Location: Bowdoin / Romance Languages / Symposia / Caribbean Interorality in the New Millennium / Abstracts

Romance Languages


Language, Orality, and Creolist Poetics
Mylène Priam
(Associate Professor of French, Harvard University)

In recent years, In Praise of Creoleness (1989) has come so far as to be described as a "social document" within which the literary, historical, social and aesthetic all had a role to play.[i] This feature provides an appropriate analytical framework for explaining the context of the emergence of the discourse on Créolité and its relevancy to its authors. Three aspects of this context intersect and delineate the means for investigating this relevancy: language, the Caribbean theoretical framework, and the sociopolitical context. This essay will first take a close look at the question of language, to understand notably what may have paved the way for the discourse of Praise.

Much has also been said about the Creolists and their bias toward orality, as though their commitment were extraordinarily rare. But, as Édouard Glissant once said, "All writing, or rather, any written work, takes up where oral expression and 'vision' leave off, and so long as humanity or rather, humanities, are anchored in orality, a number of human processes are maintained".[ii] Following the publication of Praise, the Creolists continued to seek answers, through literary and poetic praxis, to the dialectics of orality and writing, fiction and reality, or, in other words, to the "cultural problematics at the heart of Créolité".[iii] They made numerous brash assertions in their Praise, notably regarding poetics and aesthetics, but they also expressed many wishes and hopes. Readers of Praise have had a tendency to perceive the Creolists' intent in the color of their often hyperbolic prose. However, close readings show that the authors also expressed many reservations, albeit with a subtlety that has often been denied to them. Their refusing to define Créolité (and choosing to describe it instead) constitutes one such instance. The fictional works by Chamoiseau and Confiant represented their attempt as authors to “realize” or live their Créolité, in other words to “realize,”, to the best of their ability and with all the potential of their vision, the two most ambiguous aspects of their Créolité, the oral and the written (i.e., to accept that these aspects were not incompatible or mutually exclusive). To understand that it is their intuition, and to claim it loudly in a manifesto, does not mean that its acceptance is seamless, translatable or even feasible. This comparison brings me to discuss the principal points of encounter and divergence between Chamoiseau and Confiant's literary “Créolités,” each of their poetics depending on the relationship the individual writer maintains with his island and its oral legacy. The Creole texture of their respective novels was inspired by common cultural dynamics which were not meant to be linked to specific groups (ethnic, social, etc. Thus, they were not doomed to be continually formulated in the same fashion), and whose elements constituted parts of their Creolist poetics.

Technologies of the Word: Kamau Brathwaite’s “The Black Angel”
Hyacinth M. Simpson
(Associate Professor, Ryerson University, Canada)

In 1952 in a small literary magazine called Bim, Kamau Brathwaite, the Anglophone Caribbean’s foremost oral poet and theorist, published a short story titled “The Black Angel.” Forty two years later the story was republished in Brathwaite’s collection of prose poems or “proems,” DreamStories(1994); and in 2007 he again republished the story in his DS (2) dreamstories. While plot and character details and even the word-for-word narration remain practically the same, there are notable differences across the three versions. These differences, as I will argue, mark important shifts and developments in Brathwaite’s theory and practice of orality in the last decade and a half; and they are epitomized in his employment of what he calls his “Sycorax Video Style” in representing the 1994 and 2007 versions of the story.

Since the mid-1990s when he introduced the “Sycorax Video Style,”—a computerized language that allows for the manipulation of words on, and the look of, the page—Brathwaite has been exploring the interfaces between voice/sound, printed, and digitally produced/ computerized texts to argue that orality is a persistent feature of the various forms of technologizing the word. In so doing, he recuperates an oral epistemology and points to the continued significance of Caribbean oralities to contemporary communication and meaning making.

