Reframing Suzanne Césaire and Her Legacy

October 2023

Anny-Dominique Curtius, Suzanne Césaire: Archéologie littéraire et artistique d’ une mémoire empêchée (Paris: Karthala, 2020); 395 pages; ISBN 978-2811127947 (paperback)

In Suzanne Césaire: Archéologie littéraire et artistique d’une mémoire empêchée, Anny-Dominique Curtius probes the (mis)representations around Suzanne Césaire’s body and spirit that thrive in literary and artistic productions. Dithyrambic portraits usually reduce this nonconformist woman—an anticolonial feminist activist and femme de lettres—to her enigmatic allure and her purported role as a seductive muse (namely, a doudou). Curtius’s literary archeology delves into a nexus of transatlantic negotiations that encompass discussions of race, gender, identity, sexuality, and cultural production to insist on this underappreciated theorist’s unequalled contribution to French Caribbean thought. Dismissing critics who focus on the dearth of Césaire’s corpus, this monograph examines the richness and depth of her texts, particularly in the literary journal Tropiques (1941 to 1945). Curtius’s approach comprises a meticulous exploration of various documents; her close reading of this unconventional woman’s written work and archives, including letters, photos, and documentaries, allows Césaire’s voice to come to the fore—what Curtius terms the “je-Suzanne,” or the I-Suzanne (303). Suzanne Césaire gives a glimpse of a fascinating historical protagonist. This monograph does not create a new mythology but rather reframes a multifaceted and interdisciplinary scholar whose weighty contribution to French Caribbean literature, culture, and theory deserves further clear-eyed study. 

Curtius engages in de-exoticization and de-doudouification to bring the reader’s attention to the sublime sharpness of Césaire’s mind. She foregrounds Césaire’s thinking on questions of decolonization, identity construction, humanism, humanness, and feminism. Curtius coins the term “lianedialectique” (liana-dialectic, or dialectic of the tropical vine) to tease out the multidimensional, intricate aspects of Césaire’s thought. This concept also demonstrates that in the 1940s, a Martinican woman created and deployed a sophisticated theoretical apparatus grounded in the Caribbean landscape. While grappling with Afro-descendants’ relationships with their (is)land and the afterlives of slavery, Césaire invited her readers to stay away from binarisms and explore instead the complexity of people’s lived experiences in transatlantic contexts. Curtius’s literary archeology reveals how this intellectual’s corpus tackled ecocritical issues and contributed to what is known now as the environmental humanities, well ahead of its time. Suzanne Césaire removes the (sexist) limitations that literary critics (too often male and frequently from Europe and the global North) have placed on Césaire’s body and thought since she entered the academic and literary world as an actor in her own right.

The monograph, comprised of an introduction, five chapters, an index, and a bibliography, begins by anchoring Césaire in her Caribbean space and thus de-centers the White scholarly gaze. This first section examines, among other things, how the French Antillean authors and thinkers such as Maryse Condé, Daniel Maximin, Guy Cabort Masson, and René Ménil engaged with Césaire’s work and legacy. Whereas thinkers from continental France such as André Breton too often celebrated Césaire’s exotic beauty, French Antillean scholars and local leaders of grassroots movements such as the Union des Femmes de Martinique recognized Césaire as a dedicated femme de lettres and activist. Consequently, when subsequent chapters analyze the work of French scholars—often not born in Martinique—and their reductive vision of Césaire, one recognizes the reifying and demeaning nature of their praise. Curtius astutely exposes the dichotomy between representations of Césaire by French Caribbean thinkers and those by thinkers from continental France, revealing the pervasive expression of a discursive relationship between Martinique and the Metropole that manifests as a very gendered and sexualized oppressive power dynamic.

Chapter 1 offers an astute semiotic analysis of visuality through photography and cinema. Visual art here is not merely representation but misrepresentation and distortion nourished by scopophilia. Visual media both erases and (mis)characterizes Césaire. Readers can better unlock this thinker’s individuality by contending with the plurality of performances created by photographs of her and how these images are manipulated, for instance, in novels, documentaries, and surrealist anthologies. This chapter also highlights the common ambivalence and patterns evident in portrayals crafted by the Guadeloupean Daniel Maximin, the Martinican Euzhan Palcy, and the American Ronnie Scharfman, all of whom simultaneously promote and ignore significant facets of Césaire’s work because of their fascination with her beauty.

