Carnivalesque Jouissance:
Representations of Sexuality in the Francophone West Indian Novel


Thomas C. Spear

Lehman College, City University of New York

translated by

Richard D. Reitsma [1]

Washington University, St. Louis

Copyright © 1998 by Thomas C. Spear and Richard D. Reitsma, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author. 

  1. Before beginning my discussion about the representation of sexuality in several francophone West Indian novels, I think it is essential to identify my critical stance as that of a white male homosexual American whose mother tongue is English. [2]  I thus present an outside view of the world described by francophone and creolophone heterosexual West Indian writers.

  2. To speak of a carnivalesque atmosphere permits me to choose the most diverse and "crude" sexual scenes from the novels I am surveying in this essay.  It is known that the "enlightened" world permits itself to "get down and dirty" once a year during carnival. Raphaël Confiant reminds us that at the beginning of this century, in the Martinican city of Saint-Pierre, "the white Creole elite cultivated a facade of Puritanism, except during carnival" ("Preface" viii). During carnival, all the elements of the Creole universe (all the races, ages, social classes and sexualities) intermingle in a masquerade of differences;  before the onslaught of the Lenten season when they cease to eat red meat, Catholics and consorts give themselves over to these other carnal pleasures.  In a section from his Discours antillais regarding "Pleasure and Joy" in Martinique (293-302), Edouard Glissant speaks of these "burlesque marriages of carnival" (299) where the roles are reversed (the men, for example, play the role of pregnant women). René Depestre describes such a group of cross-dressers in Hadriana dans tous mes rêves: "They had stuffed pillows and cushions under their green satin dresses to simulate the final stages of pregnancy. They had the breasts and buttocks of a Reubenesque Venus" (59).  Donned in burlesque mockery by Depestre, this so-called "transvestite masquerade" (Glissant 299) encourages us, in turn, to take on the mask of various authors to see how they present West Indian carnivalesque sexual freedom. [3]  Whether the carnival allows for what Glissant sees as a great collective and popular questioning of Caribbean society or whether the sexual roles presented reinforce existing hierarchical and phallocratic sexual structures, may depend, of course, on the side of the masquerade on which one sits, if one laughs "at" or "with" the travesty, or if it generates a Bakhtinian, carnivalesque laughter that reinforces while simultaneously ridiculing the status quo. [4]  In "The Carnival Complex," Richard D.E. Burton argues the latter, noting that what happens during carnival "is not fundamentally at variance with what happens during the remaining 360-plus days of the year" (157).  As we will see with Chamoiseau's market women, Burton confirms that the "stereotyping of homosexual and higgler" (market woman)--two members of West Indian society who, like cross-dressers, do not fit into the cultural and sexual division of male/outside and female/inside--always serves to defend this "ideal" division of space (164, Burton's quotation marks).

  3. My objectivity on this issue was challenged by Terry Goldie who reminds us of Frantz Fanon's footnoted comment in Peau noire, masques blancs (146) that he had never seen an overt example of homosexuality in Martinique. While he had seen men dressed as women, Fanon was convinced these cross-dressers had a "normal" sexual life. Masquerades of doudouist difference... the kokeur dé-grenn... Only in France had Fanon found Martinican men who had "become" homosexual (did his specification that they were sexually passive imply that the "top" man was not homosexual?), and not for neurotic reasons but for financial expediency.  After citing this example, Goldie looks at several of Fanon's other texts, underlining what he sees as the "importance of masculinity in Fanon," who "made many statements which are aggressively homosexual, some with a barely hidden homoeroticism."  Suggesting an important bonding experience between Fanon and an Algerian revolutionary ("In bed with the FLN") Goldie emphasizes, beyond sexual acts, that "In the ideal homosocial world, the impersonation [of the Other] must be beyond heterosexual or homosexual desire."  For Fanon, as well as other writers in the sexually-divided West Indian society described by Burton, misogyny and homophobia are related to a very homosocial network.

  4. Searching for a West Indian (or Creole) specificity in the following fictional scenes, one may be reproached for a certain doudouist exoticism similar to that of so many tourists debarking in the Antilles, attracted by texts written far from their northern climates in a landscape replete with palms and coconut trees (the two are often confused; see Antoine, 341).  What is an authentically Creole text?  How can writers--and readers--strike a balance between a realistic landscape and an evocation I would qualify as doudouist, in the sense in which Maryse Condé uses the word doudou:
    The Antillean immigrant community has always, to a certain degree, had a sense of its "difference."  This is how, in the 1950s and 1960s, West Indian singers acquired a certain reputation playing their biguines while also achieving a certain folklore status.  However, what they are reproached for nowadays is that they belong to what one pejoratively calls "doudou culture."  That is, they represent certain traits of the West Indian personality that are the very ones that had been privileged by the colonizer.  The colonizer desired to see in the Antilles purveyors of smiles and sun, at a bargain price. ("Propos" 79)

