On Disorderly Women Who Love Themselves

October 2023

Kaiama Glover, A Regarded Self: Caribbean Womanhood and the Ethics of Disorderly Being (Durham: Duke University Press, 2020); 296 pages; ISBN 978-1478011248 (paperback)

My first ever visit to an archive was to find someone who did not exist. It was my senior year of college and I had just read Maryse Condé’s novel Célanire cou-coupé. Célanire is a confounding tale whose eponymous protagonist is the victim of a horrific ritual sacrifice at birth. Left nearly decapitated at a crossroads in Guadeloupe, she is miraculously stitched back together by a doctor. Although she is made whole by this act, the jagged scar across her throat is a constant reminder of her violent origins. Now a grown woman, the mysterious, alluring Célanire is on a mission to avenge her own near-murder. She heads a school for métisses in Ivory Coast, returns to Guadeloupe as the wife of the colony’s new governor, and travels to Peru in search of her biological mother. Along the way, she takes numerous lovers, and people die mysteriously around her. I describe the story as confounding because its protagonist defies all the ways I had learned to read Caribbean literature. Throughout the novel, Célanire strategically surrounds herself with those who can give her the power and pleasure she desires, but although she is never alone, she is decidedly anticommunal. There is no famn potomitan to be found in this story, only a woman whose actions, motivated as they are by lust and vengeance, are difficult to redeem for any political project. I had no idea what Condé meant for us to do with Célanire.

Condé opens the novel with an intriguing epigraph: “Cette histoire est inspirée d’un fait divers. À la Guadeloupe, en 1995, un bébé fut trouvé, la gorge tranchée, sur un tas d’ordures. Les imaginations allèrent bon train à travers le pays. La mienne, comme les autres.”1 Had this novel truly been inspired by a factual event? The spatiotemporal coordinates that Condé’s epigraph provides—“Guadeloupe, en 1995”—along with the entwinement of history and fiction in her earlier novel Moi, Tituba, sorcière noire de Salem, suggested that this was possible.2 Célanire was a ghost, but in embarking on a search for her in the archives, I hoped that, like Tituba, she was a ghost with a past. As a comparative literature major sitting in the archives thumbing copies of Antillean newspapers from the mid-1990s—just in case Condé had been mistaken about the precise year—a question of greater interest to me was not simply whether this event happened but more specifically whether it had been talked about, had sparked a flurry of reactions and conversations into which Condé’s novel now entered. If Célanire insisted on so resolutely standing alone, living in various communities but being of none and looking out only for herself, then perhaps her story, if not the character herself, could be traced back to a community of storytellers, the horrified Guadeloupeans whose imaginations, like Condé’s, were stirred by the shocking events of 1995. I did not at the time have a framework for reading Célanire outside the demands of community or for taking its protagonist on her own self-loving terms. Kaiama L. Glover’s new book gives us that much-needed language today.

A Regarded Self: Caribbean Womanhood and the Ethics of Disorderly Being is about the audacity to practice freedom alone. It is a book about women for whom community is not the path to deliverance or relief. It takes seriously the wild, disorderly women with whom we are never quite sure what to do because their self-centered, pleasure-seeking ways veer sharply from the conforming, self-sacrificial demands of community in all its forms: family, nation, race. Glover invites us to meet these women—Tituba, Hadriana, Lotus, Xuela, and Lilith—on their own terrain, rather than try to co-opt them as symbols of or spokespersons for our own political commitments. A Regarded Self, then, is a book about them and us, about the ways that Caribbean women’s sometimes-perplexing choices can constitute possibilities for escape, survival, and “barely resistance” (28) and about our own ability to read so capaciously as to let these choices be enough.

In “black (beyond negation)” Keguro Macharia, thinking with Christina Sharpe, writes that “care pays attention to how we are known to ourselves and to each other.”3 In this sense, it is no small thing to say that Glover writes about her selected authors and their characters with care. In paying attention to how Caribbean women are known to themselves, Glover deftly weaves between two worlds as contiguous sites of interpretation. The fictional worlds that her cast of Caribbean women characters navigate and the worlds inhabited by the authors who created them are always in relation. But Glover is careful not to collapse the two and thus avoids the conflation that often underlies scholarly attempts to discipline ambivalent Caribbean women into being appropriately invested in a project of solidarity and collective resistance. The worlds overdetermined by slavery, colonialism, or dictatorship are “generally too far gone to be legislated into decency” (116). And so, against the order imposed by these brutal regimes, and even against the counterorder demanded by more progressive movements, these disorderly women choose to love themselves, or defend themselves, or claim a song and a story for themselves. This is what I find to be Glover’s most powerful intervention—the dizzyingly broad spectrum of ethical (and unethical) stances that constitute self-regard. Tituba’s self-love manifests as a desire to reconcile the way she sees herself with the way she is beheld by men. Lotus’s self-defense is her indeterminacy and ambivalent allegiances in the contest between polarized social and political forces. Lilith’s self-regard is her acceptance of the darkness within her as necessary for surviving—alone if need be—the brutality of a slave society.4