Books and Boukman: Tracing a Legendary Genealogy
Paul Miller
(Assistant Professor of French, Vanderbilt University)

Boukman’s rebellion, and its ceremonial inauguration in August 1791 at Bois Caiman in the French colony of Saint-Domingue, has the allure of a founding.  The words uttered by Boukman at that ceremony have been cited on scores of occasion, in stories, official histories, plays, novels and songs and even in the recent notorious commentary of an evangelical preacher in the USA.  And yet how can we know what was really said at the Bois Caiman ceremony?  Moreover the foundational significance of Boukmans’ prayer bestows upon it the status of an unrepeatable utterance.

According to C. L. R. James, Boukman’s words were the following:

 “The god who created the sun which gives us light, who rouses the waves and rules the storm, though hidden in the clouds, he watches us.  He sees all that the white man does.  The god of the white man inspires him with crimes, but our god calls upon us to do good works.  Our god who is good to us orders us to revenge our wrongs.  He will direct our arms and aid us.  Throw away the symbol of the god of the whites who so often cause us to weep, and listen to the voice of liberty, which speaks in the hearts of us all.”

But where precisely did James acquire this version?  He states, “…he [Boukman] stimulated his followers by a prayer spoken in creole, which, like so much spoken on such occasions, has remained.”  And yet he says not from where or from what it remains. In fact that which remains, the remainder, is the text James cites, which in its reproducibility stands in contrast to the unrepeatable event in its originary enunciation.

The untraceable orality of Boukman’s prayer and its frequent propagation in books attests to the dialectic of oral origins. In this essay I will attempt to track the depictions of Boukman’s prayer in divergent historical directions.  On the one hand I will review the nineteenth century histories of the Haitian Revolution, such as those by Beaubrun Ardouin, Thomas Madiou, and Garran-Coulon, in an attempt to approximate the sources of Boukman’s prayer.  Secondly, I will analyze some of its well-known twentieth-century representations including, in addition to James, those by Edwidge Danticat, George Lamming, Lance Homer, Marguerite Laurent (aka Ezili Danto), the Haitian mizik rasin band Boukman Eksperyans as well as the Jamaican novelist Gavin Hutchinson who has assumed the nom de plume “Dutty Bookman.”   

The verbatim repetition of Boukman’s prayer as James cites it and in subsequent simulacra tends to obscure the oral origins of the enunciation and reify them—a process that Danticat signals allegorically in her story “A Wall of Fire Rising” as she questions the process through which that the persistence of national myths can be both liberatory as well as stifling.

Yemayá and Ochún: Queering the Vernacular Logics of the Waters
Solimar Otero
, (Associate Professor, Louisiana State University)

This work explores the connections between the water deities, or orichas, Yemaya and Ochún as expressed in Afro-Atlantic belief.  Following the work of Lydia Cabrera and J. Lorand Matory, this paper troubles the notion of bounded relationships between deities, vernacular religious expressions, notions of embodiment, and gendered personhood.  One particular manifestation of Yemaya  and Ochún found in Cuba is that of the  los hijo/as de las dos aguas, or the “daughter of both waters,” a designation given to devotees of both orichas that signifies a fluid connection between the two.  This set of relationships serves as a model for how to understand discourses of incorporation within women’s religious work and orality through personal experience narratives that focus on boundary play.  Using fieldwork done in Havana between 1999-2009, and also studies about Afro-Atlantic religion in Yoruba, African American, Afro-Brazilian, and Afro-Cuban religious contexts, this work will connect this openness to religious interaction to the history of the African Diaspora in light of new ways of thinking about how ritual creativity keeps these traditions in conversation with emerging gendered and sexual identities.

