The work of Suzanne Césaire deciphered by Anny-Dominique Curtius

[Many thanks to Laurent Berry for bringing this item to our attention.] The full title of this article is “Still little known, the work of Suzanne Césaire deciphered by the academic Anny-Dominique Curtius” [Encore peu connue, l’œuvre de Suzanne Césaire décryptée par l’universitaire Anny-Dominique Curtius]. Here, Philippe Triay (Le Portail des Outre-mer) introduces Anny-Dominique Curtius’s book and interviews the author.

Associate Professor in Francophone Studies at the University of Iowa (United States), Anny-Dominique Curtius devotes a monumental study to the writings of Martinican Suzanne Césaire, wife of the great writer Aimé Césaire, but eclipsed by his notoriety.

It is hard to be the wife of a genius creator like Aimé Césaire, especially when you are a writer yourself. This was the case for the Martinican Suzanne Césaire (née Roussi, 1915-1966), who died young but who also experienced the brilliance of words. Associate professor and researcher in Francophone Studies and Cultural Theory at the University of Iowa (United States), Anny-Dominique Curtius, also from Martinique, wanted to focus on her yet little-known work. In her study entitled Suzanne Césaire. Archéologie littéraire et artistique d’une mémoire empêchée [Suzanne Césaire. Literary and artistic archeology of a hindered memory] (Karthala Editions), Anny-Dominique Curtius analyzes her writings, mainly articles published in the review Tropiques in the 1940s, and reconstructs her intellectual and theoretical journey from various archives and interviews. This results in a dense and fascinating book that ultimately does justice to the modernity of Suzanne Césaire’s work, which was often overshadowed by that of her illustrious husband. [A-D. Curtius is also the author of Symbioses d’une mémoire. Manifestations religieuses et littératures de la Caraïbe (Éditions L’Harmattan, 2006)].

Why is Suzanne Césaire’s work still so little known, in your opinion?

Anny-Dominique Curtius: First of all, the distribution of Tropiques (1941-1945) that Suzanne Césaire co-founded with Aimé Césaire, René Ménil, and Aristide Maugée, and in which she affirms her intellectual agency was very reduced after 1945. Even after its reissue in 1978, the journal was not sufficiently taken into account by Caribbean thinkers and researchers generally, which fundamentally contributed to the absence of Suzanne Césaire’s critical thinking from post-negritude debates and epistemologies. Thus, the dark fate of Tropiques was also the same for Suzanne Césaire’s work. Her aesthetic and theoretical proposals have not only been little read and rarely analyzed, but they have also been sometimes misattributed. For example, in the article she published in 1948 in Présence africaine on the novel Je suis martiniquaise by Mayotte Capécia, Jenny Alpha wrongly attributes Suzanne Césaire’s aesthetic program-decree “Martinican poetry will be cannibal or will not be at all” [La poésie martiniquaise sera cannibale ou ne sera pas] to Aimé Césaire.

On the other hand, the lack of knowledge of Suzanne Césaire’s work of is explained by the absurd fate of the Caribbean intellectuals whose critical and political thought has been obscured, I am thinking for example of the Nardal sisters or of Amy Jacques Garvey (1895- 1973, Jamaican journalist and editor, editor’s note), wife of Marcus Garvey (1887-1940, Jamaican political activist, one of the first theorists of Pan-Africanism, editor’s note). Finally, often racialized and exoticized, Suzanne Césaire has been primarily associated with her status of Aimé Césaire’s wife, so that the latter’s fame has eclipsed the strength of her own thought. For me, in order to explore this thought, it is better to break with the myth that analyzing the work of Suzanne Césaire would mean discrediting the impact of Aimé Césaire’s work and political action. I coined the notion of the rhetoric of reserve and avoidance [la notion de rhétorique de la réserve et de l’évitement] to analyze this dynamic of silence. However, the New York surrealist magazine View (1940-1947), René Ménil, Maryse Condé, Daniel Maximin, and Guy Cabort Masson were among the first to stress the importance of her work. Fortunately, a new generation of researchers of which I am part, are now bringing back to life what I call the humanist and emancipatory grammar of Suzanne Césaire.

Speak to us about the critical thinking and the aesthetic and theoretical proposals of Suzanne Césaire…

A-DC: Suzanne Césaire’s critical thinking is made up of interdisciplinary reflections—philosophy, anthropology, geography, history, art and literature—which fit together, complement one another and evolve harmoniously between 1941 and 1945. Also, the peculiarity of her thought consists in interweaving her own theories and critical reflections with the aesthetic concepts and intentions proposed by Léo Frobenius (1873-1938, German ethnologist and archaeologist, editor’s note), philosopher Alain, André Breton, Aimé Césaire, and René Ménil. Her cultural and civilizational theories revolve around several axes that I enumerate, taking into consideration the evolution of her reflections from her first article “Leo Frobenius et le problème des civilisations” (1941) until the last article “ Le grand camouflage” (1945) which, moreover, closed the last publication of Tropiques in 1945, and which I consider to be her auto-ethnographic testament.

She therefore seeks to decipher what she calls the “ancestral concern” [l’inquiétude ancestrale] of the Caribbeans and the socio-anthropological matrix of Martinican “man-plant” [l’homme plante] to examine the “unsuspected possibilities of a new art and a poetry of the strange and the marvelous,” to articulate a “literary cannibalism” to break with doudouism. We must understand by doudouism the ideology where colonial paternalism, sexuality, complex female pseudo-agency, and feminized and idealized tropical geography determine the relationship between colony and metropolis. Suzanne Césaire is fundamentally opposed to it and her article “Misère d’une poésie” is a vehement criticism of the doudou poetry of John-Antoine Nau (1860-1918, Franco-American novelist and poet, 1903 Prix Goncourt, editor’s note). In addition, she conceptualizes a Caribbean and political surrealism to cannibalize literary orthodoxies such as doudou literature and to introduce dissident philosophical positions. [. . .]

Excerpts translated from the French original by Ivette Romero. For full article and interview, see https://la1ere.francetvinfo.fr/encore-peu-connue-l-uvre-de-suzanne-cesaire-decryptee-par-l-universitaire-anny-dominique-curtius-915133.amp

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