Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Writing Race and Universalism in Contemporary France: Marie NDiaye and Bessora
by Jensen, Laura Bea, Ph.D., Yale University, 2017, 255; 10633251
Abstract (Summary)

My dissertation shows how two women writers, Marie NDiaye and Bessora articulate the experience of being black in France, while, at the same time affirming the French Republican tenet that racial identification does violence to individuals, communities, and the nation itself. Despite their similar backgrounds, despite the fact that they reside in the same country, and that they write about a similar cast of characters in a similar milieu, Bessora and NDiaye are not typically seen as belonging to a shared literary category or tradition. NDiaye is categorized as a "French" author and Bessora as "Francophone." Although their novels might not be found in the same section of a French bookstore, when considered together, their works create a dialogue on race in today's France that cannot be overlooked.

In chapter one I focus on NDiaye's 1999 novella La Naufragée . This work combines art and fiction, featuring paintings by English artist Joseph Mallord William Turner, most notably The Slave Ship (1840). In this chapter, I show how the narrator, a meilnaid, functions as an allegory for racial mixing. Drawing on Walter Benjamin's ideas on allegory, I demonstrate how the novella links the author's own non-white body to the historical bodies of human chattel drowned in the Middle Passage. This novella challenges the notion that France can ever be blind to race, given its history of chattel slavery.

Paradoxically, it is through allegory that NDiaye demonstrates the real violence and pain inflicted on the black body by the ideology of race-blindness. I build on these ideas in chapter two, examining the effects that the particular allegorical significance of the black body has on black subjects. Here I uncover a powerful intertextual thread running through NDiaye's 2012 novel Ladivine. Though NDiaye's understanding of race is undeniably French, she looks to the United States, to the Harlem Rennaissance and the passing novel to articulate the experience of being both black and entirely culturally French. I explore the dissociative effect produced when an individual, who sees herself as "universal," i.e. French like "everyone else," inhabits a nonwhite body. I extended my analysis beyond Ladivine to touch on Rosie Carpe (2001) and Trois Femmes Puissantes (2009). My analysis of these works reveals the ways in which French universalism is, paradoxically, geographically conscripted. The historical realities of slavery and of colonialism continue to impact the ways in which black bodies are seen in the metropole and in Overseas Departments, and profoundly influence the ways in which black subjects conceive of themselves.

In Chapter three I turned to Bessora, analyzing her first two novels, 53 cm (1999) and Les taches d'encre (2000). Bessora wrote both of these while pursuing a doctorate in anthropology. However, current scholarship tends to interpret her literary output as standing in direct conflict with her academic pursuits;that her novels, so rich in satire and pastiche, serve to reject or simply "write back" against the fields she was studying at the time. These analyses assume a necessarily conflictual relationship between black writers and the social sciences. I argue that in the tradition of many French anthropologists and authors before her, Bessora should be seen as both a literary author and a social scientist. By handing the tools of anthropological analysis to characters of color in these novels, Bessora does not invalidate a social scientific way of viewing the world; rather, she universalizes the anthropological gaze. She combines postmodern and anthropological narrative techniques to critique the way that race is constructed in France; she exposes the ways in which Republican values work to reinforce nationalism and white supremacy, and fall short of their universalist ambitions.

Chapter four builds on the ideas established in chapter three by comparing Bessora's dissertation, "Mémories Pétrolières au Gabon," (2002) with her novel Petroleum (2004), on the same subject. As an author of Gabonese descent who was raised and educated primarily in Europe, Bessora offers a complex insider/outsider perspective on her father's country (a country that was also her home for ten years), its history, and its memories of colonization. Reading these two texts side by side reveals both the interdependency between literature and the social sciences in both Bessora's fiction and in the French literary scene more generally. She writes from a vexed position of privilege, for which she has not yet fully accounted. Bessora's own stance towards universalism, her post-national identity which ironically gathers up identitarian labels and categories, obfuscates a more fraught relationship to the national history of Gabon, and to French neo-colonialism there.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Miller, Christopher L.
School: Yale University
School Location: United States -- Connecticut
Source: DAI-A 78/11(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Modern literature, Romance literature, African literature
Keywords: Bessora, France, NDiaye, Marie, Race, Universalism
Publication Number: 10633251
ISBN: 978-0-355-10543-8
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