Atelier linguistique
Cultural diversity as a new utopia

par Raphaël CONFIANT

(Conférence prononcée à Sainte-Lucie dans le cadre de la “Journée Internationale de la Francophonie”, 2003)

Ladies and Gentleman,

I am delighted to be here with you today, on this day in which we are celebrating on five continents the French language, one of my two native languages. The other is Creole which is similar to the one you speak in Saint Lucia. I am not going to discuss the institutional or political aspects of what one could call “the francophonie movement”, or the movement of French-speaking communities. The ambassador of France in Saint Lucia excellently engaged in this exercise earlier. For my part I would like to talk about my experience as a bilingual writer and a polyglot academic in order to show you to what degree the defence and illustration of French, as Joachim du Bellay said, is a major component of cultural diversity.

But first of all, what does “cultural diversity” mean to me? What meaning does it have in a world where ethnic violence, religious wars and linguistic conflicts are more prevalent than ever? It is a little over ten years ago since I published along with my writer friends Patrick Chamoiseau and Jean Bernabé a short piece entitled Eloge de la Créolité, or In Praise of Creoleness. In this book we attempted to examine our place in the world as a Caribbean person on the one hand and to sketch out a vision of what one calls mondialisation in the Latin world or globalization in the Anglo-Saxon world.

By “place in the world” we meant our contribution as Caribbean people to the grand concert of nations. Allow me just a brief parenthesis: we must not confuse “state” and “nations”. A single state may contain several nations: it is the case with Switzerland, Russia, Indonesia and the overwhelming majority of black African countries. Even if the French centralizing system, known as Jacobin, affirms that the Republic is “one and indivisible”, that does not change anything in the feelings of the nations. Many Corsicans, Basques, Bretons and then Caribbean people consider themselves as whole nations apart, but politically integrated into the French state. What then have we brought to the world, to its enrichment, in the course of this brief history of three centuries? I think it is something fundamental, the fact of knowing about multiple identity.

It is the Caribbean archipelago in its entirety which, from the moment when Christopher Columbus first touched its soil in 1492, inaugurated this great meeting of the peoples which we speak about so much today. Consider this: it is in our countries, in Haiti, Cuba, Saint Lucia, Martinique or Trinidad that four of the five great civilizations that share the globe have met. I want to speak about the Caribbean or Amerindian civilization, the European civilization, the African civilization and the oriental civilization in which I include Hindu, Chinese and Syro-Lebanese people. There is only the civilization of Oceania that did not participate in this process that historians and anthropologists designate as creolization.

We see, then, that diversity of civilizations is at the base of Caribbean identity as before 1492, the majority of people lived in a singular identity : we knew who was French, Russian, Chinese or Persian and the empires which were forming themselves resembled the peoples who were relatively close geographically or ethnically. The Roman Empire or the Arab Empire in the Middle Ages are a good example of this. Singular identity defines itself by a language, a flag, a territory, a national anthem, a passport, a currency. Whereas this kind of identity was reinforcing itself in Europe, from the sixteenth-century in the Americas, in the Caribbean therefore, it was becoming obsolete, unadaptable to the realities of what they correctly called “The New World”. To move quickly, the Old World, or Europe, Africa, Asia and Oceania, lived and still live to a large degree, under the reign of a singular identity whereas the New World invented by force of circumstance a multiple identity.

I told you at the beginning of my paper that I would constantly draw from my own experience. I will take the example of religion to show you how rich in gods was the small plantation world of the northern part of Martinique in which I spent most of my childhood: the Christian god which was taught to me through the catechism, Hindu gods that I heard invoked by agricultural workers in the rituals honouring the goddess Mariémen, black gods, survivors of lost Africa, referred to by healers and sorcerers. As the anthropologist Simonne Henry-Valmore says in her magnificent work Dieux en exil, or Gods in Exile : “The Caribbean is not a world without gods but, on the contrary, a world marked by an overabundance of gods.” It is the same on the linguistic plane where at home my parents used to speak to me in French, my childhood friends outside of the home in Creole, at catechism we were taught prayers in Latin and from the Hindu rituals I used to hear the raucous and solemn accentuation of the Tamil language.

