehend the language, the words carry no meaning and are therefore ignored along with their author. So where does this leave the postcolonial authors who seek expression in a society where the larger reading audience does not understand their maternal languages? Can they still be published?

As Foucault explains further, each area of exclusion is reinforced by systems set up by any given society and is directly linked to power and desire (216, 219). For postcolonial authors, these systems of power are the publishing institutions that decide whether or not works can be published. If these authors wish to be published, they must conform to the primary regulation - that of writing in languages comprehensible to the larger reading populations, notably English or French for the authors considered in this essay. This appears quite logical. However, must the native languages of these authors be completely suppressed in order for them to have a voice in Western society? By considering the different ways in which three francophone authors code switch within their texts, we discover a richness of expression that demonstrates the authors’ conflicts between their native languages and those of their former colonizers. Moreover, this code switching has created a multilingual literature that crosses boundaries and attempts to negotiate a relationship of power for these authors and their native languages within the dominant institutions. The texts analyzed in this essay are Assia Djebar’s L’amour, la fantasia [Fantasia, An Algerian Cavalcade],1 representing the Arabic language, Amadou Hampâté Bâ’s Amkoullel l’enfant peul: Mémoires [Amkoullel, Foulani Child: Mèmoires]2 representing Foula and Bambara, as well as other African languages, and Edwidge Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory representing Haitian Creole. By revealing the style, sociolinguistic function and the durability of their individual languages through code switching within their texts, these authors seek to break free from society’s view of the madman, while at the same time creating a place for themselves and their languages in the institutions that define them solely within the confines of the dominant discourse. So what exactly is code switching and what is its purpose?

The word “code” refers to the type of language used when speaking or writing. Code switching consists of alternating between two or more codes in a given conversation or, for the purposes of this essay, in a given text. This does not necessarily mean switching between different languages; we can code switch within the same language. For example, the code we use to speak to a child is different than the code we may use in any given language to speak with a high-ranking official in the same language. According to Carol Myers Scotton, there are three types of choices made in code switching: unmarked, marked, and exploratory choices. Unmarked choice consists of switching from words or phrases of one code to another within acceptable understandings between participants. Exploratory choice resembles unmarked choice but includes an element of uncertainty between participants when the conversation takes place in non-conventionalized exchanges in which the participants are forced to switch codes several times until they find what is mutually acceptable to both participants.3 From an author’s perspective, unmarked and exploratory choices towards a reading audience would be difficult to portray in a text, in that these choices are “a negotiation of normative or predicted behavior” (64) in which both participants can predict the behavior of the other within the exchange. However, I would like to propose that the marked choice lends itself to literary use, in that the marked choice is a deliberate act of “negotiation for some balance of rights and obligations other than the expected one, a negotiation to change in some way the degree of social distance between participants” (65). By code switching in their texts, these three francophone authors deliberately act to obtain a relationship of power with the French (or English in Danticat’s case) institutions rather than simply allowing themselves to be controlled by them. Foucault, as quoted in Paul A. Bové’s essay “Discourse,” states:

In effect, what defines a relationship of power is that it is a mode of action, which does not act directly and immediately on others. Instead it acts upon their actions: an action upon an action, on existing actions or on those which may arise in the present or the future [. . .] A relationship of power can only be articulated on the basis of two elements which are each indispensable if it is really to be a relationship of power: that “the other” (the one over whom power is exercised) be thoroughly recognized and maintained to the very end as a person who acts; and that, faced with a relationship of power, a whole field of responses, reactions, results, and possible inventions may open up (58).

In an attempt to create a space for themselves outside of the prescribed definition given to them by the former colony, these postcolonial authors make marked choices in an attempt to create the relationship of power that Foucault discusses in the above quote. These marked choices strive to displace the power established by the dominant society in order to place the author in a position to exert power for themselves and their people. To understand why these authors feel a need to create displacement through their texts, we can look towards Foucault’s third rule of exclusion: the will to truth. The will to truth, though ambiguous and constantly changing, is defined by Foucault as the division between what is true, as opposed to false. Once a given society determines this, they move to the will to knowledge, which forges areas of discourse and exerts power over other discourses through the first two rules of exclusion: prohibition of words and the opposition of reason and folly. I will not be dealing with the first law of exclusion, as it does not have strong bearings on the argument of this essay. However the second law of exclusion holds strong importance for postcolonial authors.

