Édouard Glissant: Celebrated Francophone Writer
The Graduate Center (NYU)
One of the most prominent writers from the Caribbean and the Francophone world, Édouard Glissant is the author of nine volumes of poetry, eight novels, and several essays and works of literary criticism. A distinguished professor in the Ph.D. program in French at The Graduate Center, Glissant is revered throughout the French-speaking world and has twice been a finalist for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Yet, he is a relative unknown in the United States.
Glissant’s writings focus on the struggle against colonialism, globalization, and their combined effects on the subjugated citizens of the world. His prose is celebrated, as one critic put it, for “a new kind of discourse out of the tension between French and Creole,” the latter a language laced with poetics that Glissant absorbed while growing up in Martinique.
One of the central themes of his work is what he describes as “creolization,” the process by which “cultures mix and produce something not only new but unpredictable.” This is distinct from multiculturalism, where, for example, “you have Chinatown, Little Italy, but no mixing between the two,” he says.
As a boy, Glissant used to accompany his father to work in the sugar cane fields during the summertime and listen to the Creole storytellers, an influence that would later prove to be significant to his literary identity.
Equally salient to the development of his style was the human intimacy with nature that is paramount throughout the Caribbean. He calls landscapes a “higher subject of literature,” and indeed his writings are awash with metaphors of the earth and nature.
As a teenager, he would write poems on grey envelopes used to wrap bananas because he could not afford “the right paper,” he says. “It was beautiful.”
Martinique was a French colony then and he says that writing poems that spoke out against colonial oppression on the very paper that the laborers used was somehow empowering. “For us, writing was an act of subversion.”
In the introduction to the first English translation of his opus, The Collected Poems of Edouard Glissant (University of Minnesota Press, 2005), Jeff Humphries, the translator, writes that “the theoretical underpinnings of Glissant’s literary works are nowhere more accessible or more vivid than in his poems, and these constitute a resource for postcolonial studies of inestimable value.”
In his poems, Glissant explores the slave trade, the history of the African Diaspora, Columbus’s voyages… It is precisely in facing the monstrosities of history that, he hopes, the world can liberate itself.
Yet, in his writing, his denunciation of the crimes of the past is more oblique than direct, a technique Glissant says he picked up from James Faulkner, whom he calls the greatest writer of the 20th Century. Rather, he believes, it is the task of the poet to exercise the reader’s intellect.
“Poetry is not accessible,” he says, stumbling as he often does through the English language. “Keep it like that. Because when you work to have what you have, it’s of more use than when you receive it easily.”
He has said that “a poem understood is a poem done.” This is a premise of his writing that, he surmises, will not gain him many fans in the United States, and he suggests that the knottiness of his text is too difficult for Americans.
Still, the Sorbonne-educated writer and philosopher says that he “writes in the presence of all the languages of the world,” assuring that a meaningful understanding can exist for a reader even despite the lack of a word-for-word comprehension.
In his poem, a Field of Islands, he writes: “Every word is an earth/Whose subsoil must be searched/Where a movable space is kept/Burning, for what the tree says.”
His enigma notwithstanding, there has been considerably more American interest in Glissant’s writing in the last several years. In addition to the translation of his collected poems last year, The Fourth Century, a novel he wrote in 1964, was translated into English in 2001 along with a play he wrote about the Haitian revolution.
Glissant gained international prominence last year when he and fellow Martinican author Patrick Chamoiseau wrote a letter to the French Minister of the Interior, after the riots in Paris. The letter, which appeared in several major French dailies, as well as newspapers from Mexico to Japan, described the riots as direct consequences of slavery and European colonialism. It also criticized a new law requiring schools to teach the “positive role of the French presence overseas, particularly in North Africa.”
In the widely-published letter, Glissant and Chamoiseau wrote: “Memory faces off with the world’s truths, and the act of living together is now located within the balancing acts of the world’s truths.”
In response, Jacques Chirac, president of France, appointed Glissant to plan a national center dedicated the memory of the slave trade and to honoring its abolition.
Glissant says he hopes the center can open in about three years. He plans to spend much of the summer in France making arrangements for the museum, combing the archives, collecting documents, and commissioning writings.
“I intend to issue a call for all the poems from Africa, the Americas, Europe, and Asia and to have a great memorial where people come and honor the memory of slavery,” he says.