As I prepare to begin an English graduate program in the fall, I find myself preoccupied by the invisibility of the black Francophone female writer. Specifically, I am thinking about the “she” whose work is not assigned in classrooms, whose name has been erased from history. I worry most that her work has not been translated from its original language, which has been left unpublished, as her male counterparts’ work is reissued in second, third, fourth, and fifth translated editions.
This “she” could be any of a number of black Francophone female writers; there have been so many who have written what would be considered prolific work in the genres of surrealist poetry, the novel, existentialist essay, and journalistic prose. Yet there are so few whose names are known: so few black women of the Caribbean who have made contributions to the literary canon we know and love. These women have been writing inventive and impressive works, but they haven’t been given the chance to show us their work, through contemporary translations or wide distributions.
I began research for a thesis project exploring the writing of black female Francophone-Caribbean writers about a year and a half ago. The research process became taxing and frustrating, admittedly, in part, because I didn’t read or speak a grain of French at the time. I was met with a gaping hole in available translated works, despite having access to one of the largest university library databases in the country. I found, time and again, that English translations of work by writers I wanted to read — black women writing in French — simply do not exist in the volume they do for their male counterparts.
Of the curricula I was able to find online for Caribbean literature classes, I found that the ratio of female to male writers was expectedly low. Of the female writers assigned, very few were Francophone. Black Caribbean Anglophone women were most often assigned — such as Jamaica Kincaid and Edwidge Danticat — but Francophone women fell through the cracks. Even book / author recommendation lists online shared this disproportion. Maria Menegaki of Culture Trip writes that the five Martinican writers you should know are Aimé Césaire, Édouard Glissant, Frantz Fanon, Patrick Chamoiseau, and Joseph Zobel. Several of these (all-male) writers were key figures of the Négritude movement in the Francophone world.
Could it be, then, that there simply weren’t Franco-Caribbean women writing in the moment these men were? Is it possible that there wasn’t a woman making significant enough contributions to the Négritude canon to be featured on a list of Martinican writers, or on class syllabi at major universities across the country?
Certainly not. There were many women writing at this moment, some even earlier than Aimé Césaire, who is often credited as the individual that ignited the Négritude movement in the Caribbean (it is true, though, that he coined the term). Sisters Paulette and Jane Nardal, two Martinican thinkers, journalists, and political commentators, are thought to have generated most of the ideas that would turn into what Aimé Césaire will call “Négritude.” The sisters were called the Négritude “movement midwives” by Trace Denean Sharpley-Whiting in her book Negritude Women (University of Minnesota Press, 2002).
The sisters were educated in Martinique and France, where they read and wrote extensively in conversation with works by prominent African Americans thinkers. In France, they wrote for a newspaper La Dépêche africaine, which promoted pan-African sentiments, prompting the sisters to consider national Black identity.
The sisters then returned to Martinique. In the aftermath of WWII, Paulette formed a monthly journal, La Femme dans la Cité (“Woman in the City”). Sharpley-Whiting writes that “the journal’s arrival announced Martinican women entering the public sphere, the city, and from the journal’s internationalist perspectives, the world stage where they would take up their responsibilities as citizens of their little island and the greater French Republic.”
Sarah Dunstan wrote in her article, “The Women of Négritude,” that the Nardals
exercised a strong influence both in intellectual and practical terms, holding salon-style meetings in Paris in the late 1920s and early 1930s. These meetings brought together luminaries from both the Anglophone and Francophone black diaspora to discuss the questions of identity that underpinned many of the works associated with Négritude. The Nardal’s salons are famed for producing La Revue du monde noir, a bilingual journal that ran for six editions and had a distinctly internationalist bent.
Even Césaire credited the Nardals as being the “initiators” of Negritude in the 1930s, noting the meat and bones of the movement are originated with the Nardals.
If the Nardals laid the foundation for Négritude, a movement in conversation with the global Black Arts movement, then why is their work not assigned in courses? Though Césaire credited them, the greater community of students and scholars who study Négritude often finish courses and degrees without knowing the importance of the Nardals to the historical Négritude timeline.
