Writing in a Dominated Land

Patrick Chamoiseau on Martiniquais Writers

Illustration by Andrea Popyordanova

I—CREOLE—Horrors. Denials. Sufferings. Adventures. Alchemical knot of dwelling places. Of races. Of peoples. Of languages. Of conceptions of the world. An astonishing reflection of the world’s Diverse. My errantry-dream drank that in with abandon. No longer was I searching for primordial purity in myself but accepting this idea, previously unbearable: we were born in the colonial attack; it had initiated our mises-sous-relations; unleashed the drives that operate between us; determined our connections with the existing. We weren’t under the jurisdiction of a precolonial virginity, but of an obscure conflict of the first interactions, the holds-wombs of slave ships, the holds-ruptures of contract immigrations, the convulsions of islands and continents, the waves muddled by multiple progressions. To lose one of these constituents, to not put each Memory-trace in collusion with each one of the others, and to not try to perceive them as a whole, would be reverting to the affirmation of incompletions. 

This phenomenal combination gave birth, in Martinique-country, to one of the faces of Creolization: these precipitate peoples in the petri dish of the Caribbean, agitated by stories of their origins, heated to a boil by enslaving and colonizing attacks, catalyzed by this generalized levigation of their traditional cultures, who didn’t experience any synthesis but rather a sort of uncertain mosaic, always in conflict, always in chaos, always evolving and creating its own balances in Creolities!1 . . . Now I perceived in myself the signs of this new collective entity that the Storyteller had wanted to name. Hazy edge anthropological masses had formed-unformed themselves in a practically amniotic diversity-space. American Indians, békés, Indians, blacks, Chinese, mulattos, Madeirans, Syro-Lebanese . . . We wanted to preserve our pure origins but we saw ourselves being trampled, one by the other. The Other changes me and I change him. His contact gives me life and I give him life. And these displacements offer us angles for survival, and they detach us and magnify us. Every Other becomes a part of me even as it remains distinct. I become who I am through my open leaning on the Other. And this relation to the Other opens in me waterfalls of infinite relations with all the Others, a multiplication that forges unity and the strength of each individual: Creolization! Creolity! In the Martinican Creolity, each I contains an open part of Others, and at the icy edge of each I the impenetrable part of Others stands shivering. There, in the apogee of dreams, I had quit the ancient identity.2 

I was distraught by the accumulating disorder of such a muddle. We were rediscovering all over the Caribbean this Diverse that joins together and multiplies into outcomes that rebel against prophecies. There, none of the traditional Geneses exist that establish ethnicities, territories, ancient identities, the great common History. No discourse of origins. No general founding myth. No sacralization of any beginning whatsoever. Nothing. Nothing but the mutant milling about of what the peoples had brought along. A convocation of mobile flutterings, inaccessible to the normal reach.

I gave myself over to this poetry to try to understand.

Creolization does not begin at its sources nor at its points of mises-sous-relations. The hold of the slave ship isn’t a launching point, but the point of a tipping toward unspoken possibles; and that which forms itself at the heart of the plantations only serves to prolong or amplify (prolomplify) the first interactions: at first between the American Indians of the islands and those of the continent, then between the American Indians and the colonial forces, then between those forces and the Africans . . . Creolization echoes the election of the Diverse all the way to the furthest original sources, it mixes and puts into perspective the founding myths of all the people it gathers together, it mixes-and-meshes the Words of origins and puts them into perspective, it forms the initial Sacred ones and puts them into perspective, it takes unicitarian conceptions and redirects them to the non-absolute, and it fragments, and frees the normalizing constraints. I could no longer think of the existing except at the dawn of this Diverse. Once the idea of Creolization has been erected in oneself, one does not begin to “be,” one suddenly starts to “exist,” to exist in complete fashion like a wind that blows, and that mixes earth, sea, tree, sky, scents, and all the elements . . . That’s why Glissant talks of Digenesis,3 there where the point of impetus is indiscernible, and mobile, and summarizing, and even-there open, rising, proliferate, and presiding over the beginning-less birth of the Creole identities.

