Thursday, August 4, 2016

Jacqueline Couti's "Dangerous Creole Liaisons"

Jacqueline Couti is an Assistant Professor of French and Francophone Studies in the Department of Modern and Classical Languages, Literatures and Cultures at the University of Kentucky.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Dangerous Creole Liaisons, and reported the following:
From page 99:
Saint-Pierre as a True Creole Woman: Gothic Turpitude

Even though Maynard’s first chapter condemned the gens de couleur and racial mixing, he appears to personify the city of Saint-Pierre in a positive way as ‘une véritable créole’ (‘a true Creole woman’; 1: 12). He seems to celebrate the capital when he explains it is the heart and soul of Martinique (1: 13). Yet as the novel progresses, Saint-Pierre comes to signify a prostitute of color, best embodied by the mulâtresse Flora—another component of the female trinity portrayed by Maynard. Implicitly, the noun créole is no longer reserved for white Creoles; the use of the term ‘béquet’ for colonists shows how descendants of enslaved Africans are also the ones doing the naming. Both the capital city and Flora incarnate the decadence of Martinique. This mulâtresse emblematizes a negative symbolic territory. Although her name is synonymous with healthy plant life, she is associated with a foul urban landscape, a place of promiscuity and contamination. Saint-Pierre comprises affluent neighborhoods, but also slum districts such as the Cour-Joyau, which harbors dangers for the ruling class. Gothic horror emanates from these districts where people of color grapple daily with the vice, debauchery, and sexual passions of white Creole libertines. Moral turpitude unleashes its wickedness in alleyways, and spaces dedicated to sexual license or human commerce exhale the depravity of the underbelly of Saint-Pierre (1: 70–71). The first sentence of Outre-mer’s Chapter 2 reads like the beginning of a fairytale. Maynard’s narrator introduces Flora, Marius’s fiancée, by stressing her beauty and her connection to the city and the affluent neighborhood she lives in: ‘Il y avait à la Martinique, en octobre 1829, une fort belle fille de couleur qu’on nommait Flora et qui logeait à Saint-Pierre, dans la rue du Petit-Versailles’ (‘There was in Martinique, in October 1829, a very beautiful colored girl named Flora who lived in Saint-Pierre, on the Rue du Petit-Versailles’; 1: 19). However, the structure of this first sentence guides us to also read Maynard’s novel as a philosophical fiction in which the omniscient narrator exposes the absurdity of life in a satirical manner.[…]
Dangerous Creole Liaisons examines the political ramifications of construction of sexuality, gender, and race in 19th romances and their impact nowadays in the French Antilles and on the French imaginary. I particularly examine the sexualized body of Creole women as a symbolic territory with nationalistic overtones.

Page 99 introduces the first discussion of the negative construction of mixed-race women as sultry temptresses, sneaky and loose women and prostitutes. This section opens with a discussion of the 1835 Gothic-like romance Outremer (Overseas) written by the white Creole Louis Maynard de Queilhe.

This page highlights the symbolic association between landscape and geography and the female body. Saint-Pierre, the capital of the island symbolizes the body of a Creole woman of color. The political use of that over-sexualized body as a symbolic territory vilifies gens de couleur and creolization. The process of becoming Creole creates anxiety as demonstrated by Maynard's novel in which it is depicted as a source of decay. However the critique of people of color for being Creole and not French enough is puzzling: at times flagrant, at times covert.

The comment about a “female trinity” also hints at the importance of ethno-classes in the French Caribbean—groups organized by socio-economics, ethnicity, phenotype and color. This trinity composed of the béké (white Creole women), the mulâtresse (mixed race woman with light skin), and négresse (dark-skinned woman of mixed heritage or pure African ancestry) recalls the racial hierarchy within the plantation world in colonial time: the lighter the skin the better.

This section also illustrates how in my translation of the original French, I have at times used archaic expressions that fit the nineteenth century but that might hurt modern sensibilities such as “colored girl.” My goal is to prevent readers from being too “comfortable” and to remind them of the racial and biased content of the stories examined.

The 99 page test then is mostly a success. This page presents in a nutshell the main points of the book: stereotypical constructions of women and their bodies, colonists’ fear of interracial sex and racial mixing. However before I get to that, I had to talk about the standard of beauty, the white Creole woman. This section also suggests the literary interest of the novel Outremer because of its use of the Gothic and as a philosophical fiction model.
Learn more about the book and author at Jacqueline Couti's website.

--Marshal Zeringue