I’m flying over Australia. It is 4pm in Noumea and 7am in France.
Are writing and living really compatible?
Way down below I see four murky-green, oval lakes. A patchwork of enormous fields – brown, green, ochre and purple. Roads criss-crossing as far as the eye can see. The work of Titans: this continent is not of human proportions. The earth is red, ailing, it drags itself crawling towards the ocean, desperately, as if it has been on a long quest:
Drink, I want to drink you, she said, immerse myself in you. Look at me, I am dried up, cracked and broken down languishing here like this. I was a red desert.
I was a sierra divided into squares and triangles. A skeleton carried me.
Finally, I see you. At first you are like a dream, a mirage, a galaxy curled around itself, boiling hot swamp, silver mirror, desert of salt and white mud. I surround you, you act cool, like the sky or a milky way that fell to the ground by mistake: who put you there? And why?
The birds are flying too low, and you are too white!
And these roads are too empty and my destitution is solitary. My children gather together on the lovely coasts, the gulfs and the bays hemmed with foam, from where their sails take off in graceful swarms of butterflies.
They have built proud cities there, at the very doors of my distress.
Sometimes I call out to them: the wind, that red demon, blows from the desert and covers them with a shroud of my colours.
It covers the sun with bloodstained clouds. Then, they think about their land.
When I am alone, I get bored, I take the wind’s quill and I trace hieroglyphics on the sand.
Nobody sees them.
Or else, using the wind’s force, I take the mallet and I sculpt the earth: a phoenix, wings spread, a zebra, head lowered, a grotesque pelican and then, weary of it all, I give up – they no longer have any sense these lines, traits, scarification, the scabs of my heart lying open to the winds…
Death is blinding, like a sun without energy, a liquid sun, an immense ball of mud and salt.
The sun pumps out the last traces of water. Soon, not a single drop will be left. A new desert forever: I love you and I am killing you.
(The temperature is increasing: I feel it through the plane window which is burning to the touch). It is 6pm. We’ve now been flying for two hours.
The magic starts to fade.
This desert is a giant, breathing effigy, an anatomical plate. I see its veins, nerves, diverse humours and circulations, lymph and living flesh with its keloid scars of reddish-brown and other white marks (burns perhaps?). Its imperfections: warts, wrinkles and the bumps and scrapes of our good old earth, seen here as we can never see it anywhere else.
Here, she is naked, skeletal, laid bare.
Here, she survives, solitary, hostile, barren, and all her passions are etched on her skin.
Here are the long, black streaks of her suicide attempts. Here is her hair, dishevelled like that of a bolting thoroughbred mare, spirited, when she dreams of her wild love-making.
(Does the earth dream?)
Here is the embryo, that minuscule dot, that labyrinth of new-life-carrying vessels.
(Does the earth dream too of all the embryos, animal or vegetable, like a woman dreams of the stranger forming [strange mystery, monster or marvel] in her womb?)
Here is the placenta, the irrigated matrix of her dream. Here she is going tirelessly in search of food, the manna of the desert, she is looking by casting out, in all directions, her arteries, veins, arterioles and nerves, as delicate as the finest of leaflets.
Look! An outpost shining unusually brightly: microbes standing guard! (Is this the role of men in the desert?) And, all of the sudden, she casts out again further and further, the smaller river then the long, silver river woven from her demands.
For she is greedy, not for herself but for this gestating dream, a dream that she must carry to term.
She stretches out her legs, rips herself open and scratches around herself to bring back to her belly the substance of her chimeras. By searching so hard and wanting it so much, voilà a watering hole, a tiny one, then another, two, three, four, and then no more.
She sculpts the shapes of her desire and her weariness.
Calm returns. Until a new madness takes hold of her: to give birth to her fantasies. Or else go and drown herself in the other immensity, the Pacific Ocean, another great creator of fantasies.
When the earth cries, traces remain, chiselled on her cheeks and shoulders.
The earth trembles and breaks in two.
At 6.20pm: Uluru.
A crater like a hollow breast (perfect circle, very big), with an erect nipple in the centre. And all around, the earth’s great witching hour – she sends her couples in relief into a frenzied jive.
A man embraces her, she seems pacified. Pause.
Further in the distance: a group of rocks, an enormous flock of stones are grazing in solitude.
