Francosphères

Sylvie Kandé’s poetic remapping of the Atlantic

Francosphères (2019), 8, (1), 23–40.

Abstract

The Atlantic has long been depicted as a triangle, an area bounded by Africa, America, and Europe whose contours were first established by the slave trade. This is not the case in Sylvie Kandé’s La Quête infinie de l’autre rive: épopée en trois chants (2011), which envisions Atlantic connections that predate European colonialism. The poem imagines the fate of Mansa Aboubakar II of Mali who in the early 1300s embarked on a voyage to America with 2,000 canoes. It recounts the possible outcomes of this expedition, as well as their historical and philosophical relation to contemporary African immigrations. In this article, I address alternative Atlantic connections contained within the poem: between Africa and the Americas on the one hand, and fourteenth-century travellers and contemporary immigrants on the other. The poem circumvents European colonialism, questioning the Middle Passage as the principal framework for thinking the past and the present of the African continent. Kandé traces the ‘subterranean convergences’ of Atlantic histories, thus entering in dialogue with Martinican writer and philosopher Edouard Glissant.

L’Atlantique a longtemps été représenté comme un triangle, une zone délimitée par l’Afrique, l’Amérique et l’Europe, dont les contours ont été établis pour la première fois par la traite des esclaves. Ce n’est pas le cas dans La Quête infinie de l’autre rive: épopée en trois chants (2011) de Sylvie Kandé, poème qui envisage des connexions atlantiques antérieures au colonialisme européen. Le poème imagine le destin de Mansa Aboubakar II du Mali qui, au début des années 1300, embarqua avec deux mille canoës pour un voyage vers l’Amérique. Kandé retrace les résultats possibles de cette expédition, ainsi que leur relation historique et philosophique aux migrations africaines contemporaines. Dans cet article, je traite des connexions atlantiques alternatives contenues dans le poème: entre l’Afrique et les Amériques, d’une part, et les voyageurs du quatorzième siècle et les immigrants contemporains, de l’autre. Le poème contourne le colonialisme européen, remettant en question le Passage du milieu comme cadre principal pour penser le passé et le présent du continent africain. Kandé retrace la « convergence souterraine » des histoires atlantiques, entrant ainsi en dialogue avec l’écrivain et philosophe martiniquais Edouard Glissant.

Sylvie Kandé’s poetic remapping of the Atlantic

Abstract

The Atlantic has long been depicted as a triangle, an area bounded by Africa, America, and Europe whose contours were first established by the slave trade. This is not the case in Sylvie Kandé’s La Quête infinie de l’autre rive: épopée en trois chants (2011), which envisions Atlantic connections that predate European colonialism. The poem imagines the fate of Mansa Aboubakar II of Mali who in the early 1300s embarked on a voyage to America with 2,000 canoes. It recounts the possible outcomes of this expedition, as well as their historical and philosophical relation to contemporary African immigrations. In this article, I address alternative Atlantic connections contained within the poem: between Africa and the Americas on the one hand, and fourteenth-century travellers and contemporary immigrants on the other. The poem circumvents European colonialism, questioning the Middle Passage as the principal framework for thinking the past and the present of the African continent. Kandé traces the ‘subterranean convergences’ of Atlantic histories, thus entering in dialogue with Martinican writer and philosopher Edouard Glissant.

L’Atlantique a longtemps été représenté comme un triangle, une zone délimitée par l’Afrique, l’Amérique et l’Europe, dont les contours ont été établis pour la première fois par la traite des esclaves. Ce n’est pas le cas dans La Quête infinie de l’autre rive: épopée en trois chants (2011) de Sylvie Kandé, poème qui envisage des connexions atlantiques antérieures au colonialisme européen. Le poème imagine le destin de Mansa Aboubakar II du Mali qui, au début des années 1300, embarqua avec deux mille canoës pour un voyage vers l’Amérique. Kandé retrace les résultats possibles de cette expédition, ainsi que leur relation historique et philosophique aux migrations africaines contemporaines. Dans cet article, je traite des connexions atlantiques alternatives contenues dans le poème: entre l’Afrique et les Amériques, d’une part, et les voyageurs du quatorzième siècle et les immigrants contemporains, de l’autre. Le poème contourne le colonialisme européen, remettant en question le Passage du milieu comme cadre principal pour penser le passé et le présent du continent africain. Kandé retrace la « convergence souterraine » des histoires atlantiques, entrant ainsi en dialogue avec l’écrivain et philosophe martiniquais Edouard Glissant.