All of which show that in a tiny area the gods and languages of four continents were drawn together, that this new identity that we call Creole was continuing, in disorder certainly, in the discontinuity of forging itself, of forging us. To be Creole is to stand up automatically for all worlds. The problem – and it relates to our subject today – is that I did not have what the writer Edouard Glissant calls “the imaginary of diversity”: I had no awareness of this cultural plurality, either me or those around me, and that because it was imposed on us by the bias of the French schools which is notably that of the imaginary singular identity. The Creole language, Tamil language, Amerindian beliefs, Hindu gods etc…were pathetically suppressed by the education system, rejected into a non-being that threatened their very existence. The problem of Creoles – and by this word I mean all the inhabitants of the New World – is simple: they created a multiple identity but they were not at all conscious of it.

Allow me to explore the etymology of the term “Creole”: we know that it comes from the Portuguese “crioulo”, passed onto Spanish in the form of “criollo” and ending up in French as “créole” and English as “Creole”. This word defines from its origin everything that was born and raised in the Americas in opposition to, on the one hand, the native Amerindians, and on the other, to the people born in Europe, Africa and Asia. The interesting aspect of this neologism appears at the end of the fifteenth-century where it contains no racial connotation: they would talk indifferently about “white Creoles” and “black Creoles” and much later about “Hindu Creoles” or “Chinese Creoles”. Even more interesting is the fact that this word came in time to be applied all aspects of reality :

  • to the animal kingdom: Creole cocoons, Creole cows etc…
  • to the vegetable kingdom: Creole cane, Creole bananas etc…
  • to realia: Creole language, Creole cooking, Creole architecture etc…

“Creole” thus ended up designating the autochtonisation process of people, animals and plants that were not native to the Americas as well as the mixing of different languages, religions and cultures lasting three centuries. It is a complex, mosaic, unpredictable process, which, to my mind and those of the other writers of Eloge de la Créolité, prefigured what is happening in the world today under the name of mondialisation/globalization. This phenomenon which stunned the Old World ( Europe, Africa, Asia and Oceania, I repeat) is very familiar to us. What is happening today for example, in the French or English suburbs in which very different languages and cultures are brutally put together (Arab, African, Asian, Caribbean ) strongly resembles, without being exactly the same, what happened in the sugar plantations in the Caribbean between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries. There is therefore a place to distinguish between a “historic creolization” and the current process of creolization which we could call neo-creolization. Without presenting the former as a model, I think there are lessons to draw from it. For my part I perceive three:

  • First: to live day-to-day in a world where several cultures cohabit does not necessarily entail an awareness of this diversity . In the historic creolization of the Caribbean , the hierarchy of cultures between, on the one hand, a European culture that is supposedly superior, and, on the other, those that are allegedly inferior – Amerindian, African and Asian – overshadowed this diversity. In effect, a single culture had a say in the matter, was considered a real culture, whereas the others were thrown into obscurity and non-being. A single language was judged worthy of this name, French, whereas Creole was rejected as black jargon or patois.
  • Secondly: this eclipse was reinforced, in the case of French colonization which concerns us, by a phenomenon which distinguishes France from other European nations: centralism or Jacobinism which makes the capital, Paris , the centre of almost all the political, economic and cultural activities of the country. This Jacobinism which led to the progressive wiping out of the so-called regional cultures of the Hexagon (Basque, Breton, Corsican, Occitane etc) was transplanted to the American islands, resulting in the exclusion of the Creole language, a linguistic miracle born out of the confrontation between Amerindians, Europeans and Africans.

To come back to my subject, how could we briefly define diversity? I believe that Martinican linguist and novelist Jean Bernabé's expression the sharing of ancestors is the best definition of this diversity. What does this term that seems somewhat esoteric actually mean? It means that since 1492 when the world entered into creolization, the cultures of the world started to mix despite wars, genocide, slavery, and deportations. They started to overlap in an inexorable fashion, gradually as capitalism and its avatars progressed across the planet. From then on, it is difficult to claim a single ancestor, a single root. We are the products of a rhizomatic identity that simultaneously plunges its roots into Greco-Latin logic, Judao-Christian and Muslim metaphysics, African art and Oriental mysticism. To take some banal examples, who today could qualify jazz as black music? There are more orchestras of white jazz than there are of black jazz because the black people in the United States prefer to devote themselves to rap or RNB. Who could pretend that Chinese cuisine is exotic? It is easier to buy a Chinese meal on the street corner than it is to cook with recipes from the region or its territory. The current displacement of populations in countries from the South towards the richer countries of the North (South Americans to the United States, Africans and Arabs to Europe, South-East Asians to Japan etc…) only reinforces this phenomenon of a generalized interface of the cultures and languages of the world, to the point of dizziness. There is a great danger of conflict between the civilizations according to Huttington as it is very difficult for a people accustomed to a singular identity to change and welcome a multiple identity. It is very difficult for people who have always thought of themselves as superior to share their ancestors with those people thought of as under-developed and backward.