Orality Otherwise in the Black Pacific
Michael Birenbaum Quintero
, (Assistant Professor of Music, Bowdoin College)

In describing post/colonial settings like the Caribbean, orality often acts as a foil to Europeanizing modernity and literate forms of knowledge. Whether celebratory or disparaging, most accounts of orality reproduce the same coordinates on which race and modernity are mapped and cultural legitimacy judged. A notion of orality “otherwise,” one not indebted to Western epistemological hierarchies, might refashion orality as a way to conceive a particular mode of present-tense practice. After all, even if orality serves lettered intellectuals for its operation over historical time (as a source for history in the “absence of ruins” that for Walcott characterizes the Caribbean), for its practitioners orality is most properly savored in real time.

Re-situating orality in the present and repopulating it with its practitioners and their utterances allows us to see what exactly orality does. Using examples from my research on music in the black populations of Colombia’s southern Pacific coast, I will examine how the formal poetics and sensual experience of people’s sung utterances, even beyond their semantic meaning, achieve particular goals – the pleasures of sound, social control, the accumulation of gendered notions of prestige. All of these functions stage the crystallization of local social networks into a contingent kind of community. As Jean-Luc Nancy has suggested, these communities are fragile, temporary, and immanent – the product of present practice rather than the transcendent ancestrality that orality-as-history aims to construct.

A second crucial, and often-overlooked, component of orality is listening and the role of sound itself – aurality. I am particularly interested in how the rise of sound recording technology has made geographically dispersed and culturally varied black populations present for one another in ordinary, visceral, coeval, and matter-of-fact ways neither orality nor literacy can claim. Aurality and the jumbling abutments it produces is a particularly imperative concern in places on the margins of Gilroy’s Black Atlantic, where aurality presents local black populations with new repertoires for understanding their own blackness. This can precipitate new political solidarities, new scripts for political resistance, and new ideas for a black take on the good life, but it is also important to recognize that the circuits of black cultural production are geopolitically unequal, and that the Black Atlantic has a North and a South.

The version of orality “otherwise” presented in this paper, then, aims to rescue orality by re-injecting utterance and aurality into it. This allows us to examine how contemporary orality has precipitated new entanglements, new imaginings of both non-local blackness and local social networks as communities.

Afro-Indian INterorality and Caribbean Philosophy
Paget Henry
(Professor of Sociology and African Studies, Brown University)

As an integral part of the larger field Africana philosophy, Caribbean philosophy, which includes Native Caribbean, Indo-Caribbean, Afro-Caribbean and Euro-Caribbean philosophies, is currently in a state of postcolonial recovery. This recovery has come behind the postcolonial recoveries of disciplines such as Caribbean literature, history, music, economics or political science. During its long period of European colonization, Caribbean philosophy was silenced and excluded from academic discussion. Further, it came to be trapped in a number of binary oppositions that were analogically linked to the colonizer/colonized binary in the region. Among these related binary oppositions were: European/Native Caribbean, European/African, European/Indian, White/Red, White/Black, White /Brown, Civilized/Primitive, Rational/Mythic, Literate/Oral, and Literature/Orature. In order to re-assert its identity, Caribbean philosophy would have to extricate itself from this complex web of oppositions.

The focus of my paper will be the last three of these binary oppositions in which Caribbean philosophy was inscribed during its colonial period. The pattern of this inscription linked the categories of the rational, literate and literature to philosophy in general, and to the colonizer’s philosophy in particular. The binary logic by which these categories operated necessarily linked the colonized to the designated opposites of the above three: the mythic, oral, and orature. On the basis of this oppositional coding of colonizer and colonized, it was further argued that Caribbean people, and Afro-Caribbeans in particular, were incapable of producing philosophical discourses. Thus, when the University of the West Indies was established in 1943, it opened without a philosophy department.

In my paper, I will examine these claims regarding relations of mutual exclusion between philosophy and orality. Following this examination, I will offer three set of arguments for rejecting these claims: 1) orature in the history of the development of Native Caribbean, Indian and African philosophies; 2) the links between orality and self-reflection; and 3) the links between orality and dialogical reflection. From these INteroral arguments, I will make a case for philosophical production in oral traditions of Caribbean thought.    