From Kateb Yacine: Against your neantization from the depth of the prison cell and during the liberating war, the narrative rupture, the shifting points of view, the flipping of time, the intermingling of voices; search for the founding complexity of language, of stories, of another vision, and beware of abandoning the original strengths of Islam or the tribe—Library of Sentiment
From Conrad: The epic poem that continues silently, worries . . . —Library of Sentiment
From Giuseppe Ungaretti: Nomad between a thousand influences, troubled by a multiplicity of being, searching a seat in the cradle of myths—Library of Sentiment

Not being able to understand this identity chaos, this cultural mosaic with no departure point, I had tried more comfortable reductions inspired by colonial values where Unicity exalts itself along with the ancient identity, the Territory and its powers. Through the power of dreams, the countries became within me a living organism, solid and liquid, whirling around itself, hot and tangible: a strange totality impossible to pin down. This totality-country (neither closed nor fixed) was shaking itself free in my imaginary and deserting the modalities of Territory, of Nation, of Motherland. Its whole, working wonders of its diversity and of a solidarity sensitive to the Diverse, was calling for an otherly conception. Believing I had enrooted myself deeply, I found myself being swept away by the four horizons. I understood that in order to resist (or exist) we wanted to erect our lands into Territories whereas creolizations and Creolities predispose those lands to be these complex beings Glissant terms Places. The glissantian notion of Place rose up, for me, in an endless rosary enumerated by my dream:

Place is open and lives this open; Territory builds borders. Place evolves through the conscience of multiple mises-sous-relations; Territory carries on through casting its legitimacies. Place lives its word in all possible languages, and aims at the organization of their ecosystem; Territory authorizes only one language and when resistances impose several on it, it banishes them according to its monolinguistic decrees. Place is moved by, recognizes and activates its multiple spread-out sources; Territory arms itself with Unicity. Place participates in a Diversality; Territory imposes Universality. Place only sees itself as a thousand entangled stories; Territory is comfortable with one History. Place pulsates in transversal memories; Territory maintains itself on the sharp-edge of an exclusive memory. In Place there are echoes, shadows, images, words, writing; Territory under the light of State aims for transparency, for uniformity and for the order or writings. Place has networks of repercussions in the ensemble of the world, according to mise-sous-relations; Territory sets up a Center and peripheries. Place shares and evolves in the randomness of this sharing; Territory conquers . . .

. . . and one could thus proceed without stopping. The whole of Places founds our Earth. But in the breadth of Place, shadows of Territory may linger, never an absolute Territory—and in a Territory, some seeds of Place may linger, never an absolute Place. Place protects itself from Territory through its conscience and the values it produces.

From Faulkner: The American Indian absence-presence, the opaque of enslaved Blacks, all tradition being shaken-stirred, the new earth in a new world . . . —in this tragic blindness, to attempt the impossible speech . . . —Library of Sentiment

From Sciascia: Crime, inquiry, knowing at work—also resistance right in the heart of Place.—Library of Sentiment

Dreaming-these-possible-Places underneath Territories on which we’re confronted by innovative dominations. Moving towards transforming all Territory into Place. Putting the open principles of Place in opposition to the steeliness of conquests, to the desires of power that build Territories. Undressing us by the sharing, joining us in the changes that come with the exchange. Protecting us from their unicities, not by being enclosed, but by letting the Diverse bubble up under the normalizing plane. The constitutive diversity (still shivering) of Martinique-country offers me a precious pedestal. Densifying this Place-possible-Martinique through a detailed exploration of a diversity established as valuable. Following the trajectories of this Creolity, praising its components, giving flesh to its holes, and speech to its silences, offering clairvoyance to the events as yet undetectable. At all times searching for the symbolic levels where all will move toward self-renewal. O the praises of this dream!

From Mohammed Dib: Against their colonial strength, the incendiary-writing, that multiplies blind-visionary until igniting . . . .—Library of Sentiment 

From Segalen: Existence, tasted intensity of Difference and the Diverse.—Library of Sentiment 

From Alberto Savinio: The fluid errantry among genres; fertilized-fertilizing.—Library of Sentiment