    Antillean people, therefore, cannot easily liberate themselves from the doudouist mimicry of the image imposed on the community by others.  Glissant recalls for us "the phallic image of the Antillean people or of the Negro" in Western mentality, just after mentioning that Air Canada is jokingly called Air Coucoune because of the real or imagined pleasures the Canadians discover in the Antilles (and/or the Antilleans discover with the Canadians, 301n).  One of the characters in the novel L'Autre qui danse by Suzanne Dracius-Pinalie defines herself as West Indian, but she (like Véronique in Maryse Condé's Hérémakhonon) has difficulty giving up the "sexy" West Indian stereotype:  she refuses to be anything but a "beautiful, languid doudou always in love . . . swaying her hips to the lilting dance of the biguine" (325).  Many of the authors I examine in the following paragraphs would rather like us to believe that, in these "pays chauds," the hips and palms of the tropical geography are forever in motion.  As Depestre writes, "The charm of Haiti before God resides in the fact that the hips, loins, buttocks, and intimate organs intervene in the elevated movements of the soul as much as the driving forces of redemption" (Hadriana 66).  The part of the real and that of the imaginary become confused not only among non-West Indians, but also among many of the West Indian writers who conform, consciously or not, to the stereotypical image of an overflowing sexuality.  Rare is the author or character who questions it.  And by repeating the stereotypes, calling them to our attention, I enter the dangerous terrain of which Mireille Rosello speaks so intelligently in her study, Declining the Stereotype:  am I challenging or perpetuating the stereotype?  And yet, rather than have a silence interpreted as complicity or assent, I can perhaps "decline" the stereotype as "a way of depriving it of its harmful potential by highlighting its very nature" (11).

  5. A so-called "authenticity" may be helpful to analyze exaggerations.  Yet where does "realism" stop, and doudouist folklorization begin?  The question is not necessarily useful; literature, a work of the imagination, does not care about any reality.  In Depestre's Alléluia pour une femme jardin, a peasant offers his hand to a beautiful woman in exchange for a blown kiss;  the kiss proffered, he cuts off his hand and throws it to the woman (13).  Condé recounts the story of a "negress whose loins were composed of veritable springs and who regularly sent her partners flying to the ceiling" (Hérémakhonon 144).  Does this quiver with exaggeration?  With "magical realism" à la Carpentier?  Experts in oral literature might simply suggest that the hyperbolic tradition of the Creole storyteller is carried over into the written form of storytelling.

  6. Sometimes, exaggeration is a product of the phallic tradition in which the man boasts about the great number of his conquests and the size of his penis. In West Indian novels (written by both men and women), one often finds the character of the kokeur (or coqueur, i.e. "fucker") known for his victorious virility, such as Depestre"s géolibertin (global-libertine), ferocious in the quantity and variety of his female conquests, "master" of the female "ass" (derrière-caye) (Hadriana 197).  Patrick Chamoiseau describes a woman character who has submitted to the excessive vigor of a "master" kokeur and is then treated like a "bitch" while the man parades about like a peacock:  "After having fucked (koké) Chinotte for several hours without any mechanical breakdown, the sorcerer (quimboiseur) appeared at the bar during a rum fest, with the ease of the master of the house" (Chronique 84).  The majority of these male characters, especially among the examples provided by male authors, remain, like roosters in the barnyard, supreme in their dominating sexual power.  These "Majors" are invincible and impressive, masters in body and word:  they never appear "submissive."  An example of the classically submissive female can be found in Jacques Roumain's Gouverneurs de la rosée;  the heroine, Annaïse, declares her love to the male protagonist, Manuel, in the following manner:
    I'll serve your meals and remain standing while you eat. And you'll say, "Thanks, sweetheart." And I'll reply, "At your service, my master," for I'll be the servant of your household. At night I'll lie at your side. You'll say nothing, but I'll respond to your silences, to the pressure of your hand, "Oui, my man," for I'll be the servant of your desires. (116)

    Esternome, of Chamoiseau's Texaco--one of these masterful, "marvelous fuckers"--attributes his longevity to having taken such "great care of his balls" (159).  Can this "fictional" representation of a real phallocracy--which never doubts the supremacy of the man with two balls (dé grenn)--be qualified as "exaggeration"?  In Chronique des sept misères, Chamoiseau explains the differentiation of sexual roles at the public market.  The women knowingly submit to this hierarchization when they prefer to begin their day by selling to a man over selling to a woman--this, despite the fact that men consider all manner of market sales as beneath their dignity.  Ginette, for example, does not hesitate, "if by chance some gossip comes by to inquire about her prices, to refuse to sell, so is it true, as Fanotte affirms, that only a man dé grenn could inaugurate an honorable day's work" (21-22).  The central character of the novel, Pipi, has "learned that the Caribbean market basket was a woman's affair:  men dé grenn don't sell" (50).  As is often the case with masculine writers, the sexual part--or parts--defines the West Indian men and women as well as the roles they occupy. With men, it is not solely the fact of possessing "two balls" that determines their power and superiority; they must take special care of them in order to maintain this weapon against women.

  7. References to the sexual power of men abound.  It is necessary to recall the rapes evoked in Moi, Tituba, Sorcière . . . Noire de Salem by Maryse Condé in order to demonstrate how certain female authors underscore the violent aspect of that power.  In the context of human exploitation in the cane fields, Simone Schwarz-Bart evokes a series of real or possible rapes endured by a West Indian woman (Pluie et vent sur Télumée Miracle 46; 110-111).  There does not exist "a single Martinican who does not count at least one violated woman among his or her ancestors," writes Glissant (297).  Sexual violence--"one of the fundamental elements of the Creole psyche," according to Confiant ("Preface" x)--could be seen as a tradition inherited from the slave system, which reduced the woman to a breeder (génitrice) and the man to a stud horse (Glissant 98).  True joy had to be "stolen" from the master (beyond the master's observation); the Martinican, says Glissant, not only "doesn't have the time," he "doesn't take his time" (295-296).  Or, according to Confiant, "to make love in a Creole country was (and still largely is) like rapping on a door quick and hard" ("Preface" xiii).  For Glissant, a tradition has thus been established in the Antilles where pleasure and joy "mutually ignore or exclude each other" (295), and where one finds "a machismo without sublimation . . . [and] an unheard of brutality of manners" (298).  This is how the West Indian man affirms his virility, according to these authors.