In 2011, Franco-Senegalese author Sylvie Kandé published La Quête infinie de l’autre rive: épopée en trois chants, a poem that imagines the fate of Mansa Aboubakar II of Mali who embarked on a voyage to America with 2,000 canoes in the early 1300s.1 In her ‘epic poem in three cantos’, Kandé envisions the possible outcomes of this voyage, as well as their historical and philosophical relation to contemporary African immigration to Europe. La Quête addresses alternative trajectories and histories contained by and within the Atlantic; specifically, one where a Malian expedition reached the Americas before Columbus. It further poses the question of whether those alternative forms of history could have led to different forms of the present. The poem unravels on the Atlantic; the sounds of roaming oars past and present are textually superposed, as the ending portrays current attempts of young Malians to reach ‘the other shore’. In this vein, Kandé’s poem is emblematic of a broader desire expressed in contemporary writing to reimagine the Atlantic from new vantage points.2

Each canto offers a different possibility for Atlantic history: in the first, Aboubakar II never reaches the shores of the ‘New World’, setting the foundation for history as it is today. The second version opens a new possibility: the Malian expedition did indeed reach the American shore and came into contact with Native American populations, gesturing towards the possibility of a never-recounted Atlantic history. In the final part, in an echo of past crossings, contemporary African migrants are trying to reach European shores. La Quête imagines the faith of those who have not survived various Atlantic crossings, and of those who have, but whose historical trace has been lost. Kandé does not seek a definite response to what has happened or even to what could have happened. Rather, she opens the Atlantic space to a multiplicity of untold stories and voices.

In this article, I address alternative Atlantic connections contained within the poem, between Africa and the Americas on the one hand, and between fourteenth-century travellers and contemporary immigrants on the other. The poem circumvents European colonization, as it shifts from what preceded it to what came in its aftermath. With this gesture, Kandé questions the Middle Passage as the predominant framework for thinking the past and the present of the African continent. Instead, she outlines lateral connections, thinking, alongside Edouard Glissant, about the ‘subterranean convergence’ of Atlantic histories. The Atlantic coheres as a unit of aesthetic investigation outside of the history of European colonialism as fourteenth-century African travellers search for American shores, setting a precedent for contemporary immigrants.

The idea of the Atlantic as a diasporic site in which European and African populations and cultures have come together, producing new social and cultural forms, is associated, in particular, with Paul Gilroy’s seminal work The Black Atlantic. Gilroy understands the Atlantic as ‘one single, complex unit of analysis’, due to the ‘economic and historical matrix in which plantation slavery – “capitalism with its clothes off” – was one special moment’.3 He criticizes cultural studies for adopting a national focus and embracing the idea that ‘cultures always flow into patterns congruent with borders’.4 Nationalist perspectives are not, in Gilroy’s view, ‘an adequate means to understand the forms of resistance and accommodation intrinsic to modern black political culture’.5 As an alternative, he proposes that modern black culture strives ‘to transcend both the structures of the nation state and the constraints of ethnicity and national particularity’.6 While Gilroy’s critical reflection has undoubtedly marked the fields of cultural studies and literary criticism, it is now also commonly acknowledged that his work remains limited to anglophone authors who are primarily from the US and the UK.7

In response, francophone, hispanophone, and lusophone studies turned towards the Atlantic. ‘Comparative Perspectives on the Black Atlantic’, a 2012 special issue of the Comparative Literature Studies journal, expands anglophone scholarly discussions, arguing that colonization, slavery, and resistance in the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking worlds inflect our understanding of the Black Atlantic.8 In his 2008 book, The French Atlantic Triangle: Literature and Culture of the Slave Trade, Christopher Miller examines the interdependence of the three poles of the triangle: France, Africa, and the Caribbean, from the early eighteenth until the late twentieth century. He establishes the francophone Atlantic literary space as a site of commerce and cultural exchange and considers how francophone authors have portrayed the slave trade, through the foundational connection between France, Africa, and the Antilles. While forces mobilized by the triangular trade have left their marks beyond abolition, decolonization, and departmentalization, Miller also observes that ‘the figure of the triangle is not all-encompassing: as a mercantilist plan it could not be fully enforced over time and space, and as a projection of the French nation-state it invited resistance from within, below, and outside’.9 Similarly, Bill Marshall’s The French Atlantic: Travels in Culture and History considers the cultural history of seven different French Atlantic spaces – Nantes, La Rochelle, Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, Quebec City, New Orleans, Cayenne, and Montevideo. Whereas Miller focuses on the triangular structure of Atlantic relations, Marshall expands the geographic bounds of the Atlantic framework all the way to the Southern Cone.10

Nevertheless, at the centre of these studies are the Atlantic triangle and the Middle Passage. For Gilroy, it was plantation slavery and the trade that sustained it that shaped the Atlantic into a unit of analysis. In the studies by Miller and Marshall, it is European colonialism that linked the various poles of the Atlantic world. This is not the case in Kandé’s La Quête, which investigates the possibility of other historic and poetic links. Kandé is interested in connections that existed before the Middle Passage and that continue to exist in its aftermath. Some of these connections may only exist as a potentiality that can be realized solely in fiction. Yet these multiple imaginings displace the Middle Passage as the predominant lens for understanding present migrations. Instead of viewing contemporary immigration as a reiteration of the slaves’ crossing, the poem positions present-day immigrants as the successors of African explorers in the tradition of Aboubakar’s fleet. The reframing of the Atlantic is thus both geographic and temporal: through connections between Aboubakar’s expedition and the Americas on the one hand, and contemporary immigrants on the other.