The inhabitants of Africa and the Caribbean, who were violently forced into French society, viewed the French language much like the language of the sixth century Greek poets, whose discourse, as Foucault describes, inspired respect and terror: “it prophesied the future [. . .] carrying men along with it thus weaving itself into the fabric of fate” (218). With the French colonization of certain African countries, much effort was taken to suppress the native languages and impose the French language on the local people. This was mostly accomplished by educating the native children in French language schools. When the French colonized the Caribbean, they often completely destroyed the indigenous people and then looked to the slave trade for laborers. The enslaved Africans became “colonized” by the French after the abolition of slavery when “capitalist colonialism replaced colonial slavery as the predominant social order” (Coursil, Perret 198). On these islands, Creole developed based on the French language and the native languages of the Africans enslaved under the colonizers’ rule. Given that the historical context and the various African languages spoken by the slaves differed from island to island, diverse types of Creole emerged, which over time became the native language of the suppressed peoples. The French language continued to be the language of power and wealth in the islands, even after the abolition of slavery. When the Creole children began attending the French schools, the teachers forbade the children to speak their native languages. This type of suppression will be illustrated later in my discussion of Danticat’s use of code switching.

Haiti’s history slightly differs from that of the other Caribbean islands. When Spain invaded the island in 1492, the Spaniards annihilated the indigenous Arawak Indians that originally inhabited Haiti, which was then known as Santo-Domingo. When France annexed the island in 1697, changing the name to Saint-Domigue, they looked again to the slave trade to obtain cheap labor. From 1697 to Saint-Domingue’s independence from France in 1804 (at which time the original name “Hayti,” formerly used by the Arawak Indians, was re-established), the pidgin that had begun among the slaves during their journey to the islands developed into Creole, incorporating within it the many French dialects of the colonizers, as had the Creole on the other Caribbean islands. During this time, another group of people, called mulattos, emerged – children born from relations between the colonizers and the slaves. The mulattos in Saint-Domingue, like those of the other Caribbean islands, spoke French and were a distinctly different class from the Creole speaking Africans. When a slave revolt in 1791 freed the Africans from slavery, the minority group of mulattos who spoke French became the dominant group who possessed the power and the wealth of the country. Though only a small population of Haitians spoke French, the French language continued to dominate the social order. When the Creole children began to attend the French schools, they were forbidden, like the children on the other islands, to speak Creole, thus reinforcing the power held by the mulatto class who spoke French. Even with the American occupation between 1915 and 1934, the French language continued to be the language of power that dominated Haiti. Today, French holds its place as the language of power in economics and education.4

For each of these colonized nations, the French language ordered the lives of the natives, predicted their future within the imperialistic institutions and defined their languages as inferior. According to the image of Foucault’s madman, natives of Africa and the Caribbean remained “sane” as long as they remained on the outside of the French language and only communicated among one another.5 Once immersed in the French institutions, with their rules of exclusion, and forced to learn the French language, the natives became much like imprisoned madmen in the eyes of the colonizers. Due to the incompetence of the colonizers, the native-language discourse was viewed as unintelligible, gibberish, and socially unacceptable which in turn made the natives themselves unacceptable except within certain confines of the French society. Unfortunately, this caused a power shift within these colonized nations in which the local inhabitants lost all power to the imperialistic government. The colonized needed to conform to the language and culture of the colonizers in order to have any sort of power at all, but with this assimilation for power came a struggle to maintain native identities and languages. It is against this identity loss that our francophone authors combat: the loss of recognition of an intelligent and valuable people, and of a language or languages significant and powerful.

As I stated above, the rules of exclusion, Foucault explains, rely on institutional support and are “more profoundly accompanied by the manner in which knowledge is employed in a society, the way in which it is exploited, divided and, in some ways, attributed” (219). His description of the far-reaching effects of institutions describes much of the struggle experienced by the African and Caribbean authors. All three of the aforementioned authors learned the French language within their given societies and, through Hampâté Bâ and Djebar’s autobiographical works and Renee H. Shea’s interview with Danticat, we have some first-person accounts of what these authors experienced. Hampâté Bâ’s recounting of his experiences in the colonial education system paints a realistic picture, from the native’s point of view, of the power shift from the native people to the colonizers. The purpose of teaching the colonizer’s language to the natives was strictly to acquire workers, not to liberate them; the power of discourse, as well as many other forms of power, rested with the imperialist government and its people. “What is an educational system, after all,” asks Foucault, “if not a ritualisation of the word; if not a qualification of a (diffuse) doctrinal group; if not a distribution and an appropriation of discourse, with all its learning and its powers?” (227).

