Writing Desire and Pleasure in the Francophone Caribbean and African Diaspora

February 2017

Léonora Miano, ed., Première nuit: Une anthologie du désir (Montreal: Mémoire d’encrier, 2014); 200 pages; ISBN 978-2897121907 (paperback)

Léonora Miano, ed., Volcaniques: Une anthologie du plaisir (Montreal: Mémoire d’encrier, 2015); 220 pages; ISBN 978-2897122720 (paperback)

Lauded Cameroonian novelist Léonora Miano’s two recent edited collections of short stories, Première nuit: Une anthologie du désir and Volcaniques: Une anthologie du plaisir, aim to correct the relative scarcity of narrative depictions of black sexuality, pleasure, and intimacy within mainstream francophone Caribbean and Afro-diasporic writing. As Miano affirms in her introduction to Première nuit, “À quelques exceptions près, les écrivains subsahariens, caribéens et afropéens francophones, semblent mettre un point d’honneur à éviter les questions relatives à l’intimité” (“With some exceptions, sub-Saharan, Caribbean, and Afropean francophone writers seem to make it a point of honor in avoiding questions relating to intimacy”) (6). Both of these extremely timely collections debate issues relating to race, gender, and desire, while forging important connections between the fields of francophone Caribbean and African diaspora studies. The result is an exciting polyphonic two-part project featuring twenty-two diverse emerging and established literary talents of French expression from the Caribbean, sub-Saharan Africa, and Europe.

The first volume in the series, Première nuit: Une anthologie du désir, offers a varied assemblage of well-crafted short stories around the theme of la première nuit, or “the first night” of erotic encounter. The anthology collects stories from ten male writers, and Miano herself, and features particularly strong entries from francophone Caribbean authors Alfred Alexandre, Franck Salin (Frankito), and Jean-Marc Rosier. For example, in Alexandre’s lyric “Carnet d’îles,” the first night between two lovers does not just figure as the teleological fulfillment of compounding desires, as it does elsewhere in the collection, but also provides an opportunity to reflect on the nature of intimacy and memory, with its silences, ruptures, and reinventions. As the narrator of the story cruises around the Caribbean Sea with his lover, Eva, both glimpse the passing islands from the small porthole of their cruise ship’s room. Along their journey, each island becomes a mirror for the couple’s own physical and emotional desires, forming a geographic diary of their romance: “Une mémoire en archipel. Une mémoire d’eau salée. Et fragmentée comme un carnet d’écumes. Qu’on pouvait lire comme un carnet de voyage” (“An archipelagic memory. A salt-water memory. And fragmented like a notebook of foam. That you can read like a travel journal”) (117).

With its compelling stylistic and thematic variation, the anthology as a whole strives most frequently to explore the workings of male heterosexual desire. In particular, women in the collection often serve as mimetic representations of eroticized topographies, mirroring the dynamic land and waterscapes of the Caribbean and black Atlantic world. In Alexandre’s tale, Eva’s and the narrator’s intertwined fingers form a “entrelacement d’îles” (“an interlacing of islands”) (117), while in Julien Mabiala Bissila’s “Le confessional” Bettina, a former Catholic nun and the narrator’s erotic obsession, becomes a cartography of desire ready to be explored: “Me voilà explorateur, à la découverte du pays inconnu. Relief montagneux, végétation épilée, affluents déchainés. . . . Je découvre un paysage époustouflant” (“Here I was an explorer in search of the lost country. Mountainous regions, shaved vegetation, vigorous tributaries. . . . I was discovering a breathtaking country”) (41). Throughout the collection, other authors similarly probe the depths of their passions and laud the female anatomy. In her introduction, Miano states that most francophone Afro-Caribbean and African diasporic male writers have largely ignored addressing such themes; however, one need only look toward the work of authors such as René Depestre and Dany Laferière for similarly candid treatments of male sexuality and desire. In fact, these writers’ own thematic influence is felt throughout the collection.

Women and the im/possibilities of their idealized bodies thus serve as the driving force for many of the stories in the anthology. While some of the contributors may reiterate, perhaps too easily, well-established tropes surrounding male sexual fantasies and female sexuality, others in Première nuit attempt to question these with humor and irony. For example, the Guadeloupian writer Frankito describes in “Fucking tchad!” an adolescent’s failed attempt at seducing the beautiful Célia: “En sa présence, j’étais tétanisé, séché sur place, lyophilisé par la chaleur infernale du tchad. J’avais pourtant la réputation d’être un sérieux blagueur . . . à l’aise tant avec la langue de Molière qu’avec celle de Rupaire” (“In her presence, I was paralyzed, petrified on the spot, flash-dried by the infernal heat of tchad. Yet, I had the reputation of being a serious jokester . . . just as at ease with the language of Molière as I was with that of Rupaire”) (57–58).Frankito’s humorous and touching story of a boy confronting his budding sexuality deftly interrogates the taboos of desire and fear that often accompany black male sexuality and black masculinities within Afro-diasporic writing. As a whole, this collection serves as unique space for the ten male francophone writers to explore and express the theme of desire on the page, while presenting compelling pieces of short fiction that are at times humorous, thoughtful, and moving.