The foreground is clear: the first one is a woman lying down, pregnant, waiting for her merciful release with her face lifted toward the sky.
Further away again: men huddled together in the foetal position. Are they awaiting death?
Yet more mountains. A woman, her head raised, her long hair flying in the wind. Or that other woman, with a bird on her head, who is violently attacking a monster or is it a man? With contempt and disdain.
And then more: intertwined paintings and sculptures.
And more again: large canvases, a flight of colours, in matching shades, in a volley, violent slashes of colour or a profusion of pastels.
A dragon lying in a dried-up swamp of fire, another phoenix with a flaming crest, wings spread and the train of its long tail (or is it clutching a snake in its claws?)
And still more: a squad of little clouds of light, the first for hours! They move forward, or rather it’s our plane that is moving away from them, but their shadow remains still.
We’ve now been flying at nine hundred kilometres an hour for two and a half hours over this desert.
She (the earth) tells me her story, she writes it, draws it and sculpts it for me.
And her story is also my story:
When, oh when, poor things of this world, will we reach the sea? The water?
Floating veils of clouds go past, like curtains that we pull.
Like water spreading between these steamy isles… Like fog drowning the valley… And now it’s the sky’s turn to tell me his story, his struggle and his suffering.
A great gust of cloud arrives.
I feel nauseous: it is drizzling outside.
Suddenly, I open my eyes: fantastic scenery!
The earth has become the sky, the bottom is on top, everything has been inverted.
All of this is in me, all of this is mine:
So I throw out my octopus tentacles towards you. On this earth, so many gigantic serpents come slithering out at night and hide in her bowels by day!
Monsters from the dawn of time, they climb out to destroy the creature in the black of night.
As for me, I throw these huge green and black rings out to you, eye of the day.
Suddenly, I tense up, overcome by an icy pain that climbs in a wide, circular motion towards my heart. Once again I have lost trace of you, and my stealthy black chargers break free, dispersing in all directions. A faint light radiates the horizon: could it be You?
My tears of salt and blood have dried on my flat cheeks: where is my splendour?
I am she of wind and fire. My breasts have dried up. My emaciated belly is barren!
And yet I conceal gold and diamonds and the powerful uranium that promotes men to the level of gods and the rarest minerals of all the colours of the rainbow.
My misery and my strength.
My death is rebirth!
Written by Hélène Savoie translated from the French by Karin Speedy
© Karin Speedy 2010
Speedy, Karin and Savoie, Hélène. Les Terres de la demi-lune / Half-Moon Lands. Bilingual edition, Translated and with a Critical Introduction by Karin Speedy. ISBN: 978 2 296 11771 6. L’Harmattan: Paris, 2010. (280 pages)
Sometimes we can be quite surprised by the seething raft of connections and currents running through our work and which can touch us in our everyday lives. Quite by chance, one of my friends had posted on Facebook the very famous poem À une Malabaraise by icon of French poetry, Charles Baudelaire, just as I was writing a paper on the forced migration of Malabar workers from La Réunion to New Caledonia. It hit a nerve. It infuriated me. The gaze of this young, white, Frenchman, however full of spleen and revolution he may have been, upon the body of the Malabar (Indian) woman seemed such a textbook example of a certain type of leery colonialism, that I immediately had to respond. If he had been standing in front of me, I would have slapped his smarmy face. Instead, I wrote this poem. Yes, yes, I know he was critiquing France by trying to say it didn’t hold a candle to (a perfectly exoticised) Reunion Island. Still, if he were here, this is what I would say to him over a glass or ten of absinthe…
you pervy bastard
She whose bare feet
caress the dirt
as she saunters
toward the market
her delicate arms
laden with fruits
of the tropical
to that benevolent
Is it you
in your dreams?
Does she light
that so torment one
in the colonies?
