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#4494: DeGraff: Martinique : a reply from Valdman

From: valdman <valdman@taloa.unice.fr>

a brief response to Michel DeGraff's post.

Like him, I am a linguist , not a literary critic or specialist of
Caribbean French literature but I think a clarification of the nature of
the Creolite movement is in order.

Chamoiseau did not receive the Goncourt Prize for writing in Martinican
Creole but in the Creolite movement's own brand of putative creolized
French,  a variety perhaps comprehensible to Martinican bilinguals but not
to most of the metropolitan French buyers of his award-winnning novel
Texaco--many such readers admitted that they quit 100 pages into it so
opaque is it semantically for them.

The Creolite movement, led first by Confiant and Bernabe, started out with
the goal to give legitimacy to Martinican Creole by creating a literary
norm, a variety quite different from that spoken by most Maratinicans.
They sought to maximally differentiate this variety of Martinican Creole
(MC) from French.  This approach failed to gain support outside of the
Creolite movement--Confiant who has written several novels in MC (I know of
no major MC work by Chamoiseau or Bernabe) is said to have declared that,
unable to sell his MC novels, he papered his living room with them.  The
Creolite then took a 180º turn and decided that the best expression of
Creolite was not MC but their brand of French.  As Confiantt put it, left\
to choose between a bike (MC) and a car (French), if you want to travel far
and fast, you opt for the car.

So, without denigrating Chamoiseau's clear talent as a writer, he is not,
as some readers might infer from Michel DeGraff's post, to be compared with
the talented Haitain writers who have pioneered the literary use of a
creole.  To continue spinning Confiant's metaphor, roads are so bad in
Haiti that one travels best with a bike!  There is a genuine need there for
the use of kreyòl as a written language and the potential for a real
literature addressed to the monolingual speakers; because nearly all
Martinicans know French, the function of a written norm--of whatever
nature--is marginal, witness the fact that there is no concensus in
Martinique or Guadeloupe on a suitable orthography for MC.

