Locating Corporeality in Another Corpus: The Creole Woman in French Caribbean Discourses

June 2018

Jacqueline Couti, Dangerous Creole Liaisons: Sexuality and Nationalism in French Caribbean Discourses from 1806 to 1897 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2016); 276 pages; ISBN 978-1781383018 (paperback)

Jacqueline Couti’s ambitious study, Dangerous Creole Liaisons: Sexuality and Nationalism in French Caribbean Discourses from 1806 to 1897, seeks to address the shifting relations among sexuality, nationalism, and colonialism in the nineteenth-century French Caribbean by homing in on the deployment of a particular literary trope: the creole woman. Although most of her texts are derived from Martinique rather than Guadeloupe, her claims still hold true overall as they provide strong groundwork for examining the French Caribbean as a whole. Examining béké authors (the Creole term for white French settlers in the Caribbean) that have been given short shrift by most scholars, Couti probes how they configure “the use of female corporeality as a floating signifier for the nation” in the Caribbean (3). So-called national romances—both fruitful and failed—between women and various characters, native and foreign to the islands, expose how desires of women and desires for women shape the necessary components for an ideal family, and thus an ideal nation. Couti is an attentive scholar, taking time to note that the representations of creole women protagonists, mainly white, are grounded in the rejection and negative portrayal of other women characters, mainly of color, that she also analyzes. She exposes underpinning racial ideologies that, although somewhat more progressive than those that preceded them, are still rooted in hierarchal perceptions of whiteness and blackness.

Another objective of Dangerous Creole Liaisons is to underscore evolving conceptions of nationhood by means of a transatlantic dialogue between the French Caribbean and metropolitan France, between the petite-patrie and the mère-patrie. Couti’s contention is that the deployment of the Creole woman as a trope also exposes a cultural cross-pollination concerning political identity in Martinique. She lays out the emergence of two types of nationhood—one in Martinique, focused on a creole particularism, and another in France—and follows their trajectories, showing how they interact with one another via the female body. Martinique, functioning as a so-called laboratory of modernity for France, serves in turn as a laboratory of nationalism for putting new political ideas to the test (23). By grounding the authors of her study in heavy historical and cultural context along with delving into neglected archival material, Couti demonstrates how significant historical events taking place in metropolitan France, such as the French Revolution and the advent of the Third Republic, inform their sense of belonging/not belonging to the Caribbean and to France.

Couti traces the trope of the Creole woman chronologically in her study, with her first two chapters covering the first half of the nineteenth century. In chapter 1, Couti charts the love triangle in Auguste-Jean Prévost de Sansac de Traversay’s Les amours de Zémédare et Carina, description de la Martinique (1806), teasing out the beginnings of a common leitmotif: a desire for a form of creole nationalism based on a weariness of a foreign other that menaces the creole woman and, consequently, the creole nation. Pairing Jules Levilloux’s Les créoles, ou la vie aux Antilles (1835) and Louis de Maynard de Queilhe’s Outre-mer (1835) together in the second chapter, Couti then examines how the two gothic novels similarly elaborate on various poisons (both social and literal) inherent to the plantation space that menace the white colonists. This leads to failed “national romances” in which depictions of sexuality and racial mixing in the French Caribbean brings about the destruction of family and the creole nation.

In the last two chapters, Couti jumps from the first half of the nineteenth century all the way to fin-de-siècle Martinique. Although the time gap between the two halves of her study is rather large, it is in chapters 3 and 4 that the texts Couti studies become more radical; it is also here that some of Couti’s most interesting insights and suggestions are to be found. In the third chapter, Couti places the spotlight on works written not by white creole authors but by foreign travelers who had settled into Martinique for some time: French writer Jenny Manet’s Maïotte (1896) and international writer Patrick Lafcadio Hearn’s Youma (1890) and Two Years in the West Indies (1890). Their inclusion in this study may seem questionable, but despite their lack of origins in the French Caribbean and Hearn’s works being written in English, Couti argues for their inclusion by proving the popularity of these works not only among readers of the time but also among future readers. Her argument that Hearn’s works exert intertextual influences on contemporary French Caribbean literature may seem suspect at first, but it is successful. After all, Hearn is specifically referenced and lauded by writers such as Aimé Césaire, Patrick Chamoiseau, and Raphaël Confiant. In any case, Couti’s demonstrates that Manet’s and Hearn’s works, even if updating creole family structures, recycle the same colonial stereotypes and images from the past. It is in the fourth and last chapter, focusing on René Bonneville’s Le triomphe d’Églantine (1897), where the entire creole hierarchy is finally upended. The social ascent of the text’s eponymous protagonist, a mûlatresse, presents a direct challenge to the white oligarchy of the island. Bonneville posits autonomy and hard work through Republican ideals as key to nationhood: Églantine is the creole Marianne. That is to say, she has become a creolized version of France’s female allegory for national identity.

Overall, Couti’s Dangerous Creole Liaisons is a meticulous study, with its strong suit being its careful textual analysis of the works it employs. If not a study that will turn French Caribbean studies on its head, it is certainly a necessary contribution toward advancing the field. It points to a need for alternative histories in future scholarship: the book’s greatest value lies possibly in its willingness to consider white creole literature—often viewed as unoriginal and being in bad taste to study—as a corpus with its own value and ramifications. Can literary scholars simply ignore works because of ethics, turning a blind eye to their significance? If one is to understand the current socioeconomical and racial issues that presently permeate the French Caribbean, exemplified by the 2009 general strikes, or perhaps even the recent 2017 social unrest in French Guiana, one must resurvey unpleasant histories. As Couti succinctly states in Martinique’s case: “Martinique cannot rise above conflictual political and social relationships without confronting what lies beneath, without facing the inconvenient lessons of its colonial past” (5). Couti’s study continues efforts in roughly the last decade that have renewed interest in interrogating hidden chapters of French Caribbean history. For example, it might find a place alongside Doris Garraway’s The Libertine Colony: Creolization in the Early French Caribbean (2005), which looks back into seventeenth- and eighteenth-century discourses, or Deborah Jenson’s Beyond the Slave Narrative: Politics, Sex, and Manuscripts in the Haitian Revolution (2011), which examines early, little-studied Haitian literary traditions. More scholarship should take on overlooked works, as Couti’s Dangerous Creole Liaisons has admirably done.   


Jason Hong is a doctoral student in French at Yale University. His current research interests concern reading francophone literature from a global perspective, especially through theories of globalization, transnationalism, and world literature. He has worked extensively on francophone literatures of Vietnam, the Caribbean, and the Indian Ocean.


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