Kandé unravels a poetics of crossing where lives are defined neither by the land of origin nor by that of the destination, but by the courage to venture into the unknown and survive in unfamiliar environments. This is a poetics of the sea; the focus is not on the land, which is bound by the ocean, but on the ocean that is limited by the land. The attempt to defy natural limits is performed both by the voyagers and the poet. Kandé’s poetic writing is itself an act of defiance. By their very disposition on the page, the verses outline the sea and the relentless fight against it. The writing thus obstinately confronts its own natural limit, the page:

Ah quelle pestilence monte de ce charnier sans nom

et dire que la mer

à déchaler s’entête

– sa vague matinale

sans élan ni relève11

The regular rhythm of the verses is interrupted by a sudden swerve of the words on the page, outlining the regular interval of the waves. The page becomes a metaphor for the sea, as the words try to move beyond it, needing to be constrained into the form of a verse. The sailors and the poet are trying to defy their own materiality. They thus become a metaphor for one another: the act of crossing is also the act of writing. In an interview conducted by El Hadji Malick Ndiaye at Columbia University, Kandé draws a parallel between the figure of the writer and that of the sailor: confinement, isolation, and monotonous repetition characterize the experience of both writing and seafaring.12 The desire of the characters to participate in an epic journey thus parallels that of the author to write this journey.

Kandé’s Atlantic carries a double identity as a space of both possibility and destruction. It is the space of untold stories; a space where new, alternate histories can be constructed and invented. At the same time, it is the abyss. The angst and rage of the Atlantic swallow the bodies and hopes of those who try to defy it. The Atlantic offers unlimited possibilities only to turn them into a mirage and engulf those who have dared to try. In this regard, Kandé’s poem echoes Glissant’s notion of the womb-abyss.13

Kandé and Glissant have crossed paths before, when Glissant wrote the postface to Kandé’s first poem: Lagon, Lagunes.14 For Glissant, the first abyss is the slave ship’s hold. In this enclosed space, countless anonymous bodies began their forced journey into the unknown. A second abyss followed soon after:

Aussi le deuxième gouffre est-il de l’abîme marin. Quand les régates donnent la chasse au négrier, le plus simple est d’alléger la barque en jetant par-dessus bord la cargaison, lestée de boulets […] Le gouffre est de vrai une tautologie, tout l’océan, toute la mer à la fin doucement affalée aux plaisirs du sable, sont un énorme commencement, seulement rythmé de ces boulets verdis.15

The ocean was a physical abyss for all those who, considered surplus cargo, were thrown overboard. The symbolic abyss extends further, into the space and time of memory. It does not only engulf those who have directly experienced the Middle Passage; it continues to have power over generations to come, through the memory and imagination of everything that was left behind, that was lost and that occurred during the journey. It is a place of unrepresentable violence. Yet the abyss is also a womb. Michael Dash explains that Glissant replaces the figure of Mother Africa with that of a slave ship.16 The slave ship is also a mother, a violent womb that forever transformed the people it carried:

Cette barque est une matrice, le gouffre-matrice. Génératrice de ta clameur. Productrice aussi de toute unanimité à venir. Car si tu es le seul dans cette souffrance, tu partages l’inconnu avec quelques-uns, que tu ne connais pas encore. Cette barque est ta matrice, un moule, qui t’expulse pourtant. Enceinte d’autant de morts que de vivants en sursis.17

The womb-abyss is both the end and a beginning. This abysmal experience created enduring links between Africa, the Caribbean, and Europe. The joint experience of anonymity and the shared fear of facing the unknown formed the bonds of a collectivity yet to emerge. For Glissant, the abyss is inextricably linked to the Middle Passage. It marks a historical rupture that will render linear history forever impossible in the Caribbean.18

The collective experience of facing the unknown resonates across both Glissant’s and Kandé’s writing. Images of the Atlantic as an abyss and a graveyard multiply throughout Kandé’s poem, as the sailors face the realization that they will not reach the other shore. In Kande’s poem, as in Glissant’s text, history advances by stepping into the unknown. This is a collective experience of those who created history yet were left out of its narration. The abyss faced by the fourteenth-century sailors foreshadows and echoes the abyss of the Middle Passage to come. But it also points to the fact that the Middle Passage was not inevitable, that different histories could have happened, and different relations developed. Aboubakar II is a prophetic character; he can foresee the horrors of the future, which could only be prevented by reaching the other shore. Looking at the ocean from the prow of this ship, he has a vision of the abyss to come:

Car il avait vu au fond des abysses glauques

les doubles des pour-être-enchaînés-marqués-au-fer-tailladés-

[par-le-fouet-perforés-de-mille-manières-et-à-plaisir-avant-que-

[d’être-jetés-hurlant-d’horreur-muets-de-rage-par-dessus-

[bord-à-la-grâce-du-requin19

He thus commits, at whatever cost, to steer history in a different direction. At the end of the first part, he does not succeed in accomplishing his vision and the drowning bodies of his sailors become the doubles of those who will be thrown overboard in the future. The Middle Passage thus seeps into Kandé’s Atlantic, threatening to become the crossing of all crossings if Aboubakar does not reach the other shore. In a subsequent version of the story, he succeeds in reaching the Americas. As the two continents ‘marry’, Aboubakar’s vision of the gloomy abysses dissipates:

C’est ainsi que l’Afrique et l’Amérique s’épousèrent

avant même que d’avoir connu leurs noms

Et les grands fonds glauques probablement se dépeuplèrent

des pour-être-enchainés-et-flétris, avant-que-d’être-jetés-tristes-

[bestiaires-par-dessus-bord-au-bonheur-du-grand-squale20

Through the adverb ‘probablement’, the poet refuses to offer a definite account of ‘what would have been’, gesturing rather towards a possibility of a different outcome and a different matrix. In an interview, Kandé explains that she did not want to enter the debate about the historical plausibility of Aboubakar’s voyage and its various outcomes. Rather, she was interested in Aboubakar’s crossing as a poetic project that seeks to surpass and redefine limits and boundaries of human knowledge and existence:

Avec La Quête infinie de l’autre rive, mon propos n’était pas d’entrer dans ce débat, mais de réfléchir sur la traversée de l’océan par Mansa Aboubakar (alias Bata Manden Bori) comme projet poétique, comme hubris, comme défi à toutes les rives, à toutes les frontières, même celles qu’on dit naturelles; en somme, comme défi à la finitude de la destinée. Toutes choses qui nous renvoient, je crois, aux préoccupations des passagers sur les ‘cayucos de la mort’ contemporains.21

The Middle Passage defined and delimited all the migrations and crossings to follow, becoming to primary lens for understanding all subsequent African voyages and displacements. Erased from then on, Kandé clarifies, is the voyage of knowledge, not inscribed into the paradigm of conquest:

Par exemple, serait-ce que le Middle Passage met fin à un grand récit précédent, viable jusqu’au XVe siècle, celui du voyage de connaissance, auquel tous les audacieux, sans distinction d’origine, pouvaient librement participer? Il y aurait eu dès lors distribution convenue des récits: d’une part, les voyages africains, au nombre desquels figurent les migrations économiques contemporaines, condamnés à rejouer indéfiniment le scénario de la Traite; d’autre part les voyages occidentaux (y compris le tourisme), construits sur le modèle de la conquête.22

The Middle Passage confined the destiny of millions to a predetermined narrative. It circumscribed millions of bodies into the narrow spaces of the ship’s hold and the plantation, thus defining the fate of the African diaspora for centuries to come. This doesn’t mean, of course, that within this very immobility and confinement, practices of fugitivity, struggle, and defiance did not occur. But this is not the Atlantic story that Kandé wants to tell. La Quête imagines crossings that escape the logic of the Middle Passage, questioning its historical inevitability. This is not an act of historical erasure as the Middle Passage haunts the poem. Yet Kandé also suggests that history could have played out otherwise.

The connection introduced by Kandé into Atlantic history, one that redefines the contours of the Black Atlantic, is between the Malian expedition and indigenous populations of the Americas. What if the Malian expedition had reached the other shore? And what if instead of exterminating, colonizing, and plundering, they had decided to simply cohabit with the Native American populations? Can we even imagine a scenario where the voyage of exploration, of the discovery of new territories, is also not one of murder, struggle for power, and the fall into social death of one of the two parties? Kandé participates in a poetic fashioning of what Kerry Bystrom and Joseph R. Slaughter have named the Global South Atlantic, a space marked by ‘cultural, social, and intellectual transactions and interactions among Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean’.23 According to Bystrom and Slaughter, ‘the term “South Atlantic” nonetheless designates a kind of historical impossibility (so far) that allows us to think about the social, economic, political, and cultural forces and contingencies that make certain geo-specific configurations possible’.24 Kandé transforms precisely this historical impossibility into a poetic possibility.

This is not a naïve opposition between the benevolent African explorer and the violent European colonizer. The decision of Aboubakar’s fleet and the indigenous population to cohabit in peace is achieved only after a long battle of wills between two kings and a measuring of strengths. But wisdom and peace ultimately do prevail in this version of the story. Had this happened, the poet suggests, different connections and exchanges between Africa and the Americas, sidestepping Europe, may have developed. Or maybe not. Maybe the European conquest would still have happened.

The multifarious Atlantic connections in the poem are also linguistic. Kandé’s language fluctuates between highly specialized maritime terminology, neologisms, West-African expressions, French medieval terms, and Caribbean vocabulary. Manifold nouns describing the sea include the ‘ressac’ (the motion of the receding waves) and the ‘bonace’ (the calm of the sea after the storm).25 The descriptions of the boats are extremely detailed, focusing at times on the ‘etambot’ (stern post) or the ‘carène’ (hull).26 Aboubakar’s tent is adorned with ensigns, for which Kandé uses an old French word, ‘gonfanons’.27 West African figures, places, and expressions permeate the poem, including African storytellers, the ‘fina’ and the ‘djeli’.28 On the other hand, the name of Aboubakar’s opponent in the Americas is Guazabara, meaning war or warrior in the Taino language.29 Europe, Africa, and the Americas are linguistically enmeshed, fashioning a multidimensional Atlantic poem.

