At the age of 94, the poet, politician, and postcolonial theorist Aimé Césaire has died.
Blogs and websites around the world are offering their thoughts on his legacy. I was happy to discover this morning that a Blogger site is wholly dedicated to Césaire: Negritude offers a rich archive of materials, from primary sources to scholarship to collations of media mentions. Had I not encountered le poète martiniquais in my ninth grade French class, I might not have felt the gravitational tug of postcolonial studies, and might not have been inspired eventually to put together The Postcolonial Middle Ages.
During my first year of studying French, it seemed that the gates of linguistic heaven had opened ("There's a tense called future perfect?! I'm all over that!). My second year course, however, had reduced the language to the robotic mouthing of alien syllables and the memorization of conversation scripts. On a typical morning, Madame Allard would hook us to a tape player with multiple jacks, order us to don our headphones, and then command Écoutez et répétez! The voice on the tape would tell us that he was going to go shopping, or to the library, or to the cinema, and we would repeat his statements. He would remove a franc from his pocket to purchase a ticket or some cheese, and we would repeat that statement as well (yes, this anecdote of mine includes two artifacts lost to history: cassette tapes and French francs. It was that long ago).
If we weren't repeating from the tape loudly enough, Madame Allard would shout Répétez! Répétez! Répétez! in the exasperated way that only a teacher who has been in the classroom too long can -- you know, with sharp imperatives that carry a subtext of Mon dieu why do I have to teach these snotty dunderheads day in and day out until I retire? Meanwhile La Canard (as we naturally called Madame Allard behind her back) would have designated one lucky student to run to the doughnut store on the same block as our school, charged with bringing her back a croissant and un petite café with just touch of cream. She'd sip and munch as the tape held us captive to its tales of livres, fromage, and chiens.
Each day as I hooked in my headphones and the tape whirred to life, the protolinguist in me died a tiny bit. I remember, though, about midway through the term we opened our text book to a page that featured a small blurb on current francophone poetry. We were told to skip over the section to read some more conversation scripts (about purchasing une voiture, I believe, but maybe it was des escargots) -- but I didn't turn the page. I was hooked on what I saw.
Brief biographies of Aimé Césaire and Leopold Senghor demonstrated how their political ardors (one a member of the French parliament representing Martinique, the other the first president of Senegal) were accompanied by and entwined within artistic creation. A politician-poet? Could such a being exist? Wasn't politics the realm of the prosaic, wasn't art a realm untouched by cultural turmoil and decolonization movements and racism? I read what I could about Negritude ... and read what I could of each of their poetry. And you know, I was hooked. The beauty of the language, the rhythm of their poems ... now I could understand why French was worth the labor of studying. Forget buying une voiture. I was shopping for Cahier d'un retour au pays natal.
So what about you? What encounter with unexpected literature influenced you in a surprising way?