  8. In authors such as Depestre or Confiant, the physical "superiority" of man is glorified.  Depestre keeps his reputation as a humorist for those who do not take seriously his stories of géolibertinage.  In a scene from Eau de Café by Confiant, a striking representation of overflowing phallocracy, one finds the exaggeration of the masculine member and the imagined joy which women get from it.
    [Thémistocle] had an impressively long cock, perhaps two meters, maybe more, which he wrapped around his waist with infinite care. . . . [Doris] experienced a vile nausea when the beast penetrated her coucoune, her asshole, her ears, her mouth, her nose, each time discharging in her a volley of jouissance the color of sugarcane, so much so that she was completely covered with this pleasure, and fell asleep right there under the sun until noon the next day. (177).

    The size of the West Indian man's sex, previously reputed to be gargantuan, according to racist tradition, is here exaggerated to a laughable degree. [5]  The use of Creole vocabulary and symbolism (coucoune/cunt, bonda/ass, couleur de flèche de canne/cane-colored) could, nevertheless, encourage amateurs of folklorization to attribute a legendary sexuality to West Indian men and women.

  9. One must ask whether the Creole vocabulary used in the sexual scenes of these French-language novels does not smack of racist stereotypes.  The debate over the use of the Creole language continues to pose problems to West Indian authors. [6]  Confiant would say, ironically, that certain Creole words are "untranslatable into civilized language" (Eau de Café 61-62) and should therefore remain in Creole in the French text. [7]  Sexuality thus described in Creole becomes not only "untranslatable" into French, but also not even "civilized."  In the preface to a republication of Une Nuit d'orgie à Saint-Pierre Martinique by Effe Géache (written in French at the beginning of the century), Confiant asserts that "Creole is the only language to name the sexual organs and practices that are related to them" ("Preface" xi).  In Lettres créoles, Chamoiseau and Confiant affirm that the "utilization of Creole terms to designate sexual organs and describe orgies gives a torrid coloration to a text rather plainly written" (94).  Like many West Indian writers, they do not ignore the possibilities of that presumed "torrid coloration" of Creole.  Like the pseudonymous author of Une Nuit d'orgie (Effe Géache = FGH), the authors of Eloge de la créolité--Chamoiseau and Confiant--know how "to arouse the European reader" ("Preface" xi) by their own use of Creole. According to Confiant, their linguist friend, Jean Bernabé, has demonstrated "how the core of the Creole language is structured on the basis of a vocabulary of sexuality" ("Preface" xi).  According to Confiant's character, Antilia, Creole has been "eviscerated" and "strangled" by French, leaving nothing to the Creole language but the "tetralogy of foutre (cum) and merde (shit)," namely:  "Kal (dick), Koukoun (pussy), Bonda (ass), Koké (fuck)" (Eau de Café 251).  When the opposition between these two languages implies a link between Creole and this "tetralogy of the uncivilized," the use of Creole vocabulary in the middle of sexual scenes will serve to underscore the difference between West Indian and continental sexuality.  A stranger to French and other "civilized" tongues, the Creole vocabulary salts the descriptions of sexuality with exoticism.

  10. Implicit in the exaggeration of masculine sexuality and the glorification of men dé grenn, one finds a flourishing and often extremely homophobic heterosexuality.  Homosexuality is not evoked save in an exceptional manner among the West Indian novelists in order to make a joke, for example, when a character is treated as a "faggot" (macoumé) (Chamoiseau, Chronique 169).  The rare representations of homosexuality seem to have as their function the explanation of an "aberration" due either to economic or survival factors, rather than representing it as a natural tendency.  One finds many examples in Condé of these men who "are not men" (Les Derniers Rois Mages 164):  in Hérémakhanon, for example, a Peul domestic lends himself to the caprices of his European employer (who is homosexual) solely because of the money (194).  Additionally, in Ségou, homosexuality is explained as a European "vice" inflicted on Africans;  José, the ganhador (queer) "was no longer a human. He was nothing but a wreck (loque), a homo (pédale)" (203-204). [8]  It is different in Moi, Tituba, where Condé develops a friendship between Hester and the black witch, Tituba;  here, female homosexuality is seen, on the whole, under a rather positive light. [9] With her parodies of characters and her mocking words, Condé appears, nevertheless, as a rare example of a West Indian writer who attempts to liberate herself from all "sexual nationalism" (Hérémakhanon 158).  Désinor, a Haitian homosexual in Condé's Traversée de la mangrove, remains silent, but we read that he "would have loved" to insult, scandalize, and defy the bourgeois morality of the small community with his flaunted difference (208).

  11. One is not surprised at the remark made by two men, Chamoiseau and Confiant, citing Depestre's compilation, Alléluia pour une femme-jardin, as a "hymn to the Haitian woman and to the sweet doucine treasures she can provide" (Lettres créoles 95).  All folklorization of women--or rather, of their bodies--is not only permitted, it is sweet (douce). Depestre, who deftly unites fantastic imagery of Haitian food and fucking--we could add flora, fauna, females--enjoys the admiration of his colleagues, also lovers of women's flesh.  The novelist and critic Milan Kundera has dedicated an article to West Indian writing in which he speaks of Chamoiseau, Césaire and Depestre, and in passing of André Breton, V.S. Naipaul, and Wifredo Lam.  He does not mention women writers or artists. According to Kundera, Depestre demonstrates a "happy and naive eroticism . . . , [a] sexuality as unbridled as it is blissful (paradisiaque)" (53).  Obviously, we see that there are many ways of conceiving paradise.  His investigation of the unbelievable, or fantastic, aspects of this literature seems to incarnate the doudouist tourism (like that of Breton) of a Czech writer discovering Martinique.  In tracing the surrealist narratives of West Indian authors, Kundera is quite right to speak of the limitless possibilities of this "marvelous" or surreal imagination.  It is sad, however, that this creation never seems to abandon the limited field of the heterosexual male imagination.