On the subject of Césaire, it’s also worth noting that his wife, Suzanne Césaire, was an incredible yet underappreciated surrealist writer, having contributed to the movements in existentialism, magical realism, and feminism of the era. Like the Nardals, her essays and poetry advanced global conversations of race and gender theory. She also edited the influential Martinican literary journal Tropiques. Still, Suzanne Césaire’s writing largely remains a ghost, invisible behind her husband’s monolithic career.
The career of another Martinican female writer, Mayotte Capécia, was subjected to Frantz Fanon’s searing censure in Black Skin, White Masks. While Capécia wrote novels with similar themes as Fanon’s — namely, the internal struggle between having black skin and a desire to assimilate with white collective identity — Fanon sentences her to a life of social and literary ostracization. Despite Capécia’s initial literary success, Fanon calls her work “third-rate,” her “ridiculous.” After his public judgment, her work nearly vanishes, while Fanon’s burgeons even today.
However, not all critique by male Franco-Caribbean writers of their female counterparts was as harsh. Karen Smyley Wallace noted the benefits of black men representing black women in literature, as opposed to earlier racist and sexist depictions of black women at the hand of white authors:
Through the vehicle of [black male writers’] poetry and novels, these writers evoked visions of their own women on the hills of Martinique, in the towns of Haiti, or in the savannahs of Senegal. In this way, they offered tribute to all of the black women who had ever nursed, taught, loved, supported or inspired them.
Smyley Wallace makes a strong point: there was a new component of appreciating black women through literature throughout the Négritude literary movement. Women were not just represented as dependents in the home, but rather as those who could perpetuate Blackness through their wombs and bodies, and through their minds as educators and story-tellers. While intended as praise, comparing female bodies to the hills of Martinique or the savannahs of Senegal has its problems, though.
Comparing women to land implicates black Franco-Caribbean women in a historical pattern of stripping women of their human qualities. While perhaps the effect is moderated by invoking natural beauty, by conflating women with the islands “raped” and “pillaged” by European colonizers, violence is routinely committed to their bodies through metaphor. Perhaps the metaphors are intended to reclaim — reclaim the language, the land, and the bodies of black women of the West Indies. However, who is able to enact such reclamation? Male Négritude writers, in this case, are those who had the power to recover (through publishing) female bodies, while female writers remained unable to take part in this cathartic act, ultimately perpetuating a cycle of draining female power.
Smyley Wallace does briefly touch on the flaws of men writing about the female experience, adding that “through [the black female writers’] perceptions, she has been able to articulate the feelings of the black woman and to invite the reader to penetrate the inner psychological world of the female. Thus, she adds the necessary flesh and blood to what are, at best, literary skeletons set out by the male writer.”
However, I respond to Smyley Wallace with a question: while the female writer may be a necessary component to breathing life into “literary skeletons,” is she able to do so, given everything she is up against? The female writer, who not only adds value to the Franco-Caribbean literary canon by adding an otherwise untold perspective, is smothered in a canon that has always prioritized male writers who write on the same subjects.
Smyley Wallace wrote this 35 years ago. Still, that literary and academic community does not know the names of many influential black Franco-Caribbean female writers, and still, they remain far outside the parameters of what we deem the traditional literary canon.
The potential solution to the problem of unpublished and untranslated female Franco-Caribbean writing is far more intensive, however, than simply acknowledging their underrepresentation on bookshelves and in classrooms. The contemporary understanding of how women in the postcolonial Franco-Caribbean experienced their lives is based on second-hand viewpoints, written primarily by the aforementioned men, who themselves have been translated, read, and had their theses incorporated into today’s socio-historical critical thought. Sure, we may read Aimé Césaire or Frantz Fanon’s accounts of the women around them, of female writers they love or love to despise, but who will hold these male accounts to a standard of objectivity? Beyond that, we still overlook literature that could be read, digested, and put in conversation with other great works. Suzanne Césaire could be read alongside Gabriel Garcia Marquez or René Daumal.
As I head into my graduate program in English in the fall, I will spend less time focusing on the literary cracks, and more time working on translating the voices of the women who fell through them. I will not hope that 30 years from now, these Franco-Caribbean texts will be assigned in entry-level college courses. Rather, I will assign them. Perhaps after putting in this kind of work, it will be the names of the wives who appear at the top of internet searches, before the names of their husbands.