Laura Williamson gained her undergraduate degree in French and Hispanic Studies from Queen Mary, University of London in 2003. She then taught French and Spanish at secondary school level in the U.K. before moving to California in summer 2018 and embarking on the Comparative and World Literature master’s program at San Francisco State University. She works with world literatures in English, in addition to Francophone and Hispanic literary traditions, and she is particularly drawn to post-colonial prose fiction. Her research interests include literature of migration and diaspora, as well as trauma, memory and healing. She is currently researching Caribbean migration narratives.
In their respective semi-autobiographical novels, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents and L’Exil selon Julia, the Dominican-American writer Julia Alvarez and the French Guadeloupean writer Gisèle Pineau both explore the themes of cultural hybridity, the pain of exile, and the search for a sense of belonging through their characters’ experiences of immigration to the United States and France from their homelands of the Dominican Republic and Guadeloupe, respectively. In this paper, I examine the extent to which the two novelists subscribe to a “myth of return” and present the idea that a return to one’s cultural roots is the cure-all for a migrant’s sense of displacement. Focusing on the narrative voice and structure of the novels, I compare the representation of the difference generational voices portrayed by the two writers, as well as the presentation of their characters’ experiences of exile and quest for a sense of identity. In addition, I explore Pineau’s examination of the enduring colonial relationship between France and Guadeloupe and show how it is portrayed as central to her characters’ inability to integrate into French society. Ultimately, Alvarez presents an ambiguous and nuanced picture of the return to the homeland as the remedy for her characters’ sense of displacement, which is in turn reflected in her circular narrative. In contrast, it is the colonial relationship between France and Guadeloupe in Pineau’s novel which determines the direction of her narrative and, therefore, her utopian portrayal of the myth of return at the end of her text, highlighting the lasting legacies of colonization on displaced populations.
Exile and Belonging in Julia Alvarez’s How the García Girls Lost Their Accents and Gisèle Pineau’s L’Exil selon Julia
In How the García Girls Lost Their Accents (1991) the Dominican-American writer, Julia Alvarez, tells the story of the García family, who in 1960, (in similar circumstances to the author herself), are forced to move from their home in the Dominican Republic to the United States to escape the Trujillo dictatorship; through this depiction she considers the issue of discrimination, the difficulty of assimilation, the pain of exile and the search for a sense of belonging. Gisèle Pineau, the French-born writer of Guadeloupean origin explores the same themes as Alvarez in her semi-autobiographical novel, L’Exil selon Julia (Exile according to Julia) (1996). The narrator, a young girl living with her Guadeloupean family in Paris, endures racism and exclusion from French society due to the color of her skin. Pineau examines the themes of exile and belonging through the character of Julia, the narrator’s grandmother, who emigrates from Guadeloupe to live with the family in Paris, offering the narrator a connection to her cultural roots in her quest for a sense of identity. Both Alvarez and Pineau, who are themselves second-generation immigrants, offer us textualizations of the immigrant experience¹ from the perspectives of the different generations of the families in their novels. Both novels also illustrate the deep cultural divide between France and Guadeloupe, and the Dominican Republic and the United States, respectively exploring the sense of alienation and cultural hybridity that this engenders in the protagonists.
When comparing the two texts, I use the following questions taken from Susan Ireland’s and Patrice J. Proulx’s introduction to Immigrant Narratives in Contemporary France to focus my analysis: “Given the fact that [these] immigrant writers are dealing with multiple and conflicting sites of home, is a reconciliation with their origins possible or even desirable?”; “Do they subscribe to a myth of return?”; and “How do they position themselves in relation to notions such as assimilation, integration and the right to difference?” (3). Through comparison of these two novels, I will posit that Alvarez’ and Pineau’s fundamental message is the following: exile from one’s homeland causes a rupture in one’s sense of identity, producing a profound sense of loss and trauma. I will also demonstrate to what extent the two writers subscribe to a myth of return – how their differing choices of narrative voices and structures have a bearing on how possible they believe it is to heal from this trauma of exile through a return to one’s cultural roots. In addition, I will explore the contrasting portrayals of France and United States as countries of exile in the novels, examining, in particular, the colonial discourse explored in Pineau’s novel.
In How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, Alvarez narrates the story from the point of view of the four García sisters – Carla, Sandra, Yolanda and Sofía – as well as their parents, Laura and Carlos, and the various chapters have subheading which, as Silvio Sirius indicates, “reveal whom the chapters are about, and (…) don’t always coincide with the narrative point of view ” (22). This structural choice, creating chapters focused on the various sisters’ and parents’ experiences of exile, allows Alvarez to detail how exile and the subsequent quest for identity affects the characters differently, highlighting the generational difference between the girls and their parents. Overall, though, the voice of the third sister, Yolanda, dominates as her point of view occupies five of the fifteen chapters, and the novel both begins and ends with her story, suggesting hers is the principal perspective. I will explore these various perspectives, focusing on Yolanda’s voice in order to examine Alvarez’s message about exile and return to one’s homeland. In addition, as Silvio Sirius also reveals, Alvarez plays with various narrative voices in the novel, skipping between first-person narrator, third-person omniscient and third-person limited narrator throughout the novel; and we will see the influence this has on the message of her text.
