The Antiromance

Donette Francis, Fictions of Feminine Citizenship: Sexuality and the Nation in Contemporary Caribbean Literature (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010); 191 pages; ISBN: 978-0-230-61987-6 (hardcover).

• August 2011

Donette Francis’s important and rigorous work Fictions of Feminine Citizenship: Sexuality and the Nation in Contemporary Caribbean Literature presents a wide-ranging descriptor of contemporary women’s Caribbean writing while offering a critical engagement with the sociohistorical colonial and postcolonial contexts that these writers negotiate and critique. Specifically centered on Caribbean women’s narratives displaced by official history, Francis argues for an expansion of the archives that have historically excluded forms of women’s writings such as letters and postcards and ignored the narratives of women’s own bodies. Often, these marginalized expressions have been silenced by male-centered or patriarchal institutions. Furthermore, they have been doubly effaced by dint of the cultural conquest of Western imperialism. Just as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak argues that “between patriarchy and imperialism, subject-constitution and object formation, the figure of the woman disappears, not into a pristine nothingness, but into a violent shuttling which is the displaced figuration of the ‘third-world woman,’”1 so Francis tracks displaced counternarratives of “third-world” women’s desire marking a necessary intervention into Caribbean studies. Shuttled between colonial processes and heteropatriarchal national mores, Caribbean women’s voices are often expunged from official history. These narratives, expressed both textually and metatextually (via letters, postcards, and their own bodies), make up what Francis presciently calls the antiromance. This contestatory genre challenges the “romance” as intimately bound to and produced by colonial history and representing the subject-position of white or European males. The antiromance also indicates the ways in which citizenship imbricates sexuality—that sexuality is indeed constructed or controlled by the mores and laws of society. “Sexual citizenship” for Francis denotes these intimate histories between the State and the domestic sphere specifically considering the violence women of color face as a consequence of the management of sexuality in the colonial and postcolonial context. The radical potential of the antiromance, as Francis shows, is the very possibility of alternative modes of community within which female desire is not governed by sexual-patriarchal or racial hierarchies; it presents the possibility of women’s agency within these regulatory and often violent contexts.

Spanning from about the mid-nineteenth century to the present, from the “post”-emancipation context of the indentured servitude era in Jamaica through independence and subsequent dictatorships in Haiti, for example, to a fraught Caribbean and American present, the five novels that Francis analyzes—Patricia Powell’s The Pagoda; Nelly Rosario’s Song of the Water Saints; Edwidge Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory; Elizabeth Nunez’s Bruised Hibiscus; and Angie Cruz’s Soledad—visualize this antiromantic poiesis. The productive challenge of the term itself belies not a solely oppositional existence but one brimming with other possibilities and contradictions. In other words, the antiromance is not defined over and against the “romance”; it does, however, present a robust challenge to, and an alternative for, the genre and its various transnational contexts. The romance genre is problematic for Francis in that it reproduces certain colonial violences: it masks coercion as consent while instituting a white male subject, it erases or diminishes the salience of colonial violence, it reproduces heterosexual normative coupling—the “happy ending”—and it objectifies women of color in the same moment that it silences their voices. Anticolonial nationalist romances can and have indeed fallen into similar traps. The antiromance is both a challenge to the romance and an ontology and epistemology itself. For Francis,

these Caribbean antiromances engage three major themes: rewriting the heterosexual love plot through an adult narrated bildungsroman, rethinking alternative ways of belonging to the nation by shifting the focus to the sexual complexities of dwelling at home and abroad, and, finally, resisting canonical historical representations by creating counterarchival sources to replot history. (6)

Fictions of Feminine Citizenship carefully traces these threads through the five novels.