Hampâté Bâ explains in his text that during his school age years, from 1912 to 1921, the leaders of each tribe were required to send a certain number of children to the French schools to learn the French language. These students would eventually serve as subordinates in public, military and domestic domains within the French institutional systems (257-58). This structure of “improvisation,” as Stephen A. Greenblatt describes in his essay “Culture,” provides the French institutions a way of defining all the native participants they attempt to assimilate into their society (229). As for himself, Hampâté Bâ succeeded well above average in all his studies and was destined to work as a subordinate at the highest level of the public sphere. The only drawback was that he would have been required to complete two more years of education in a region far from his family. Therefore, he informed his teacher that he wished to decline the offer of further education. When his refusal had been communicated to the commanding officer, he was sentenced to work in a much lower position than he merited, in a location residing even further away from his family. Refusing these orders would have resulted in his execution; therefore, he had no choice but to submit to the new orders. Despite the French culture’s improvisational structure, some individuals such as Amadou Hampâté Bâ simply did not fit. As Greenblatt explains, “A life that fails to conform at all, that violates absolutely all the available patterns, will have to be dealt with as an emergency – hence exiled, or killed, or declared a god” (229). As can be seen from this account, the French officer held complete control over Hampâté Bâ’s life, despite his abilities to break away from the madman image, obviously showing equal or greater intelligence than that of his oppressors. What was not obvious to Hampâté Bâ until this moment was that, once he learned the French language, he became defined and restricted by it, placing him at a greater disadvantage than if he had remained on the outside of it. To better comprehend this disadvantage, it is important to understand what Hampâté Bâ’s destiny would have been had he not entered the French education system. Amadou Hampâté Bâ tells us that, before being chosen to attend the French school, he had been destined to become a “marabout-enseignant” (257) [spiritual teacher] within his own community, a position of great respect and high social status. The arrival of the French colonizers and his appointment to the French school altered his destiny. In the French system, he would continuously be labeled as someone of lower status, lower intelligence. So how does he react to this French definition of himself?

Hampâté Bâ went on to become a historian, a theologian, an ethnographer, a novelist, an autobiographer, a linguist, and an ambassador. He eventually worked for IFAN, the French colonial research institute, participating in African historical and ethnographical research. As a writer, using the colonizer’s language that defined him within the French institutions, Hampâté Bâ attempted to negotiate a new relationship of power within these institutions by redefining himself and his people in his autobiography Amkoullet l’enfant peul: mémoires [Amkoullel, Foulani Child: Mèmoires]. His forward functions as his personal introduction to the African narrative style and to the differences between the colonized forms of communication and that of his own native forms. Starting from the beginning of his text, the author makes it clear that he writes this forward to aid his French, not African, readers. In the forward, he explains four aspects of an African tale that differ from Western tales: memory, chronology, point of reference, and dreams and predictions. Each of these must be understood in order for the readers to engage themselves in the story and, since the French readers are likely to be unfamiliar with them, the author explains each of them. In the section “La mémoire africaine” (11), [The African memory], Hampâté Bâ explains the process of the African oral tradition of repeating stories in order to remember the minutest details of a tale. Due to years of experience in this practice, he explains, he continually relives these memories that he will recount; therefore, the readers should trust that the tales within the text are true despite the confusion they may encounter. One of these areas of confusion resides in the chronology of the text. As the author explains, African narrators do not concern themselves with dates. He goes on to explain: “Dans les récits africains où le passé est revécu comme une experience présente, hors du temps en quelque sorte, il y a parfois un certain chaos qui gêne les esprits occidentaux, mais où nous nous retrouvons parfaitement” (12). [In the African tales, where the past is relived like a present day experience, outside of time, there is sometimes a certain chaos that confuses the Western mind, but where we find our way perfectly]. This marks one of the first incidences of code switching from the author indicating that he directs his work towards Western readers. Though he continues to write in French, he has gone from speaking naturally, as if to his fellow Africans, to speaking in a more explicative manner. In this way, the relationship of power shifts to show that he holds the knowledge the Western readers need; he carries the wisdom in the relationship, not them.