Chapter 2 explores the dissonance between the poetic masculine ode that authors such as Breton, Michel Leiris, and René Etiemble from the global North have dedicated to Césaire since the 1940s and the disruptive voices of the Guadeloupean Ernest Pépin, the Québécois Jean Morisset, and, most importantly, Ina Césaire—Suzanne’s daughter. These discordant voices allow us to realize the many ways that White/French masculine discourses have (mis)represented Césaire and still dictate how she will be portrayed by others for decades to come. Ina’s voice ends this chapter to rebuke these distorted depictions and evoke Suzanne’s multidimensional contributions to French Caribbean thought.

In Chapter 3, Curtius provides a poignant and intimate exploration of Suzanne Césaire’s influence and presence in her former partner’s poetry. Grounding her discussion in a revelation that Aimé Césaire disclosed in a 2013 documentary, which appeared after his death in 2008, Curtius convincingly argues that their collaboration never stopped, despite their marital separation and her death; it simply went in a new direction. Suzanne became a phantom in Aimé’s poetry. Curtius leaves to the reader the task of deciphering his words in order to find her. As often as not, Suzanne’s apparent absence marks her presence.

Chapter 4 introduces another side of the meta-archives built around Suzanne Césaire. It focuses on two performances by Afro-descendants, one theatrical and one cinematographic, praising Césaire’s legacy. Both evoke the memory of Césaire and participate in what Curtius calls “ressouvenance” (18) through her texts. These two performances, however, cannot help reproducing and reinterpreting earlier (mis)representations; thus Breton’s legacy persists. Each intended homage ultimately obscures the totality of her contribution: mischaracterization remains a difficult pitfall to avoid. Indeed, Curtius argues that Maximin’s claim in a November 2015 talk at the Université Lyon II—that Suzanne Césaire’s essence is freedom and not theory—also missed the mark (295).

Chapter 5 concludes this fascinating study and opens the discussion to broader possibilities around Suzanne Césaire’s contribution as a theorist. It is here that Césaire finally speaks. One can hear her voice, the “je-Suzanne.” Curtius treats the public to a close reading of excerpts of Césaire’s essays, particularly “Le grand camouflage” (“The Great Camouflage”). Here lies part of the brilliance of this volume, for Curtius quotes Césaire herself to help readers grasp the conceptualization of her lianedialectique—vertiginous Caribbean thought. Curtius reminds us that “la pensée féministe de Suzanne Césaire est comme ‘les lianes balancées de vertige’” (“Suzanne Césaire’s feminist thought is like ‘vines swinging vertiginously’”); lianedialectique also “annonce les vertiges théoriques qui nous attendent, chercheuses et chercheurs” (“heralds the theoretical vertigo that waits for us, female and male scholars”) (338; translations mine). Hence while Curtius warns that Césaire’s theoretical framework can affect scholars’ sense of balance, can destabilize them and their beliefs, it is no wonder that Suzanne Césaire may likewise cause theoretical vertigo as it destabilizes pedestrian beliefs and approaches. Curtius’s study goes against the grain to help readers realize the difficulty of grasping the elusive Suzanne Césaire and the significance of her contribution.

Curtius’s skillful decolonization of knowledge challenges both the general public and specialists; nonspecialists may find her prose daunting. That said, chapters are divided into short sections that facilitate reading, and the well-organized index and table of contents will especially benefit newcomers to the field. Curtius’s literary archeology remains a commentary on the purported neutrality and objectivity of the academic world studying “otherness.” She shows how critics’ longstanding ignorance of Césaire’s corpus and of how her contemporaries silenced her voice prevented a broader audience from taking her seriously as a thinker. Curtius convincingly argues that emotions, and not objectivity, lie at the heart of most descriptions of and commentary on Césaire by scholars from the global North, mesmerized by her beauty. Some Afro-descendants, often from the French Antilles, follow that trend too, trapping Césaire in a suspended state where she has lingered, misrecognized as a doudou or, worse, ignored entirely. Curtius destabilizes a reifying mythology that makes Suzanne Césaire simultaneously present and absent and erases the totality of her intellectual contribution. This monograph thus invites us to (re)discover the “je-Suzanne” and engage with the intricacies of her lianedialectique. Suzanne Césaire still speaks to us; we simply need to listen.

Jacqueline Couti is the Laurence H. Favrot Professor of French Studies at Rice University. She is the author of Dangerous Creole Liaisons (Liverpool, 2016) and Sex, Sea, and Self: Sexuality and Nationalism in French Caribbean Discourses, 1924–1948 (Liverpool, 2021). Her most recent publications include an annotated edition of Le fruit défendu: Moeurs creoles, roman martiniquais inédit, by René Bonneville (L’Harmattan, 2022). Her research interests delve into the transatlantic and transnational interconnections between cultural productions from continental France and its now former colonies. Her work explores constructions of gender, race, sexuality, identity politics, and nationalism.

Related Articles