Through the “archives of intimacy,” Francis argues that Powell, Rosario, Danticat, Nunez, and Cruz “address the active suppression of history through destroyed and fragmented documents” (10). The aporias of colonial history are narrated in Francis’ first case-study, Patricia Powell’s novel The Pagoda, through the character of “Mr. Lowe,” who is born Lau A-yin (a female) but passes as a man to escape from an arranged Chinese marriage via passage to Jamaica. Lau A-yin is subsequently positioned as a male shop owner and furnished with a wife. This masquerade is orchestrated by Cecil, a white slave trader and A-yin’s rapist. The Pagoda’s narrative, rich and convoluted, highlights the effects of colonial violence against the sociohistorical backdrop of post-emancipation Jamaica—specifically the ways in which sexual and racial hierarchies are intertwined with national belonging. For Francis, The Pagoda is “a story about sexualized power relations in the imperial contest, chronicling how white men and minority women experienced the similar social, economic, and sexual phenomena in fundamentally asymmetrical ways” (47; emphasis mine). This asymmetry marks not only the sexual and racial violence of the colonial and postcolonial context but the ways in which women of color were and are disallowed voice and the means to articulate experience. Yet Powell’s narrative, for Francis, marks the very condition of possibility for expression through alternative means (an unfinished letter from A-yin to her daughter, for example), which is suggestive of “queer” and interethnic bonds that translate into new ontological and epistemological horizons—imagining other ways of being and knowing.

Particularly timely is Fictions of Feminine Citizenship’s second chapter on Nelly Rosario’s novel Song of the Water Saints, which poignantly uses the metatext of the postcard to frame the narrative within the historical context of American imperialism. It is important to trace the histories of North America’s global ventures in order to situate our postcolonial present against dominant narratives externalizing accountability while suppressing, for example, Caribbean women’s voices. Set during and after the US occupation of the Dominican Republic, Song of the Water Saints, like The Pagoda, also recuperates repressed women’s narratives and desire:

Using antiromance as a mode of plotting the transgenerational pathos of these four women’s lives, Rosario underscores that weighing the facts enables meaningful action in the present and future. And further, that the presentness of the past calls for tracing out imperial circuits of desire, which shows that empire’s operating logic in colonial theatres was equally about regulating intimacy as it was about disciplining populations through military force. (52)

The United States’ biopolitical rather than purely disciplinary regulation of Dominicans’ lives is visualized in the novel through representations of colonial laws enacted to order the sexual practices of those colonized. Yet these sexual practices are produced, in a sense, through the US public’s consumption of the Caribbean as exotic and sexualized, as a result of postcards and other discursive constructions. “If the postcard has historically worked to silence subaltern histories in that it pictures imperial projections rather than local self-constructions,” Francis posits, “then Rosario makes [these] postcard[s] narrate more than imperial fantasy” (ibid.). If postcards visualizing the Caribbean consumed in the United States represent an imperial fantasy, Rosario’s novel deconstructs this fantasy at the same moment as offering something more.

In the chapters that follow, Francis deftly reads the last three novels—Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory;  Nunez’s Bruised Hibiscus; and  Cruz’s Soledad—through the lens of the antiromance, showing how these Caribbean women’s stories narrate the structural, sexual, and ideological impingements from colonial, postcolonial, and hetero-patriarchal forces. Yet, perhaps more important, Francis meticulously analyzes the ways in which these novels narrate women of color narrating their own alternative ways of becoming agential subjects and how they situationally constitute their own stories and/as selves. This writes women of color into history, making a space for voice and experience while troubling history’s (colonial) archives as invested, motivated, and thus problematic. In keeping with the genre of the antiromance, Francis states of these novels as a group:

None of [them] presented here, or my own reading, offers the definitive story or gives the final answer. They seek instead to prompt us to look again and ask yet another set of questions about the intimate lives and well-being of all Caribbean females. That these creative artists engage and play with reality and representation invites us to imagine otherwise, and this ability to rethink settled cultural assumptions is the gift of both our late postcolonial moment as well as this contemporary Caribbean feminist poetics. (146; emphasis mine)

In Fictions of Feminine Citizenship, the “otherwise,” then, represents an other or alternative to the repressive forces of colonial and postcolonial nations, while the “imagine” catalyzes and images the desire for such an alternative possibility.

Christopher Ian Foster received his master’s degree at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, where he is currently a doctoral student in the English department. He is an instructor at Queens College. His interests include postcolonial theory and literature, transnational and diaspora studies, and critical theory.

 


Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” in Rosalind Morris, ed., Reflections on the History of an Idea: Can the Subaltern Speak?  (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 280.

 

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