Does she sing to you
in a low
Do you visit her
in her hut
as she lies
on her mat?
you really aren’t
Painting such a cliché
a white man
And then once you
have had your
with she of the
you might as well say it
you cast her off
like a used hanky
to fall into
And you imagine
for the girl who once
kept her Master
in fresh water
and his house
smelling of sweet
of your belle
You decorate her eye
for her life
in her natural
But her body
now for sale
on the grey streets
was never free
will never be free
or in exile
She is Beauty
she is coolie woman
she is the subject/object
in your poem
Let her be
let her be
©Karin Speedy 2016
if you close your eyes
see with all your senses
you might just make them out
Tiptoeing across the ledgers
dancing in the margins
playing hide and seek
between the lines
Sometimes you catch their gaze
through the eyes
of a slightly blurry
if you will be the one
to unleash their glory
or their pain
If you listen with all your heart
those imperceptible shuffles
will take on the rhythm of speech
and they will whisper softly
of their travails
of their triumphs
of their tragedies
And like a conjurer
you will make them appear
bring them to life
write their stories
re-inscribe them into history
Then they can sleep
©Karin Speedy 2016
Call for Abstracts for a Special Issue of Francosphères
Interconnections and Mobilities: the Pacific Francosphere
Within nationalist, border-focused frameworks, the Francophone Pacific has been painted as isolated and cut-off from its neighbours due to its linguistic difference. However, French-speaking islands have long established Indigenous connections with other sites and peoples both outside of and within the Pacific. These ancestral and historical connections, often linked to widespread ocean-going mobilities, continued throughout the colonial era and were important in the shaping of populations, cultures, languages and relationships in the region. While these links have been somewhat eroded by the uncompromising imperatives of nation-building, there has been increasing interest in rediscovering and reviving these connections and creating new pathways of exchange between linguistically diverse Pacific spaces.
This special issue of Francosphères invites contributions that reflect critically on the Pacific Francosphere as part of a dynamic, interconnected, transcultural space of moving bodies, ideas and texts. How do Francophone islands connect/intersect with each other, with other Indigenous, Anglophone or Hispanophone spaces in the region or with other Francospheres beyond the Pacific?
In the first instance, we are calling for 250-300 word abstracts for papers in English or French that engage with the theme of this special issue. Please email your abstract and brief bio to the Guest Editor, Associate Professor Karin Speedy, Macquarie University, Sydney: firstname.lastname@example.org by 30 June 2016.
If your abstract is selected, you will need to submit a completed 5,000 word article (including bibliography and footnotes) by 30 September 2016. The articles will then proceed to peer review. The special issue will be published in December 2017.
For more information about Francospères, please visit the journal’s website.
As a dividing line between savage and civilised and identity marker of the ‘primitive’ other, cannibalism has served the colonial project in its quest to demonise indigenous, colonised peoples. Much has been written on the veracity of accounts of cannibalism, with some denying its existence and others insisting that while anthropophagy was a real phenomenon, cannibalism, with all its associated horror, belongs to the realm of the Western imaginary (see, e.g. Lindenbaum 2004, Arens 1979, Lestringant 1997, Obeyesekere 2001). In this post I will reflect on early New Caledonian writer Georges Baudoux’s use of tropes of cannibalism in his short 1919 novel Jean M’Baraï the trepang fisherman to critique the colonial project, flirt with racist discourses and read the role and body of the métis (mixed-race person) in colonial society.
In the Pacific, the threat of being eaten by cannibals is a common motif in both the anglophone and francophone (post)colonial literature. Many of Georges Baudoux’s stories contain theatrical representations of cannibalism which serve to underline the dark/cruel/dangerous/bestial/less developed nature of the indigenous subject and justify the colonial project. Baudoux’s Légendes canaques, recounted by this self-described transcriber of Melanesian tales (or cannibaliser of Kanak oral histories), are steeped in racist discourses that display his adherence to a monogenetic view of humanity and developmental view of history.
If cannibalism operates as a boundary between the savage and civilised in Baudoux’s Légendes canaques, how does it function in a story about a métis? In Jean M’Baraï le pêcheur de tripangs Jean M’Baraï is the son of a Breton sailor and Kanak woman, who had been bought from her clan for some trade goods. On the birth of his son, M’Baraï’s father, a marginal, coast-dwelling adventurer, does not register his birth as there was no registry officer in the area. Here we see two main themes of the narrative: the body as a commodity and object of exchange and/or consumption and the role of genealogy, kinship, lineage and breeding in the transmission of characteristics. He also establishes the theme of the recognition and the legitimacy of the métis that recurs throughout the narrative. While the term métis was used to describe racially mixed people in colonial New Caledonia, it was not a legal status. Whether the métis was considered ‘Kanak’ (and thus a colonial subject under the Indigenous Code of 1887) or a French citizen depended whether his birth had been registered and he had been legally recognised by his (white) father.
