Postcolonial criticism, a study of specificities

Interview with Jean-Marc Moura, by Boniface Mongo-Mboussa

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The only French writer to have published work on postcolonial criticism as practiced in the Anglo-Saxon countries, Jean-Marc Moura gives a detailed explanation here of the interest it has, and the issues at stake, for thought in the Francophone countries.

What do you think explains the silence of French academics with regard to postcolonialism?
What explains it, is that this movement began in the Anglo-Saxon countries twenty or so years ago, when immigrants started to enter the British and American universities. The movement first of all developed in Britain and the States, therefore, then was expanded by English-language criticism from the Commonwealth, the countries formerly colonized by England. It is a critical movement which is highly developed in the Anglo-Saxon countries, but which, as it is not specifically Francophone – it is not Francophone at all, in fact – has been somewhat ignored by us.
How did the term ‘postcolonialism’ emerge?
It emerged quite gradually. These students came to the American and British universities (Africans, Indians, West Indians, etc.), and began to question literary history in terms of their own history. They realized that literary history was very Eurocentric, and absolutely did not take their colonial and post-colonial history into account. Then, some of them obtained posts in the universities, and began to reconsider literary history in relation to their own history of immigration and as immigrants. It was then that the term ‘postcolonial’ emerged. It is interesting to note that it did not emerge in the countries of the centre, such as the United States or Great Britain, it appeared in the post-colonial countries. One of the major critical works on postcolonial theory was published in Australia, i.e. a country formerly colonized by Great Britain.
Questions of colonization and its effects seem to be posed on different levels: on the level of a State and its history, and that of the communities which make up its immigrant population.
What is interesting in postcolonial theory and its movement is that it is an international literary movement. It is played out between Europe, that is the former colonial powers, the United States as the main representative of the West, and all the formerly colonized nations. It is a global movement, therefore, but one which is thought in terms of countries and geographic zones (Africa, Australia, the West Indies, New Zealand, India), thus in terms of specificities. But the questioning is literally world-wide, which is perhaps why, at the end of this twentieth century – the era of what is now referred to as globalization – the movement is becoming so widespread: because it is suited to this globalization specific of our time.
Given the world-wide amplitude of this movement, what should we make of the French academics’ silence?
I can see several reasons for this, but there is one main one first of all. You are well aware that the French language has often been set up as a war machine against the world domination of English. Today, the battle is practically lost: English really is the world’s lingua franca. It seems to me that the French should react and realize that the French language is lucky to be a second world language. We need to stop taking such a hard line on the domination of English. That would allow us to perceive the positive aspects of postcolonial criticism. We would begin to see it not as an Anglo-Saxon machine set to dominate the Francophone critical world even more, but as a critical tool which could be of service to us in our own Francophone studies. That is the first reason: French-speakers’ deep suspicion vis-à-vis the English language.
The second reason is probably related to the first. The majority of academics involved in French studies do not speak English very well, and therefore have little access to this Anglophone body of works, which has not yet been translated in France. The third reason comes from the fact that postcolonial criticism is part of a development in the Anglo-Saxon universities, which is quite different to that of French literary studies. The two do not, therefore, necessarily converge. We need to rethink our own studies in France, in order to take postcolonial criticism on board, perhaps in a more coherent manner than we normally do. It is a step which very few colleagues seem to feel the need to take.
Doesn’t treating all Third World literature from the perspective of postcolonialism elude the differences between the former colonies and the former protectorates?
On a global level, the postcolonial corpus is « imperialist » – with all the inverted commas that that requires – as it entails all the literature from the Southern countries written in the European languages. It is vast, and that is one of the objections that can be made. In reality, postcolonialism enables us to consider literature in terms of centre/margin relations, which are an essential element in today’s world. This criticism insists on the specificities of each of these literatures within this imperialist ensemble. One of its most interesting aspects for French is precisely this insistence on the regional and territorial specificities of the different Francophone literatures. If you take France’s and the Francophone world’s literary histories, you will see that most of them treat this Francophone literature as a kind of extension of French literature, which does not need to be contextualized to be understood. People simply think that it is in French, and so should be spoken about it as if it were French literature. Postcolonial criticism does the opposite: it insists on specificities, and on the fact that you first of all need to position it in anthropological, sociological, and even economic terms before discussing and analyzing it in the way that you would with French literature. It is a global movement, therefore, as it defines itself in global terms, and a movement which, within this globalization, insists on each of these literatures’ specificities. At least two specificities can be pointed out. Firstly, these are literatures of the margins in relation to a centre, which is the publishing centre of the West, and it is important to take the relation of the authors vis-à-vis this Western publishing centre into account. Secondly, these literatures are characterized by the coexistence of two cultures: it is important to contextualize these linguistic and sociological elements before studying these literatures. This is one of the contributions postcolonial criticism makes. Take the histories of Francophone literature, for example. You will notice that the truly sociological, anthropological and economic elements are largely ignored. You are expected to analyze pages of Senghor as if Senghor’s poetry could be explained in the same way as Rimbaud’s poetry when, in fact, Senghor’s poetry obviously needs to be situated in space and time before being discussed simply as French literature. Would we overlook Flaubert’s Norman origins? Would a study of Madame de Bovary which does not take the fact that its author comes from Normandy be a serious study? Can we ignore Maupassant’s Norman origins? It is of exactly the same importance. There is a concern for identity, a rooting of identity, just as in the major consecrated French authors. This affirmation of identity needs to be acknowledged.