All these characters (peoples of my novels) expressed our collective Drive in a complex identity mutation. The plantation had embittered it, the in-City was harvesting what we were able to make of it. It’s a sadness to be made a toy, but a challenge when, looking inside oneself and respecting the disorder that’s there, oneself is set into Writing, a little wind, a little water that trickles away, like the Drivers except safe from their suffering. The Drive introduced me to the “thought of errantry” that Édouard Glissant speaks of. It also introduced me to this “roaming itinerant” invoked by Edgar Morin. The errantry occurs when foreknowledge of the world in all its diversities uncorks into consciousness, establishing itself as valuable. It’s a mode of knowing-participating in this unobtainable. A manner of existing in the songs of the Diverse. Glissant thus sings Segalen who endured the feeling of this Diverse and above all the tragedy of its wear. With this poetry, Segalen went out into the world, not like Pierre Loti or like those writer-travelers (stringers of exoticisms, “sellers of the Feeling of the Diverse,” “impressionist tourists,” he would say), but like the grazing flight of a butterfly, who while nourishing also nourishes itself. Segalen advanced toward the other, but not like someone traveling, nor like someone conquering, nor like someone searching to “understand”; he wasn’t reaching for a diverted confirmation of his own being. He went out with a knowledge of self as related to the Other, a knowledge of the World related to its original land, a knowledge of his being enlarged by the Diverse and transformed by it until its fruitful confusion. Segalen was going to become, with the incompletion and high level of uncertainty that that includes. The impenetrability of the Other, accepted and glorified, prevents it from full completion: it is by this suspended trembling that he hopes to forever preserve the savor of the Diverse. Glissant engraved beautiful pages on this man, who he places at “the beginning of beginnings,” and who consumed himself (like the Major) facing this, the world’s unattainable diversity. The book on Aesthetics of Diversity, lugged along throughout his entire life, remains in sketched notes, spread amidst innumerable formalizations, as if he could only leave the disharmonic emotion of little notes that graze, irresolute, above the impenetrable densities that they witness. Mean Driver, taster of alterities, poet of errantries, ho Segalen . . . !

From Paulhan: The extreme worry of language-world in a grammar where the One makes itself many, opposites agree and truths are peopled with shadows . . . —Library of Sentiment 

From Cortázar: The whole made out of a thousand shards, and left free—open—to its disorder . . . —Library of Sentiment

(Where did Segalen, a man who is not Creole, get this propensity for the Diverse? He didn’t have this interior law to endure and yet he was an initiatior . . . Living miracle of life? Remnant of a primal state we ought to relearn? Segalen had grace. Saint-John Perse led another migration. He went to the world as a poet, but with a conquistador step, accumulating spaces, places and countries, unfolding an encyclopedic stretch reluctant toward transparencies. But he searched for a Universal that could still constrain the world’s diversity in its whole. Perse, with his ghastly measures, is placed at the heart of a western Center that inhales—and tries to seize—the intoxicating derails of a planet that is there for the taking.)

From Proust: Against the Unicity of Being, the fleeting reality bursting the norms of our flighty spirit, there where all of life is held, uncertain, rooted in disorders of imperceptible totalities . . . And: The construction, like an unobtainable rigor . . . —Library of Sentiment

An anolis, sometimes, comes and joins the hummingbirds in a feasting ritual. The little lizard guzzles the sugary water and waits on the trap in expectation of an ant attracted by the sugar. He only waits for that, only sees that. The hummingbirds flutter around, without threatening him with their needle-beaks or worrying him with the flapping of their wings. They ignore him and drink by his side. They are preoccupied with themselves, their games and their battles, programmed not to dispute the bargain except with their fellow creatures. And the anolis treats them in like manner. These beings ignore each other because they are not reciprocal predators. Outside of predation (or exploitation), no real consideration. Thus, us, present in the world’s Diverse but walled in our conditionings. I, Creole, I would be able to escape the bone-fossil, the border of borrowing, the limits of the mark. Trying to write in solitude, in the places where everything has dispersed (the comfort of home, the peace of earth, the reassuring certitudes, the customary reactions . . . ), there where I am no longer what I was and not yet becoming, in a vision of sky, sea, sun, of past and present, free from myself at the undivided heart of a land provided: my dream-lands would leave me in these fogs. In each dream in my Diverse, I would meet the leitmotiv of the world, the world-that-penetrates, that-traverses, that-activates-its-presences, that reflects its Diverse in our diversities. This Totality-country that now would superimpose its confusion on the excessive living of World offered in its strange ensemble.

The old warrior fills my ear: . . . ah, you join me at last! A long while I’ve been posted in front of this world you’re discovering there . . . (his voice quivers, and disperses like a shiver of rock) . . . Under this silent domination, it was still possible for me to repair the Centers. Each of our peoples had its own. The Sword had changed the Tentacle, but I was still becoming the source of the blow . . . (he sighs, ashes of nutmeg) . . . Yet, the Centers were still going to evolve to throw me in front of the furtive domination that now at last I can talk to you about . . .
Inventory of a melancholy . . .

translated from the French by Cecelia Ramsey