Creole in Maryse Conde's Work: The Disordering of the Neo-Colonial Order?

By Mazama, Ama | The Romanic Review, May-November 2003 | Go to article overview

Creole in Maryse Conde's Work: The Disordering of the Neo-Colonial Order?


Mazama, Ama, The Romanic Review


In this essay I will address Maryse Conde's perception and definition of Guadeloupean identity through an analysis of her linguistic and sociolinguistic treatment of Guadeloupean Creole in three of her novels, La Vie scelerate (1987), Traversee de la mangrove (1989), and Les derniers Rois mages (1992), as well as through a review of statements made by the author. The above novels were written in the wake of the great nationalist and militant wave of the 1970s and 1980s in Guadeloupe. They raise the question of Creole and identity in at least two related ways. On the one hand, they question the social, cultural, and political reality of Guadeloupe, of which Creole is an integral part. In so doing, they also yield valuable information about Conde's personal understanding of the sociolinguistic and, interestingly, about the undeniable tension that exists between the author and her native land. Indeed, Conde has repeatedly lamented the fact that her work is often not appreciated or read by her compatriots. Upon retiring to Guadeloupe, Conde even initiated a series of free public presentations of her work and thoughts, in an attempt to address this tension. (1)

That such a tension exists at all is curious, since Conde has always, at least until recently, presented herself as a Guadeloupean nationalist. One would expect, then, that she would enjoy a favorable reception by her compatriotes. The present essay seeks to shed light on the reasons why this has not always been the case through an assessment of the irruption of Creole in Maryse Conde's writing, noting the extent to which its presence reflects a disordering of French colonialism and neo-colonialism in Guadeloupe, and evaluating its relative consistency with Guadeloupean nationalist views. Such an examination will hopefully shed some light on the serious contradictions that have long existed between the general nationalist definition of Guadeloupean identity and Conde's own understanding of nationalism.

Guadeloupean Creole and French: A Combative Coexistence, or the Language Question in La Vie scelerate, Traversee de la mangrove, and Les derniers Rois mages

Like all creoles, the Guadeloupean language was born out of communicative necessity, as the French colonization of Guadeloupe brought together Caribs, Africans, and Europeans, compelling them to forge a common idiom. Having lost knowledge of their ancestral tongues with the passage of rime and the abolition of the slave trade, the transplanted Africans adopted Creole as their first language. As a result of its close association with African people, Creole became a 'dark-skinned' language, that is, according to colonial mythology, inferior and even unworthy of the status of language. It was referred to as a 'dialect,' 'broken French,' etc. (2) It was socially marginalized, and the object of "language planning by default." In other words, by not being included in any affirmative or affirming language policy, no action was ever undertaken to allow Creole to meet such important social needs as writing, for example (Cerol, 1987). In fact, it was alleged that Creole's internal insufficiencies made it unsuitable for writing, and thereby justified its exclusion from the literary sphere. What must be considered, of course, is the fact that the decision to commit (or not to commit) a language to writing is a political one. It is precisely this question of exclusion that makes the irruption of Creole in Maryse Conde's writing all the more interesting and noticeable.

The relationship between French and Creole in Guadeloupean society and, therefore, in Maryse Conde's novels is combative. Historically, these languages have opposed one another on three levels: social, social-psychological, and politico-cultural. Indeed, language conflicts do not exist in a vacuum, but rather reflect broader cultural, political, and economic struggles.

The Social Dimension of the Conflict

Creole and French coexist in a diglossic relationship. …

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