In terms of how the structure of How the García Girls Lost Their Accents presents the theme of belonging, it is also important to note the chronology of the novel. The events in the novel are told in reverse chronological order and the narrative is split into three parts: in Part 1, set between 1989 and 1972, we are presented with the sisters’ lives as young adults in the U.S. and their experiences in college as they negotiate American culture; Part 2, set between 1960 and 1970, traces their adolescent years growing up in the U.S. with frequent trips back to see their family in the Dominican Republic; and Part 3, set between 1960 and 1956, details their comfortable childhood on the island as wealthy Dominicans, and their traumatic departure when their father’s life is in danger from the Trujillo regime. The opening chapter is told through a limited third-person narrator recounting Yolanda’s return to the island as an adult in a quest to reconnect with her cultural roots and find a place where she feels at home. As she spends time with the strong women in her Dominican family, the narrator gives us insight into Yolanda’s desires for a sense of belonging: “Let this turn out to be my home, Yolanda wishes” (11). From the beginning, therefore, Alvarez’s narrator communicates a sense of loss and rootlessness caused by exile, coupled with a desire to return home.
In his study of contemporary immigrant fiction in America, David Cowart remarks that one of the general features of fiction in this category is that “[t]he immigrant must deal with prejudice and homesickness but eventually becomes empowered by a new American identity” (7). This is certainly the case for the four young García sisters in How the García Girls Lost Their Accents. After moving to New York, they initially feel a deep sense of loss and terrible homesickness for the island of their childhood. On the anniversary of their first year in the States, for example, the eldest daughter Carla thinks to herself, just before the candle is blown out on the flan baked to mark the occasion, “What do you wish for on the first celebration of the day you lost everything?” (Alvarez 150). She yearns for “the lush grasses and thick-limbed, wine-laden trees around the compound back home” (151), comparing them favorably to the “little green squares around each look-alike house” in the Long Island neighborhood where they now live, which seem “more like carpeting that had to be kept clean than yards to play in” (151). The sisters also endure racist abuse: they are called “dirty spics” and are told to go back where they have come from by classmates and neighbors alike; they have stones thrown at them at school; and they are ridiculed for their accents. Initially, therefore, they feel that they do not belong in this new country. However, even though they yearn to go back to the Dominican Republic in their first few years in New York, they also quickly start to assimilate to life in America, although this is by no means a smooth process. They start to embrace liberal American teenage culture and reject the more traditional, restrictive upbringing they encounter on trips back to the island: “we began to develop a taste of the American teenage good life, and soon, Island was old hat, man. Island was the hair-and-nails crowd, chaperones and icky boys with all their macho strutting […]. By the end of a couple of years away from home, we had more than adjusted” (108-109). They portray America as “home of the brave and land of the free” to their “over-chaperoned girl cousins” (113-114) and assimilate to the extent that when the youngest, Fifi, is sent back to live on the island to curb her dangerous American ways (after she is caught with a bag of pot in her room), her return to the Dominican Republic is seen by the others as an “exile” (117). And then when she subsequently adopts island fashions and gets a macho, controlling boyfriend, her sisters are concerned she is “caving into family pressure and regressing into some nice third-world girl” (118). Therefore, the Dominican culture is generally portrayed disdainfully as sexist, conservative, and repressive by the Americanized teenage sisters, who have gained a greater sense of freedom and equality from their experience of living in a more liberal society.
However, the girls’ feelings towards their homeland are complex. When Fifi gets into trouble for being out unchaperoned with her island boyfriend, their mother exclaims to their aunt Carmen that if the girls cannot behave she will stop sending them to the island in the holidays. Their aunt’s dismay at this news and her show of love for them, reignites their feelings of connection to the island:
We look at each other and then drop our gaze to hide our confusion. We are free at last, but here, just at the moment the gate swings open, and we can fly the coop, Tía Carmen’s love revives our old homesickness. It’s like this monkey experiment Carla read about in her clinical psych class. These baby monkeys were kept in a cage so long, they wouldn’t come out when the doors were finally open. Instead they stayed inside and poked their arms through the bars for their food, just out of reach. (131)
The girls’ relationship with their homeland is complicated: they feel a profound sense of inner conflict, torn between a deep psychological attachment to the island of their childhood and at the same time finding life there restrictive. Despite feeling trapped by conservative Dominican culture, like monkeys kept in cages, they are (partially at least) conditioned to their environment and therefore the thought of leaving it constitutes a painful act of separation and trauma. It is this sense of inner conflict, this cultural hybridity, portrayed in terms of a psychological trauma, which defines them as immigrants, as people living between two places and two cultures.