  12. Depestre's short story "Blues pour une tasse de thé vert" ("Green Tea Blues," published in the collection Eros dans un train chinois) is without doubt one of the most homophobic texts I have read.  I use the word "homophobe" in the conventional sense of "fear" of the homosexual and of homosexuality; in addition, the homophobia in Depestre's text encourages a perception of the homosexual as a danger.  I found the copy of the collection I bought in a Montreal bookstore in 1990 classified with the books of "eroticism" rather than under "literature";  this fact seemed more revealing of the judgments of the Quebecois readership than of the author's intentions, although it is the French publishers who included the first edition of the text in their "Erotiques" collection.  On the cover of the paperback edition, we find Miles Hyman's illustration of a faceless, naked woman (with the "exotic" foreignness of a Chinese sign behind her), which confirms, one could say, the desire of the Haitian author (and/or of his editors) to entice the gaze of the male heterosexual reader and objectify the foreign female.  Written in the first person, "Green Tea Blues" recounts the history of its narrator, a Haitian student, who meets an American student (residing in the "Greek Dormitory" [79]):  "a big Black built like an officer of the [Military Police]" (77).  In fact, the camaraderie due to the "black color" of the narrator's skin--a "'racial' solidarity" underscored throughout the story (93)--provokes "a seducing smile" of friendship in Bill, the American, who, we discover, is homosexual.  The narrator receives an "ardent . . . declaration of love" (84) from the American, written in an "effeminate prose" (85) and signed, "Passionately [follement] yours" (84):  a steamy letter with a declaration more powerful than that of any woman.

  13. Thus we realize that Bill is a "macici, a maricón, a golden fag from Alabama . . . a lawless, faithless queen . . . a dangerous dandy" (85). [10]  Troubled, the narrator valiantly calls to mind his feminine conquests, praising his cock and his "sensibility for the fairer sex" (88).  Thrice in the short story, the narrator recalls how his umbilical chord had been cut, at birth, by the teeth of a young woman; this Haitian rite is supposed to have "immunized" him for life against the path of homosexuality.  When the effeminate homosexual seizes the narrator's "huge magic dick meant for the deflowering of white adolescent girls" (93), the narrator smacks him with his fist, but unexpectedly finds himself overpowered.  The narrator then appears "prostrated by the horror and disgust of contact with male flesh" (93).  When he is seized by fear and repulsion, his zipper (which is difficult to undo) saves the day.  At the end of the story, he runs "breathless" (95) into the arms and refuge of his female friend, a "Czech tennis player" (joueuse/gaming partner);  he says it is "a feast to go fishing in her blond river" (81).  The exaggeration of his fear of the homosexual would be amusing if the story did not evoke so clearly a scene of rape (the insistence of the solidarity of "race" between the two men is significant).  The homosexual is described as a danger simply by being a homosexual, even though it is rather the fixed role of this heterosexual man that should cause fear;  he believes himself defined by his sex--inviolable--as the hunter and never the prey.

  14. In descriptions of West Indian sexuality, one finds another singular phenomenon, the dorlis.  Chamoiseau gives an example in Chronique des sept misères of these men transformed into dorlis who penetrate doors and locks to reach their sleeping victims:
    That night, Héloïse lay down for her final slumber as a virgin, because, in the meantime, black Phosphore, having divulged to his disheartened son the Method learned from a tomb, had made him into a dorlis.  The modus operandi of Anatole-Anatole still remains a mystery. . . . However so, it is certain that on the night in question, he finds himself in Héloïse's room, in spite of all the barricades.  Applying his newfound knowledge of the dorlis, he spends eight delicious hours with the sleeping figure.  His grunts, tears, spasms, his orgasms from the pleasure mingle with the gentle snores of his partner. (34)

    As a consequence, Héloïse, the victim, learns to put her "black panties [on] backwards" to protect herself from this nocturnal intrusion.  This scene undoubtedly will foster the phantasms of the avid reader of forbidden bodies; the lack of consent by the completely objectified woman ostensibly augments the pleasure. [11]  According to Glissant (300n), the dorlis "satisfies the desires of women without their being allowed to remember anything."  This "phantasm of impunity and castration" is obviously a heterosexual male fantasy.

  15. Curiously, again according to Glissant, "there is no known case of a homosexual dorlis."  Here is an interesting affirmation (if true) of the collective imagination.  Sexuality in the French-speaking Antilles, or at least its fictive representation, seems closed to the idea of a passive sexuality among men.  It would be interesting to study other beliefs than the dorlis, other "Afro-Atlantic" religions or occult practices in the Antilles (in Cuba, for example), and other social configurations in regard to homosexuality and sexual "possession." [12]  And yet, when reading, for example, Jamaica Kincaid's descriptions of a bisexual West Indian man whose active homosexual life remained hidden (to his family) behind its heterosexual counterpart, we might consider the extent to which each author's personal view of sexuality, at times including generalizations about the community--"the famous prudery that exists among a certain kind of Antiguan woman"--colors their written observations.  As Kincaid writes, "I grew up alienated from my own sexuality and, as far as I can tell, am still, to this day, not at all comfortable with the idea of myself and sex" (69).

