A truly bestial alterity

Interview with Jennifer Yee, by Boniface Mongo-Mboussa

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The « exotic » woman, as a symbol of the foreign country to be conquered or subjugated, and as sexual partner, is the means through which the colon approaches the Other, the indigene. Their love is often doomed to failure, a failure that is possibly seen as a metaphor for the failure of assimilation and the colonial project in general.

As a young researcher, you do not have first-hand experience of the colonial period. Why are you interested in colonial literature?
I personally think that it is very important to study history in general, and literary history in particular, even if it doesn’t personally affect us. To my mind, we need to re-read 19th Century colonial literature with some urgency because it represents both a period and an ideology that are relatively close to ours and whose memory still disturbs us. Literary history must refuse the lazy security of letting these memories be forgotten. It represents a kind of « duty to remember ».
However, I have to admit that my personal journey has also played an important role. I started my studies in Australia, a country situated somewhat ambiguously on both sides of colonial history – as a colonised land that suffered one of the most effective genocides in the world, and also as the coloniser of other countries such as Papua New Guinea. It was also a land of exile for political and civil prisoners. This partially explains why Australia plays a major role in the development of post-colonial theory, which plays an important role in Anglo-Saxon universities these days, as can be seen by leading texts such as The Empire Writes Back (1989).
Readings of colonial literature have often been affected by ideology. You propose a study of its inter-textuality by identifying the relationship with « great literature », with realism and surrealism.
Yes, I’ve tried to avoid simply writing another page in the « history of mentalities », however I haven’t gone so far as to analyse colonial novels in terms of pure literature, since most aren’t worthy of that kind of treatment. In fact I’m interested in bringing to light the texts’ influence on the structure of colonial relationship in terms of power, desire and repulsion. « Exotic » and colonial writers initially had what is commonly called « great literature » as their model. They started with the incredibly rich but worn heritage of realism and naturalism. I wanted to see to what extent they had succeeded in adapting this heritage for a new subject, and also how much this heritage had dictated what it was possible to write, and therefore see. It is my opinion that these novels are a symptom of the colonial relationship itself and the way people wrote both reflected and contributed to forming the way people thought.
In your essay, you demonstrate that the exotic woman held a vital and often ambiguous role in colonial literature, and the colonial relationship in general. Why, in your opinion, have researchers « marginalized » this aspect of colonial literature for so long?
In this literature, the exotic woman is effectively seen as a synecdoche for the foreign country itself, a virgin land into which the explorer penetrates, or an under-exploited earth, either oppressed or hard-suffering, that the coloniser must protect, discipline and fertilise. This aspect of colonial literature isn’t entirely neglected – already in 1931, Pujarniscle’s study focussed on women, and more recently, a number of studies have broached certain aspects of the female character. Of course, in my case, Gender Studies have also influenced my approach. However, I think the role of the colonised woman with respect to the fundamental issue of the viability of the colonial system has been somewhat less studied. These novelists write as if colonialism was going to continue for the foreseeable future, however there are few who have clearly thought about the options available (they are not infinite) – genocide, apartheid or a general mixing of races. If the last option takes over, the « exotic » woman represents not only a point of entry enabling the colonial to understand the culture and sometimes the language of the colonised, but also potentially representing the way of the future, the basis for a sustainable colonisation. It is this vital but often ignored aspect of métissage, or racial blending, that I discuss in the final chapter of my book.
The question of the relationship between colonial literature and so-called post-colonial literature is currently at the heart of academic debate. This makes me think of Jonoz Riesz, Mohamadou Kane and Pierre Halen.
The vast majority of novels I studied for Clichés fall into the category of « colonial » literature. Their colonial (or simply conservative) ideology is too important for us to read them as the subversive texts that preceded to some extent French post-colonial literature. However, a few authors had a more complex project in mind, which would parallel to some extent Victor Segalen’s writing of the same period. There are also other works – many of which date from the period preceding the hey-day of colonial ideology under the third French republic – in which a more ambiguous, subtler relationship with the Other can be observed, but I would rather not go into too much detail about this now since I’m currently working on it.
Can we read the numerous failed exotic romances that you describe as a metaphor for the colonial relationship?