In the section “Zone de reference,” Hampâté Bâ clarifies in what region of Africa his story takes place, pointedly explaining that not all of Africa is the same and not all African traditions identical or, in terms of definition, he points out the futility of defining Africans in one specific manner. His last explanation deals with dreams and predictions which, as Hampâté Bâ explains, weave themselves into everyday African life but which will appear odd to non-Africans. Possessing just a hint of mockery directed to his Western readers, Hampâté Bâ’s foreword thus prepares them for a story filled with languages and cultures unlike their own. We see this same hint of mockery when, two pages into the first chapter, he stops his narration with “‘Pas si vite !’ s’écriera sans doute le lecteur non africain, peu familiarisé avec les grands noms de notre histoire” (18). [“Not so fast!” will cry undoubtedly the non-African reader, unfamiliar with the great names of our history”]. This demonstrates one of the stylistic characteristics of an oral tradition narration, also found in Western narrations, called digression in which the author stops his narration to address someone outside of the story. However, this is not a simple digression. Hampâté Bâ makes a marked choice here to point out the ignorance of his readers. Another characteristic associated with oral tradition is the use of proverbs. Though these address more the local, less educated class, they are nevertheless defined as “a piece of folk wisdom with terseness and charm. The ‘terseness’ implies a certain economy in the choice of words and a sharpness of focus, while the ‘charm’ conveys the touch of literary or poetic beauty in the expression” (Okpewho, 226). Hampâté Bâ uses these several times within his novel, perhaps as a method to show that he does not fit in the lower level definition that he was originally placed in within the French institutional discourse, as can be seen in his choice language

Having lived in various places in Mali with his family, the author acquired many languages during his childhood. He uses this skill to pepper his autobiography with African names of people and objects in the Bambara, Wolof, Foula or various other African languages. Some examples of this are “tourti (ample sous-boubou)” [loose fitting tunic usually worn underneath another tunic]; “Debbo diom timba, ‘la femme à pantaloon’” (57) [the woman who wears trousers], “hadith (paroles et actes du Prophéte)” (90) [words and actions of the Prophet], and “Moodi (maître)” (193) [teacher]. Sometimes the author does not translate these African words, such as “Kabah ! Mah ! Mah !” (335). In this instance, the Western reader only knows that the young people are yelling at the dogs, but they rest ignorant of exactly what these cries mean. These marked choices displace the relationship of power between Hampâté Bâ and his Western readers by showing the rich diversity of languages native Africans possess. Further still, he dares to intercede complete phrases in these languages such as “Wororoy en boni, Tidjani mayi ! (Nous sommes fichus, Tidjani est mort !)” (48) [We are done for, Tidjani is dead!]. In so doing, Hampâté Bâ risks rejection by potential publishers according to Foucault’s second rule of exclusion. To avoid this, he adds a translation in French directly following the Foula version. However, what makes this most interesting is that, by interspersing African discourse within the French language in his text, Hampâté Bâ rejects the preset definitions given to him by French institutions, redefining himself within them as someone intelligent, worthy of respect and recognition. Moreover, he places the Western readers in the excluded position of Foucault’s madman, outside of the present discourse for several seconds, causing a displacement of power, until they read the French translation that follows. We can detect here several taps on the chisel that carve the beginnings of a cavity in the alleged solid structure of the dominant institutions. We can also perceive the beginnings of a relationship of power between the native and his “other.” In confronting the sociolinguistic functional differences between French and Arabic, Djebar also chisels away at this cavity, creating space for the postcolonial authors within the colonizing institutions and building a stronger foundation for a relationship of power.

