Architextual Authenticity - In Conversation with Jason Herbeck
To celebrate the release of Architextual Authenticity, we caught up with Jason Herbeck to discuss how constructions in and of literature can be used as a means to understanding French-Caribbean identity.
Can you give us a summary of Architextual Authenticity?
Architextual Authenticity: Constructing Literature and Literary Identity in the French Caribbean is a book about understanding issues related to identity in the context of the French-speaking Caribbean and the literature that is created there. More precisely, the book examines select literary works from the region as a means of exploring how and why identity is perceived, articulated and—essentially without fail—questioned the way it is. In short, what my analyses illustrate is the great extent to which identity in the French Caribbean should be viewed as a process rather than as a product. Not only are the various influences themselves which contribute to what or how someone or something is defined, found to be in constant flux, but, as a result, there is no exact or foreseeable point at which identity might conceivably “come to rest,” so to speak. Of course, the long, violent and disruptive history of colonialism and slavery, along with the respective movements of Négritude, Créolité and Antillanité, provide countless explanations for the difficulty with which narratives of the French Caribbean so often grapple with identity. In the book, I approach the resultingly complex negotiation of past and present identity from two distinct yet complimentary critical vantage points: that of architectural structures (houses) that are depicted in various literary works, and the meta-construction of literature itself—that is, the countless ways in which the texts I examine refer back to themselves and the determined yet often frustrated means by which they ultimately recount the stories of their own construction. In this way, both the architectural structures I analyze and the (textual) structures within literature provide a unique means by which to better understand the region and its rich literary output.
You use five diverse texts from Guadeloupe, Martinique and Haiti. What are these texts and why did you choose to focus on them?
Although I touch on quite a few texts from the French-speaking Caribbean in my book, I offer close readings of five different works: La Lézarde (1958) by Martinican Édouard Glissant, Traversée de la Mangrove (1989) by Guadeloupean Maryse Condé, L’Île et une nuit (1995) by Guadeloupean Daniel Maximin, and Failles (2010) and Guillaume et Nathalie (2013) by Haitian Yanick Lahens. In writing the book, I decided early on that I wanted to focus on a range of works that were not only by writers from each of these three countries in the French-speaking Caribbean, but that represented a certain diversity in other ways, as well. For instance, I intentionally chose to include works that had been published both quite some time ago as well as very recently, that could be considered both canonical and lesser-known, and that addressed issues of (re)construction in very practical, physical terms as well as in ways that were clearly less literal—that is, politically, socially and even idealistically.
I had multiple reasons for desiring this type of diversity in the texts. First, by examining works that were published over a period of more than fifty years, I was able to study literature that focused on drastically different time periods of the countries’ respective histories, from the years preceding the departmentalization of France’s overseas colonies in the early to mid-1940s, up to the devastating 2010 Haiti earthquake. This not only allowed me to perform close readings of different types of figurative and literal construction, as I’ve mentioned, but ultimately made it possible to demonstrate how the dual architectural and architextual analyses that I propose with respect to these literary works offer new means of understanding the works both generally and, in particular, when it comes to expressions of identity. In other words, by choosing canonical novels such as Glissant’s La Lézarde and Condé’s Traversée de la Mangrove, I was able to illustrate how my approach provides original insight when it comes to comprehending how those authors negotiated identity in their writings, as opposed to what had already been suggested by literary criticism. Similarly, by placing two of Lahens’s works under these same lenses, I was able to show how studies of both architecture and architexture in literature also yield interesting and informative understandings of works published today.
Of course, the texts I chose to examine also had to engage profoundly on each of these two structural levels. And as quickly becomes clear with respect to each of the five works I ultimately chose to analyze, both in-depth descriptions of architecture (what I term the characterization of structure) and the meta-discussion of literature figure prominently.
Why did you choose to focus on the structures in literature (architecture) and the structures of literature (architexture)?
As someone who has long been interested in the study of narrative structure, I have consistently been drawn to works of the French Caribbean. As those familiar with this corpus of literature know, it is hard to read a novel from the region that does not, in some way and at some level, engage with the act of writing itself in some fashion. In other words, rather than (merely) tell a story, French-Caribbean texts often reveal the difficulty of doing so, or at the very least openly illustrate how characters grapple with such an endeavor themselves. This grappling—which, while often full of frustration, is seldom recounted without passion and determination—is not limited to the thoughts that a character, narrator or author might articulate with respect to wanting to write about their community, their country or themselves. Quite to the contrary, it seems to me, literary works of the French Caribbean are often engaged with other works of literature as well. At times, these literary source texts are heralded for the inspiration they provide; at other times, they are rebuked for the dominating influence (thought systems, beliefs, etc.) that they are perceived to embody; however, most often, recourse to other texts falls somewhere in the middle. In other words, there is a vital negotiation of sources without which the meaning that they impart on expressions of self will go unchecked—either becoming all-empowering in terms of its significance or, on the contrary, forgotten entirely. This careful evaluation of influences (many of which are literary, but not always) plays out often in works of the French Caribbean, and when I realized that it could be seen to mirror in many ways negotiations of identity in the region more broadly, I decided to focus on the implications of architextuality—or, simply put, the relationship that texts share with other, previous source texts in terms of their construction.