In contrast, the father, as a representative of the older generation, maintains a closer connection to his homeland, only learning to speak English poorly, continuing to read Dominican newspapers, and expecting his daughters to adhere to traditional Dominican values. The mother’s relationship to the homeland is more ambiguous, however, as although she agrees her daughters should conduct themselves like good Dominican girls, she herself starts to break free from the patriarchal definition of her role as a housewife and mother, taking classes to prepare her for a career, and improving her English skills. As the narrator writes of Mami, “Recently, she had begun spreading her wings, […] dreaming of a bigger-than-family-size life for herself. She still did lip service to the old ways, while herself nibbling away at forbidden fruit” (116). So, even though Mami is a member of the older generation, her position as a woman, and her desire to take advantage of the greater equality, freedom, and independence afforded women in 1970’s American society, encourages her to assimilate more fully than her husband. The reference to forbidden fruit in this extract, which alludes to Eve’s eating of the apple in the garden of Eden, further underlines how Mami’s new-found independence goes against the narrow role assigned to women by the Catholic church in her homeland and suggests that, in the view of those with conservative Catholic values, like Eve’s eating of the apple, her behavior could have dangerous consequences.
Despite the García family’s partial assimilation into U.S. society, their experience of exile from their homeland is still portrayed as traumatic in the novel. The second sister Sandi is marked forever by a sense of loss caused by their exile. For example, when leaving the island, she is told to choose one toy to take with her, and, as the third-person narrator explains,
It was strange how when held up to the absolute phrase – the one toy I really want – nothing quite filled the whole that was opening wide inside Sandi. […] Nothing would quite fill that need, even years after, not the pretty woman she would surprise herself by becoming, not the prizes for her schoolwork and scholarships […], not the men that held her close and almost convinced her when their mouths came down hard on her lips that this, this was what Sandi had been missing. (215)
Sandi, like Yolanda, experiences a prolonged feeling of bereavement due to departure from their homeland. However, Yolanda is the only one of the four García girls who shows a strong desire to return to the Dominican Republic. Although her visit to the island as an adult in the first chapter is meant to be a holiday, the narrative strongly conveys the sense that this is a homecoming. During Yolanda’s road trip across the island, for instance, as she stops to look out on a view over the foothills, she secretly decides she might stay, and we learn, “[t]his is what she has been missing all these years without really knowing that she has been missing it. Standing here in the quiet, she believes she has never felt at home in the States, never” (12). Here, through the character of Yolanda, Alvarez explores the concept of the “myth of return”; the idea that it is only through a return to one’s homeland and one’s cultural roots that one feels a sense of belonging and completeness.
The novel shows how Yolanda’s desire to return to the Dominican Republic partially stems from the difficulties she encounters assimilating in the United States due to her feeling of otherness, as well as her conflicted feelings surrounding US and Dominican cultures. She recounts her first uncomfortable experience at college where she feels like one of the “foreign students” (88), “profoundly out of place”, and like “an intruder on the sanctuary of English majors” (89), despite having lived in the U.S. for at least ten years and possessing ““accentless” English” (100). And her first relationship with an American boy, Rudy, is complicated by her traditional Dominican upbringing, which means that she is naïve about sex, fears losing her virginity, and expects “the guy [to do] all the courting and seeking out” (100). As she states, “I saw what a cold, lonely life awaited me in this country. I would never find someone who would understand my peculiar mix of Catholicism and agnosticism, Hispanic and American styles” (99). We discover through the course of the novel that Yolanda’s marriage fails because, as she says in her own words, her American husband, John, and her “just didn’t speak the same language” (81), a phrase which highlights the cultural divide between them. And we learn that after leaving her husband she has a nervous breakdown and is checked into a private clinic by her parents where she fantasizes that the doctor will “save her body-slash-mind-slash-soul by taking all the slashes out, making her one whole Yolanda” (80). Her double Dominican-American identity means she feels misunderstood and alienated from her American peers but at the same time her exile from the Dominican Republic and her subsequent Americanization severs her from her cultural roots. She is split between two cultures and two identities, with no sense of fully belonging to either, which leads her to experience a violent fracturing of her personality. In the novel, this fracture is characterized as a deep psychological trauma leading to a mental breakdown.
However, as the novel is told in reverse chronological order, it is not until the final chapter that it becomes clear that Yolanda’s exile from her homeland is at the root of her trauma. She remembers an incident during her childhood on the island when she took a kitten away from its mother despite being told by a visiting stranger that, “To take it away would be a violation of its natural right to live” (285). She cannot stop the kitten from meowing and in a moment of panic and hatred at the “accusing sound of its meow” (288), she throws it out of the window. She never finds out what becomes of the kitten – we presume it dies – but that night and for many years afterwards, she is haunted by the specter of the mother cat searching for her missing young. As the end of the novel states in Yolanda’s adult voice:
I grew up, a curious woman, a woman of story ghosts and story devils, a woman prone to bad dreams and bad insomnia. There are still times I wake up at three o’clock in the morning and peer into the darkness. At that hour and in that loneliness, I hear her, a black furred thing, lurking in the corners of my life, her magenta mouth opening, wailing at some violation that lies at the center of my art. (290)
As Cowart explains (46), the helpless kitten and the mourning mother cat, represent a symbol of the trauma of Yolanda’s expatriation from the Dominican Republic, an exile from which she never recovers, and which leaves deep psychological scars. This return to Yolanda’s point of view at the end of the novel, gives the narrative a sense of circularity and Alvarez’s choice of a first-person narrator allows us a greater sense of intimacy with her protagonist’s emotional journey. In addition, by both beginning and ending the novel with Yolanda’s story about the trauma of exile, it highlights this as the central message of the text.