  16. An exception to "impenetrable" masculinity can be found in Confiant's Eau de Café, where we learn how the character Thémistocle obtained his reputed powers of kokeur:  after he and some other men had killed many bêtes-longues (snakes), Thémistocle was led away by Bothrops, whom Confiant calls "La Femelle Originelle (reputedly a hermaphrodite)" (192). [13]  In "an indescribable joy," Thémistocle was taken into Bothrops' den where, he says, "his forked sex penetrated me from behind, mine slipped through the iridescent scales of his orifice and we made love for forty-seven and a half days" (195).  In choosing such an example of active and passive masculinity, one could infer that I am penetrated by doudouist phantasms of homosexual géolibertinage.  In fact, most "outside" criticism--such as that of Kundera--speaks in laudatory terms of the liberties taken by West Indian writers' sexual imaginations; one might also conceive of configurations not necessarily within the limited realm of the heterosexual voyeur.

  17. That is why I address myself in particular to women readers of the texts in question.  Joan Dayan speaks of "the reductionist idealization" of women in Depestre's works (590n) and declares that Depestre operates in a mode of "recuperative male fantasy" (590).  In an interview with her, Depestre has recognized his own ties to West Indian machismo.[14]  Depestre sings "alleluia" to the female sex:  "In his flutterings around the islands he had never seen between the thighs of a young girl a conch shell blooming so royally. Putting his ear against it, he could hear the Caribbean!" (Hadriana 24).  And again:  "I plunged straight for her sex: . . . that is, the source of strength which sets the blood coursing, the prodigy of the beginning of life, before fire and rain, before darkness and wind, and above all, before the mythologies which have denatured the female sex to the effigy of the greatest terrors of our species" (Alléluia 64-65).  In Hadriana dans tous mes rêves, a mambo priestess prepares a ceremony in memory of Hadriana, drawing a vévé of the young woman's sex:  "As we watched, Madame Brévica's talented hand drew a sphinx lusting after a vulva-sun with a well-shaped head and lips and clitoris magnificently spread" (76).  The spectators then strip off their clothes, throwing bras, garter-belts, and silk stockings into Madame Brévica's bonfire as a revival ritual for the dead young virgin and to protect her spirit from the rapacious Balthazar:
    Men showered socks, ties, and handkerchiefs.  One cripple relinquished a crutch, another a false mahogany arm.  We saw a bolivar-hat, an effigy mask of Pope Alexander Borgia, an umbrella, a small bench, a rattan chair, a huge Gothic dildo, and an Immaculate nun's wimple land on the revived fire too.  Watching the joyous erection of the fire, Madame Losange's face contorted with pleasure.  She took one of the ten-kilo candles burning beside the catafalque, and planted it into the outlined shape of the dead woman's genital organs with the intention of stopping the butterfly's threats of rape. (77)

    (The butterfly was once Balthazar Granchiré who, by the lustful age of fifteen, had bedded scores of women "of all ages" [26]; he has been transformed into a butterfly as punishment for having gone too far, seducing the "garden-woman" of his step-father.  Even metamorphosed as a butterfly, he continues his vast conquests of female territory.)  Depestre's description of the ceremony continues "within the limits of a pagan homage to Hadriana Siloé," with the entire community achieving "first the death rattles of agony and then the triumphant cries of orgasm";  they somehow have the "crazy hope of snatching Nana Siloé from the jaws of death and re-igniting the star of her flesh in our lives" (78-79).  While this passage is not intended as a "phallic mystery," the first person possessive plural adjective ("our") with which it concludes refers to those for whom Hadriana's flesh recalls personal sexual memories of volcanic vibrations--the entire eroticized community for whom "her" flesh has been reawakened.  This colonization of the feminine sex certainly dates from before the arrival of the first Africans and Europeans on the shores of the Antilles.  In both male and female writers' works, one often finds women--such as Depestre's "garden-women"--compared to a field to be plowed, or sown with seed. [15]  It seems we will never leave behind this colonizing machismo.  According to Glissant, certain "deviancies or singularities (homosexuality, spinsterhood, community attitudes)" help to "liberate" women from "the machismo environment" (298, emphasis added):  but, he says, "the sexual indifference of the Martinican woman is substituted these days by rather spectacularly acute forms of sexual pathology" (Ibid.).  One has the right to ask what Glissant means by "sexual pathology"!  The woman who dares to "deviate" from the sexual role attributed to her by men had better beware.

  18. What do women readers make of Confiant's description of coucounes?  Do they know how to recognize their racial affiliation as readily as the (male) expert?
    The guy, in effect, grazes the curved, fuzzy coucounes of the blue-black negresses, the most sublime that one could imagine, also the most enticing, . . . the aggressive coucounes of the mixed-race women [chabines] with hair yellow like the mango [mangue-zéphyrine], the golden-brown, chaste slit of mulattas who wouldn't let themselves loose until the very moment of ecstasy, the shimmering fleece of câpresses and . . . the coarse hair of Indian women. . . . (Eau de Café 85) [16]

    The narrator's godmother, Eau de Café, advises her black female audience to deliver their "bodies to the thirst of all men" in order to be seen as beautiful.  Confiant does not need to use much Creole vocabulary to describe this "negress uglier than the seven deadly sins";  her beauty, he tells us, proceeds from her sex, valued for its doucine flavor:

    Ladies of the audience, don't look elsewhere for the reasons of our ugliness and our poverty! . . . Our revenge is in the black coucoune, bumpy with pink lips like the shell of the lambi.  Allow someone to come near the mouth of your lap, and he is as if entrapped by its radiations and plunges his tongue unrestrainedly into the curved slit of the doucine until it vanishes.  To say that the negress is sumptuous, to efface from her spirit all the litanies of evils that have been proffered her by the Whites, all that is lacking is to suck her coucoune. (Eau de Café 293)
    Our revenge is in the black coucoune, bumpy with pink lips like the shell of the lambi. This is not all that far removed from Depestre's style.  The male gaze upon the colored pussy has been inherited from the slave tradition, or from an eternal "droit de cuissage" that makes a woman's sex her only potential power and a measure of her worth for the master.  According to Eau de Café, the black woman makes up for an innate ugliness (!?) by the beauty men find in her sex.  In a word, let everyone find beauty where they will!  Sexual phantasms undoubtedly differ between men and women;  it is worth noting, however, that one does not find a parallel adulation of the male kal in the works of women writers.