The term ghettoization regularly crops up in relation to the arts from these margins. The fact that these literatures are considered an extension of French literature as they are in French, does not stop them from being marginalized. What do you think?
I think that the notion of the margins is fundamental. If you write in a European language, but position yourself outside Europe, you have to consider this literature as being on the margins. Marginal does not mean less important, but indicates that there is a conceptual element there, which has to be taken into account in order to measure the specificity of this literature. I think that it is at present much more important than French literature, which is a bit narcissistic. Take the example of Kourouma and Les Soleils des indépendances or En attendant le vote des bêtes sauvages. If you study Kourouma with your students without giving them an introduction to Malinke culture, they will not be able to grasp Kourouma’s text, quite simply because you will not have given them the keys necessary to understand the way in which Kourouma manipulates the French language, the way in which he truly creates a third language out of Malinke and French. They will not understand all Kourouma’s cultural allusions either, particularly in Les Soleils des indépendances. It is not possible. To my mind, it is not the notion of ghettoization which should be introduced here, but the question of scientific rigour. If you want to study a literature, you have, at least, to study its sociological and political context first of all, without which one is not rigorous.
But can we really refer to postcolonialism, given that colonialism itself is not dead and buried?
One needs to recognize that postcolonialism entails two things. I am going to introduce an orthographical concept, which is specific to postcolonial criticism: post-colonial, with a hyphen, which simply means that we are living in the era after colonization – which some might contest – and postcolonial in one word, without a hyphen, which is the critical school which looks at an ensemble of works which seek to deconstruct the colonial codes, and which try to challenge the latter. In this sense, postcolonialism begins in the colonial era itself. An author such as Aimé Césaire – or Kateb Yacine – is a postcolonial author in the sense that, already in the colonial era itself, he sought to deconstruct, to challenge the colonial codes and all the discourses which contested the existence of a colonial subject, etc. In this respect, postcolonialism is a critical concept, not a historic concept. It is a critical school which concentrates on studying all strategies of writing which confound colonial codes, imperial codes.
Are works on postcolonial theory likely to become more widespread?
You force me to be immodest, but, at present, there is only one work which analyzes the meeting of Francophone studies and postcolonial criticism in French, and that is mine. There are no others. That said, I am quite confident: I think that this critical model’s interest will cause it to spread in France, but it may well develop on the margins. That is, it will reach us via Canada, Quebec, and via Africa, via African critics, who will adopt these elements and who will transfer them to the Francophone zone.
Do you have any other works on this theme in the pipeline?
Yes, I am going to present another work to PUF, my publishers, on the discourse of the Francophone novel, which will apply postcolonial criticism more directly still to French-language works, as my first publication is a programmatic and theoretical presentation. It aims to point out the lessons we, the Francophone critics, can learn from these Anglo-Saxon theoretical elements. After that, I would like to apply them to texts more, to show how it can work.
How did your students of diverse origins react to your work, your approach?
The French students proved themselves to be highly interested in Francophone literature, not just African literature, but West Indian too. The students of African origin were, for their part, most appreciative of the study of the socio-cultural context. They got the impression that gaps were being filled, a superficiality in the study of these authors repaired.
How do you explain the fact that this critical movement developed in the Anglo-Saxon sphere?
I think that, fundamentally, there is the difference between the assimilationist model of integration in France, and the side-by-side existence of differences model in the Anglo-Saxon countries. Unlike the French, the Anglo-Saxons do not claim to assimilate most of the immigrant communities’ differences. People used to refer at one time to the American melting-pot, but those days are long since gone. There is, therefore, a sort of coexistence between the different cultures in the Anglo-Saxon countries. That has developed in the United States with what is called cultural studies, i.e. each immigrant community identifies with its roots first of all, not so as to deny the national ensemble, but to safeguard its identity, and to consolidate the relations between its identity and the general national culture. In France, we still function on the assimilationist model, i.e. that of ignoring cultural specificities, which are supposed to fade away in a kind of crucible. This has probably played a role in the fact that France is behind in terms of postcolonial criticism, and in the fact that, until now, this cultural aspect of literature has barely been taken into account. Postcolonial criticism’s first contribution to Africa was precisely to develop simultaneous comparative study – I am a lecturer in comparative literature, which is perhaps why this interests me – between Francophone, Anglophone and Lusophone texts. That is, to develop a specifically African point of view, independent of the language in which such and such a work was written, studying Senghor, Sony Labou Tansi, in the Francophone zone, Soyinka or Achebe, in the Anglophone region, José Juan Dino Vieira in the Lusophone zone. And, thus, developing a specifically African point of view which revealed the influences, the relations, but also the specificities of each of these literatures. That effectively allows us to envisage the development of postcolonial literature on a large scale, an African scale, whereas in the past, it was divided into: one, Francophone studies; two, Anglophone studies; and three, if there was time, Lusophone studies. That is no longer the case.