Nevertheless, when examining Yolanda’s return to the island in the first chapter, we see that as well as communicating her sense of homecoming, Alvarez also stresses her difference and “otherness” compared to the native Dominicans. For example, when she sees her cousins for the first time they chorus “Here she comes, Miss America!”, and she struggles to converse with them in her rusty Spanish. Used to being independent, she also insists on travelling across the island alone by car, a thing, she is told, women do not do there. As Ibis Gomez-Vega observes, “she has been too influenced by her assimilation into North American society to fit within the more conservative Dominican culture. She has become an “other”, an outsider who has learned to see Dominicans and, by extension, herself through the distorting lens of her foreign upbringing” (85). This distorting foreign lens is evident in her fear that she will be raped by the two local men who stop to help her when her car breaks down. As Cowart indicates, the final image of the chapter, serves to emphasize further her “otherness”. As Yolanda heads off from a roadside cantina in her mended car, she sees the old Palmolive poster that she has noticed earlier in which a “creamy blond woman luxuriates under a refreshing shower, her head thrown back in seeming ecstasy, her mouth open in a wordless cry” (Alvarez 15). By paralleling Yolanda with the woman in the poster, Alvarez seems to be suggesting that she is out of place in the Dominican Republic, like the poster which is an “outlandish emblem of North American consumer desire” (Cowart, 46). However, I disagree with Cowart’s analysis that “[Yolanda] will never fit in again” (46) because in the final sentence of the chapter in which Yolanda is looking at the poster of the woman again, the narrator states, “her mouth [is] still opened as if she is calling someone over a great distance” (23). For me, this symbolizes Yolanda’s attempt to call out to and reconnect with her former Dominican self, despite years of exile. Although we never find out if Yolanda does indeed return permanently to the island, the image of the chapter projects a faint sense of hope for her future. Alvarez seems to be suggesting that only by returning to one’s homeland and cultural roots can the trauma of exile be healed, and a full sense of belonging achieved. Therefore, in answer to the questions posited in the introduction, Alvarez does seem to be subscribing to a myth of return, and although she is ambiguous about whether a full reconnection with one’s origins is possible, this is clearly what Yolanda desires. However, it is the final image in Alvarez’s novel – the image of Yolanda being forever haunted by the ghost cat, the specter symbolizing the violation of her exile – which speaks the most powerfully and which points to the central message of the text. By choosing to end the novel on this negative and haunting image, Alvarez highlights the permanent pain and sense of displaced identity that can result from exile.
Pineau’s novel, L’Exil selon Julia, is also set in the 1960’s, and as Ireland and Proulx outline, immigration into France at that time correlated with the country’s colonial past: “the representation of immigrants in the mainstream press [remained] strongly influenced by the old hierarchical relationship between colonizer and colonized” (2) and through these immigrants “the colonial relationship [was] relived and rewritten” (2). So, although Guadeloupe is a former colony turned overseas region of France, and the Guadeloupean characters in Pineau’s novel are effectively French, we see this colonial heritage playing out in the storyline. Like in How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, the different generations of characters in L’Exil selon Julia have different relationships with the homeland – Guadeloupe – and country of migration – France – and so contrasting experiences of exile. However, what differs in L’Exil selon Julia is that the themes of exile, displacement, alienation and identity are all mediated through and influenced by the colonial/post-colonial relationship between France and Guadeloupe.
The effect of this colonial relationship can be seen most evidently in the narrator’s parents, Daisy and Maréchal, who having grown up in colonial Guadeloupe, have been indoctrinated with the belief of France’s cultural superiority and the island’s inferiority. As H. Adlai Murdoch indicates, “Beyond ethnicity, […], Imperial European nations – and France in particular – were founded on the principal of inalterable cultural superiority over their colonial subjects, and the mastery of the national language became the primordial sign of the sense of division that produced colonial hierarchy and difference” (130). Maréchal, who is proud of having fought for the motherland in the Second World War, wins Daisy over thanks to his excellent French, and after marrying they decide to move to France in 1950, the land of opportunity compared to what they view as their inferior island, with its uncultivated, Creole-speaking inhabitants. Once in France, they and their Caribbean friends try to instill these values in their children, saying,
Enfants! Rien, il n’y a rien de bon pour vous au Pays […]. Antan, ce fut une terre d’esclavage qui ne porte plus rien de bon. Ne demandez pas après ce temps passé ! Profitez de la France ! Profitez de votre chance de grandir ici-là ! Au Pays, la marmaille parle patois. Profitez pour apprendre le français de France … Combien de Nègres vous envient, vous n’en avez pas idée (28).