  19. This literature is not lacking in variations upon the old theme of the toothed vagina, "with saw's teeth" for Depestre (Hadriana 25):  phantasms of the frightening feminine sex.  In Depestre, it is the beautiful Isabelle's lover who, "while fucking her . . . saw his genitals shrink like a peau de chagrin. [17]  When one morning, upon waking, he discovers that his sex has disappeared and that all that remains is a bit of one testicle, he kills himself with a bullet to the head" (Alléluia 13-14).  Dracius-Pinalie describes a very jealous man who procures "afroparadisiac" products, one of which, brought back for his wife, is administered, or rather "badigeonné all the way to the deep end, inside her cunt."  His wife's kokeurs
    could make all manner of advances toward his wife and even enter her from behind, but, the moment they would penetrate her dark sex, wacha! the device would wrench out the head of their cock, cut it off swiftly, plim! and then let it fall, wabap! like a banana peeled and then tossed to the ground; the man would start to run like a man possessed, and she would never see him again! (144-45).

    For Depestre, it is men's extreme fear when confronted with the female sex that leads to this phantasm of the "shrinking" phallus;  for Dracius-Pinalie, the man rids himself of his enemies by way of the "booby-trapped" sex of his wife.  The power and danger of woman resides in her coucoune (as it is conceptualized by men), and this is, above all, a power given to it by men.

  20. Several male Antillean writers place a female character in the forefront. [18]  A very well-known example [19] is that of Sophie Laborieux, the central character of Texaco by Chamoiseau.  She is the victorious woman, the liberated woman, the one who overcomes all obstacles.  If, from time to time, and armed with different weapons according to their sex, the men and women of the Texaco community fight together (292), Sophie gives precedence to the women who are the only ones who dare to confront the police (337).  Does Chamoiseau depart from the phallic tradition in recognizing this example of a woman who differs from the others when he evokes the "miseries of women behind closed shutters" (264) and the fact that "men are worth nothing;  the women's only stick to hold onto in life [is] that of courage (bâton-courage)" (312)?  Or, does this portrait of Sophie, reputed to be a "woman with balls" (femme-à-graines) (412), not precisely reinforce the stereotype of power associated "with balls"?  Whatever the case may be, Sophie's beautiful coucoune does all it can to please her man:  it "becomes apple and pear and little golden cage, it makes itself chicken-and-rice, it transforms itself into sugar-liqueur to be sucked . . . it metamorphoses into danger, like the poisonous fleur-datura (thorn-apple flower) that paralyzes one's legs" (392). [20]

  21. If, before I began this essay, I had thought I would find among the female authors a less crude sexuality, less likely to describe body parts in detail than among the male writers--the sweet verbal jouissance of Simone Schwarz-Bart being the strongest example among the women writers--I quickly reached the conclusion that it is useless to make generalizations about West Indian sexuality and its literary representations.  One woman writer, Dracius-Pinalie, has created an anti-heroine who plunges into a very violent masochistic sexuality. [21]  Emile Ollivier, my last example (and from whom I cite only a short fragment), demonstrates a lyricism quite rare for a male writer in his description of a "night of feverish escapades" of his heroine, Amparo, in his novel, Passages:
    Her body is nothing but transparent water, an infinite space, without reference, limitless, outside of time, with neither past nor future . . . To enjoy every modulation, every ripple, every convulsion, every thrust, in the crystallization of awakened senses. To enjoy up to the point of losing consciousness, in short, to become herself again. . . . (147-148)

  22. The passages I have cited present the Francophone Antilles as islands of carnival open to many sexual possibilities, free of all religious and social constraints.  Nevertheless, one also and often finds a doudouist and folklorist caricature of a sexuality similar to that which is offered in advertisements for the "be-palmed" volcanic islands.  Certain authors, René Depestre at the forefront, seem to want to confirm these impressions. [22]  As in a burlesque party, the problem posed by a good number of representations of West Indian sexuality is that the description of the "other" (and of all difference)--of sex and of sexual orientation--is amusing, crazy, and never serious.  The jouissance of laughter (that of the storytellers, listeners and readers), certainly contains a form of derision (self-mockery for males) that ridicules machismo and exaggerated phallocracy.  Nevertheless, the reader of West Indian literature cannot avoid representations of a sexuality that aptly signal the heritage of the ravaging colonial system.  When carnival becomes quotidian, in the Antilles as well as in the U.S. or France, one may be able to speak of differences without a hierarchization of power by race, sex, social class, sexual orientation, or religion.  So, it seems clear to me that doudouist stereotypes will disappear only "when pigs fly."

    A la Saint-Glinglin. . .  when pigs fly. . .