Assia Djebar’s novel L’amour, la fantasia [Fantasia, An Algerian Cavalcade], first published in 1985 in France, paints a gruesome picture of Algeria’s history from the time of its invasion by the French in 1830 to the War of Independence during 1954-62. Throughout the novel, she interweaves historical data extracted from French men writing memoirs, letters, or newspaper articles, with her personal experiences and interviews that she obtained from village women who experienced the War of Independence first hand. The autobiographical accounts reflect her educational experience during the 1940s and 1950s, starting approximately twenty years after Hampâté Bâ’s. In this text, we are more aware of the emotional struggle experienced by those educated in both their native language and in the imperial language early on in life. Djebar, a female in an Arabic culture, discerns the constant whispers from neighbors pertaining to the dangers of teaching a girl how to read and write, especially in the enemy’s language (3). Djebar only briefly experiences the freedom of Foucault’s excluded “madman” before her father introduces her to the French language at the early age of five and, once defined by its discourse, she finds herself at odds with her native discourse. In certain aspects of the rules of exclusion within her own native Arabic discourse, she becomes redefined within it because of her definition by the enemy’s discourse. By addressing the sociolinguistic functional differences between the two languages through code switching in her text, one could suppose that she attempts to dispel the madman image of herself from both societies, establishing a relationship of power between the two of them. In comparing the difference between her experiences and that of Hampâté Bâ, we can see that the dominant, governing French institutions (pedagogical, publishing, libraries, etc.) experienced a shift in how they defined the colonized natives. Djebar’s education consisted of far more than simply learning the French language. After completing her primary education in Algeria, she obtained both a high school and a university education in France, became a university professor in Algeria and is now a well-known university professor in New York, as well as a successful author. Although she was allowed into a relatively powerful space in the French societal discourse, the battle did not cease for Djebar, as she still found herself struggling between languages. Although clearly gifted with the ability to write beautifully in the French language, Djebar experienced a constant struggle between what the French language offered her and what it took away from her:

For my part, even where I am composing the most commonplace of sentences, my writing is immediately caught in the snare of the old war between two peoples. So I swing like a pendulum from images of war (war of conquest or of liberation, but always in the past) to the expression of a contradictory, ambiguous love (216).

In the same fashion as Hampâté Bâ, Assia Djebar code switches between French and Arabic throughout her text, sometimes translating, sometimes not. But where Hampâté Bâ often interjected full phrases, Djebar mostly uses individual words, often explaining their sociolinguistic significance. For example, in a chapter entitled “My Father Writes to My Mother” (35), Djebar explains that in Arabic discourse there exists a proviso in which a husband and wife must never address or mention one another by name; a pronoun suffices to make reference to one another. She explains further that the husband, if he has made the pilgrimage to Mecca, obtains the title “Hajj” (35). In this narrative, Djebar’s parents become accustomed to the European way of speech and begin refering to one another by name, which horrifies the Muslim women in their community. Djebar puts forth here the idea that the structure of the French discourse causes instability within the native discourse, causing dissension between the cultures. A few chapters later, while recounting an interaction between a brother and sister, Djebar focuses on a specific word “hannouni” which, the brother explains to his sister, is a word that when uttered reveals the face of a friend because it exists solely in their dialect. Djebar insists further through this narrative that some words in her language simply do not translate: “How can you translate this hannouni by a word like ‘tender-hearted’ or ‘tendrelou’? Or by ‘my darling’ or ‘my precious heart’ […] This word ‘tendrelou’ seems like the hidden heart of a fresh lettuce […] which flourishes among us and which, so to speak, we swallow […]” (81). Djebar’s insistence that certain aspects of her language cannot be directly translated displaces the French language from its dominant position. In so doing, she dispels the French societal institutions’ image of the French language as all encompassing in that it does not provide words to define every aspect of the native’s life and at times causes discord between the two cultures as a result of its inefficiency. What she appears to be negotiating for, within the French institutional discourse, is a space that establishes a multilingual, multicultural discourse allowing for clearer definitions of the individuals within this given society. A model of this type of discourse can be clearly seen in Edwidge Danticat’s work.

Unlike the works of the two previous authors, Edwidge Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory is not directly autobiographical, though certain aspects of Danticat’s life may be reflected through her characters. Therefore, we turn to Danticat’s 1996 interview with Renee H. Shea to get a first-person perspective of her experience of learning in a French institution during the 1970s, approximately thirty years after Djebar. As I mentioned earlier, though no longer under French rule, Haitians continued to be dominated by the French language. “‘If you didn’t speak French at my school, the teacher would act like she didn’t hear what you were saying,’” she explains, “‘French is the socially valid and accepted language, but then the people who speak Creole are not validated and in some way are being told their voice isn’t heard” (388). As can be determined from this statement, even in the 1970s the French institutions that determined “acceptable” discourse continued to define natives as belonging to a lower status in their society, especially if they exclusively spoke their maternal language. However, Danticat’s text, which was published in 1994, clearly shows a shift in acceptability of the language of the “other” by dominant publishing institutions in that Danticat code switches from English to Creole throughout the novel, thus creating a space for Creole discourse to be heard.