As she reconceptualizes the Atlantic, Kandé is also reframing the epic as a genre. In the preface Kandé describes La Quête as a ‘neo-epic’ poem. In fact, while La Quête borrows from the epic tradition, it does not reproduce all of its characteristics. The poem is dedicated to Joseph Ki-Zerbo, a renowned African historian, yet it exists at the border of history, fiction, myth, and legend. The heroes and storytellers of African epics are referenced throughout La Quête. Lilyan Kesteloot explains that African epics are ‘very long narratives punctuated by musical accompaniment and enumerating the valorous exploits of a heroic figure’. While some ‘are closely linked to the heroes and the warrior history of empires’, others ‘take on a distinctly fantastical character’.30

While undoubtedly influenced by this tradition, Kandé takes the epic outside of the framework of nation and conquest. The poem begins in a traditional fashion, with a hero, Mansa Aboubakar II, whose exploits will be lauded. Aboubakar is certainly an epic character, ‘celui que tous quémandent et qui ne quémande que Dieu’.31 Yet Kandé quickly shifts the focus from this male hero to a myriad of other characters accompanying him, many of them women. As Ndiaye writes in relation to Kandé’s poem, ‘la figure du héros épique se dilue dans l’accomplissement collectif’.32

Thus, unlike the traditional epic poem, La Quête has no single hero; it is rather an amalgamation of multiple voices emanating from the fourteenth-century Malian rowers, their king, and contemporary economic migrants. The voices that emerge from the poem are not the most obvious ones. In the first canto it is not the king himself but rather Nassita Maninyan, his griotte, who reinstitutes hope in the midst of despair and resignation, as she repositions the adventure as a quest for freedom and knowledge:

Sachez-le bien: si loin que soit l’ultime

il n’est que du présent l’aboutissement

Et si loin si loin que soit la côte

elle finira bien par briser des flots33

Nassita immediately describes her role:

Je nomme leurs noms et louange leurs exploits

qu’ils ne soient demain tous oubliés

Car l’histoire est une marâtre quand la mémoire

est orpheline34

Action and narration are here placed at the same level of importance, heroic (male) exploits have no valence without someone (in this case, a woman) to recount them. Relating history through a polyphony of voices, Kandé’s approach here again resembles Glissant’s. In his discussion of literature and history, Glissant writes that ‘“Là où se joignent les histoires des peuples, hier réputés sans histoire, finit l’Histoire.” (Avec un grand H.)’.35 Glissant further develops his concept of a prophetic vision of the past, a vision that stems from the writer’s exploration of the obsessively present past, characterized by ruptures, inconsistencies, and erasures. This vision cannot end with the past, however; it should not turn into a ‘schematic chronology’ nor a ‘nostalgic lament’. Rather, Glissant contends, it must project itself into the future, or rather into the multiplicity of imagined futures.

According to Glissant, the multiplicity of Caribbean histories works against the violence of universal history, leading to Caribbean transversality: ‘L’irruption à elle-même de l’histoire antillaise (des histoires de nos peuples, convergentes) nous débarasse de la vision linéaire et hiérarchisée d’une Histoire qui courrait son seul fil’.36 Literature and history converge as literature strives to recover and create these subterranean convergences. The two disciplines ultimately address the same issues: ‘le relevé, ou le repère, d’un rapport collectif des hommes à leur entour, dans un lieu qui change en lui-même et dans un temps qui se continue en s’altérant’.37 The question of historical transversality is at the centre of La Quête, though here it extends beyond the Caribbean and the Middle Passage. This transversality is both geographic and temporal. It is the entanglement of histories of people from the African continent and those of the Americas. But it is also the entanglement of past and present crossings. Kandé explores the collective relationship of men and women to the sea, in a space that keeps changing and in a time that is constantly being altered. But this is not necessarily a suffocating repetition, nor an unbreakable cycle. Alongside repetition there is always movement towards another shore.

The text unwinds through the linguistic echoing of past and presents quests, the textual interweaving of hopeful and abysmal endings. The poem begins with no clear spatial or temporal indications, we do not know where exactly we are located nor when exactly the rowing takes place. It is precisely through these repetitions, echoes, and superpositions of different historical times that the poem advances. The rowing continues, no one is certain when it began and no one is certain when it will end:

une goutte de temps

Suspendue

au

fil

de

nos

p

a

g

a

i

e

s38

The entire poem is this drop of time suspended on the sailors’ oars, as the Atlantic becomes a time-space continuum. Kandé performs a poetics of suspension where no meaning or ending is final. The minimal use of punctuation, the recurrence of sounds and images, and the repeated use of ellipses, fashion the transhistorical movements of oars and waves. The sailors’ loss of memory, their inability to remember what it felt like to have both feet planted on firm soil, parallels our own memory loss of these multiple trajectories. Like the relentless efforts of the rowing sailors, history relentlessly repeats. Yet this is not a mere enclosure into a prewritten narrative. As Kandé writes, ‘De dénouements, il n’y en a pas moins de sept’.39 She thus refuses to limit history to existing archives and proven facts.

