To celebrate the release of Locating Guyane, we caught up with editors Sarah Wood and Catriona MacLeod to discuss how changing perspectives of Guyane are reconceptualising its association with ‘Frenchness’.
Locating Guyane explores geographical, literary and cultural ‘locations’ of Guyane, past and present. What did you find by examining Guyane from multiple perspectives?
Guyane is in some senses marginal to France, to Europe, to Latin America and to the Caribbean region, and consequently, it is usually overlooked, whether in the media, in political and economic life or in scholarship. This belies how its being part of all of these places actually makes it an incredibly interesting place.
Before describing our conclusions, we’d first point to the broader contemporary relevance of our endeavour to ‘locate’ Guyane. The intention was always to confront stereotypes, clichés and misunderstandings of the place, and to redress the general ignorance in which it is often held due to a lack of political and media attention in ‘metropolitan’ France and beyond. More often than not, Guyane is treated as a perennial afterthought in French imagination and indeed in political life. Anecdotally speaking, we have found that if one hears reference to Guyane at all in the ‘Hexagon’, it is often to wonder why ‘the French’ (usually cast as ‘us’) continue to ‘subsidize’ Guyane (usually cast as ‘them’). We found that, by offering a deeper, historically and culturally informed perspective on Guyanais relationships both with France and with its regional neighbours, we were able to both understand, to an extent, where such stereotypes have come from, and then to reframe the discourse in such a way as to allow for greater complexity. The pertinence of this approach became very clear when in 2017 after we had written and compiled the book, there were large protests and strikes in Guyane followed by an ‘emergency plan’ announced by the French government for 3 billion euros’ worth of investment in its infrastructure.
By examining Guyane from multiple perspectives this book shows how much the region has changed and is continuing to change, reconceptualizing the boundaries of ‘Frenchness’ with it. Contrary to the popular understanding of the region as a stagnant and even ‘backwards’ place, we make clear how it is, in fact, a particularly dynamic place, and one that is in constant flux.
Second, we’d indicate the originality of the book and the scholarly contribution that it makes. In the process of putting it together, we realized that although an increasing amount of rich scholarly work is addressing this French South American region, it is often done in disparate departments, disciplines and languages and that researchers are not always in dialogue with one another. We found that by asking historians, literary scholars, anthropologists, linguists and sociologists to explore the question of Guyane’s conceptual location, these could be put in dialogue to draw out quite cohesive thematic insights. Hence the three thematic sections of the book which address, respectively, Guyane’s place in literary imagination, imperialism and the production of place, and the complex, contemporary positionings of language, art and identity.
Finally, we were able to bring to light more specific points of conjunction between scholarly approaches to Guyane which may indicate fruitful avenues for future research. For instance, although they address quite different historical circumstances, Silvia Espelt Bombín’s historical emphasis on Amerindian agency aligns with Antonia Cristinoi and François Nemo’s contemporary sociolinguistic perspective on the Palikur, whilst for both Kathleen Gyssels and Bill Marshall, theoretical ‘queering’ proved to be a particularly illuminating lens through which to view Guyanais literary and cultural relationships.
Could you explain a little about the perceived location of Guyane and how this has changed in literary and cultural tradition?
Several contributors to the book trace the 19th and early-20th-century locations of Guyane in French imagination, where it was commonly understood as a ‘green hell’, but in often vague and changing geographical terms. Kari Evanson’s piece on ‘grands reportages’ contributes to our understanding of why Guyane is still synonymous, even today, with the bagne (the notorious penal colony which inspired Papillon but which closed shortly after the Second World War). Jonna Yarrington, addressing economic history, argues that the colony was valued for different things at different times: accessible enough initially to be valued for its potential as a cane sugar colony, but later valued for its geographical distance from the Metropole when the penal colony was proposed.
As the book progresses, we move from historicizing the association of Guyane with marginality and ignorance towards exploring specific transnational interactions which occur within and at the edges of Guyane, emphasizing the historical, contemporary and conceptual importance of borders and crossing-points. The increasing importance of Maroon communities and the growth of eastern Guyane, for instance, is made clear in chapters by Richard Price, Edenz Maurice and Sally Price. A chapter by Sarah Wood, meanwhile, addresses how changing commemorations of the Second World War hero Félix Éboué attest to reinforced political and economic links between Paris and Cayenne whilst at the same time, Guyane’s on-the-ground social and cultural diversity exposes the contrivance of this formal connection. This diversity is in turn addressed by Catriona MacLeod, who examines the performance of identities during Guyane’s carnival, and what we can learn about Guyanais cultures by looking at ways in which this ‘tradition’ has changed over time.
Prior to the 2017 French elections, Emmanuel Macron accidentally referred to Guyane as an ‘island’, apparently betraying a lack of knowledge of its actual geographical ‘location’. What was the effect of this?
First, the fact that anybody outside of Guyane even noticed Macron’s verbal slip-up is quite interesting. Some years ago, few people batted an eyelid when Christiane Taubira (the deputy for Guyane who became Minister for Justice during Francois Hollande’s presidency) was several times referred to – certainly in UK newspapers and on news websites – as being from ‘French Guinea’. That Macron’s gaffe was picked up on by social media users is in itself perhaps indicative of an increased awareness of and interest in this part of the world on the part of those external to it, as well as demonstrating the (often-unreciprocated) engagement of many Guyanais in French national affairs, in this case via social media.
As for the effect of Macron’s mistake: it was understood in Guyane as an indicator of the lack of knowledge – and perhaps the lack of legitimacy – had by national politicians when talking about the place. This was compounded by the rather awkward way in which Macron and his team tried to save face by claiming that he had not made a mistake but had been talking about the ‘Ile de Cayenne’ (as though it was a term frequently used as ‘l’Ile de France’ is, or as though it constitutes an actual island).
The Parisian media, finally, although they rushed to report on the story, have often been no less culpable of ignorance than politicians: TF1, for instance, has been known to use a map of the Republic of Guyana when referring to French Guyane. (http://www.franceguyane.mobi/actualite/politique/pourquoi-tf1-confond-aussi-souvent-la-guyane-et-le-guyana-270931.php.)
How far do you think this collection outlines possible future directions for and challenges to the conceptual location of Guyane?
What we think we’ve managed to do well is to demonstrate the richness of Guyane as a field of enquiry in its own right, as well as the important but overlooked roles that it plays as part of modern Latin America, Amazonia and France.
As we’ve noted in our conclusion to the book, Guyane is entering into some interesting new phases of existence. This is true firstly in terms of its relation to other territories: the bridge over the river Oyapock between France and Brazil has recently been opened, for example, and this looks set to impact upon Guyane itself, its regional role in South America and on the conception of Guyane as ‘France’. Secondly, it seems that some Guyanais are increasingly keen to promote or defend its specific identity. There is a campaign, for instance, to have Guyane’s carnival recognized by UNESCO as part of the world’s ‘intangible heritage’, whilst the University of Guyane recently declared its ‘independence’ from the University of the Antilles. Even more recently, the sociologist Isabelle Hidair argued convincingly (see https://www.lemonde.fr/idees/article/2017/03/30/la-guyane-sous-tension_5103341_3232.html) that political protest and engagement arising in 2017 in response to insecurity and inequality suggested that people from across Guyane’s many communities were acting collectively for the first time to stake claims on behalf of their territory. We hope that the work presented in our book on the historical and current existences of Guyane will facilitate study into these interesting changes.