Through the many adventures of Jean M’Baraï, which include his job as a ‘négrier’ or blackbirder, his capture, incarceration and role as a breeder in a Malekulan tribe, his period of indenture in Queensland and brief career as a boxer, and his final return to New Caledonia, Baudoux explores the conflicting colonial discourses surrounding the nature of the métis. There is the trope of the monstrous being, a representation of the violation of the laws of nature and symbol of racial and social degeneration. And there is also the notion that the métis embodies hope for the future civilisation of the colonised ‘race.’ What do Baudoux’s accounts of cannibalism reveal about his position in this clash of differing, yet similarly racist, ideologies? For Baudoux, is the métis the site of degeneration or regeneration? Is he a man or a monster?
In Jean M’Baraï the trepang fisherman, Jean M’Baraï, the person of the métis is often reduced to a domestic animal, one that can become wild if provoked. His body is a commodity destined for exploitation and consumption, and he is held captive by both Kanak and white society. In addition to the physical incarceration, he is perhaps also metaphorically a prisoner of both spheres, a captivity that prevents him from living fully in either. He is able to play limited roles within both white and black worlds, roles for which his genetic makeup predisposes him, yet, despite dressing up (or down) and a certain element of role-play or performance, M’Baraï is not at home in either. Nor is he fully accepted or recognised by the members of these two opposing worlds. He inhabits a truly in-between or liminal space.
Initially functioning as a threat conjured up by the Western imaginary, the fear that the unknown other is coming to eat you, cannibalism is also played as a dividing line between savage and civilised in the story. However, it is a line that blurs when M’Baraï unknowingly consumes human flesh. His wholehearted rejection of the practice, however, means that in his mind he has not crossed over to the fully primitive. While still other, not white, his choice to abstain from eating the other and thus avoiding complete degeneration, allows for the possibility of redemption or of becoming fully civilised. That he does not is blamed on his Kanak blood and wild upbringing on the coast (at the very limits of colonial society), too removed from civilisation to have had a formative influence on him during his early years.
Baudoux thus shows the potential in the métis both for degeneration and regeneration, yet M’Baraï is an example of neither. While the main thrust of the narrative rests upon the role of ‘nature’ or genes in a person’s development, Baudoux seems to make a nod towards the ‘nurture’ school of thought in his attempt to explain why M’Baraï cannot integrate into the white man’s world. More importantly, perhaps, by giving M’Baraï many of the hallmarks of a monster, he also shows that the racist views of society exclude the métis from belonging anywhere. His hybrid person, representing the taboo of miscegenation, threatens the borders of identity of both white and black communities and he is condemned to live on the margins, as he does for a while before his suicide. Whether or not this lifestyle really brings happiness or fulfillment to M’Baraï who, until the end, is painted as something of a lost soul, he does at least live freely on his own terms, as a métis, far from the Kanak ‘tribe’ or white settlements and away from the use and abuse of either society.
Interestingly, if cannibalism, the other eating, is used to demonise Kanaks, serving as an excuse for colonial crimes such as blackbirding and ‘pacification,’ Baudoux also portrays the metaphoric cannibalism of indigenous peoples through colonisation by way of body commodification, exploitation and consumption, capitalist greed, land expropriation and the civilising mission. Here we have the sublime ambiguity of Baudoux—for, if the black world is savage, frightening and brutal the ‘civilised’ white world is no less cruel and inhumane. Jean M’Baraï thus has the dual function of presenting a critique of colonialism and civilisation while at the same time providing a vehicle for racist discourses.
Indeed, the text contains many cues for a dual reading. On the one hand, the narrator (a white/legitimate double of M’Baraï and gatekeeper of colonial ideologies) voices the prevailing views of white colonial society. He promulgates a Social Darwinist ideology, where the notion of the ‘loi du plus fort’ is paramount. No matter whether we are on a blackbirding ship, in the New Hebridean bush or on a Queensland plantation, the strongest emerge the winners, and the losers either perish or are captured, exploited and consumed. M’Baraï, the métis, the victim of both blacks and whites, is ultimately portrayed as the loser, weaker than the black or white ‘races’ that combined to form him.