In her interview with Ndiaye, Kandé explains that her intention was not to ‘re-enchant’ or idealize a lost African past. This gesture, Kandé suggests, belongs to a nationalist tradition and was not her primary focus. Her main objective was, rather, to propose a comparison between Aboubakar’s fleet and contemporary immigrants, encouraging us to think about the present through a different lens.40 In fact, Kandé rewrites the traditional immigrant narrative, as she places contemporary immigration on the same level as historic searches for new horizons. As she explains, since the Middle Passage, African history has (to a significant extent) been reduced to a repetition of the Middle Passage. While European travels are interpreted through the framework of conquest and the search for knowledge, African displacements continue to re-enact the slaves’ crossing. Lost within this structure are the diversity of African voyages, experiences, and intentions. Other writers and critics have similarly questioned the primacy given to the Middle Passage as a lens for understanding the present. In her essay ‘Order, Disorder, Freedom, and the West Indian Writer’, Guadeloupean writer Maryse Condé argues that ‘not everything can be explained through slavery’.41 Stephen Best has similarly questioned the idea that ‘the slave past provides a ready prism for apprehending the black political present’.42 This is not a negation of the tremendous impact slavery has had (and continues to have) on the world. By searching for alternative frameworks through which to apprehend the present, Kandé strives to release the present from the clutches of the past, whose mirror image it does not always represent, thus disrupting an assumed distribution of roles. There are many pasts that could have been and consequently many presents that can be.

By positioning contemporary immigrants as successors of Aboubakar’s fleet, Kandé destabilizes the distinction between a traveller/explorer and an economic migrant. Scholars have noted the colonial origins of European travel writing and its role in sustaining national and imperial identities. Mary Louis Pratt’s Imperial Eyes is one of the most comprehensive accounts of the relation between travel and European nation-building. Pratt examines how European travel writing produced the rest of the world for the European readership: ‘travel books by Europeans about non-European parts of the world went (and go) about creating the “domestic subject” of Euroimperialism; […] they have engaged metropolitan reading publics with (or to) expansionist enterprises whose material benefits accrued mainly to the very few’.43

The immigrant narrative has long existed as ‘the other’ of travel writing: if the latter is an act of exploration, expansion, and conquest, the former is its consequence, one that in media and political discourse is frequently represented as a crisis, a problem, and a tragedy. Recently, attempts have been made to displace travel writing as inherently European. The edited volume Postcolonial Travel Writing focuses on non-European rewritings of the genre, articulating ‘experiences and ontologies that are often removed from dominant European or North American productions of knowledge’.44 In Postcolonial Eyes, Aedín Ní Loingsigh develops a similar argument:

With regard to Africa’s place within critical and historical studies of travel and its textualization, it is notable that despite an undeniable sophistication in approach, the landscapes, cultures and peoples of this continent continue to be analysed as raw material for the literary aspirations of travel writers (for the most part Western) who journey to the continent. In contrast, the journeys of Africans who depart from their continent are recognized not for their contribution to the literature of travel and cultural encounter but for their historical value (e.g. slave narratives), contribution to the development of intellectual movements (e.g. Negritude), sociological importance (e.g. immigrant literature) or for their illustration of abstract and ahistorical theories of a cosmopolitan hybridity and interstitiality.45

Ní Loingsigh further underscores the importance of extending ‘the discussion of African intercontinental travel beyond the abject conditions of the middle passage’.46 Kandé’s poem gestures in a similar direction. By focusing on travel expeditions from the Mali Empire, she displaces geographical exploration as strictly European. Additionally, she inscribes contemporary immigrant narratives into the same genealogy, questioning the conceptual distinction between the figure of the traveller and that of the immigrant.

For Kandé, the impulse of Aboubakar II and of the unnamed twenty-first-century immigrants to cross the Atlantic is the same; it stems from the human desire for knowledge and new horizons, from their mutual attraction to the other and the unknown. Aboubakar II leads an expedition of 2,000 canoes in search of different lands, in an attempt to change history and uncover new realities. Similarly, Malian migrants, this time on a raft and with very few supplies, embark on their journey driven by the desire to know and discover possibilities beyond their own social and cultural context. Both strive to overcome natural obstacles. In the case of contemporary immigrants, as Ndiaye notes, these hindrances are compounded by physical, economic, and ideological borders.47 For this reason, the coast that Malian migrants are trying to reach is a European coast, one not marked by national belonging. This is not a French coast, or maybe it is, but that detail does not change the immigrant narrative. In this manner, the poet extracts the immigrant story from the (post)colonial context where the ideological, linguistic, and cultural fascination with the former colonizer ties the postcolonial immigrant to a specific European nation. Kandé challenges the idea that economic migrants can merely teach us about their specific socio-economic conditions. In La Quête, the immigrant, like the explorer, fights for the right to speak about the human condition, as the poem acquires a universal dimension. Contemporary immigration is certainly linked to the history of European colonization of the African continent. Yet La Quête is not merely an illustration of the socio-economic conditions of contemporary immigrants. Rather, Kandé underscores the attraction of the unknown and the desire to expand one’s knowledge and experience that span centuries.

Within this transhistorical comparison, a masculine voice on the contemporary raft – an anonymous passenger who continues to remind his companions of the purpose of the voyage – echoes Nassita’s female voice:

Nous entrerons dans cet empire

par la petite porte remarquez

Néanmoins ce qui importe au total

c’est de se faufiler entre les mailles du filet

pour profiter à notre tour du pactole

Après tout on ne cherche que le travail48

Jean-Marie Volet describes this moment in a telling fashion:

When everything seems to be lost, he challenges his fellow travellers who are losing hope and keeps chronicling their uncertain flight towards freedom. The Wheel of Fortune keeps turning, but for better or for worse, life is a constant succession of new beginnings, an aggregate of hopes and despair, and the fate of faceless millions who have been pushed to the periphery of history continues to give meaning to never-ending Malian voyages of discovery across the centuries.49

The voyage represents precisely a refusal to be relegated to the periphery of history, as the immigrants claim their right to partake of European wealth and resources.

