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  • Isabel Steele

What Patrick Chamoiseau can teach us about our perceptions of migration, especially during Covid-19

Updated: Dec 22, 2020

Unfortunately, the book I'm going to chat about isn't a blockbuster film yet so those of you who hate reading, this one may not be for you...


Chamoiseau (1953) is Caribbean-born author whose work I discovered in Guadeloupe. His books have inscribed the most emotive, poetic phrases into my mind and have left me crying and laughing out loud. His writing may interest you for many reasons, winning the Prix Goncourt in 1992 and seamlessly integrating a celebration of Creole within French prose.

I think it is of upmost importance that we internationalise our bookshelves, to widen our perspectives and understandings.


Chamoiseau worked extensively as a social worker and probation officer for young offenders, being a man of the people with some important ideas. I am awaiting the arrival of his book Le Papillon et la lumière (2013), to write a blog post about lumière/light and the continuity of Pasolini’s luciole/firefly in his books, ideas which can be taken into our daily lives. For the time being, I want to use Chamoiseau’s Frères migrants (Migrant Brothers, 2017) to highlight an equally important issue. The immediacy of the current migrant crisis.

Patrick Chamoiseau is a French author from Martinique known for his work in the créolité movement.


I chose Chamoiseau for this blog because his writing manages to fuse political activism with a lyrical style, making his books great reads whilst also highlighting current affairs. They drive allegories of larger issues, and stay with you long after you turn the last page. Frères migrants will be the focus, as a poetic analysis of the current migrant crisis, contextualised against the backdrop of globalisation and the clash of civilisations. Before I get into what makes this publication so worthwhile, I want to bring the theme of migration into the two regions I lived in last year: the Caribbean and Peru.


While living on the island of Guadeloupe, I discovered Antillean literature, which is often overlooked in Europe. I'd certainly never read anything from the region before living there, and I wish I had. What is useful about reading primary sources by Antillean locals rather than European travellers, is that it allows us to discover a region directly, as comparative perspectives are removed from the text. Written by Chamoiseau from Martinique, Frères migrants comes from a culture of Antillanité (specific culture of the Caribbean islands). This authentic viewpoint allows a localised perspective, in contrast to French renditions with certain blinding assimilations which view the region through a European lens.

There is so much more to offer across the Caribbean than tropical beaches and sunny skies.


Built upon the acceptance of ‘l’éclatement de l’identité fixe’ (Badiane, 2012: 837), or the removal of a fixed identity, Antillanité explores the ‘labyrinthe culturel caribéen’ (2012: 839), as a culture of movement and migration. This cultural labyrinth is a proud harmonisation of African, European and Asian heritage. Often described as a ‘Creole garden’ (Loock, 2012), reading from this region allows us to learn a lot about the implications of global migration today.


Another reason why I am interested by migratory movements was sparked while living in Lima, Peru last summer. I was witnessing first-hand the repercussions of the political unrest in Venezuela at the time. The city saw 1500 migrants arriving per day, predicted to reach a million by the end of the year (Dávalos, 2019). To watch the situation unfold in the streets and across the headlines, was to see these desperate migrant families portrayed through a negative lens, as uneducated criminals.


While 2 out of 3 people from Lima disapproved of this influx, according to El Comercio-Ipsos (2019), the newspapers mostly focused on negativity. The prison statistics, for example, stated that the 'población venezolana en los penales se sextuplicó [de 54 a 335 internos] en un año' (Ramos, 2019). The focus should have been that these people were fleeing impossible living conditions and needed help. While the Peruvian government did make advances in creating a new visa scheme, it is so difficult to balance the moral obligation to help people and the subliminal aversion and threat that host countries often feel, manifesting in scaremongering and narrow minded headlines.

This image is taken from Wix, but captures the coastal agglomeration of Lima, Peru's capital.


Frères migrants allows a more humanitarian, perceptive insight into the horrors faced by migrants and the reasons for these movements. Chamoiseau fears that the monstrous epidemic in contemporary society is not migration itself, but the universal scourge of capitalism and neoliberalism which plagues consumerist minds and streaks the democratic sky. His book allows the reader to explore the binary opposition of cultural development and eternal suffering of minority groups.


This is particularly critical now during Covid-19, as refugees and internally-displaced persons are among the most vulnerable, in particular those living in camps and other overcrowded settings. It is especially provocative when read in comparison to well received publications like Douglas Murray’s The Strange Death of Europe (2017). As what Chamoiseau does, in contrast to Murray's rather right wing approach, is humanise these migrants as our frères/brothers, and condemn our flailing democracies, which are straining 'sous une mèche blonde aux commandes de la nation la plus puissante des hommes…' (page 20). I’m not even going to translate that as we all know which blonde twit this is referring to.