Edwidge Danticat, the youngest of the three francophone authors in this essay, makes an obvious marked code choice in this novel by choosing to write in English as opposed to French, her second language and the socially, economically dominant language of Haiti. However, in her interview with Shea, she indicates that she wrote the text in English simply because the circumstances in her life led her in this direction, not because she rejected writing in French or Creole. Danticat’s code switching resembles that of both Hampâté Bâ and Djebar in that she code switches to Creole for individual words describing people, food or objects such as “pitit soyèt, ragamuffins” (20), “tèt gridap, a tin-can lamp” (109), and “Madan Saras, vendors” (177). Similar to Hampâté Bâ, she also interjects Creole phrases during conversations among characters such as, “‘I am dactylo,’ I said. ‘Ki sa?’ [What’s that?] ‘A secretary’” (99). In these examples, her attempts at negotiating a relationship of power with the dominant institutions parallel those of Hampâté Bâ and Djebar, where she differs is in her style. Because her work is a fictitious novel, there is not the same explicative tone to her work that we see in the works of Hampâté Bâ and Djebar. Danticat simply code switches within the text to enhance the narrative. However, if we pay close attention to the specific incidences of code switching, we can detect certain nuances hidden within that explain the relationship struggles between the French and Creole languages.

Danticat’s work is a novel based on the complexities and difficulties that exist in mother/daughter relationships. In the novel, Sophie, the main character, is raised by her Aunt in Haiti until her mother, who moved to New York soon after Sophie’s birth, decides to send for her. Once in New York, Sophie struggles to learn the English language, to deal with a new culture and to understand a mother she has never known. The majority of the code switching to French within the text consists of simple words such as oui and non, which carry little significance to the structure of the story. The implication here appears to be that the French language holds little importance to the author. The second use for French words and phrases surfaces most often when associated with sorrowful or painful circumstances. For example, when Sophie learns that her mother has committed suicide, Danticat code switches between French and English in the dialogue between Sophie and her mother’s boyfriend: “‘Sophie. Je t’en prie [Please]. I’m sorry.’” and “‘Calme-toi [Calm down]. Listen to me’” (223). By only using French words in these contexts, the author seems to be indicating that the French language carries negative connotations for the Creole speaking Haitians.

Another interesting characteristic of Danticat’s work lies in the smoothness of the code switching/translation combinations. Unlike Hampâté Bâ who gives the French translation in parentheses directly after the African phrase, Danticat translates the Creole or French either by having the character repeat themselves in English, such as the first phrase quoted above, or by implying the translation in the response of another character, such as in the exchange between Sophie’s mother and Jaqueline, a makeup vendor on the street: “‘Sak passé, Jacqueline?’ [How’s it going, Jacqueline?] said my mother. ‘You know,’ answered Jacqueline in Creole. ‘I’m doing what I can.’” (51). This Creole phrase translates easily for French or English readers in that the word passé contains a similar connation in those languages. However, if there are any doubts, Jacqueline’s response clarifies the complete meaning. In this same phrase, we see another technique Danticat uses to represent the Creole. Because she cannot incorporate too much Creole into the text without isolating her French and English readers, she often indicates the language spoken by identifying the language after the interpolated clause. Through this diverse use of language, Danticat appears to model the multilingual, multicultural relationship of power that Hampâté Bâ and Djebar, as well as other postcolonial authors have been negotiating. She too continues to negotiate for a stronger relationship of power in a multilingual discourse society. Clear examples of this emerge several times within her text, as when she writes, “‘There is no way to know anything unless you apply your ears. When you listen, it’s kòm si you had deafness before and you can hear now’” (153). In this example, the character code switches to Creole in the middle of the sentence and kòm si is never translated. The Creole co-exists with the English without explanation or translation. French readers comprehend the meaning due to the phonological similarity to comme si while the English readers can easily decipher the meaning within the context. To some extent, this could be considered a realization of the relationship of power that these three francophone authors have strived for. The polyphonic cohabitation of English, French and Creole within the same text demonstrates that there exists a place for this mixture of languages within the literary society.