Glover does not shy away from bold interpretations, as in the case of what is by her own admission a risky reading of the gendered politics at play in the stories of mass rape perpetrated by a very horny moth in René Depestre’s Hadriana dans tous mes rêves (incidentally, I wonder what it would look like to read Depestre’s moth alongside the lascivious butterfly of Marie Chauvet’s La légende des fleurs).5 And then there is Jamaica Kincaid’s protagonist Xuela, whose graphic fantasy of murdering the children she refuses to have Glover reads as the character’s refusal of redemption.6 In reading, I struggled to see how this reclamation of the unredeemable is not akin to capitulation to the unhumaning (to borrow again from Macharia) discourse imposed by Man. Put as a question, When we know that Xuela fantasizes about murdering her children in the most gruesome way possible as a way to foreclose the future of the oppressive past, what then? I suppose it opens the way for imagining other futures untethered from that past. And I imagine too that Glover might say that we are able to see these futures not despite Xuela’s violence but because of it. Or is this instead, as Glover mobilizes Anne Anlin Cheng to affirm in the epigraph to the epilogue, a necessary risking of “the aporia of political uncertainty in order to reinvent the possibilities of the social?” (219). Kincaid, like all the other authors in this study, resolves no contradictions for us.

Might we locate Célanire too on the spectrum of self-regard? Undoubtedly, yes. If as a college senior I had had the language of disorder and self-love that Glover offers us today, I would have been a different student of Caribbean literature (and possibly a different person altogether). I might still have gone to the archives in search of a ghost, but likely armed with a different set of questions that would allow me to work with, rather than against, what I know now to be the productive destabilization of Condé’s trickster tales. But the possibilities that A Regarded Self offers for a much-needed rereading of the Caribbean literary canon extend far beyond Célanire cou-coupé. I wonder, for example, how Glover’s provocation could allow us to read Mayotte Capécia’s Je suis martiniquaise otherwise. By otherwise, I mean beyond the strictures of either joining her compatriot, Frantz Fanon, to condemn her as a race traitor for her disturbing pursuit of proximity to Whiteness through marriage and childbirth, or attempting to rescue her from Fanon’s ire. I am certain that it will yield us much if, with Glover’s book in hand, we return to Capécia and to the other Caribbean women who wreak havoc on demands of “allegiance to . . . moral principles and politicized practices” and meet them on their own terms (2).

Annette K. Joseph-Gabriel is the John Spencer Bassett Associate Professor of Romance Studies and an associate professor of Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies at Duke University. Her research focuses on race, gender, and citizenship in France and the French-speaking regions of the Caribbean and Africa. She is the author of Reimagining Liberation: How Black Women Transformed Citizenship in the French Empire (University of Illinois Press, 2020).

[1] Maryse Condé, Célanire cou-coupé (Paris: Robert Laffont, 2000).

[2] Maryse Condé, Moi, Tituba, sorcière noire de Salem (Paris: Mercure de France, 1986); translated by Richard Philcox as I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1992).

[3] Keguro Macharia, “black (beyond negation),” New Inquiry, blogs, 26 May 2018, https://thenewinquiry.com/blog/black-beyond-negation/.

[4] Lotus and Lilith appear in, respectively, Marie Chauvet, Fille d’Haiti (Paris: Fasquelle, 1954); and Marlon James, The Book of Night Women (New York: Riverhead, 2009).

[5] René Depestre, Hadriana dans tous mes rêves (Paris: Gallimard, 1988); translated by Kaiama L. Glover as Hadriana in All My Dreams (New York: Akashic, 2017).

[6] Jamaica Kincaid, “Xuela,” New Yorker, 9 May 1994. The story later appears in Kincaid’s The Autobiography of My Mother (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996).

Related Articles