Baudoux, the author, on the other hand, presents a ‘warts and all’ vision of the colonial world. For him, there is no limit to the savagery of any society. This subversive parallel discourse, particularly the description of the barbarity of the ‘civilised’ in the colonial project, serves as a postcolonial critique of colonialism and emerges as a very important feature of the text. Baudoux, in effect, redefines the borders between us and them, pushing further the concept of savagery while also rethinking the notion of cannibalism, at times appearing to make a case for the acceptance of alternative cultural practices. In this context, we might be able to go so far as to read Jean M’Baraï and his ultimate failure to find his place in the world as a symbol of the inevitable failure of the colonial project itself.
Whether this revolutionary message is one that Baudoux’s early 20th century audience would have grasped is questionable. The narrator’s racist comments and judgments seem there to appease or comfort the colonial reader, to reassure him or her that the frank depiction of the brutality of colonialism is a just reflection of the natural order of things. Baudoux, who enjoyed both the privileges that came with being a white man in a colonial context but who, for many years, lived on the edges of New Caledonian society where he frequented Kanaks, métis, convicts and migrant workers, undoubtedly developed a unique understanding of the complexity of the colonial encounter. Perhaps, through this story, he was attempting to enlighten his audience by giving them a lesson in cultural relativism—the duality of the text allowing him to do indirectly what he could not do directly. Perhaps too, the dialogical relationship between narrator and author represents Baudoux’s own inner struggle with the inequities of his society and his role within it. Alternatively, the narrator’s voice may epitomise Baudoux’s own thoughts as well as those of his contemporaries with the unfolding realities and injustices of the story serving as a (subconscious?) foil to challenge his own deep-seated prejudices.
Exactly what Baudoux’s purpose was cannot be determined by the 21st century reader. What we are left with, however, is a polysemous text that is testament to the universality of inhumanity. Exploring conflicting colonial discourses on breeding and heredity and underlining the shifting nature and dislocation of identity experienced by the métis as he negotiates a third space between black and white worlds, in Jean M’Baraï the trepang fisherman Baudoux exposes, through his descriptions of cannibalism (literal and metaphorical) and portraits of the indigenous other, white pirates, slave traders and capitalist masters, the ambivalence of a colonial society where notions of savagery and civilisation are far from binary oppositions.
Georges Baudoux’s Jean M’Baraï the trepang fisherman, http://dx.doi.org/10.5130/978-0-9945039-1-6 was recently published Open Access with UTS ePress. A print edition has just been published and copies are available for $24.95 AU from UTS ePress (email: email@example.com ). Containing my translation of a short but fascinating novel by New Caledonian writer Baudoux (1870-1949) and a critical introduction that places the work in its rich, complex and brutal 19th century socio-historical context, the book offers a window into the intersecting trans-imperial networks that once existed between Australia and its francophone Pacific neighbours and highlights the competition between imperial rivals in the blackbirding trade (see my guest blog on ‘The Coastal History Blog’ A Pacific Blackbirding Narrative).
This post is based on parts of Karin Speedy, 2013. “‘After me fellow caïcaï you’: Eating The Other/The Other Eating“, Portal Journal of Multidisciplinary International Studies, Special Issue: Edible Alterity, vol. 10, no. 2.
Arens, W. 1979, The Man-eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy. Oxford University Press, New York.
Baudoux, G. 1952, Légendes canaques. Nouvelles éditions latines, Paris.
King, R. C. 2000, ‘The (Mis)uses of Cannibalism in Contemporary Cultural Critique,’ Diacritics, vol. 30, no. 1 (Spring): 106–23.
Lestringant, F. 1997, Cannibals: The Discovery and Representation of the Cannibal from Columbus to Jules Verne. University of California Press, Berkeley.
Lindenbaum, S. 2004, ‘Thinking about Cannibalism,’ Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 33: 475–98.
Obeyesekere, G. 2001, ’Narratives of the self: Chevalier Peter Dillon’s Fijian cannibal adventures,’ in Body Trade: Captivity, Cannibalism and Colonialism in the Pacific, (eds.) Barbara Creed and Jeanette Hoorn, Pluto Press, Annandale: 69–111.
Speedy, K. 2015, Georges Baudoux’s Jean M’Baraï the trepang fisherman, UTS ePress, Sydney http://dx.doi.org/10.5130/978-0-9945039-1-6