So has a more equal relationship of power been formed between the francophone authors and dominant institutions that continue to hold the publishing power? One thing stands clear: the dominant institutions have definitely opened space in their discourse structure to allow these authors higher status in the dominant society as well as the opportunity to include their native languages within their texts. If we return to Foucault’s two elements of a relationship of power, 1) recognition of the colonized as a person who acts and 2) the opening of opportunities within the imperialistic society, we can assert that the relationship of power sought by these three francophone authors has been established over the last few decades, albeit not as thoroughly as one would desire. However, in Postcolonial Theory and Francophone Literary Studies published this year, several studies show that the struggle for recognition and significance continues. Michel Laronde, in his study “Displaced Discourses,” discusses the difficulties entailed in identifying and categorizing African literature published in France, written in French, by authors living in or outside of France. He states as his main argument that, “in a postcolonial context, a French cultural space no longer stands alone with regard to, and in opposition to, a francophone diaspora with its many cultures, but it has become part of a larger francophone space that now includes it. This should dramatically impact the hegemonic perceptions of French literature within French culture and of French literary institutions for other French-speaking cultures” (176, italics mine). It would appear, at first glance, that Laronde believes that perceptions within the dominant institutions have altered to give space to postcolonial authors. This remains true to some extent; however, the word should indicates that there continue to exist some issues to address. Laronde goes on to explain that in the 1980s, Maghreb writers, educated and writing in France, found their works rejected by both the French institutions and the Algerian institutions because neither knew how to categorize immigrant writings. Laronde also states that, “Still today, French literary institutions either treat beur6 literature as a “minor literature” or place it on the shelves with ‘the literatures of the Maghreb’ in major bookstores (like the FNAC, for example, which may be considered as reflecting a general institutional attitude)” (179). Therefore, we can conclude from this argument that, though space has been carved out to include these authors, there still appear to be questions as to how they are defined within these institutions as well as whether their use of native languages within their texts continues to be accepted.

Another study in Postcolonial Theory and Francophone Literary Studies, written by Renée Larrier, addresses similar issues in regards to postcolonial Caribbean writers, and to Edwidge Danticat specifically. Larrier argues for recognition of Haitian literature as a transnational literature, rather than a francophone literature because “[h]aitian literature is produced in different languages - French, Creole, English, and Spanish- in different locations, and to read it solely within the francophone frame is to do it a disservice” (212). Her article gives a more positive position to these postcolonial authors within the dominant discourse. She explains that authors such as Danticat are studied in universities in English departments as well as French departments at both the undergraduate and graduate levels (216). However, there still seems to be the questions on how to categorize them. “Writers sometimes become immersed in identity politics because the literary enterprise forces them to,” Larrier explains, “Where should their works be placed on library shelves, for example?” (215). However, according to Larrier, the Haitian writers retain their strong allegiance to their native countries and national identities despite their new positions within the dominant discourse of their new residences.

In this study, I have shown how three francophone authors, Amadou Hampâté Bâ, Assia Djebar, and Edwidge Danticat have attempted to carve a space for their cultures and their native languages within the French and English dominant publishing institutions. By code switching between their native languages and the dominant French or English language, they have created polyphonic literature that rings with the richness of the identities associated with them. By doing so, they have chiseled an expanding cavity in the dominant French and English societal discourses that allows them to benefit from those societies, while at the same time guarding the “self” of their individual discourse societies. However, Foucault’s second rule of exclusion, that of reason and folly, still appears to have some power over excluding postcolonial authors who choose to intersperse their native languages within their texts. In her interview with Renée Shea, Danticat mentions that she was told she code switched too much in Breath, Eyes, Memory, her first published novel. In her second, The Farming of Bone, she does very little code switching and in her latest, The Dew Breaker, even less. Discouraging as it may be to see the publishing institution’s influence on her writing, her novels continue to expose the “otherness” of her identity and continues to carve a place in the dominant institution’s discourse, which will perhaps provide a wider space for future writers. “Paròl gin pié zèl.” Yes, indeed, ‘words can give wings to your feet’ (Danticat 234).