For the second anthology of short stories in the series, Volcaniques: Une anthologie du plaisir, Miano turned toward her own creative work and that of eleven women writers from the francophone Caribbean and Afro-diasporic world. From Paris to Fort-de-France and Yaoundé, these writers contribute their diverse talents to a collection that challenges stereotypes of black female sexuality while ebulliently recounting experiences of female eroticism and pleasure. Unlike its companion collection, Volcaniques extends well beyond the limits of an expected or actualized sexual encounter via its focus on the theme of “volcanics.” Here, Miano has befittingly chosen a subject that holds many powerful metaphors and associations when treated through the lens of female erotic pleasure: volcanoes can suggest ardor and impetuosity, movement, joy, destruction, and more. Each of the writers of the collection (including Miano, who pens the particularly potent “Full cleansing—La quête de Kweli”) provides her own unique take on “volcanics” by crafting a short story full of longing, drama, grace, laughter, and power.

For some, volcanics serves to represent the power and singularity of female sexuality and female orgasm. For example, in Gisèle Pineau’s “Un petit feu sans consequence,” Sonia, the narrator of the story, begins to discover her nascent sexual desires with the help of her ailing aunt, who describes stories of erotic encounters from her past. Sonia’s aunt recounts one such “volcanic” moment: “Et d’un coup, j’ai senti que ça venait. . . . Un ouragan capable de déchirer le ciel et ravager la terre en un moment. J’ai senti que ça venait avec furie du dedans de mes entrailles” (“And all at once, I felt that it was coming. . . . A hurricane capable of tearing apart the sky and ravaging the earth at any moment. I felt that it was coming furiously from within my depths”) (39–40). At the same time, Pineau’s story reveals that female sexuality not only is tied to the experience of orgasm but also provides a sense of power and self-affirmation to the main character, helping to shape her relation to and within the world around her. Similarly, in the poetic “Nez d’aigle, dents d’ivoire” from Martinican writer Gaël Octavia, the young tomboyish Frédérique draws erotic power both from her bourgeoning sexuality and from the lush mangrove forests around her house. Her first romantic sexual encounter is punctuated with images from that space: “Elle revoit le vert, le marron de la mangrove, hume l’odeur de la terre gorgée d’eau. Elle entend, dans leurs respirations haletantes, le bruissement des branches et des feuilles” (“She sees again the green and the brown of the mangrove, inhales the odor of the water-logged earth. She hears, in their heaving breathing, the rustling of branches and leaves”) (95).

Still other authors in the collection seek to address the many taboos surrounding female sexuality and pleasure with levity and humor. Franco-Martinican writer and director Fabienne Kanor’s mordant “Rayon hommes” documents one woman’s diasporic sexual adventures between Europe and her native Cameroon. While the narrator enjoys seeking out men on the street, in airports, and at cafés, she only ever allows herself to “consume locally” when in Europe. She explains, “Non pas que je sois raciste, ou que je ne me fantasme que sur les Blancs, mais parce que je refuse de me taper huit heures d’avion pour coupler avec mes frères” (“Not that I’m racist, or that I only fantasize about white men, but because I refuse to endure eight hours of flying only to hook up with my brothers”) (163).

In Volcaniques, female sexuality is also intimately tied to histories of pain, trauma, and violence. Miano explores these in her moving “Full Cleansing—La quête de Kweli,” one of the longest stories in the collection and one of the most thematically and narratively complex. The story alternates between past and present, and in it, the main character Marianne/Kweli seeks to explore the lines drawn between a childhood sexual trauma and the patterns of desire it has created in her life. Kweli changes her name from Marianne, a symbol of French influence in her native country, and in so doing, undergoes a complete transformation by also rejecting her pattern of choosing violent and dangerous men: “Les histoires toxiques, c’était tout ce qu’elle avait cru mériter. Un poison lui avait été inoculé, qui lui attirait ces amours vénéneuses. Ce qui lui arrivait était une projection de ce qu’elle portrait à l’intérieur” (“Toxic relationships were all that she believed she deserved. She had been inoculated with a poison that drew these venomous lovers to her. What happened to her was a projection of what she was carrying around inside”) (183). The story also powerfully highlights the theme of volcanoes, used as symbols of obstacles to scale, as markers and recorders of time, and as sources of erotic power and liberation.

Set in conversation with one another, both Première nuit and Volcaniques succeed in addressing representations of desire, pleasure, and erotics in Afro-Caribbean francophone narrative writing. At the same time, both offer the added benefit of introducing readers of French-language Caribbean and Afro-diasporic fiction to, or reacquainting them with, new and compelling literary voices. Each also challenges and transcends stereotypes of black sexuality within the francophone Caribbean world and beyond by giving both male and female writers a space in which to confront and openly discuss the frequently taboo subjects of desire and pleasure.


Ryan Joyce is a doctoral candidate in the Department of French and Italian and the Gender and Sexuality Studies Program at Tulane University. His thesis focuses on queer Haitian and francophone Caribbean diasporas in the Americas and Europe.


1 Sonny Rupaire (1941–92) was a popular Guadeloupian poet who was one of the first in the French Caribbean to write and publish works entirely in Creole. 


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