    Illustration © 1998 Béatrice Coron, Eclectic Iconoclast


  1. In a somewhat different form, this essay was originally published in French in Penser la créolité (Maryse Condé and Madeleine Cottenet-Hage, eds. Paris: Karthala, 1995: 135-152).  This translated version has been revised by the author for this issue of Jouvert. Back
  2. The notions of race and sexual orientation are used here in a consciously reductionist manner.  If, one hundred years ago, my great-grandfather was able to take American citizenship, it was because he was certified "a free white person" in the U.S., whereas it was precisely because of a "racial" non-conformity that he had to leave the Russia of Nicholas II.  And, as Gore Vidal affirms, there is no "homosexual"; there are only homosexual acts. Back
  3. The "hurricane" could equally have served as a metaphor of West Indian sexuality, evoking a different form of tempestuous atmosphere.  The title of the last novel of Jean-François Samlong, La Nuit cyclone, calls our attention to the fact that the history of a violent and incestuous sexuality on another francophone creole island (La Réunion) could expand the "natural" horizons of the "creolized" Antillean archipelago (cf. Bernabé et al. 32-33).  Samlong uses, correctly, this metaphor of the violent storm's cyclonic, vaginally shaped winds. One of my knowledgeable readers suggested another possible image, that of the "Saturnalia" of ancient Rome, where the feast reached its full when the masters served their own slaves. Back
  4. On the Bakhtinian notion of ambivalent and universal carnivalesque laughter in regard to Franco-Caribbean writers, see the study of Ronnie Scharfman in Penser la créolité (Condé and Cottenet-Hage, 125-134) and Bakhtin's Rabelais and His World. Back
  5. Ronnie Scharfman (see note #4) cites another example from Confiant:  the permanent erection of Alcide in Le Nègre et l'Amiral.  The cover of the second edition of Comment faire l'amour avec un nègre sans se fatiguer by Dany Laferrière, like the text, makes fun of the stereotype while glorifying it.  I strongly recommend the relevant studies of Sander L. Gilman, particularly Difference and Pathology: Stereotypes of Sexuality, Race and Madness (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1985). Back
  6. See the study by Pascale DeSouza in Penser la créolité (Condé and Cottenet-Hage, 173-190). Foreign language serves often as euphemism: coucoune, for example, does not evoke (for "whites"--les Zoreilles) either "cunt" or "pussy."  In the same manner, "Black" is a widespread term in French that avoids the connotations of nègre and noir. Back
  7. The passage in question is: "Lamadòn rivé! Lamadòn kay pwofondé an tjon bonda marenn zòt, bann isèlèp!" and is roughly paraphrased by Confiant as meaning that the Madonna will "emasculate" black men and slash the vaginas of black women. Back
  8. See Chris Dunton, "'Wheyting be dat?' The Treatment of Homosexuality in African Literature," Research in African Literatures 20, 3 1989: 422-448. Back
  9. Maryse Condé, in an interview with Richard Reitsma in 1996, explained that, while many people have read the relationship between Hester and Tituba in homosexual terms, she had not at all intended to portray that kind of a relationship.  Condé added, however, that she was not unhappy that the relationship has been read in that way. (Translator's note) Back
  10. Other references to a grossly stereotyped homosexuality in Jacmel, the narrator's (as well as Depestre's) hometown, make me associate the "prejudices" (87) of the narrator with the author (see note 14, below). Back
  11. As in the example from Chamoiseau, the "victims" possessed (fucked) by Balthazar Granchiré, Depestre's incubus character, participate, while sleeping, in the pleasure (Hadriana 27-28). The situation is quite different in the violent encounters of L'Homme au bâton, by Ernest Pépin. Back
  12. One might speak of homosexual possession in Yoruba practices in Cuba or voodoo rites in Haiti (without such an appellation entering into play).  In Jamaica, the tradition is nevertheless extremely hostile to homosexuality; see Peter Noel, "Batty Boys in Babylon," The Village Voice, 38, 2 (12 January 1993): 29-36. Back
  13. The term femelle usually is used in reference to animals, and is pejoratively used to identify one as a loose woman, or a creature.  It is, then, appropriate that Bothrops the hermaphrodite lives in a den, as befits such a primitive creature. (Translator's note) Back
  14. See Joan Dayan's interview ("France Reads Haiti") with Depestre where he tells her, "Machismo exists in our culture, in the Caribbean, and it is quite possible that I have not disengaged myself from these trappings" (150).  In Dayan's article that follows this interview, she notes "Depestre's obsession with describing women's anatomical parts as signs of plenitude and cause for rejoicing" (171). Back
  15. See, for example, Gouverneurs de la rosée by Jacques Roumain (passim); Hérémakhonon by Maryse Condé ("Till my garden, ploughman" [Laboure-moi, donc, laboureur] 122); and the portrait of Anacaona by Jean Métetellus:  "Her breasts covered with flowers/ Recalling the fruits of passion/ . . . A swarm of noble men kneel at her feet, they would repudiate their wives to have the pleasure of sowing her womb" (28). Back
  16. Chabins and Chabines refer to mixed-race offspring whose features juxtapose white and black characteristics, as opposed to mulattoes, whose features are more blended. Câpres and Câpresses are darker-skinned.  English does not offer comparable vocabulary outside of the blood-percentage terms of quadroon, octoroon, etc. (Translator's note) Back
  17. A peau de chagrin--from Balzac's novel La Peau de Chagrin (1831)--refers to a wish-granting leather pouch.  However, with every granting of a wish, the leather shrinks until it eventually disappears, at which event, the possessor of the magic leather dies. (Translator's note) Back
  18. For example, Anacaona by Jean Métellus and Une Femme muette by Gérard Etienne. Back
  19. The novel earned the French Prix Goncourt in 1992 and the English translation received major press attention upon its release in the United States in 1997. (Translator's note) Back
  20. One could study the homosociality of the two "créolité" leaders, Chamoiseau and Confiant. Their theoretical as well as fictional writings are still narrowly, even curiously, conjoined.  A comparison of their texts written for the "Haute Enfance" series--Antan d'enfance by Chamoiseau and Ravines du devant-jour by Confiant--demonstrates remarkable similarities between the descriptions of the Martinican childhood of the négrillon and the chabin (how they squashed bugs, for example).  See my article, "L'Enfance créole; la nouvelle autobiographie antillaise," in Récits de vie de l'Afrique et de la Caraïbe: Enracinement, Errance, Exil, Suzanne Crosta, ed. Sainte-Foy: GRELCA, 1998. Back
  21. There is also a secondary character in this novel who is beaten up and then raped by her brother:  "He took his revenge out on [her] . . . with blows from his shiny black belt and his black patent leather shoes, followed, as she fell down, by other assaults no less virile and furious, augmented by curses; the wretch struggled so, he threw his heart into it, so that he shamefully ruined his 'sunday best' suit, because, in his foaming rage, he had not even taken the time to undress upon his return from the funeral.  The ceremonial black suit, in this situation too tight to permit such demonstrations of brutal virility and such epic erections, was utterly ruined, torn at the seams, and the girl was beaten to a pulp" (278-279). Back
  22. Since writing this article, I have met René Depestre and read more of his writings. While my evaluation of his fictional phantasms here is perhaps exceptionally harsh--especially finding the author so warm and jovial, and a true example of a progressive écrivain engagé--our differences of generation and/or sexualities leave me as his amical contradicteur. Back