(Children ! There is nothing, absolutely nothing good for you Back Home […] Long ago it was a land of slavery which no longer has anything good in it. Don’t ask about the past! Take advantage of France! Take advantage of the luck you have to be growing up here! Back home, children speak patois. Take the opportunity to learn French French… You have no idea how many blacks envy you.) (Wilson 16) ²
Pineau shows here how the Guadeloupeans of Daisy and Maréchal’s generation have internalized the French colonizer’s teachings that patois is inferior to “le français de France” (28) [“French French” (Wilson 16)] and they clutch onto knowledge of the language as the key to their assimilation into French culture. Here, we also become privy to the shameful way in which slavery was regarded by Guadeloupeans and the fact that those who had travelled to the motherland rejected Guadeloupean culture, considering themselves superior to the islanders who had remained back home.
However, through her narrative structure, Pineau comments on and shed more light on her characters’ feelings. Although the novel is narrated in the first-person from the perspective of one of Daisy and Maréchal’s daughters (whose name we never learn), at times this narrative voice seems to be that of a child and at other times it adopts a more mature viewpoint and appears to be her adult self, looking back at her childhood. On other occasions, the narrative voice appears to be an all-knowing omniscient narrator who, with the use of free indirect speech, inhabits the voices of the various characters, bringing them to life. Returning to the above quote about the French values that the adults are trying to instill in their children, the young narrator sees through the adults’ bravado to reveal their true feelings of love and attachment to their homeland, noting that “Ils énuméraient les laideurs comme pour se rassurer […]. Tous les atours de France […] ne dessouchaient pas l’amour de leur Guadeloupe” (They list all the ugly things about it as if to reassure themselves […]. All the fine things that France has to offer cannot uproot the love for their Guadeloupe”; 29; Wilson 17). And she notices that when the women are talking late in the evening they sometimes let slip “des couplets sur les îles lointaines où elles ont grandi” (“nostalgic couplets about the faraway islands where they grew up”; 14; Wilson 5). Like the García sisters in Alvarez’s novel then, the adults in L’Exil selon Julia have mixed emotions about their homeland, but here their feelings derive from the colonial relationship between France and Guadeloupe. As the narrator remarks, their love for their country is ambivalent and tinged with resentment, “comme un amour de jeunesse qu’on n’arrive pas à oublier même s’il n’a pas donné de fruits” (“like a love from one’s youth that one cannot manage to forget even though it bore no fruit”; 28; Wilson 17). They have internalized the colonial message of France’s superiority and thus feel resentful towards their homeland for not giving them the opportunities that they desire, and for forcing them to migrate. But at the same time, theirs is a chosen exile, likened positively by them to a “renaissance” (rebirth) in the novel, even if it has not lived up to their expectations. We see how Maréchal and his Caribbean colleagues in the army, as good colonial subjects, feel a religious devotion to the motherland: “L’esprit d’une fidelité quasi mystique les a menés, autrefois, en temps de guerre, à des actions héroïques indélébiles en leur mémoire. L’armée est leur credo, la France et ses et caetera de colonies leur univers” (“A spirit of almost mystical loyalty led them, in former times, to perform heroic deeds, etched indelibly in their memory. The army is their credo, France and her et cetera of colonies, their world”; 12; Wilson 4). By narrating this in the daughter’s voice, Pineau indirectly questions the wisdom of their devotion to the motherland, and her use of the word “mystique” shows that it is based on dubious foundations. The delivering of this information second hand through the daughter’s voice shows how they have been indoctrinated into believing France’s “credo” of superiority. However, now they are starting to doubt whether this devotion has been worth their sacrifice; as the narrator observes, “Ils font des tresses de l’oubli qui allonge ses raciness dans le semblant du bien-être […] Et puis, ils couchent à plat le doute qui se révèle toujours en eux, pareil aux mauvaises herbes d’un chemin déserté.” (“They plait the sorrow that spreads its roots into their pretense at well-being […]. They quell the doubts that keep springing up in them like weeds along a deserted path”; 12; Wilson 4). Their suppressed realization that France has not rewarded them for this devotion, but instead, as we discover, keeps them as marginalized subjects, is tinged with sorrow. Pineau’s choice to portray this sorrow and doubt with the metaphor of a weed contrasts strongly with the grandmother’s enthusiastic references to the Guadeloupean plants and flowers in her garden which she uses as food and medicine, forming a strong part of her cultural identity and representing for her a tie to her homeland. The pain of living in France is therefore depicted as an insidious, life-sapping weed, whereas Guadeloupean culture is illustrated with life-giving plants.
