Empowering new identities in postcolonial literature by Francophone women writers

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Schleppe, Beatriz Eugenia

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Twentieth-century French scholars have extensively studied postcolonial literature dealing with identity issues rooted in colonialism, yet these studies do not address the emergence of new definitions of Identity found in the controversial literature of today’s Francophone women writers of immigrant descent living outside their country of origin – either in France or is the U.S. My dissertation is such a study. It shows how through their novels, these young writers re-define and re-construct such notions as race, gender, ethnicity and nationality and are continuously challenging fixed, hegemonic labels such as “French,” “Black,” “Woman,” “African,” and “American.” I explore the methods of resistance to these powerful labels and how this resistance leads to a mediation of identities in three Francophone women writers from different French excolonies: Calixthe Beyala from Cameroon, Leïla Sebbar from Algeria and Edwidge Danticat from Haiti. I show how the intersections between plural identities serve as sites of negotiating and re-creating the “postcolonial woman” and how through their work postcolonial Francophone women writers dare to imagine new realities in a constantly shifting and emerging multi-ethnic society. The dissertation is divided into an introduction, three chapters and a conclusion. The introduction discusses the power of fixed identity labels and shows how until now they have been taken for granted in Francophone literatures. I present my theoretical approaches to the breakdown of these labels by introducing Homi Bhabha’s definition of hybridity as a “metonymy of identity” or Identity as performance. I expand on Judith Butler’s idea of women’s “performance of gender” as a more complex “performance” for black or African women living in such multi-cultural cities as Paris and New York. The first chapter focuses on Leïla Sebbar’s work and on the “interstices” created by the constant mobility and instability found in her Shérazade trilogy. It shows how in the texts themselves (both in structure and content) as well as outside the texts (in personal comments, correspondences, interviews, etc.) Sebbar negotiates Identity within the “open spaces” that result from the intersections or interactions of the “here’ and “there” as well as the “then” and “now.” The second chapter focuses on the re-creation of female identity in Calixthe Beyala’s Assèze l’Africaine by looking at how the female protagonists juggle between Western definitions of femininity and that of their mothers and grandmothers. This chapter shows how the “performance of gender” becomes a much more complex performance for Black or African women living in a multicultural city like Paris. The third chapter explores the work of Edwidge Danticat and shows how through her re-telling of traditions/the past Identity gets re-invented. I discuss the power of storytelling passed down from generations of women, and I rely on Trinh T. Minh-ha’s ideas on women and storytelling as a means of “un-writing” tradition and “writing anew.” This “new” tradition serves to give voice to the postcolonial woman’s account, or Her story (vs. History), who otherwise is silenced in other historical discourses. In my conclusion I explore another space of Identity negotiation which is between resisting and “conforming” by looking at reception issues (popularization of Otherness) and neo-colonialism. I examine whether these authors are affirming their emerging reality as an Identity in constant flux or whether they are just targeting an audience like Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club (in the case of Danticat) or Sebbar and Beyala’s multi-ethnic hip Parisian readers. I finally suggest that the space in-between these two positions is yet another way of resisting the power of identity “labels” and daring to re-create new possibilities.