Vital Signs in the Body Politic: Eroticism and Exile in Maryse Conde and Dany Laferriere

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Il n'y a pas de paroles sur l'Amour par ici.... Notre pre-litterature est de cris, de haines, de revendications, de propheties aux Aubes inevitables, d'analyseurs, de donneurs de lecons, gardiens de solutions solutionnantes aux miseres d'ici-la, et les negres de ceci, les negres de cela, et l'Universel, ah l'Universel !... Final : pas de chant sur l'Amour. Aucun chant du koke. La negritude fut castree. Et l'antillanite n'a pas de libido. Ils eurent beaucoup d'enfants (surtout dehors) mais sans s'aimer, four.

Patrick Chamoiseau, Solibo Magnifique (1)

Pour nos poetes noirs, au contraire, l'etre sort du Neant comme une verge qui se dresse ; la Creation est un enorme et perpetuel accouchement ... il est tour a tour la femelle de la Nature et son male ; et quand il fait l'amour avec une femme de sa race, l'acte sexuel lui semble la celebration du Mystere de l'etre. Cette religion spermatique est comme une tension equilibrant deux tendances complementaires : le sentiment dynamique d'etre un phallus qui s'erige et celui plus sourd, plus patient, plus feminin d'etre une plante qui croit. Ainsi la negritude, en sa source la plus profonde, est une androgynie.

Jean-Paul Sartre, "Orphee noir" (2)

A Creole Garden--of Earthly Delights

In his provocative attack on the high-mindedness of earlier literary movements in the Francophone Caribbean, Patrick Chamoiseau dismisses a "castrated negritude" and an "antillanite without a libido" as failing to deal with the subject of love and lust in the Caribbean. The clear implication is that a joyously libidinal creolite would somehow make up for lost time and missed opportunities. Putting aside the triumphalist tone that marks so many of the Creolists' pronouncements, we can certainly agree that Francophone Caribbean literature has long exhibited a certain reticence, if not prudishness, in dealing with the matter of sexuality.

This reticence is as true of Frantz Fanon's now notorious footnote denying the existence of homosexuality in Martinique (3) as it is of the tamed erotics of one of the classics of Caribbean literature, Jacques Roumain's Gouverneurs de la rosee. Roumain's construction of a national romance, in which a purposeful, heterosexual coupling is used to represent allegorically the author's ideal of the new and improved Haitian state based on ethnic fraternity and worker solidarity, is a glaring instance of the Caribbean writer's repressed libido. Far from being a celebratory "chant de koke," the novel's utopian thrust is grounded on a redirected physicality, a taming of desire, and the ideal of requited love. In a language uncharacteristic of Roumain's elegant restraint in evoking a poetics of blood and botany, Manuel might have said, as Maryse Conde's earthy maroon declares at the end of Traversee de la mangrove, "En un mot j'ai nomme ce pays. Il est sorti de mes reins dans une giclee de foutre." (4)

The theoretician of Negritude, Jean-Paul Sartre, would have had it differently. For him, a libidinal and Dionysian Black Orpheus had the potency to mount an explosive attack on the repressed, repressive West. Whichever position one adopts, though, it seems clear that carnality is often privileged as a key site of contestation in French Caribbean literature. Not only is the theme of sexual activity proposed as an important subject for literature but also it is seen critically as an ordering or disordering force. It rearranges patterns; it forces out unsuspected relationships; it crosses boundaries. For the Caribbean writer as erotomane, sex, thought, and writing are profoundly related. Nevertheless, Chamoiseau and Confiant lament the fact that Caribbean literature in Creole and French is "extremement pudique," never having sought to imitate the Marquis de Sade but instead camouflaging sexuality behind "les colibris, les bougainvillees, et la mer bleue." (5)

The creolite writers would like their movement to be appreciated as a ribald epitaph to the ideologically inhibited writing from the Caribbean. …