Reading Bodies That Speak

Régine Michelle Jean-Charles, Conflict Bodies: The Politics of Rape Representation in the Francophone Imaginary (Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2014); 320 pages; ISBN: 978-0814212462 (hardcover)

• November 2015

Régine Michelle Jean-Charles’s pioneering book Conflict Bodies: The Politics of Rape Representation in the Francophone Imaginary fills a void in literary criticism with a brilliantly articulated interdisciplinary framework for analyzing representations of sexual violence in francophone cultural productions.

Intervening in the fields of francophone studies, rape cultural criticism, and transnational global feminisms, Jean-Charles’s study brings together an impressive corpus of diverse forms of visual and literary representation including but not limited to novels, plays, films, documentaries, and activists’ reports. Rape has been a recurring theme in francophone literature and film, usually as a way to evoke the economic, social, cultural and physical trauma that the people of the African continent suffered at the hands of the slave trade, colonization, and violent dictatorships in the postcolonial years. Jean-Charles’s goal throughout the five chapters that make up the study, four of which focus on a specific geographic area in the diaspora (Haiti, the Antilles, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Rwanda) is to focus on rape representations in terms of what they say about rape itself rather than as a symbol or metonymic device disclosing other traumas. Jean-Charles makes clear how traditional readings of sexual violence commit epistemic violence by silencing critical perspectives on rape as a real phenomenon that occurs during wartime and peacetime. Jean-Charles thus voices the need to consider rape as a gendered and sexed form of violence worthy of international attention.

The premise of the book is to offer a rereading of textual and visual representations of rape in literature and film by calling attention to rape victims not as “submissive receptacles of violence, left for dead on the side of the road” but rather as “acting subjects” and “agents of discourse and transformation” (5–6). This powerful and empowering approach unearths survivors’ counterdiscourses that destabilize and reformulate scripts of violence. To the question posed by the title of the introduction, “Can the Subaltern Survivor Speak?,” Jean-Charles responds in the affirmative by elaborating how these counterdiscourses show that survivors’ experiences are worthy of recognition and analysis. Jean-Charles aims to advance a different way to understand representations of rape and the rape of representation by privileging the subjective experience of the survivor and calling attention to the female black body as a site of victimization and agency.

In the first chapter, titled “Bound to Violence? A History of the Rape Trope in Francophone Studies,” Jean-Charles explores four key thinkers whose writings on violence have proven critical to colonial and postcolonial criticism: Frantz Fanon, Achille Mbembe, Mongo Beti, and Édouard Glissant. She concludes that their discussions on violence romanticize it, seek to pinpoint an origin, look at rape as a symbol of another violence, or ignore the possibility of silence to mean resistance. Jean-Charles instead examines the tense relationship between rape representation and reality to offset the failure of criticism to analyze rape from a material and imaginative perspective. She argues that a reading of female francophone authors, including Maryse Condé, Évelyne Trouillot, Calixthe Beyala, and Ken Bogul, illuminates the relationship between rape representations and gender and sexuality politics.

In the second chapter, “Rethinking Political Rape: Genealogies of Sexual Violence in Haiti,” Jean-Charles undertakes an analysis of the role of nationalist discourses that frame rape as a subtext for political unrest. Rather than insist on rape as a reflective trope of political turmoil, Jean-Charles pays attention to the repercussions of sexual violence on female bodies and investigates the intersection between rape and black female subjectivity in times of conflict. This approach legitimizes the suffering of individuals and reinforces the importance of the bodily experience of rape, thereby validating the need to understand sexual violence in order to understand political conflict.

In the following chapter, “Islands Unbound: Beyond the Rape of the Land,” Jean-Charles takes on traditional understandings of the Caribbean land as a feminized image associated with victimization and objectification. Her reading of Gisele Pineau’s novel L’espérance macadam (1995) compellingly argues that the violence on the land embodied by a cyclone’s ravaging of the landscape intersects with gendered violence. The discussions of incest and rape in Pineau’s narrative go beyond symbolizing colonial domination of the land; they foreground an understanding of rape’s impact on female subjectivity, affirming the importance of bodily experiences and trauma to analyses of sexual violence.

Chapter 4, “Beneath Layers of Violence: Images of Rape and the Rwandan Genocide,” probes the ways narratives reveal the 1994 genocide in terms of “layers of violence” (203). Building on transnational global feminist thought, Jean-Charles looks at literature, film, and photography and analyzes the multiple dimensions of violence that converge in representations of genocidal rape. One of the most interesting aspects of this chapter is the inclusion of narratives produced by artists outside of Rwanda that testify to the horrors of genocide, which works to reframe the discussion and provide the type of international attention and intervention that was merited but not received.

Human rights discourses come into focus in chapter 5, titled “Regarding the Pain of Congolese Women: Narrative Closure, Audience Affect, and Rape as a Tool of War.” Jean-Charles looks at the failure of human rights advocacy discourses that depict rape in order to evoke empathy. These representations based on evocations of empathy fail to show victims and survivors as feeling and thinking subjects because their experienced emotions come second in importance to the elicited response of the audience. Jean-Charles calls attention to Congolese women’s creative and political activism that rightfully emphasize themselves as feeling subjects by insightfully analyzing the works of filmmaker Shana Mongwanga and journalist Chouchou Namegabe.

While much criticism in francophone studies focuses either on African or Caribbean literary works, Jean-Charles’s Conflict Bodies manages to bridge together these diasporic sites by demanding critical attention to rape not only as an issue in times of war but also as a global problem that exists in times of peace, as well. Insisting on the value of survivors’ experiences and of the body as a site for understanding rape’s impact, Jean-Charles’ book is a necessary read for scholars in francophone studies and postcolonial studies, as well as for those engaged in rape cultural criticism and human rights advocacy. Her framework for deciphering rape in terms of material and symbolic meanings, and in visual and literary representations, manages to reconnect reality and representation in order to position feminist cultural productions at the forefront of the fight to expose and ultimately end sexual violence and the rape cultures that maintain it.

This review is dedicated to my mother and teacher, Donna Brown.


Marissa Brown recently obtained a PhD in the Department of French at the University of Virginia. Her doctoral project explores representations of transnational identities in French and francophone contemporary novels on migration. She is currently working on an article that examines the interplay between visual and textual representations of trauma and healing in Fatou Diome’s and Titouan Lamazou’s collaborative project Mauve (2010).