Whilst Daisy and Maréchal’s experience of voluntary departure from their homeland is portrayed as mainly positive with undertones of sadness, Pineau, like Alvarez, also explores the traumatic effects of enforced exile through the character of Julia, the narrator’s grandmother. More commonly referred to as Man Ya, she is taken from Guadeloupe against her own wishes by her son Maréchal in order to protect her from her abusive husband, Asdrubal. Pineau’s portrayal of Julia’s terrible suffering due to this forced expatriation is not disguised in metaphor like Yolanda’s in How the García Girls Lost Their Accents; instead, her anguish is much more explicitly linked to her exile, and we witness her pining for her homeland, husband and garden. Her painful yearning is powerfully depicted by the narrator as a wound which Man Ya treats by telling the grandchildren stories of Guadeloupe, trying to recreate Caribbean dishes with French ingredients, and retreating into her memories. She cannot stand the cold weather in France, developing aches and pains which the doctor labels rheumatism and arthritis but which the narrator calls “maladie de l’exil” (“the infirmity of exile”; 129; Wilson 96). And she eventually succumbs to a deep depression which only disappears when she returns to Guadeloupe. In characterizing Man Ya’s reaction to exile as an illness for which the only cure is repatriation and a reconnection with her culture, we see the way in which Pineau subscribes to a myth of return. By the end of the novel, not only Man Ya wants to return to Guadeloupe but Maréchal and Daisy do too. Maréchal’s view of the motherland is tainted when, in 1969, his savior, President de Gaulle, resigns; and likewise, Daisy becomes disillusioned with France after seeing the racist treatment her children endure at the hands of the French:
Là-Bas, il lui a fallu essuyer tant de larmes d’enfants, raconter des histoires, expliquer, apaiser … Elle ne peut oublier ce qu’ils ont enduré.
Retournez en Afrique!
Allez manger des bananes dans votre case en paille ! (209)
(Over There, she has had to wipe away so many children’s tears, tell stories, explain, calm … She cannot forget what they endured.
Go back to Africa!
Go and eat bananas in your straw hut!) (Wilson, 158)
We see then, that the myth of return in L’Exil selon Julia is directly connected to the racist, colonial discourse in France and the feelings of rejection that the Guadeloupean characters experience, as well as a deep longing for their homeland.
Furthermore, through Man Ya’s character, Pineau explores the themes of identity, alienation, and racism in relation to this colonial discourse. As Mary Jo Muratore observes, whilst in France Man Ya “remains wholly Guadeloupean” (8), refusing to assimilate and rejecting all things French, just as France rejects her for being a black: she complains about the French seasons, insists on hanging the clothes on branches as she did back at home, and refuses to learn French, speaking to the grandchildren in Creole. She feels unwelcome and out of place in France, and we witness the prejudice directed at her by the French people who tell her, “Retourne dans ton pays! Retourne …” (“Go back to where you come from! Go back …””; 128; Wilson 95). Although comically, narrated, Pineau shows French people’s racist treatment of Man Ya when she picks up the children from school wearing Maréchal’s old military overcoat and kepi to ward off the rain. The villagers are suspicious of this black woman who cannot explain herself in their language, and she is arrested for desecrating the French army uniform. The implication is that the locals are offended by the vision of someone with black skin wearing this symbol of military and national pride, but the irony is that the uniform belongs to her son, who is also black, and who wore it whilst fighting for France. To highlight Man Ya’s alienation and exclusion from French society, Pineau draws a parallel between Man Ya’s time in France and the colonial relationship between Guadeloupe and France. For example, the language of slavery is used to describe her arrival in the country : “Elle débarque tout juste en terre d’exil et cinq encablures de chaînes viennent d’être ajoutées à son existence” (“She is barely debarking in a land of exile and five cable lengths of chains have just been added to her existence”; 38; Wilson 23)). And during her stay with the family she teaches the children about the history of slavery in the Caribbean. Their unsuccessful attempt to teach her to read and write French could also be seen to symbolize the French colonial “mission civilisatrice” (“civilizing mission”; Murdoch 129; my translation). These details lead us to conclude that Man Ya’s marginalization in French society is a direct hangover of the colonial relationship between France and Guadeloupe. She has a strong sense of her Guadeloupean identity and does not want to assimilate but nor would it be possible even if she tried.
In her refusal to integrate into French society, Man Ya’s character could be paralleled with the García girls’ father in Alvarez’s novel. However, their determination to stick to the culture of their homelands produces different results in the two novels. The father’s adherence to his patriarchal Dominican values is viewed by his daughters as old-fashioned and restrictive, and, although the girls experience difficulties assimilating in the U.S., ultimately (with the exception of Yolanda) they decide to remain there and make it their home. In contrast, Man Ya’s steadfast attachment to her Guadeloupean identity is depicted positively by the young narrator, as her grandmother provides her with a link to her cultural roots and a sense of belonging which “transforms her life” (The University of Virginia Press, 20 Dec. 2018). Despite having been born in France, the narrator in L’Exil selon Julia is alienated from French society due to the color of her skin and the colonial prejudices this engenders in her peers. Pineau describes in detail the difficulties she encounters in assimilating due to the discrimination and racist abuse that she encounters, and references to racist episodes occupya much greater part of the narrative and are portrayed as more extreme than in How the García Girls Lost Their Accents. In fact, the novel shockingly starts with the protagonist recounting a list of the racial slurs directed at her and her family:
The position of these words at the beginning of the text underscores the extent to which racism defines the narrator’s immigrant experience as a young Guadeloupean girl in France. (The fact that she remains nameless is significant and could be interpreted as meaning that she symbolizes all displaced Guadeloupeans enduring this prejudice.) We also witness how the discrimination she suffers at school is characterized by the racial stereotypes passed down from colonial times: when she climbs a rope quickly in gym class one of her classmates says, “C’est normal, ils grimpent aux arbes dans leur pays!” (“That’s normal; they climb trees in their country!”; 149; Wilson 111); and, in another class, she is punished by her teacher, who, disliking her for her skin color, forces her to sit under the desk “Comme un chien à la niche.” (152) (“Like a dog in a kennel” (113)). The racist objectification experienced by the protagonist both from her peers and superiors reminds us of Franz Fanon’s words written in Black Skin, White Masks in 1952 in which he describes the psychologically harmful effects of racism and dehumanization on colonized peoples:
“Dirty nigger!” Or simply, “Look, a Negro!” I came into the world imbued with the will to find a meaning in things, my spirit filled with the desire to attain to the source of the world, and then I found that I was an object in the midst of other objects.
