Wednesday, August 22, 2012

How do regional and national identities form in the melting-pot cultures of North America, South America, the Indian Ocean, or the Caribbean?

Anny Dominique Curtius focuses on the Caribbean, looking at that region’s complicated layers of culture and history in new ways, beyond what she calls “the linguistic divide that is the legacy of colonialism.”

“We need to do comparative cultural studies,” says Curtius. “It’s much more relevant. Instead of looking at the Caribbean in terms of the individual linguistic units—French, Spanish, Dutch, and English—we need to look at the whole region together, because there is a lot of symbiosis happening in those cultures.”

Curtius, UI professor in the Department of French and Italian, earned her Ph.D. in comparative literature at the University of Montreal. Her research ranges beyond books to examine society in ways that engage a wider audience. “When you focus essentially on literary texts that people may not have read, you probably lose some of your audience,” says Curtius.

Her work has an interdisciplinary bent, ranging across cultural studies and anthropology, post-colonial studies, women’s studies, and film, with a focus on the daily lives and practices of people in the Caribbean, as well as the Indian Ocean and West Africa. Through this personal, practical focus, Curtius’ analysis of the complexities of colonialism resonates with our own American colonial roots.

Curtius says we can reassess our own daily practices by recalling historical events that help give deeper meaning to what we experience in the world around us. What we read in the news, what we listen to on the radio, and what we watch on TV help provide this meaning.

In her first book “Symbiosis of a Memory: Religious Manifestations in Caribbean Literature,” Curtius’ writing creates a dialogue as she weaves together elements of missionaries’ accounts, ethnographers’ travel narratives, contemporary Caribbean literature, and four significant Caribbean religious phenomena. Always seeking to engage the reader, Curtius analyzes the Rastafarian movement popularized by the music of Bob Marley, and familiar to those who have listened to his songs.

Reviewing “Symbiosis of a Memory” for Research in African Literatures, Mildred Mortimer considers Curtius’ book an important contribution to Caribbean Studies that “clearly reveals the critic’s mastery of the historical and cultural elements that continue to shape Caribbean society today.”

Studying Missionary Writings: Pitfalls and Possibilities of Ethnography

In studying religion and culture, Curtius was at first “flabbergasted” reading the letters of 17th and 18th Century missionaries, by the way slaves and Native Americans were “forced into Christianity,” says Curtius, as the church worked side-by-side with the colonial authorities in the enslavement process.

“It’s mindboggling, but when you observe it as a scholar, you’re able to understand the specificities of those religions that actually include Indian, African, and Christian religious practices.”

Studying the letters of 18th-Century French missionaries, Curtius worked toward a better understanding of their thoughts by placing the ideas into proper historical context.

“I quickly realized those missionaries were the first ethnographers, the first journalists reporting about their encounters with others,” says Curtius. “Of course there were lots of xenophobic and discriminatory comments, but inside the text, there is so much information you can dig out that is really relevant to understand these societies correctly.”

Gorée, Pondichéry, Paris, and the Caribbean

Curtius taught a graduate course called “Gorée, Pondichéry, Paris, and the Caribbean.” She says these places shape the identity of the Caribbean.

Gorée, an island off the coast of Senegal, is infamous as the location where West Africans were shipped out to be slaves in the Americas. After France abolished slavery in 1848, indentured laborers from Pondichéry, India were hired to work on sugar cane plantations in the French Caribbean on a five-year contract. After five years, they were supposed to go back, but most of them stayed. (A similar process occurred in the English Caribbean, as the British brought indentured Indian workers to Trinidad.)

Learning about these indentured laborers from India teaches students about a forgotten heritage. “Usually when you talk about the Caribbean, people think that only African slaves were brought to these islands,” says Curtius, “but this was not the case.”

She notes that Chinese workers also played a similar role in the history of the Caribbean. “The Caribbean is really a laboratory of this symbiosis of cultures and populations coming from all over the world,” says Curtius.

Paris is included in the course title since it is the hub of the French-speaking world, and French territories outside mainland France—even if they are no longer colonies—have a special cultural, historical, and migratory relationship with the capital city.

“People from Guadeloupe, French Guiana, Martinique and Reunion have been French for four centuries now, yet there is a strong feeling that alongside this French citizenship there is something else in the culture that determines their identity,” says Curtius. “There is something in their culture, in their history, that tells them they are not merely ‘French,’ and they need to rely on those historical, cultural and geographical components to identify themselves fully.”

Attending to a Silenced Voice

Curtius’ next project is a book-length study of Suzanne Césaire, a writer from Martinique whose work was “unacknowledged but seminal in the 1940s context of the relations between France and Martinique.” Césaire, the wife of the world-acclaimed poet and politician Aimé Césaire, thought deeply about place, race, difference, identity, women, ecology, and the historical trauma caused by slavery. Curtius book focuses on two dimensions of Césaire’s work.

“One is to rehabilitate a silenced voice,” says Curtius, “because she was the wife of this famous poet and political figure.”

The second part of the book analyzes Césaire’s writing in depth, examining seven articles published in a journal that she and her husband started in Fort-de-France, Martinique in the 1940s.

“In those seven articles, only about 50 pages, the intellectual history of the Caribbean is all there, but it has never really been closely examined,” says Curtius. “Very few scholars really paid attention to it.”

As in her first book, Curtius crosses linguistic boundaries to look not only at the French Caribbean, but also to see how Césaire’s writings paved the way for significant ideas and literature across the English and Spanish Caribbean as well.

Curtius considers the “eco-critical” dimension of Césaire’s writings. While most people automatically associate beaches with the Caribbean, Césaire complicates this ready-made vision of the region with descriptions of ecological destabilization and human trauma caused by European colonization and slavery.

“I look at how her pan-Caribbean ecological vision goes beyond an exotic consideration of Caribbean geography,” says Curtius. “This lays down the markers of what I call a Black Atlantic eco-criticism. Basically, I show how her work is a fertile ground where new theoretical and aesthetic frameworks examine the characteristics defining the identities of Caribbean societies.”

Curtius calls Césaire’s vision a “nature-centered discourse” on literature, history, social justice, and political agency in the Caribbean. Given the breadth of Césaire’s work, Curtius says her book about Césaire is naturally interdisciplinary, with links between comparative literature, eco-criticism, postcolonial studies, women’s studies, the arts, and history.

Curtius received an Arts and Humanities initiative grant to research and interview Aimé Césaire (the Césaires’ daughter), family members, historians, and writers who know about her work. “This has been essential for me to do this work,” says Curtius.

She is also grateful to the UI for a career development award in 2008, which enabled her preliminary work in the archives in Paris at the beginning of the project.