Martinique's infamous port, the childhood home of Chamoiseau.


Throughout the book, we learn that we shouldn’t be concerned with making ground breaking advances on an individual basis, but with striving to make our little contributions through communal effort. He preaches humanity, mutual understanding and universal brotherhood. As all of our efforts, as lights shining together, have the power to oust even the heaviest darkness :


'Au cœur des ténèbres, Chamoiseau salue les initiatives individuelles comme autant de lucioles (Pasolini) qui éclairent la nuit de nos consciences pour garantir l’ampleur de cette beauté contre les forces contraires' (Jeannot, 2017)


At the heart of the shadows, Chamoiseau commends individual initiatives much like fireflies which illuminate the night of our consciences in order to guarantee collaborative strength against opposing forces.


Chamoiseau courageously captures these issues, whilst focusing also on the enriching prospects of migrant integration. He describes migrant communities as a seat of extraordinary creativity :


'Une effervescence des créativités […] en sensible extension et jouvence poétique' (Chamoiseau, 2017:53)


'An effervecence of creativity […] through sensitive extension and poetic rejuvenation'


This imagines the reactivity of cultures as a positive extension of each others differences. He reinforces the image of a prosperous global society, youthfully reinventing itself through constant movement and discovery of each other.

Taken from our boat whilst sailing at Petit Terre, Guadeloupe.


Throughout his text, he supports the francophone concept of mondialité. This goes further than what most of us know as multiculturalism, or the official demographic status of a host nation. Mondialité on the other hand, with no direct translation, describes more so the thriving concept of Relation (Glissant, Poétique de la Relation, 1990). Beyond multiculturalism, it is orchestrated through musical, artistic, and linguistic interaction. It is based on positive exchange and community. One example of how we’ve all benefited from mondialité is the revitalisation of Caribbean music and the emergence of salsa, zouk, and ragga on our Spotify playlists.


Particularly concerned Murray readers could find reassurance in Chamoiseau’s point that a migrant will never bring their nation, culture or language in its entirety. Instead they will become a projection in a new context, a syncretism of the past and present which can be nurtured with humanity and compassion. In order to advance, we must support fluid, hybrid identities, and cohabit peacefully in the geographical spaces we share. We are all in motion. We are all migrants. If not now, we come from migrant ancestry. What I love most about his work, is how he enflames this positive connotation of cultural enrichment from migration through the constant imagery of light. He gains inspiration from the metaphor of Pasolini’s ‘luciole’, developing this alongside the contrast of the capitalist night (page 20) and the dawn of mondialité (page 50), which I’ll develop in another post.

Light play in the Caribbean is truly magical, making it a clearly relatable metaphor in francophone literature.


Something new readers should keep in mind is how he punctuates French prose with a folkloristic Creole style, which can make it a challenging read. Francophone authors at the interface of literary and political activism often find themselves blocked ‘entre la geôle du langage et l’abattoir de l’histoire’ (Manzor-Coats, 1993:737), between the jail of language and the slaughterhouse of history. This is commonly due to the contradicting desire to write in Creole to celebrate Caribbean culture, whilst being constrained by the necessity of European languages as the only way to reach a wider audience. Some Caribbean authors try to overcome this disjuncture by integrating Creole style into French, removing dependence on metropolitan discourse.


Chamoiseau navigates this with such professionalism and passion, creating chapters that demarcate themselves from metropolitan French. It is stylistically done and the nuance of his message is as recognisable in English as in the original text. His proximity to his Caribbean roots creates an interesting read to the European, who will often find sentences difficult to follow and esoteric vocabulary items that suggest a certain exclusion to those not willing to go deeper. But it is complicated for a reason.

Creole colours never go unnoticed across the islands.