1  Since L’amour, la fantasia was translated into English in 1993; I have chosen to use quotations from Dorothy S. Blair’s translation rather than quote from the French text.
2  To the best of my knowledge, this book has not been translated into English. The English version of the title shown here is my own translation. All translations for this text from this point forward are my own unless otherwise stated.
3  This is a very brief outline of unmarked choice and exploratory choice. As these two elements hold little importance to this essay, I’ve chosen to minimize the definitions. For more detailed information, refer to the article by Carol Myers-Scotton.
4  The historical facts about Haiti were taken from the Encyclopedia Britannica and the “The Art of Haiti”, a website referenced by the Encyclopedia Britannica.
5  The term “native” refers to non-white indigenous people. Though the inhabitants of the Caribbean are not considered “natives” because they are not indigenous to the islands, in order to simplify the terminology in this essay, I have chosen to include the Caribbean inhabitants under the same term “native”.
6  “Beur literature” was the label placed on immigrant Algerian literature in the 1980s. “As literature produced in France by a group of writers ethnically and culturally identifiable as postcolonial subjects, beur literature has no space within ‘French’ literature. Promoting a distinction by using the label ‘beur fiction’ has a connotation of displaced status with regard to ‘French’ literature, while calling it ‘North African’ or ‘Algerian’ literature signaled rejection. The oppositional discourse within the French institution on beur literature either refused to acknowledge its existence as a singular discourse with a specific body of texts or reduced it to a ‘minor literature’ (175).

Works Cited

Bâ, Amadou Hampâté. Amkoullel l’enfant peul: Mémoires. Paris: J’ai lu, 1996.

Bové, Paul A. “Discourse.” Critical Terms for Literary Study. Ed. Frank
        Lentricchia and Thomas McLauglin. Chicago: The University of Chicago
        Press, 1990. 50-65.

Contemporary African Database. The African Centre. London. 2001-2004.
        http://people.africadatabase.org/.

Danticat, Edwidge. Breath, Eyes, Memory. New York: Soho, 1994.

Djebar, Assia. Fantasia, An Algerian Cavalcade. Trans. Dorothy S. Blair.
        Portsmouth: Heinemann, 1993.

- - -. L’amour, la fantasia. Paris: Albin Michel, S.A., 1995.

Coursil, Jacques and Delphine Perret. “The Francophone Postcolonial Field.”
        Postcolonial Theory and Francophone Literary Studies. Ed. H. Adiai
        Murdoch and Anne Donadey. University Press of Florida: Gainesville,
        2005. 193-207.

Greenblatt, Stephen. “Culture.” Critical Terms for Literary Study. Ed. Frank
        Lentricchia and Thomas McLauglin. Chicago: The University of Chicago
        Press, 1990. 225-232.

“History of Haiti.” 2005. The Art of Haiti – MedaliaArt. 27 January 2005.
        http://www.medalia.net/Hhistory.html.

Kerlee, Imee. “Edwidge Danticat.” 2000. 14 December 2004.
        http://www.english.emory.edu/Bahri/Danticat.html.

Larrier, Renée. “Borders, Books, and Point de Repère.” Postcolonial Theory and
        Francophone Literary Studies. Ed. H. Adiai Murdoch and Anne Donadey.
        University Press of Florida: Gainesville, 2005. 211-223.

Myers-Scotton, Carol. “Code Switching and Types of Multilingual Communities.”
        Language Spread and Language Policy. Ed. Peter Lowenberg.
        Georgetown: Georgetown University Press, 1988.

Nichols, Patricia C. “Creoles of the USA.” Language in the USA. Ed. Charles A.
        Ferguson and Shirley Brice Heath. Cambridge University Press: London,
        1981. 69-91.

Okpewho, Isidore. African oral literature: backgrounds, character, and
        continuity. Indiana University Press: Bloomington, 1992.

Perret, Delphine. La créolité, Espace de creation. Ibis Rouge: Paris, 2001.

Shea, Renee H. “The Dangerous Job of Edwidge Danticat, An Interview.”
        Callaloo 19.2 (1996): 382-89.

West Indies, history of." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2005. Encyclopædia
        Britannica Online 30. Jan. 2005.
        http://0-search.eb.com.opac.sfsu.edu:80/eb/article?tocId=54382.

Back to top

 

../Submissions

../SFSU

 

 

 

home | back issues | blog | store | links | submissions | about | contact

© 2005 Comparative Literature Student Association at San Francisco State University
design: landisdesigns.com