And even within the rich and developed world, the West if you prefer, there exists a fracture which separates on the one hand the Anglo-Saxons and their allies and on the other the so-called Latins, in particular France . France is at the point of combat in respect of cultural diversity because its language, formerly brilliant, dominant, spoken in all the royal courts of Europe , is in the process of crumbling, of giving way to English or rather Anglo-American. The French, who for a long time remained deaf to the desperate cries of Bretons, Basques, Corsicans or Creoles, are starting to understand what it is to lose one's language, what it means to dilute one's culture. From an imperial conception, if not imperialist about French-speaking communities, France has moved in the last ten years to a more open and diverse understanding. France has ended up understanding that it cannot lead two battles at once: a battle against the invasion of Anglo-American on the one hand and on the other a battle against the regional languages of its own territory and those of its old colonies such as Wolof, Malinké, Berber, Tahitian or Creole. At this rate France will end up exhausting itself and will fade away completely.

If one is not to make Anglo-American the devil, it is important to recognize that it is advancing like a steamroller erasing differences, pathetically ironing out everything that does not come from the American Way of Life. Because, and it is a paradox, even inside the Anglo-Saxon camp a fracture has formed: English films scarcely succeed in the United States and are replayed with American actors or post-synchronized with American accented voices. Without demonstrating a primary anti-Americanism, such blindness towards the Other makes you wonder. Let us not be overwhelmed by the Americans as for a long time in France it was impossible to succeed, to become someone if you had a regional accent that was too strong: it was impossible to be a star television presenter on a national station if you had a Marseillais accent that was too pronounced. It was impossible to succeed in oral exams, particularly in the Arts aggregation, if your accent was too strongly Alsatian.

All of which demonstrates that everyone must undertake self-criticism, every people must question its relationship to other languages and other cultures and to accept calling it into question. On a personal level, I succeeded in accomplishing this difficult and painful procedure: in fact, for twelve years, between 1977 and 1989, I only wrote in a single language: Creole. I published five books in Creole: a collection of poems, a collection of short stories and three novels. At this time I led the battle for Creole identity against the French one. That is to say I attempted to turn against the French language the same weapons it had used against Creole: the weapons of refusal and exclusion. I wanted the language I considered my mother tongue to become the equal of French at any price. In reality, I was wrong. First of all, whether I wanted it or not, I did not possess a single native language but two: Creole and French. Certainly Creole was a bit more like a mother tongue to me than Creole as it is a Caribbean creation while French was born in Europe. But history ordained that French was gradually established in our countries, it became naturalized, acquired an undeniable legitimacy that only an obtuse mind refused to see. I was obtuse at that time, more so because the miserable destiny which awaited the Creole language constituted an unmitigating circumstance.

Thus after twelve years of writing exclusively in Creole, I changed to French with intense satisfaction as I had amassed the Creole imaginary, the powerful images of Creole and from then on I was able to graft them, almost in the botanic sense of the word, onto the French language. I invented, we the Caribbean writers invented, a renewed French, enriched by the Creole offering and everyone could benefit from it. We, the Caribbean people, because it is a richness to feel at ease in two languages and the French people because new blood has been injected into their language. New blood which has become indispensable in the fight which is led not against Anglo-American but against the propensity of Anglo-American to dominate the world and to reject other languages as useless. Thus since my transition to French in 1988-1989 I have published about fifteen books, especially novels and essays which have enjoyed success in France, in the francophone world and even overseas since Patrick Chamoiseau, Ernest Pépin and myself have been translated into German, Italian, modern Greek and Japanese. And into English of course!

Ladies and Gentleman, I thank you.