As for the architectural structures, or houses, that I chose to examine, they constitute in many ways a literal—as opposed to purely literary—conceptualization of these same issues relative to identity. I first became convinced of this while reading Condé’s Traversée de la Mangrove. I found myself wondering why, when Francis Sancher (the main character of the novel) sets up the desk at which he subsequently attempts time and again to type out the story of his past, he does so precisely on the veranda of his home. There were surely at least several practical explanations for this—not the least of which is the comfort of being “outside” without being directly in the sun—but I felt that his place of writing must have a more significant purpose, or meaning. After coming across Patrick Chamoiseau’s public reflections on Traversée, and in particular the criticisms he levels at her with respect to her choice of vocabulary and expressions in the novel, it occurred to me that there was a close parallel to be fleshed out between writing within specific, predetermined parameters (generic, lexical, etc.) and assuming that one could be entirely free in one’s written expression. In other words, much like Francis, who is after all trying to write a semi-autobiographical work entitled Traversée de la Mangrove, Condé consciously—and quite strategically, I would argue—placed herself between those two readily identifiable—and yet impractical and highly unacceptable—spaces of construct. She envisions her writing as happening between them, as part of both of them: on the veranda. Once I discovered that connection between the physical structure of Francis’s house and the supposed strictures of writing evoked by Chamoiseau (and to which Condé later responds, of course), I reread Traversée, paying close attention to how the house that Francis comes to inhabit is depicted. Surprisingly, the details are in fact quite abundant and moreover demonstrate how the structure changes over time, both physically and in terms of the perception the community has of it. As I illustrate in my book, a close reading of the house’s evolving characteristics provides telling testimony with regard to both the history of Guadeloupe and what might be understood broadly as the country’s divergent potential in terms of its past, present and indeed future identity/autonomy.
Given the clearly complimentary yet independent nature of these architextual and architectural readings, I decided to employ them in tandem in my book as a means to examining the construction of identity on a physical as well as conceptual plane.
Why do you think it is that relatively few works have discussed literary form in the Caribbean?
Whether it be with respect their respective objectives or in actual practice, the theoretical approaches of postcolonialism and structuralism can be considered quite antithetical when it comes to the field of literary criticism. On the one hand, structuralism is—in the context of literary studies—essentially the study of patterns in narrative form and the ways in which stories are structured/constructed. Generally speaking, structuralist and narratological approaches share a common objective, which is to identify and classify the precise (and in theory finite) properties, functions, options and strategies of narrative—or, to use a present-day analogy, to uncover the underlying programmatic code of narrative according to which any particular text might well be demonstrated to function. Postcolonial studies, on the other hand, is ultimately a rejection—or at the very least a recognition of a desired rejection—of such systems, to the extent that they are seen as (and in effect have in many ways been proven to be) an imposition and therefore a limitation on and of structure. In the broader context of a centuries-long colonial expansion and domination, these limitations were identified in conjunction with the colonial subject, onto whom specific value systems were forced, be it with respect to language, religion, race, etc. As a result, while postcolonial studies proposes to delve into the origins and implications of the colonizer-colonized relationship, as well as the former’s lasting influence on the latter after the colonial era per se, postcolonialism also implies breaking away from limiting notions of identity with respect to its conceptualization and/or articulation. Consequently, to perform structuralist readings of works written by “postcolonial” writers—that is, authors who lived/are living in (former) colonies—has long been regarded as contradictory in nature, as ahistorical. After all, to follow the structuralist mindset to its logical end, the supposed results of performing such a reading would entail identifying the various governing systems—linguistic, literary, generic, and otherwise—that might be presumed to exist—that is, to pre-exist and thus have been passed down by way of tradition and paradigm—in a given text. In short, at first blush at least, the results of exploring literary form in a postcolonial context might very well lead to precisely that which the field of postcolonialism is generally recognized as countering: an acceptable, tidy synthesis of sorts when it comes to the structures by which narrative is expressed. In the past couple decades, however, there has been a critical push in postcolonial studies to introduce studies of form, the argument being that analysis of form can offer a valuable understanding of different region’s particular political, cultural and ideological contexts. In works such as Postcolonial Poetics, for instance, this has led scholars to underscore the various innovative forms of literary creation—in particular with respect to genre and aesthetics—that have been created in the wake of, or as a response to, colonialism.
How do you think Architextual Authenticity paves the way for further research in the field?
My book aims precisely to move beyond or, alternately, before discussions of genre and aesthetics per se, and, in so doing, to propose a postcolonial study of form that draws from two distinct yet parallel considerations of structure: those in literature and that of literature itself. The natural environment has long held a privileged place in French-Caribbean literary criticism—and rightfully so. As Édouard Glissant notes in Le Discours antillais, “The landscape is a character.” Notwithstanding, Architextual Authenticity illustrates quite to the contrary the largely untapped significance of human structures within the region’s literary corpus. In demonstrating how “reading structure” in terms of the construction, evolution and occupancy of houses informs the complex and ongoing negotiation of identity in the French Caribbean, the book calls critical attention to a significant character that has largely gone unnoticed. Furthermore, the in-depth analysis of the construction of literature itself, or architexture, sheds light on the complexity of source texts, and will, I hope, encourage future studies with respect to the role, influence and ever-evolving implications of literature within literature.