Kandé displaces the representation of immigration as an ‘invasion’, a problem, pure victimhood, suffering, and desperation. While she acknowledges the importance of economic necessity, the voyagers explain:

Ni pour le cuir ni pour les verres fumés

mais pour le geste qui donnait à chacun de nous

(nous autres ni chair ni poisson

tripaille laissée pour compte

sur le sable gluant du millénaire)

la stature singulière d’une personne50

The immigrant existence is thus not limited to mere survival, and immigrants do not leave solely for economic reasons. The crossing is also a search for dignity and recognition; it is inscribed into a transhistorical framework not through its illegality but through its infinite quest for something bigger, different, out of one’s reach. This is not a romanticization or idealization of the immigrant crossing that more often than not results in death. Economic conditions that push the Malian youth to seek opportunities elsewhere are certainly recognized. Written in 2011, the poem references the evergrowing number of African immigrants who continue to die trying to reach Europe. Because official records are lacking, the Dutch NGO UNITED for Intercultural Action has over multiple years, using newspaper articles, personal stories, and coastguard reports, compiled ‘The List’, an unofficial report of immigrant deaths since the 1990s.51 This incomprehensive tally has risen, in 2018, to 34,361 bodies. Yet survival, necessity, desire, and inquisitiveness are not mutually exclusive. Migration is also a search for knowledge and an experience that generates knowledge.

After a patrol boat intercepts the immigrant raft, the recounting of the crossing by the survivors moves against the official representation of the event:

Pourtant un ou deux quotidiens publieront sa photo:

navrés deux plaisanciers scrutent la nacelle

qui offense la plage avant d’être broyée

Menace sur le tourisme

annonce la manchette des journaux52

The media representation centres on the wherry, leaving immigrant bodies in the background. The headline foregrounds the effects of immigration on the receiving shore, ignoring the effects of the crossing on the voyagers. The mainstream assessment of the situation as a problem and a threat is countered by the various voices on the boat, explaining their decision to embark on a transatlantic journey:

Si je réussis on dira que j’ai fait quelque chose

Et si je fais naufrage on saura au moins

que je suis mort d’avoir essayé:

à défaut de barsak – d’antichambre du paradis

c’est dans l’histoire que demain j’entrerai

certes anonyme parmi la foule clandestine

mais avec pour visa une valeureuse cause53

In the same way that Aboubakar II does not leave Mali in order to conquer another people or place but in search of knowledge and the unknown, the desire to surpass one’s mortality by entering into the historical narrative drives the contemporary migrant’s decision to embark on this dangerous journey. In this vein, they strive to join the tradition of epic heroes and kings, whose undertakings continue to be lauded. The indefinite ‘on dira’ in the verses quoted above becomes the contemporary equivalent of the griot, further framing history and its recounting as a collective endeavour. This desire to enter history stands in stark contrast with the rising number of unidentified bodies.

These verses also underline the tension between the narrative voice and the anonymous silence, the individual and the collective. The multiplicity of the poem’s narrators remain anonymous, thus not fully achieving the status of the epic hero. The attempt to imagine these unheard voices remains in tension with the preservation of their anonymity, their impossibility of coming to full subject status. The contradiction also lies in the fact that the contemporary immigrant can only enter history as part of a clandestine crowd; it is her illegality, her existence outside of legal norms and rules that allows her a place in official history. Only through her presence in an undifferentiated crowd can she attain recognition. The voices in the poem speak of this double anonymity. Anonymous because never recorded by history in their individuality, they also remain such because echoing across times and emanating from an endless plurality, one that cannot be encompassed by the emergence of a hero. Anonymous also because too often swallowed by the Atlantic abyss.

In La Quête, Kandé transforms the poetic account of a perfect epic hero, Mansa Aboubakar II, into a transhistorical network of characters and stories, which includes contemporary African immigrants trying to reach European shores. African bodies, connections, and stories lost to the Atlantic thus span centuries and continents. As for Glissant, for Kandé fiction is a realm within which forgotten or failed transversal encounters can be realized. Kandé ultimately strives to diversify the frameworks through which the past and the present of the African continent can be thought, as the poem’s transhistoricity informs its transnationalism. She engages in a poetic remapping of the Atlantic whose contours expand far beyond the triangle. Various histories and geographies are intertwined as the fourteenth-century fleet and the contemporary immigrants are moved by a similar desire to venture into the unknown. As Malian explorers enter into direct contact with indigenous populations of the Americas, they become the predecessors of contemporary immigrants, who continue to shape diverse African traditions of travel, exploration, and displacement.

Sylvie Kandé, La Quête infinie de l’autre rive: épopée en trois chants (Paris: Gallimard, 2011). Mansa is a Mandinka word meaning ‘emperor’, ‘sultan’, or ‘king’.