That’s exactly what I wanted to demonstrate in the final chapter on métissage. The authors’ inability to conceive of a viable future for their characters is remarkable, so much so that it makes you wonder why the lack of literary imagination hadn’t served as a warning at the time. So many novels (even those that praise imperialism, in principle) close with the idea that the relationship between the coloniser and the colonised is essentially false and doomed to failure, that we are led to think that this pessimism was brought about by something fundamental in the imaginary of the French people of the time. It is hardly surprising that so few French colons settled permanently in the colonies and that France never really found her own Kipling.
Of late, much colonial literature and travel diaries are being re-edited in France. There is also a resurgence of research into this literature. What do think the reason for this is?
I think that we’re living in a time when it is becoming easier for certain countries to face up to the less positive aspects of their own history, whence the apologies issued by so many world leaders and the Pope. It would appear that this trend has not been picked up by the United States, where neither the President nor the ordinary-man-in-the-street seems to understand how their foreign policy can have found so much disfavour with certain Arab states. In other countries, this movement may partially explain why there is a revival of interest in the colonial period. I would, however, make a distinction between academic study of colonial literature and re-editions of this literature. The former have the duty of not hiding the worst aspects of the literature of the past, and trying to understand how fiction also played its part in the systems of domination. On the other hand, the re-editions offer the public selected texts from among the numerous forgotten texts. They will have been chosen for either their literary value, or simply because of their critical view of the colonial system. These re-edited texts show a society and a system of representation of the other that have not entirely disappeared, since they’re still present within the post-colonial world structure. I’m actually on the verge of having a new edition of selected short stories by Pierre Mille published. He was famous at the beginning of the 20th Century because of his cynical point of view and disrespect for the institutions of colonial France. While he wasn’t exactly an anti-colonialist, I believe that some of his works nevertheless speak out against a hypocritical and absurd system, traces of which are still visible today.
How do you explain the fact that this supposedly « scientific » literature, managed to produce so many clichés about the Other?
The novelists very often had « scientific » pretensions, but we should remember that sometimes scientists also wrote as novelists. Therefore, certain theories on hybridism fell into a long literary tradition that goes back to Aristotle. Furthermore, the period in which naturalism flourished was the same era in which institutions were founded in new sciences such as physical anthropology. This explains the fact that while novelists may have been inspired by scientific texts for the general public, the anthropologists of the time were also tentatively finding their feet. Therefore, it would be wrong to think that there is always a well-defined line between science and the « clichés » of the para-literature. I’m not saying that there is no valid science but in the case that interests us, science and literature were both born of a system of values that required clichés in order to be perpetuated. Colonialism needed the cliché or racial « type ».
Chapter 3 of your book, about the bestial aspect, clarifies the relationship between colonial literature and the Other.
When reading those novels, I couldn’t help but be shocked by the huge number of comparisons made between exotic women and animals. I didn’t want to simply catalogue these atrocities and therefore read these clichés in various ways. This enabled me to identify certain nuances such as the fact that the figure of the « Oriental » who smelt of roses and was almost disincarnated or abstract behind her veil is fairly different from the figure of the « Negress » or « Yellow-skin » who were constantly compared to animals, and in particular monkeys. We should also look further, in order to understand that the bestial aspect of the women in colonial novels is not « simply » a racist cliché, but rather a cliché that hides something far more fundamental. These female characters have a truly bestial alterity. In a world that has obviously been marked by Darwin’s theories reviewed and corrected by Eugenics, they are a link in the chain that binds the white man with the monkey. Approaching the Other carried with it the risk that the white man would himself be dragged down to an animal level. The fictional destiny of these characters is therefore determined by their state of bestiality, by what I have called their « profound alterity ».

Jennifer Yee has a PhD in literature from Paris VII University and is currently a lecturer at the University of Newcastle Upon Tyne in the United Kingdom. Her work on a view of French colonial literature between 1871 and 1974, Clichés de la femme exotique was published with L’Harmattan publishers in Paris in 2001.///Article N° : 5259


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