Sealed into that crushing objecthood, …” (82)
Although Pineau’s narrator is describing her life in France in the late 1960’s, the situation is very similar to that experienced by Fanon in early fifties, post Second World War colonial France. Although this is nearly twenty years later, the narrator is racially objectified and treated as inferior. Unable to assimilate into French society she is left marginalized and excluded. Like the García sisters in the U.S., she feels different from her white peers and a “feeling of being Other” shapes her life (Murdoch 135), but unlike them she has no way to integrate.
Pineau, like Alvarez, explores her narrator’s intangible sense of identity and belonging in the country of her birth. The narrator lacks a sense of who she is, and she defines this, like Yolanda in the Alvarez novel, as a feeling of loss. She is “convinced there is some lost key capable of locking the secrets of a hidden self” (Muratore 4): “J’ai longtemps gardé le sentiment d’avoir perdu quelque chose: une formule qui perçait jadis les geôles, un breuvage souverain délivrant la connaissance, une mémoire, des mots, des images. J’ai nourri en moi cette perte, pesant comme un deuil, manqué sans définition.” (“For a long time I have had the feeling of having lost something: a formula that once upon a time would unlock jails, a sovereign potion that would release knowledge, a memory, words, images. I have nourished within me this loss, weighing me down like a bereavement, an indefinable emptiness”; 20; Wilson 10). This sense of bereavement leaves her with a gnawing hunger for knowledge about her cultural heritage with which her parents, subscribed to the colonial discourse of French superiority and Guadeloupean inferiority, are unable to provide her. It is through the stories that Man Ya’s recounts in Creole about her garden, and the history and folklore of Guadeloupe, that the narrator starts build up a cultural identity of which she has hitherto been deprived. As Mary Jo Muratore observes, her grandmother “offers a counter-perspective towards the myth of French superiority that enables the heroine to develop a pride in heritage that she wholly lacks” (4).
The fundamental difference between Alvarez’s and Pineau’s portrayals of the immigrant experience becomes most apparent in the final section of both novels. How the García Girls Lost Their Accents leaves us with the haunting image of how Yolanda has been scarred forever by her experience of exile from her homeland, and when she returns to live in the Dominican Republic as an adult, it remains uncertain as to whether she will be able to reintegrate fully and achieve a reconciliation with her roots. On the other hand, the last three chapters of L’Exil selon Julia depict the narrator’s joyful connection with her cultural heritage when her family moves back to Guadeloupe. When Maréchal becomes disillusioned with France, he requests to be stationed in the Caribbean, and the family first move to Martinique before finally returning to Guadeloupe. A desire to return home has been driving the narrative up to this point, first with Man Ya’s yearning to go home, then with the narrator’s desire to escape alienation in France and find her Caribbean roots, and their arrival in Martinique is depicted as a homecoming (Murdoch 137). Pineau captures the narrator’s overwhelming happiness at recognizing the Creole that Man Ya has taught her and her siblings, and at the feeling that they can at last “[m]archer à l’aise parmi des gens de couleur” (“Walk at ease among people of color”; 184; Wilson 139). The author explores the idea of cultural hybridity as the children realize that with their French accents, fashion-sense and fear of insects they are more French than they had recognized. But even this is imbued with a positive tone, as they revel in the chance to improve their Creole and learn to assimilate fully in a culture which accepts them. Whilst playing with some other children in Martinique, for example, they learn a new Creole phrase, and the narrator says, “On répète pour sentir glisser les mots créoles sur nos langues. « An nou pété! »Pour ramener au jour le parler qu’a déposé Man Ya en nous-mêmes. « An nou pété! » pour bonder de vie la sève de l’arbre qui tient nos cœurs dans ses branches” (198). (“We just repeat it to feel the Creole words sliding off our tongues. “An nou pété!” To bring back to life the language that Man Ya put in us. “An nou pété!” To fill with life the sap of the tree that holds our hearts in its branches” (Wilson, 150).) With the repetition of the Creole phrase we can literally feel the narrator’s pleasure at pronouncing these words and the connection they give her to a sense of belonging. In addition, the use of the tree metaphor connects her to Man Ya’s garden and the land of Guadeloupe, contrasting strongly with the weed metaphor used earlier in the novel to represent life-sapping France.