In fact, several contemporary works of fiction outline new Atlantic connections that move beyond the paradigm of the triangle. Thus, for instance, Maryse Condé’s novel Histoire de la femme cannibale (Paris: Mercure de France, 2003), takes place primarily between Cape Town and New York. Similarly, Sami Tchak’s novel Filles de Mexico (Paris: Mercure de France, 2008) is the story of a Togolese academic journeying to Mexico.

Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), p. 15.

Ibid., p. 5.

Ibid., p. 29.

Ibid., p. 19.

See, for example, Nancy Priscilla Naro, Roger Sansi-Roca, and Dave Treece, Cultures of the Lusophone Black Atlantic (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007); Kerry Bystrom and Joseph R. Slaughter, The Global South Atlantic (New York: Fordham University Press, 2018); Yogita Goyal, ‘Africa and the Black Atlantic’, Research in African Literatures, 45.3 (2014), v–xxv.

Jossiana Arroyo and Elizabeth A. Merchant (eds), ‘Comparative perspectives on the Black Atlantic’, Comparative Literature Studies, 49.2 (2012).

Christopher L. Miller, The French Atlantic Triangle: Literature and Culture of the Slave Trade (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008), p. 4.

Bill Marshall, The French Atlantic: Travels in Culture and History (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2009).

Kandé, p. 67.

A video of the interview is available online at >https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cşgIT8QcUrA> [accessed 6 February 2019].

Edouard Glissant, Poétique de la Relation (Paris: Gallimard, 1990).

Sylvie Kandé, Lagon, lagunes: tableau de mémoire (Paris: Gallimard, 2000).

Glissant, Poétique de la Relation, p. 18.

Michael Dash, Edouard Glissant (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

Glissant, Poétique de la Relation, p. 18.

I have written more expansively about Glissant’s womb-abyss in a previous article. See Alexandra Perisic, ‘Overturning catastrophes’, The Comparatist, 41.1 (2017), 118–32.

Kandé, p. 71.

Ibid., p. 81.

Boniface Mongo-Mboussa, ‘Sylvie Kandé entre deux rives’, Africultures, 17 March 2011, >http://africultures.com/sylvie-kande-entre-deux-rives-9997/?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=441> [accessed 5 January 2018].

Christine Sitchet, ‘Sylvie Kandé dans les remous d’une quête infinie de l’autre rive’, Afrik. com, 30 May 2011, >https://www.afrik.com/sylvie-kande-dans-les-remous-d-une-quete-infinie-de-l-autre-rive> [accessed 15 December 2017].

Bystrom and Slaughter, p. 19.

Ibid., p. 20.

Kandé, pp. 20, 19.

Ibid., pp. 43, 26.

Ibid., p. 48.

Ibid., p. 25.

Ibid., p. 79.

Lilyan Kesteloot, ‘The African Epic’, African Languages and Cultures, 2 (1989), 203–14.

Kandé, p. 19.

El Hadji Malick Ndiaye, ‘Afrique en quête d’ailleurs’, Nouvelles Études Francophones, 27.2 (2012), 243–46 (p. 245).

Kandé, p. 30.

Ibid., p. 23.

Édouard Glissant, Le Discours antillais (Paris: Seuil, 1981), p. 132.

Ibid., p. 134; emphasis original.

Ibid., p. 137.

Kandé, p. 21.

Kandé, p. 72.

A video of the interview is available online at >https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c9gIT8QcUrA> [accessed 6 February 2019].

Maryse Condé, ‘Order, disorder, freedom, and the West Indian writer’, Yale French Studies, 97 (2000), 121–35 (p. 124).

Stephen Best, ‘On failing to make the past present’, Modern Language Quarterly, 73.3 (2012), 453–74 (p. 453).

Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (London: Routledge, 1992), p. 4.

Justin D. Edwards and Rune Graulund (eds), Postcolonial Travel Writing: Critical Explorations (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), p. 2.

Aedín Ní Loingsigh, Postcolonial Eyes: Intercontinental Travel in Francophone African Literature (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2009), p. 2.

Ibid., p. 12.

Ndiaye, p. 244.

Kandé, p. 104.

Jean-Marie Volet, ‘Review of La Quête infinie de l’autre rive: épopée en trois chants’, Lire les femmes écrivains et les littératures africaines (June 2011), >http://aflit.arts.uwa.edu.au/revieweng_kande11.html> [accessed 5 January 2018].

Kandé, p. 89.

See Alex Needham, ‘The List: The 34,361 men, women and children who perished trying to reach Europe’, Guardian, 20 June 2018, >https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jun/20/the-list-34361-men-women-and-children-who-perished-trying-to-reach-europe-world-refugee-day> [accessed 8 February 2019].

Kandé, p. 106.

Ibid., p. 90. These verses mention barzakh, generally interpreted in Islamic escathology as a transitional stage, connecting this world to eternal afterlife. ‘Barça ou barzakh!’ [‘Barcelona or die!’], is also the growing motto of clandestine immigrants, who would rather die than not attempt to reach the other shore. See Stephanie C. Maher, ‘Barça ou Barzakh: The social elsewhere of failed clandestine migration out of Senegal’, PhD thesis, University of Washington (2016).


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Perisic, Alexandra