Literature, Modern Languages, Political History, postcolonial studies

Female Francophone Aesthetics of Exile: In discussion with Antonia Wimbush

One of our latest new monographs, Autofiction: A Female Francophone Aesthetic of Exile, explores the multiple aspects of exile, displacement, mobility, and identity in contemporary autofictional work written in French by women writers from across the francophone world. Drawing on postcolonial theory, gender theory, and autobiographical theory, Antonia Wimbush analyses narratives of exile by six authors who are shaped by their multiple locales of attachment. In this blogpost, Wimbush offers an insight into these issues in greater detail, asking questions of belonging, geographical mobility and the self.

The twenty-first century is an era of globalization and mobility. In an increasingly globalized world, national borders are becoming erased as a growing number of people from diverse countries and social backgrounds are moving away from their native land, whether by force or through choice. This mobility can take many forms: exile, asylum, forced migration, economic migration, tourism, and travel, to name but a few. Communities involved in these different forms of displacement are all forced to question where they have come from, where they belong, and what the concept of ‘home’ really means to them.

It is these questions of belonging, identity, and exile that my new book, recently published by Liverpool University Press, aims to explore. Autofiction: A Female Francophone Aesthetic of Exile examines how these issues resonate in the Francophone postcolonial context, as the concept of the nation-state of France is constantly being reconfigured by the arrival of people from France’s former colonies across the world. How are writers, who themselves have been shaped by the French colonial project, engaging with different models of exile and displacement? How do women writers, who have long been locked out of these discussions, write about their specifically gendered experiences of exile?

I chose to focus on a range of contemporary women writers from a diverse cross-section of the Francophone world, so that I could investigate how the geographical, historical, and cultural specificities of the former colonies influence the ways in which women undergo exile. This has enabled me to map the experiences, expressions, and articulations of gendered exile across the Francosphere. I also wanted to put more established writers into dialogue with lesser-known voices, to encourage discussion and debate about writers who are not yet considered part of the canon of Francophone postcolonial literature. The book, therefore, studies the work of Kim Lefèvre (Vietnam), Gisèle Pineau (Guadeloupe), Nina Bouraoui (Algeria), Michèle Rakotoson (Madagascar), Véronique Tadjo (Côte d’Ivoire), and Abla Farhoud (Lebanon). These writers have multiple locales of attachment, and the study questions how they each negotiate their complex and changing identity with their country of origin, with France, and, in the case of Farhoud, with Quebec.

Ankify Harbor, Madagascar. Unsplash

In the book, I argue that current models of exile do not fully explain the situation of the six authors. They do not have a well-defined ‘home’ and ‘host’ country; the colonial past of their familial country of origin has complicated this notion of ‘home’, and in the postcolonial present, the authors have been drawn to different locations in the French-speaking world. These women writers, therefore, can be more accurately defined as privileged, ‘cosmopolitan’ intellectuals: they have a certain degree of freedom in their ability to travel back and forth between different locations, and their identity, always in flux, is shaped by their mobility. While cultural scholars have celebrated such hybridity and fluidity, the six authors in this study write about the ambiguity of their status as cosmopolitan, hybrid travellers who live a rootless existence and struggle to come to terms with their multiple identities. While ensuring not to trivialize the very real difficulties faced by those whose exile is not a matter of choice, I argue that the six authors also experience their hybridity as both a literal exile, and moreover and in multiple ways as a metaphorical exile, which is simultaneously a source of creativity and trauma. I also show how genre in both its forms – gender and literary genre – enables us to reconceptualize categories of mobility. The autofictional mode of writing becomes a means for the authors to resolve the multiple personal conflicts that arise from their migration.

One of the autofictional narratives I study in the book is Guadeloupean author Gisèle Pineau’s L’Exil selon Julia (1996). This is a text which has attracted much scholarly work, because it makes important comments about memory, gender, and exile. It is also told from a child’s perspective, thereby making it a significant literary document with which to study childhood and adolescence in Paris and the Caribbean in the 1960s and 70s. However, my chapter focuses on a different aspect of exile, namely the motivations behind the family’s displacements. It analyses the causal relationship between war and displacement for three generations of Pineau women (the unnamed narrator, her mother Daisy, and her grandmother Julia, who appears in the title of the text). I argue that their mobility, which arises as a result of male participation in the First and Second World Wars, has complex, long-lasting, and, at times, even unexpectedly beneficial impacts on the family.

The Empire Windrush arrives at the Port of Tilbury on the River Thames on 22 June 1948. Alamy Stock Photo

This analysis is particularly timely. The Windrush Scandal, which broke in 2018 and the effects of which are still being felt today, has shone a spotlight on other instances of Caribbean migration to Europe in the mid-twentieth century. In the French context, the BUMIDOM was a state-run agency which organised and financed the recruitment, transportation, and housing of workers from Guadeloupe, Martinique, and Réunion to plug the labour gap in the post-war era. The Pineau family’s migration from Guadeloupe to mainland France slightly pre-dates this mass migration, but they were subjected to similar experiences of racism, discrimination, and linguistic prejudice. The recent surge in French-language cultural production that portrays the harsh realities of state-controlled migration between France and the French Caribbean – such as Jessica Oublié and Marie-Ange Rousseau’s graphic novel Péyi an nou (2017) and Estelle-Sarah Bulle’s novel Là où les chiens aboient par la queue (2018) – is testimony to the urgent need to interrogate the social and cultural impacts of transatlantic migration in the post-war era.

Autofiction: A Female Francophone Aesthetic of Exile thus reconceptualizes female experiences of exile, providing a critique of postcolonial discourse which celebrates hybridity and mobility. It draws on gender studies, postcolonial studies, and autobiography studies to create a new analytical framework which incorporates women and their specifically gendered accounts of exile. Autofiction, it argues, allows the authors to voice their exile on their own terms.

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