Body (text), Music and Dance in Guadeloupe and Martinique in Orality: Negotiating the Double Bind of Dispossessed Origins and Becoming Other
Gladys M. Francis
(Assistant Professor of French & Francophone Studies, Georgia State University)

I propose to explore the particular use of dance and music observed in the writing of Martiniquan and Guadeloupean writers such as Ina Césaire, Patrick Chamoiseau, André and Simone Schwartz-Bart. This presentation sets out to expose how their use of orality, oraliture (oral literature), and the body in movement create complex levels of textuality, meaning and reading. I will examine how these storylines are all developed through a substantial meddling of Creole rhythms that challenge the mainstream’s representations of these islands as cultural exotic spaces. I argue that this process participates to the construction of a particular stylistic of Creolization in which the text is presented as hybrid and the body as text as hybrid and suffering. Indeed in these texts, the body performing a Creole dance or singing a Creole song remains the representation of a Creole microcosm in which exoticism is deconstructed to reveal politics of chaotic states of being. The body in movement uses these Creole rhythms to do violence to lost memories (effects of deportation), to neocolonial sufferings (effects of colonization), and to paralyzing states that prevent the access to authentic liberation. By focusing on dance, music, oralité, the esthetic of oraliture and corps et graphie/choreo-graphy, I will analyze these polyphonic texts and reveal how these bodies of cultural productions re-write and create their own history and historicity through inner and inter-zones of violence.

Orality and the Slave Sublime
John E. Drabinski
(Associate Professor of Black Studies, Amherst College, MA)

In this essay, I explore the relationship between the Creolist’s notion of orality, creoleness, and historical experience and Paul Gilroy’s conception of the slave sublime in The Black Atlantic. In particular, I am interested in how Gilroy’s location of diasporic unity in pain and sublimity - carried for the most part in music, though also in literary expression - might impact the idea of orality in the creolist manifesto. Both the creolists and Gilroy insist on the primacy of mixture, and yet Gilroy identifies traces of diasporic unity and similarity, whereas the creolists break with diasporic talk in favor of an emphatic locality and singularity of cultural creolization in orality. Is it possible to reinscribe a notion of diaspora, via the slave sublime, into orality, against the claims of the creolists? Or does the locality and singularity of orality undercut the conceptual aspirations of the slave sublime?

Interorality: an Introduction
Hanétha Vété-Congolo
(Associate Professor of Romance Languages, Bowdoin College)

In this paper, I propose to articulate and introduce the notion of interorality as it refers to the set of mostly African but also European storytales transposed into the Caribbean by deported Africans during the colonial and slavery era. I argue that interoralization is an aesthetics procedure that governed the africanization of the Caribbean territories and that interorality is one of the primary and distinctive signs of Caribbean identity.

Interorality in Recent Literature from the Caribbean
Odile Ferly
(Associate Professor of Francophone Studies, Foreign Languages and Literatures, Clark University, MA)

Given the characteristic syncretism of Caribbean societies, exploring with a language based on heterogeneity often proves particularly engaging to writers. Yet Caribbean orality is often understood as belonging to rural culture, and to pertain primarily to the African cultural legacy of the Caribbean. This paper explores the way in which some recent writing uses a prose that bears the mark of orality, while truly reflecting the syncretism of the region. The oral quality of these texts is indeed a case of interorality.

[i] Read Stewart, Charles. "Creolization: History, Ethnography, Theory." 17.

[ii] Glissant, Édouard. "Le chaos-monde, l'oral et l'écrit." p.112.  In Patrick Chamoiseau and Ralph Ludwig. Écrire La Parole De Nuit: La Nouvelle Littérature Antillaise: Nouvelles, Poèmes et Réflexions Poétiques. Paris: Gallimard, 1994. 111-129.

[iii] Confiant, Raphaël. "Questions pratiques d'écriture créole." p.178. In Patrick Chamoiseau and Ralph Ludwig. 171-180.