Wednesday, June 3, 2009
So, now that I have graduated from college, I can finally find time to read what I want! (I know, how exciting!) And after learning that I received the assistantship on Reunion Island, I began to search for literature on the island's history/culture. Very little scholarship on the island has been published in English, but I did come across this text: "Monsters and Revolutionaries: Colonial Family Romance and Metissage" written by Francoise Verges. A native of La Reunion, Verges provides the reader with a cultural and social history of the island from the period of human colonization to the present. It is one of the most sophisticated pieces of postcolonial theory that I have ever read, and she weaves between Freud to Fanon to Foucault with great ease. The reading itself, however, is both dense and academic.
Central to her analysis is the construction of a metaphorical family on the island: France (mainland) is the mother, or La Mere-Patrie, and the creoles are her children. Upper-class French immigrants on the island hold power from the colonial period to the contemporary period. However, their power was continuously challenged; maroonage was quite common, and slaves and free people of color used the rhetoric of the French Revoution of 1789 to fight for equality. In 1848 slavery was abolished, but this did not stop racist ideologies from taking hold. In 1946 the island voted to become an overseas department of France, right before the time that many of France's overseas holdings would become indepedent nations (1960s). A strong communist movement took hold during the Cold-War period, yet sexist/racist arguments used by the conservative elite continued French tutelage.
Perhaps most interestingly, in the final chapter of her book, Verges looks at how French colonial and postcolonial psychiatry has been used on the island to explain the moral degredation of the creole population. Creole women are seen as sexually promiscuous "welfare queens," and creole men are painted as violent alcoholics.
Her contemporary perspective of the island's society and culture is particularly striking. She notes that: "Education has remained so foreign to the island's language (creole) and culture that every year thousands of schoolchildren leave school barely literate." She also paints a dismal ecomonic picture of Reunion: "More that one young person out of two was unemployed in 1993...Although Reunion's population represents only 1 percent of France's population, it is the recipient of 10 percent of the total RMI, the financial aid offered to the poorest individuals by the French government after 1988." The creole language itself is very stigmatized (as in many other postcolonial French contexts, such as Haiti), and French officials have argued that it is a more juvenile language; it is less-developed and this impacts the psychology of les Reunionnais.
I have found Verges' book to be an interesting start to an examination of Reunionnais culture -- by providing me with a historical background/context, I will be able to see how the history of slavery, rape, metissage, and first and foremost the mission civilisatrice (civilizing mission) have impacted this contemporary island nation.
In other news, I still await my letter from the French government indicating where on the island I will be teaching, how long my contract will be for, and what grade level I will be instructing. It is such a painful wait!
I have also decided to apply to graduate schools this fall/winter so that I can return to North America for grad school if I am admitted (and if they give me money). My geographic interests for grad school are the Francophone Western Indian Ocean (Madagascar, La Reunion, Seychelles, Mauritius), so needless to say, my experience this year will fit right into my future plans.