Does postcolonial criticism take works in the vernacular languages into consideration?
They are effectively taken into consideration, but I am not very familiar with this work because I do not speak the vernacular languages. I studied Malinke a little to study Kourouma. I know that if, by definition, one studies the vernacular languages from a postcolonial angle, one is likely to be tempted to study their relations to literature in the European languages. It seems to me that, in the years to come – I speak about this a little in the conclusion of my book – two sorts of postcolonial studies will develop: the first, which will perhaps be Western-centred, will be that of the global study of postcolonial literatures in European languages, on the scale of a region or a continent. And the second which will develop, will be the regional study of such and such a literature, in which the relation to languages in vernacular literature and the relation to languages in European literature will be envisaged. These two areas will, it seems to me, grow further and further apart. They will make up the postcolonial galaxy.
Can we really speak about a contemporary vernacular literature?
This, in fact, is an economic problem. It is a publishing problem, as publishing structures are not developed enough, especially in Africa, to enable a wide audience to have access to this literature in the vernacular languages. There are major postcolonial authors who have began to write again in these languages. People always cite the example of Ngugi Wa Thiongo, who began to write in English and who then wrote in Kikuyu. He realized that he had practically no public in this language. In the West Indies, we can cite the example of Confiant, who began by writing in Creole, and who then wrote in French, and who has written again in Creole. He finally realized that he had far more readers if he wrote in French. It’s really an economic problem. I think that the dynamism of these literatures will depend on the economic dynamism of the African countries.
Where does postcolonial criticism stand in relation to the culturally mixed authors who live in the West?
In the United States, we have the example of Toni Morrison and the African American community. She is one of English literature’s major writers today, recognized by all, who strives to develop a sense of the identity of black American culture, including its African roots. This is an example which doesn’t exist in France – well, it did a bit with Senghor – but in today’s generation, the major African writers do not function on the same model as Toni Morrison. They are, rather, authors who write in Africa, in French, and who offer us their African specificities. The example of France’s beur literature* began to be studied, not by the French, but by the Americans, in New Orleans, about ten years ago. Its study in the terms of postcolonial criticism would involve analyzing this literature’s sociological rooting, and its roots in relation to a sense of identity that is somewhat different from the French sense of identity, of the identity of a French person born in mainland France, who has no interest in his/her ancestors. A certain affirmation of this group’s identity, which is a factor structuring this literature, has, therefore, to be taken into account. But it is not a question of ghettoization, it is simply a matter of scientific rigour. If we study a literature, we need to know where it comes from, how it was born, and what its profound roots are.
Can you explain the notion of hybridity to us?
Hybridity is the major concept of an Indian postcolonial critic called Homi K Bahbah. The hybrid world is a site of negotiation in two parts, it being understood that, on this site of negotiation, each arrives with an identity, which is not clearly defined, with a position which is open to compromise, in order to ally with the other to try to create something together. The situation of hybridity is not, therefore, the confrontation between two fixed identities. It is the meeting between two identities which are in construction and which, through this negotiation, will come into being and occur. This is unfortunately not translated into French. It is one of the major concepts of postcolonial criticism, not only on a political and social level, but also on a literary one. It comes down to treating works as hybrid works in which two cultures, which are in constant negotiation, coexist. What makes the work interesting is precisely this plural negotiation which takes place within each chapter, in every verse in poetry.
How was your book received by your academic colleagues?
It was very well received by my Francophone colleagues in general, because they pointed out that I introduced new and important methodological elements. What was sometimes contested was the word postcolonial, the term colonial in a sense trapping the authors in a history they wanted to be rid of. But I was only translating the American term, and are we not, in fact, in a postcolonial world? Who can claim that Africa is not still concerned with all that happened during colonization? I am referring simply to the national borders. If there are tragedies which result, if there are so many conflicts, it is because these borders were drawn up in a totally aberrant manner in the days of the colonial world. In this respect, we are in a postcolonial world. I also had feedback from the wider Francophone world. The Quebeckers, I understand why, are very interested in this question because they are directly influenced by North America. It thus seems completely natural to them. I have not yet had any feedback from my African colleagues… nor West Indian, but I hope that I will soon and that it will be most favourable (laughter).

* Translator’s note: the term ‘beur’ refers to France’s young, generally French-born, second-generation population of North African origin.Jean-Marc Moura is a lecturer in Comparative Literature at the University of Lille III. He has published L’image du Tiers-monde dans le roman français contemporain, PUF 1992; Lire l’exotisme, Dunod 1992; L’Europe littéraire et l’ailleurs, PUF 1998, and the book referred to in this interview: Littératures francophones et théorie postcoloniale, PUF, 1999. He has also published Littératures postcoloniales et représentations de l’ailleurs. Afrique, Caraïbe, Canada, Champion 2000, in collaboration with Jean Bessière. ///Article N° : 5447

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