Works Cited

Referenced page numbers refer to the original French edition, and, unless otherwise noted, all passages cited are the translations of Richard D. Reitsma.

Antoine, Régis. Littérature franco-antillaise. Paris: Karthala, 1992.

Bernabé, Jean, Chamoiseau, Patrick and Confiant, Raphaël. Eloge de la créolité. Paris: Gallimard, 1989.

Burton, Richard D.E. Afro-Creole; Power, Opposition and Play in the Caribbean. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1997.

Chamoiseau, Patrick. Antan d'enfance. Paris: Hatier, 1990; rpt. Paris: Gallimard, 1993.

---. Chronique des sept misères. Paris: Gallimard (folio), 1986.

---. Texaco. Paris: Gallimard, 1992.

Chamoiseau, Patrick and Confiant, Raphaël. Lettres créoles. Tracées antillaises et continentales de la littérature, 1635-1975. Paris: Hatier, 1991.

Condé, Maryse. Les Derniers Rois Mages. Paris: Mercure, 1992.

---. Hérémakhonon. Paris: 10/18, 1976.

---. Moi, Tituba, Sorcière . . . Noire de Salem. Paris: Mercure, 1986 (folio).

---. "Propos sur l'identité culturelle." In Négritude: Traditions et développement. Guy Michaud, ed. Paris: PUF, 1978: 77-84.

---. Ségou. Les murailles de terre. Paris: Laffont, 1984.

---. Traversée de la Mangrove. Paris: Mercure, 1989.

Condé, Maryse and Madeleine Cottenet-Hage, eds. Penser la Créolité. Paris: Karthala, 1995.

Confiant, Raphaël. Eau de Café. Paris: Grasset, 1991.

---. "Préface." In Une Nuit d'orgie à Saint-Pierre Martinique by Effe Géache. Paris: Arléa, 1992: v-xvii.

---. Ravines du devant-jour. Paris: Gallimard, 1993.

Dayan, Joan. "'Hallelujah for a Garden-Woman': The Caribbean Adam and His Pretext." The French Review 59, 4 (March 1986): 581-595.

Depestre, René. Alléluia pour une femme-jardin. Montréal: Leméac, 1973. Rpt. Paris: Gallimard (folio), 1981.

---. Eros dans un train chinois. Paris: Gallimard, 1990.

---. "France Reads Haiti: An Interview with René Depestre." Yale French Studies 83, 2 (1993): 136-153.

---. Hadriana dans tous mes rêves. Paris: Gallimard (folio), 1988. Feeding the fires of redemption, unpublished English translation by Barbara Lewis.

Dracius-Pinalie, Suzanne. L'Autre qui danse. Paris: Seghers, 1989.

Etienne, Gérard. Une femme muette. Montréal: Nouvelle Optique, 1983.

Fanon, Frantz. Peau noire, masques blancs. Paris: Seuil (points), 1952.

Glissant, Edouard. Le Discours antillais. Paris: Seuil, 1981.

Goldie, Terry. "Saint Fanon and 'Homosexual Territory'." Frantz Fanon: Critical Perspectives. Ed. Anthony Alessandrini. NY: Routledge, 1999.

Kincaid, Jamaica. My Brother. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997.

Kundera, Milan. "Beau comme une rencontre multiple." L'Infini 34 (Summer 1991), 50-62.

Laferrière, Dany. Comment faire l'amour avec un nègre sans se fatiguer. Montréal: VLB, 1985, rpt 1989.

Métellus, Jean. Anacaona. Paris: Hatier, 1986.

Ollivier, Emile. Passages. Montréal: L'Hexagone, 1991.

Pépin, Ernest. L'Homme au bâton. Paris: Gallimard, 1992.

Rosello, Mireille. Declining the Stereotype : Ethnicity and Representation in Contemporary French Culture. Dartmouth: UP of New England, 1998.

Roumain, Jacques. Gouverneurs de la rosée. Paris: Messidor, 1946. Masters of the Dew, Langston Hughes and Mercer Cook, trans. 1947, rpt. Oxford: Heinemann, 1978.

Samlong, Jean-François. La Nuit cyclone. Paris: Grasset, 1982.

Schwarz-Bart, Simone. Pluie et vent sur Télumée Miracle. Paris: Seuil, 1972.

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