Albert Valdman

>From: Michel DeGraff <degraff@MIT.EDU>
>Dear all,
>We often discuss the status of Creole in Haiti, and many still seem to
>think that Creole is a liability for progress in Haiti.  Yet, if we look to
>Creole speakers next door in Martinique, what we see is that Creole can, in
>some spectacular ways, be a factor of `upward mobility' in the world at
>large---culturally, at least.  We're talking prize-winning `upward
>mobility' here, with prestigious awards from prestigious publishers, rave
>reviews in the New York Times, etc.  And congratulations are in order for
>Martinican Creole writers such as Bernabe, Chamoiseau, Confiant, Glissant,
>etc. (which are praised in the forwarded article below).
>Nevertheless I have a nagging question: Given that Haiti represents, by
>far, the largest Creole community in the world, why is it that we can't
>find prize-winning Creole literary masters there too, at the same level of
>popularity and prestige as Chamoiseau et al?  To me, Emile Roumer,
>Morisseau-Leroy, Syto Cave, Franketienne, Pauris Jean-Baptiste, Koralen,
>Castera, etc., etc., are among the greatest writers in any languages---and
>so is Chamoiseau (but I think that Bernabe is a better linguist than poet,
>but that's just my opinion).
>In any case, Haitian Creole writers do not seem to be nearly as popular as
>the Martinican Creole writers like, say, Chamoiseau and Confiant.  As a
>matter of fact, the article forwarded below makes NO mention whatsoever of
>revolutionary Haitian Creole writers like Morisseau-Leroy and Franketienne,
>notwithstanding the enormous influence these Haitian writers have had on
>Martinique literature and notwithstanding the leading role of Haitian
>creolists in the Creolophone world (Haiti was among the first
>Creole-speaking countries to officialize its orthography).  Interestingly,
>in the case of Martinique, it's often Paris that seems to be jacking up the
>popularity of its `overseas' Creole writers (see forwarded article below).
>I am forwarding the article below from the Chronicle of Higher Education
>mailny because the status of Creole in Martinique, in many (but NOT in all)
>ways, was, and is, akin to that of Creole in Haiti.  And, Haiti, like
>Martinique, also has its share of writers writing in Creole.  Yet, there
>seems to exist that (nagging) discrepancy between the global reception of
>Martinican writers and that of Haitian writers.  And, again, please note
>that the article is specifically about Martinique, a Creole community whose
>history and sociology are quite different from Haiti's in many important
>ways---not a single word about the country that some call "the lighthouse
>of Creole-ness".
>My intent here is to stimulate readers to think of what may be possible for
>Haitian Creole and those who write in it, and to ask, why is it that no
>support and recognition is given to Haitian Creole writers to any degree
>similar to that given to Martinican writers.
>Is this a matter of comparative quality (are Confiant, Chamoiseau, etc., as
>described in the article below, so much better than, say, Morisseau and
>Or, is it a matter of politics, more precisely, (neo)colonialism (compare,
>the political status of Martinique vs. Haiti)?
>Or, is it because Haiti doesn't have a Creole-studies center like
>Martinique does?  The article below reads:
>  [In Martinique] A Creole-studies center offers undergraduate and
>  advanced degrees in Creole language and literature, is
>  compiling an online Creole dictionary, publishes a journal,
>  and prepares students to teach in a small but growing number
>  of schools that teach in Creole. Mr. Confiant teaches a
>  course on writing in Creole -- something most students have
>  never done.
>Or, is it because, Creole in Haiti has not been "institutionalized" like it
>is in Martinique?  The article again reads:
>  On an academic level, at least, "the status of Creole has been
>  institutionalized," says Mr. Bernabe, who recently stepped
>  down as dean. "We have a research group, a journal, and
>  prestigious literature."
>Or is it because Haitian intellectuals as a whole do not promote Creolite',
>like their Martinican counterparts (such as Bernabe, Chamoiseau,
>Confiant, Glissant, etc) do in Martinique?
>Or, it it all of the above and/or more???
>I am not familiar enough with the Antillean (Creole) literary scene, and I
>am not a creative-writer type, so I am unable to answer these questions in
>any way that I could find satisfactory.  I may have gut-feelings, but I
>probably shouldn't trust them.
>Fortunately I know that there are people on this list who are much better
>versed than I am with respect to Caribbean literature and who are creative
>writers themselves.  So this is a sincere quest for information.
>More generally, I think that it's always good to discuss Haiti while
>keeping in mind connections with global issues (e.g. the situation in
>Martinique vis-a-vis the rest of France, literature-wise) so we may learn
>what works and what doesn't work, and why.   Thus this post, and the
>forwarded message below.
>Thank you in advance for any information.  I'll now pick up my pen and
>notebook, and I am ready to take notes.
>                                 -michel.
>MIT Linguistics & Philosophy, 77 Massachusetts Ave, Cambridge MA 02139-4307
>degraff@MIT.EDU        http://web.mit.edu/linguistics/www/degraff.home.html
>------- Forwarded Message
>This story is from The Chronicle of Higher Education ( http://chronicle.com )
>  Issue dated June 9, 2000
>  On Martinique, Elevating the Status of Creole
>   To appreciate Raphael Confiant's novel Eau de Cafe, it helps
>  to know something about the status of the Creole language
>  here. Everyone speaks it, but almost nobody writes it. If
>  French is the language of the educated world, of business, of
>  diplomacy, then Creole is the language of the streets, of the
>  kitchen, of the bedroom. If you're a Martinican adult, your
>  mother probably spoke to you in Creole.
>  Mr. Confiant is an irreverent and outspoken professor of
>  Creole and linguistics here at the University of the Antilles
>  and Guiana, and the author of novels about Martinican life
>  that could be described as folklore bordering on pornography.
>  He has published in Creole and French (and Farrar, Straus &
>  Giroux is about to publish his 1987 novel Mamzelle Dragonfly
>  in English), but he is best known for writing in a French that
>  is imbued with Creole. Eau de Cafe (which has been published
>  in English) is filled with Creole expressions. It's a lusty
>  tale about a Martinican fishing village cursed by a beautiful,
>  mysterious young woman. Reading it, you feel as if you're a
>  village resident in the 1950's, watching a parade of local
>  characters that includes a beke -- a white plantation owner --
>  who seduces young women, a universally detested priest, a
>  gaggle of men who offer sexual comments on every woman who
>  walks by, and the narrator's godmother, who owns a rum shop
>  and conducts seances.
>  It would be nice to offer a taste of the novel's Creole
>  discourse here -- but almost impossible to find a passage that
>  doesn't center on the male or female sexual anatomy or some
>  past or hoped-for sexual act. What's interesting, though, is
>  how Mr. Confiant -- even by introducing the crudest of Creole
