Louise Hardwick, Childhood, Autobiography and the Francophone Caribbean. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2013. vii + 248 pp. (Cloth US$99.95)
This study makes a strong case that “postcolonial literature, fraught with questions of authenticity and collective representativity, requires its own discourse on modes of reading autobiography” (p. 6). Louise Hardwick’s discussion of selected writings about childhood from Francophone Caribbean authors before and after the emergence of créolité in 1990 demonstrates that the works both create a discourse for reading the genre and testify to the complexities of the sociohistorical realities that they represent. Although some of the works she examines can be identified as “autofiction,” Hardwick argues that this concept “does not help to theorize the preoccupation with childhood in Francophone Caribbean literature” and finds the genre récit d’enfance to be the “most helpful methodology” for discussing them (p. 8). She notes that the récits d’enfance by prominent Francophone Caribbean writers have been eclipsed by their other novels and the tradition itself has largely been unrecognized when compared to writing about childhood from Anglophone African American writers. Hardwick demonstrates not only that a tradition does exist, but that it has served as a reference for the writers under discussion. While acknowledging that the “collective voice and the roman de nous” has its place in discussions of writing by Francophone Caribbean writers, Hardwick notes that in “each Francophone Caribbean narrative, a sense of collectivity is tempered by a pronounced desire to examine the idiosyncrasies of the writing self at the turn of the twenty-first century” (p. 7). She undertakes this examination in the chapters that follow, often through close readings in which she discerns the narrative dynamics and motifs that these works bring to discussions of the genre récit d’enfance.
An early chapter examining works by Saint-Jean Perse, Léon-Gontran Damas, Aimé Césaire, Clément Richard, Guy Tirolien, Joseph Zobel, Françoise Ega, and Maurice Virassamy sketches out a tradition of récit d’enfance in the Francophone Caribbean that emerges by the end of the 1970s. This “self-consciously reflexive mode of expression, freighted with expectation and a heightened sense of duty towards Antillean readers” in which “the motif of childhood is developed as a politicized literary conceit” includes “a narrative arc from innocence to knowingness regarding the slave history, a desire to accurately depict the specificities of Antillean life, and a bold awareness of bringing the subaltern to the fore by creating new literary production” (p. 54). Récits d’enfance published after 1990 are discussed in subsequent chapters: Patrick Chamoiseau’s trilogy Une Enfance créole, Raphaël Confiant’s Ravines du devant-jour and Le Cahier de romances, Maryse Condé’s Le Coeur à rire et à pleurer, Daniel Maximim’s Tu, c’est l’enfance, Gisèle Pineau’s L’Exil selon Julia, and two novels from Dany Laferrière’s Autobiographie américaine—L’Odeur du café and Le Charme des après-midi sans fin. A final chapter examines how gender stereotypes are challenged or reaffirmed within parental paradigms in the récits d’enfance, adding another component, self-censorship, to the discussion (p. 181).
Hardwick presents the works chronologically, locating them within the author’s wider oeuvre to uncover intertextualities and often reading them in relation to one another. She notes that, coincident with the créolité movement there is an increased interest in “the pivotal role of childhood,” and shows how the Eloge de la créolité highlights two elements that characterize the récit d’enfance: the child’s gaze as “a literary conceit” providing “the regard intérieur required to counteract” the alienation of “extériorité” experienced by the colonial subject in society, and “the desire to develop the ‘interaction auteurs/lecteurs,’” that is, a “self-reflexive style” already seen in the founding text of the genre, La Rue Cases-Nègres, which recognizes the presence of an “existing, if underappreciated, Antillean literary heritage” (pp. 14–15). The site of the development of the regard intérieur is most often the colonial school system, and authors thus “draw attention to the dislocations, compromises and isolation which accompany academic success” (p. 16). Other major themes Hardwick identifies include the “child’s discovery of ethnicity and métissage” and an “exploration of the ethnoclass hierarchy” (pp. 9–10).
In addition, Hardwick analyzes in depth the dynamic of questioning and silence when the child subject seeks to learn about the past of slavery, what she terms (drawing on Aristotle’s Poetics and psychoanalysis through Sigmund Freud and Frantz Fanon) the “scene of recognition.” This is a moment that reveals a “residual cultural trauma concerning the history of slavery in the Caribbean, a trauma which is perpetuated by the acute difficulty, embarrassment and discomfort which hinders direct intergenerational communication between parent and child” (pp. 16–17). In the Caribbean context, this pivotal moment leads the child to question the world she lives in. Haitian author Dany Laferrière’s récits d’enfance enact this dynamic in relation to the dangers of the Duvalier dictatorships rather than to the history of slavery and bring another perspective to the discussion. For the reader of these récits d’enfance, the significance of such scenes of recognition, Hardwick argues, can be read at the level of contemporary society as well.
This well-researched and cogently written study makes a convincing argument for the significance of the récit d’enfance in discussions about Francophone Caribbean literature. The genre provides a window onto concerns that continue to be a part of life in the region and in its diaspora: “schooling, language, history, racism, alienation, social mobility and gender relations” (p. 24). The récit d’enfance “has implications,” she concludes, “for the aesthetic retrieval of memory in Caribbean literature in particular” (p. 206), adding that she hopes this study will provoke comparative examinations of récits d’enfance from across the Caribbean, Latin America, and North America.