In stark contrast to the haunting denouement of Alvarez’s novel, the final scene of L’Exil selon Julia is an unashamedly utopic depiction of the narrator’s return to her cultural roots and an embrace of her Creole identity. The sense of coming home is firmly rooted in a connection to the land and its produce, as Man Ya, who is now fit and healthy, shows the children all the plants in her garden that she had previously taught them about. And the narrator realizes how her grandmother gave them an invaluable connection to their heritage through the Creole stories she recounted during her stay with them in France, “un pont de corde solide entre Là-Bas et le Pays” (“a solid rope bridge between Over There and Back Home”; 218; Wilson 164). The novel ends with the narrator’s joyful memory of Man Ya, who is now deceased, laughing and eating rose mangoes. Through this jubilant ending, Pineau embraces the “myth of return” and celebrates the way in which a “reconciliation with [one’s] origins” can give a displaced immigrant a sense of belonging and identity.
Although Alvarez and Pineau’s depictions of exile and the immigrant experience inevitably reflect the historical, political and cultural contexts of the countries in which their novels are based, these two authors vividly capture the lasting pain of exile, the complexities of integration, and the human necessity for a sense of belonging. Both novelists clearly subscribe to a “myth of return” through their texts. However, ultimately, Alvarez presents an ambiguous and nuanced picture of the return to the homeland as the remedy for her characters’ sense of displacement, which is, in turn, reflected by her circular narrative. Her haunting, more negative conclusion suggests that Yolanda’s wounds of exile may never be fully cured, even after returning to the Dominican Republic. In contrast, it is the colonial relationship between France and Guadeloupe in Pineau’s novel which determines the direction of her narrative and, therefore, her euphoric and utopian portrayal of the myth of return at the end of her text. Man Ya and the narrator’s return to Guadeloupe is presented as the cure-all for their sense of alienation and displacement in France. It is not possible to extrapolate from these two novels and assume that they represent the general experience of Dominican immigrants in the United States, or Guadeloupeans in France. However, we can conclude from Pineau’s numerous references to the colonial relationship between France and Guadeloupe, that the more racially hostile post-colonial environment in 1960’s France has a profound effect on her characters’ ability to integrate, causing them to feel a greater sense of exclusion and therefore a more powerful attachment to their Guadeloupean roots. A comparison of these novels therefore highlights the lasting legacies of colonization and serves to reveal the importance of a person’s ability to assimilate and be accepted in the country in which they are living in order to feel a sense of belonging.
- It is important to point out that as Guadeloupe is an oversees department of France, the characters in Pineau’s novel are not strictly-speaking immigrants in France; they are in fact French citizens with the same rights and privileges as those living in the Metropole. However, as Susan Ireland and Patrice J. Proulx state, “members of the second generation, as well as workers from the French Antilles […] are still referred to as immigrants, in what could be considered a complicit attempt to keep them marginalized” (2). Since they are treated as immigrants, and for ease of comparison with the characters in Alvarez’s novel, I will refer to the characters in Pineau’s novel as immigrants in this essay.
- All bracketed English translations of L’Exil selon Julia come from Betty Wilson’s translation, Exile according to Julia. Bibliographic information can be found in the Works Cited section under Pineau.
Alvarez, Julia. How the García Girls Lost Their Accents. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2010.
Cowart, David. Trailing Clouds: Immigrant Fiction in Contemporary America. Cornell University Press, 2006.
“Exile: According to Julia.” The University of Virginia Press, 20 Dec. 2018. https://www.upress.virginia.edu/title/1596
Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. Translated by Charles Lam Markmann, Pluto Press, 2008.
Gomez-Vega, Ibis. “Hating the self in the “Other” or How Yolanda Learns to See Her Own Kind in Julia Alvarez’s How the García Girls Lost Their Accents.” Intertexts – Literature Resource Centre, vol. 3, no. 1, 1999, pp. 85-96.
Ireland, Susan, and Patrice J. Proulx. “Introduction.” Immigrant Narratives in Contemporary France. Edited by Susan Ireland and Patrice J. Proulx, Greenwood Press, 2001, pp.1-4.
Martinez, Yolanda, P. “Spanish-American Caribbean Literature.” Encyclopedia of Hispanic-American Literature. Edited by Luz Elena Ramirez, Facts on File, Inc., 2008, pp.327-328.
Muratore, Mary Jo. “Emancipating Narratives: The Diasporic Struggle Reframed in Pineau’s L’Exil selon Julia.” Francofonia, no. 51, 2006, pp. 3–14. www.jstor.org/stable/43016396 .
Murdoch, H. Adlai. “Negotiating the Metropole: Patterns of Exile and Cultural Survival in Gisèle Pineau and Suzanne Dracius-Pinalie.” Immigrant Narratives in Contemporary France. Edited by Susan Ireland and Patrice J. Proulx, Greenwood Press, 2001, pp.129-139.
Pineau, Gisèle. L’Exil selon Julia. Éditions Stock, 1996.
—————. Exile: According to Julia. Translated by Betty Wilson, University of Virginia Press, 2003.
Sirias, Silvio. Julia Alvarez : A Critical Companion. Greenwood Publishing Group, Incorporated, 2001. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/sfsu/detail.action?docID=3000486.