>  into his novels (with translations) -- is helping to elevate
>  the language. His novels and those of other writers here and
>  in Guadeloupe are part of a broader movement among French
>  Antillean intellectuals to promote Creole, both oral and
>  written. They fear that without such efforts, French, which
>  has gained status since Martinque became an overseas
>  department of France in 1946, will slowly replace Creole.
>  Mr. Confiant is one of three Martinican men known as the
>  Creolistes, who outlined a theory of identity called Creolite
>  more than a decade ago. The other two are Jean Bernabe, a poet
>  and linguistics professor at the university here, and a
>  novelist and social worker named Patrick Chamoiseau. ("What
>  background can have given rise to such a bewitching writer?"
>  The New York Times said when his novel Texaco was published in
>  English.)
>  Most of the Creole writers are in their 40's, Mr. Confiant
>  says, "because we were children when Creole was very strong."
>  The movement has spawned a new literary canon that has won the
>  French literary establishment's most prestigious awards. It
>  has also intensified efforts already under way at the
>  university to promote, if not Creolite, at least the Creole
>  language. A Creole-studies center offers undergraduate and
>  advanced degrees in Creole language and literature, is
>  compiling an online Creole dictionary, publishes a journal,
>  and prepares students to teach in a small but growing number
>  of schools that teach in Creole. Mr. Con- fiant teaches a
>  course on writing in Creole -- something most students have
>  never done.
>  "My students have been taught that Creole is inferior," he
>  says, "and then they discover we have a Creole literature
>  since the 18th century."
>  Where there are language battles, there are usually political
>  battles. On this island, the rhetoric can blister -- like the
>  heat of the Caribbean sun, or the lava of Mt. Pelee, a volcano
>  to the north that buried an entire village in 1902.
>  Martinicans constantly argue over their relationship with la
>  Metropole, as France is known, and their cultural identity.
>  Are they French, African, Antillean, none of the above, or all
>  of the above?
>  Creolite holds that Martinicans are all and yet none of the
>  above -- that they must develop their own discourse and
>  reference points independent of Europe, Africa, and the
>  Americas.
>  On an academic level, at least, "the status of Creole has been
>  institutionalized," says Mr. Bernabe, who recently stepped
>  down as dean. "We have a research group, a journal, and
>  prestigious literature."
>  The university's Creole-studies center was created in 1975.
>  Since then, academics have debated whether the written
>  orthography should be phonetic or etymological. Groups seeking
>  guidance in written Creole -- far more common now on
>  billboards and other forms of media -- occasionally call for
>  advice.
>  But, says Mr. Confiant, "you cannot promote Creolite without
>  political help."
>  Not everyone is interested in promoting Creolite. Critics of
>  the movement have attacked its leaders as sexist and even
>  racist, and its literature as nostalgic. In a 1997 scholarly
>  article, Richard and Sally Price, American anthropologists who
>  live in Martinique, argued that the Creolistes had ignored the
>  perspectives of other Creole societies in the Caribbean. They
>  also noted the paradox that "they remain at one and the same
>  time social critics railing against French domination and
>  beneficiaries of lucrative literary prizes from Paris, both
>  the champions of a fast-disappearing 'traditional' Martinique
>  and unchallenged masters of the modern media."
>  The Creolistes are the latest in a string of intellectuals to
>  claim a vision of identity for Martinicans, most of whom are
>  of African descent. The triumvirate was heavily influenced by
>  the Martinican writer Edouard Glissant (a professor of French
>  at the City University of New York Graduate Center), who
>  advanced his own theory of Creole identity in the 1960's.
>  Before that, Aime Cesaire -- writer, statesman, and current
>  mayor of Martinique's capital, Fort-de-France -- helped found
>  the movement known as Negritude, which embraced African
>  influence and denounced colonialism. Later, Mr. Cesaire helped
>  Martinique become part of France -- a status that has led to
>  competing autonomy movements here.
>  In a critical 1993 biography of Mr. Cesaire, Mr. Confiant
>  attacked a leader whose authority had rarely been questioned.
>  "Unfortunately," says Mr. Glissant, "there is fighting between
>  the supporters of Negritude and the supporters of Creolite."
>  "People think I'm rejecting Africa," Mr. Confiant says. "I
>  say, I'm the brother of someone with the same culture, not the
>  same skin color. I'm very opposed to Afro-centrist discourse."
>  Whatever one thinks of the Creolistes, they are the first
>  writers in years to be embraced by the French literary
>  establishment, says Lucien Taylor, an assistant professor of
>  anthropology at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He did
>  his doctoral dissertation on the Creolistes, who, he notes,
>  also have a large following at home. "When their books first
>  came out, Martinicans felt an incredible surge of
>  self-identity," he says.
>  Mr. Confiant, who was once coeditor of a Creole newspaper, may
>  have written his first five novels in Creole. But teaching
>  students to write it is another story. He's talking in a
>  cramped office on the campus, a collection of boxy concrete
>  buildings in the breezy hills above Fort-de-France. "The
>  problem is not the orthography," he says, "it's dealing with a
>  language in which you don't think abstractly."
>  That may help explain the abundance of sexual expressions in
>  his work. Historically, he says, sex played a prominent role
>  in plantation society, with slaves sexually subservient to
>  their masters. (In Eau de Cafe, the narrator is given advice
>  on how to woo women: "And since the kids are allowed to wander
>  in the countryside on those afternoons looking for coco-plums
>  and pigeon peas and we don't have to turn into zombies to
>  speak French -- what a headache, Lord! But they really must
>  learn it at school -- we can indulge in Creole, make it
>  express things that only a woman's innards can feel, and
>  savour the texture of each witticism like some strange and
>  delicious fruit.")
>  For Jane Etienne, a third-year student in the Creole program,
>  "I'm Antillean first, and then French. I don't want to study
>  French culture without knowing my own." She hopes eventually
>  to teach in Creole.
>  The Creole-studies center has been pushing the government to
>  establish an official exam, in Creole, for aspiring teachers.
>  That hasn't yet happened, but there have been other successes
>  for Creole.
>  Take Mr. Confiant's first book, Jik deye do Bondye (Behind the
>  Back of God), written in Creole. When it was published in
>  1979, nobody wanted to sell it, he says. Earlier this year,
>  the book was reissued -- again in Creole -- by a new
>  publisher. It was in the windows of Fort-de-France's best
>  bookshops.
>Copyright 2000 by The Chronicle of Higher Education
>------- End of Forwarded Message