Put simply, Chamoiseau writes in French but manipulates the syntax and vocabulary. He crafts paragraphs which lack punctuation, maybe representing the inclusivity when borders are removed, but that may be reading too deeply. ‘The language in Frères migrants has a particular sound because it is meant to be read, sung, and recited in all possible places. It had to make a spark in order to electrify the passiveness and the silence’ (Chamoiseau in interview with Versraet, 2018). It makes for such a captivating read, electrifying the silence by opening with a harrowing description of a washed-up migrant child, maybe directly alluding to the Syrian Aylan Kurdi who you may remember from the headlines in in 2015[i]. [i] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-34133210


As a society, we can learn a lot from literary masterpieces like that of Chamoiseau, simultaneously enjoying a quarantine read that will widen our minds. From this text, the reader recognises the urgency to redefine human communities more dynamically. We must reconceptualise borders not as a line in the sand that refuse cultural difference but as ‘lines of rhythm or flavour. This can at least initiate rejection of capitalism and its dehumanisation’ (Chamoiseau in interview with Versraet, 2018). Individual minds of host societies as well as those of migrants must open up to the paradox of accepting cultural opacity, whilst integrating the expression of different cultures into the fabric of our societies.

Look beyond the geographical to the socio-political...


To close this blog post, it is important to take a moment to recognise how Covid-19 may be affecting migrants specifically. While increasing border restrictions has reduced the mobility of migrants, it is also impacting the role of humanitarian organisations and shipwrecks from failed maritime crossings may go unnoticed[i]. Not to mention concerns that ethnic minorities may be being hardest hit during the current pandemic (Butcher and Massey, 2020) as crowded housing poses a particular risk to the spread of Covid-19 among migrant workers. [i] https://migrationdataportal.org/themes/migration-data-relevant-covid-19-pandemic


Next Thursday, when clapping for the NHS, spare a thought for the foreign-born workers in the critical sector of this service. The UK depends on them, like many other countries badly hit by Covid-19. An important thing to remember is while everyone’s experiences of this pandemic will vary, issues that are not immediately obvious, like the migrant crisis, still exist and need addressing. In the meantime, keep your distance, stay home and add some francophone variety to your reading list. Even if you never read it, Frères migrants has a pretty cover and will look fancy on your book shelf.


16 – Frères migrants, qui le monde vivez, qui le vivez bien avant nous, les poètes déclarent en votre nom, que le vouloir commun contre les forces brutes se nourrira des infimes impulsions. Que l’effort est en chacun dans l’ordinaire du quotidien. Que le combat de chacun est le combat de tous. Que le bonheur de tous clignote dans l’effort et la grâce de chacun, jusqu’à nous dessiner un monde où ce qui verse et se déverse par-dessus les frontières se transforme là même, de part et d’autre des murs et de toutes les barrières, en cent fois cent fois cent millions de lucioles ! — une seule pour maintenir l’espoir à la portée de tous, les autres pour garantir l’ampleur de cette beauté contre les forces contraires.


It is these lucioles which will make a return in a later blog!


References:


Badiane, M. (2012), ‘Négritude, Antillanité et Créolité ou de l'éclatement de l'identité fixe’, The French Review, American Association of Teachers of French, pp. 837-847 www.jstor.org/stable/23213976


Butcher, B and Massey, J. (2020) ‘Are ethnic minorities being hit hardest by coronavirus?’ BBC News, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-52219070


Chamoiseau, P. (2017), Frères migrants, Editions de Seuil


Dávalos, J. (2019). ‘Esta población venezolana ha venido para quedarse’, El Comercio, https://www.elcomercio.com/actualidad/jose-ivan-davalos-poblacion-venezolana.html [Accessed: 04 Apr. 19]


El Comercio-Ipsos, (2019), Percepción negativa, El Comercio [Accessed: 04 Apr. 19]


Jeannot, B. (2017) 'Frères migrants de Patrick Chamoiseau : Un essai contre la barbarie', SAF Nancy, co-présidente commission Étrangers

http://lesaf.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/16-freresmigrants-BJ.pdf [Accessed: 28 Nov. 19]


Loock, U. (2012), Opacity, Frieze, https://frieze.com/article/opacity [Accessed 12/04/2020]


Manzor-Coats, L. (1993), 'Of Witches and Other Things: Maryse Condé's Challenges to Feminist Discourse', World Literature Today, Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma, pp. 737-744, https://www.jstor.org/stable/40149572 [Accessed: 19 Jan. 19]

Murray, D. (2017), The Strange Death of Europe, London, Great Britain: Bloomsbury Publishing


Ramos, D. (2019). Hay 335 internos venezolanos en las cárceles del país, El Comercio [Accessed: 03 Apr. 19]


Verstraet, C. and Landon Allen, J. (2018), 'Poetics of humanity, politics of migration: A conversation with Patrick Chamoiseau', Emory University

https://online.liverpooluniversitypress.co.uk/doi/pdf/10.3828/franc.2018.8 [Accessed: 28 Nov. 19]


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