Ethnography, Genealogy, and Relation

February 2015

Christina Kullberg, The Poetics of Ethnography in Martinican Narratives: Exploring the Self and the Environment (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013); 217 pages; ISBN: 978-0813935133 (paperback).

Thoughtful, well grounded, and free of unwieldy jargon, Christina Kullberg’s Poetics of Ethnography in Martinican Narratives constitutes an intelligent and informative contribution to the field of Francophone Caribbean literary studies. Through looking at literature that engages an ethnographic mode, and at ethnographic writing that engages the literary, Kullberg elaborates her concept of ethnographic poetics, or that phenomenon by which “Martinican authors appropriate and transform ethnography, distorting it into a poetics in order to explore the self in relation to the Caribbean’s cyclonic reality” (4). She argues that, despite its undeniably “colonial imbrications,” ethnography also contains “subversive potentials” that Martinican authors recognize and exploit in their attempts to render their own reality without exoticism (8). More than this, Kullberg asserts, ethnographic poetics in the hands of these writers yields rich potential solutions to problems of representation and collective self-fashioning; “the importance of ethnographic poetics,” she proposes, “lies in its ambition to problematize the position of being both the subject and the object of observation” (12).

This is an intriguing argument, and Kullberg develops it persuasively over the course of her chapters on the 1940s journal Tropiques (founded by Aimé and Suzanne Césaire, René Ménil, and Aristide Maugée) and the work of Édouard Glissant, Patrick Chamoiseau, Ina Césaire, and the ethnographers Richard Price and Michèle Baj Strobel. Thus, the volume is particularly valuable for its fresh vision of familiar literary and intellectual genealogies within Martinican writing, as well as the way it locates those genealogies within Martinique’s specific historical conditions at various twentieth-century junctures, especially as regards the cultural and political relationship with France. In its careful and thoroughgoing examination of the mechanisms of ethnographic poetics, it also sets the stage for further exploration of their role in Caribbean literature more broadly.

Of particular interest is Kullberg’s treatment of Glissant, her reframing of his pre-eminence within Martinican literary history through the rubric of ethnographic poetics and its intersections with his theories of Relation. Kullberg’s discussion of Glissant’s intellectual formation, especially his interest in the writings of Michel Leiris, leads her to assert that “in Glissant’s early writings, Relation . . . was partly derived from an ethnographic figure that expanded into becoming the basis for an entire poetics” (64). A great deal of Kullberg’s argument for the value and appeal of ethnographic poetics turns on her discussion of Glissant, who, she proposes, “dislocates the self as an object and places it on the margin between the writing subject and the depicted self, French reality and Caribbean reality, past and present” (69). Glissant’s ethnographic poetics—which is, in Kullberg’s depiction, profoundly influential over all subsequent manifestations of the mode—is the logical extension of this practice of dislocation and performance of liminality. To the extent that ethnographic poetics succeeds in generating representations of individual and, more important, collective identity-formation that are open-ended and processual, that success owes much to Glissant’s reinvention of the mode, his creation of “a discourse of becoming that can seize being in the process of change as it faces the other, leading to a kind of relational epistemology” (77). 

Kullberg also pays a lot of attention to Patrick Chamoiseau. He appears as a major subject of two chapters, first as self-ethnographer in Kullberg’s examination of his 1997 autobiographical essay Écrire en pays dominé, and then as novelist in her readings of Chronicle of the Seven Sorrows (1999), Solibo Magnificent (1997), and Texaco (1997). Kullberg offers a nuanced view both of Chamoiseau’s contribution to the development of ethnographic poetics and of the potentially problematic aspects of his deployment of the mode. With regard to the former, Kullberg paints Chamoiseau in very Glissantian hues, as in her claim that “instead of taking the position of a holder of knowledge who reduces the other to an object of knowledge, [Chamoiseau’s] word scratcher operates on the border that divides the object and the subject” (111). The latter—the gentle critique—emerges subtly yet with laudable specificity via her comparison of Chamoiseau’s narrative strategies with those of Ina Césaire.

Kullberg’s discussion of Césaire’s novel Zonzon Tête Carrée (1994) constitutes one of this monograph’s most significant contributions to its field. On the most basic level, the close attention Kullberg pays to the novel disrupts the regrettably masculinist biases often displayed in accounts of Martinican literary history. Beyond that, however, Kullberg makes a subtle argument for Césaire’s skillful and intentional manipulation of the boundary between her work as an ethnographer and her literary production, toward particular political ends. “Writing fiction,” Kullberg says, “allows this ethnographer to make marginalized stories heard by a wider audience”; further, Césaire “turns social science into literature in order to make indirect gestures toward the political arena; she is a writer who provides a stage for silenced voices. . . . She looks for others’ stories instead of turning the other into a story” (125). By way of contrasting Césaire’s approach with Chamoiseau’s more explicit and elaborate performance of authorial angst, Kullberg notes “the absence of enunciation of the author and the narrator” in Césaire’s novel, asserting that “the self-questioning dimension of her prose is implicit” (125) via her marginalization of the figure of narrator and her refusal of a conventional plot structure. Kullberg’s ultimate claim for Césaire is a powerful one indeed: “Creating a heroic subject as a model for identity-building has obsessed an entire generation of male authors. As a woman, Ina Césaire stages a different strategy. She utilizes rhythm and the environment to gain possession of Martinique and break with the generalized feeling of dispossession” (138). This is highlighted by the subsequent, provocative suggestion that Césaire, as much as if not more than Chamoiseau, is the inheritor of Glissant’s aesthetic legacy: “The challenge proposed by Glissant and retaken by Ina Césaire is to include the environment within a text governed by the aesthetics of the tale” (139).

Kullberg’s volume certainly has its flaws: early on there is a lack of close reading—a preponderance of birds-eye-view statements about texts and bodies of texts without much specific and fine-grained attention to them—that improves as the book progresses. There are also, very occasionally, comments that seem somewhat reductive, such as the following: “In a society shaped by slavery, work has a different connotation and is hardly regarded as productive and liberating” (74–75). Surely Kullberg does not mean to imply that their history has stripped all Martinicans of any kind of positive relationship to work, regardless of the conditions under which they labor. However, this is, on the whole, a careful and thoughtful piece of literary criticism and literary historiography. Moreover, as someone with an abiding interesting in issues of positionality, audience, and self-representation as they manifest in Caribbean literature, I am grateful to Kullberg for adding ethnographic poetics to our common vocabulary for addressing those questions.


Rachel L. Mordecai is an associate professor of English literature at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her primary teaching and research interest is Caribbean literature and culture; other areas of interest include African diaspora literature, multicultural American literature, and autobiography and life-writing. She is the author of Citizenship Under Pressure: The 1970s in Jamaican Literature and Culture (University of the West Indies Press, 2014).