Problematizing the “Return” Narratives: Maryse Conde’s Heremakhonon:A Brief Reflection
By Nandini Dhar
Heremakhonon, written by the Guadeloupean writer, Maryse Conde and published in 1976, marked the beginning of an important watershed within the history of Francophone Caribbean women writers. Conde had published a couple of plays before, but Heremakhonon launched her character as a novelist who within the next three decades or so, would explore in extremely novel ways the intersections of colonialism, history, race, class and gender within her work. Heremakhonon, in lots of ways, is a conventional “return to Africa” story—a theme which has concerned writers and artists of the African Diaspora in important and interesting ways. Drawing upon her own experiences of spending time in Guinea, Conde’s novel complicates the well-known trope of locating an unproblematic homeland within the continental Africa. In several ways, her protagonist, Veronica Mercier, a Guadeloupean- Caribbean researcher-academic, who reaches an unnamed nation in West Africa via Paris, becomes an embodiment of Conde’s own admission that she was “badly prepared” to “encounter” Africa. Written in a first person narrative, Veronica’s experiences as a teacher of philosophy in a local school forms the backbone of Conde’s novelistic narrative. While working as a teacher, Veronica becomes friends with Saliou, the director of the school and shortly afterwards, becomes the lover of Ibrahim Sory, the Minister of Defense and Interior. It is through these two relationships, that Veronica begins to witness postcolonial Africa, or more specifically, the ideological-political character of the post-colonial African state.
Within her novelistic narrative, Conde engages in an interesting exploration of the politics and aesthetics of a genre which has often influenced the colonial cultural politics in important ways—the travel writing. In a way, Conde’s novel urges her readers to reflect on the relationship between travel and empire in complex ways. This is foregrounded in the very opening lines of her novel. Conde writes:
Honestly! You’d think I’m going because it is the in thing to do. Africa is very much the thing to do lately. Europeans and a good many others are writing volumes on the subject. Arts and craft centers are opening all over the Left Bank. Blondes are dying their lips with henna and running to the open market on the Mouffetard for their peppers and okra (3).
A careful analysis of this passage enables us to understand that “Africa” has often been the space which has been written about, represented and appropriated in problematic ways throughout the history of modernity. However, Conde’s protagonist Veronica, a Westernized Caribbean intellectual, refuses to identify herself with the materialities that have produced such representations of the continent. She informs us, “Purpose of visit? No, I’m not a trader. Not a missionary. Not even a tourist. Well, perhaps a tourist, but one of a new breed, searching out herself, not landscapes” (3). Thus, for Veronica, it is extremely important to foreground the fact that her trip to Africa needs to be read in completely different terms than those of the colonial traders, missionaries or the modern-day Euro-American white tourists. Rather, she represents a relatively new phenomenon—the so-called “heritage tourists”–the descendants of the enslaved Africans who come back to the continent to search for their roots.
For Veronica, then, her blackness provides her with vantage points through which to enter not only the intricacies of the West African societies, but also to construct a narrative of exceptionalism for herself. This becomes especially significant when she observes after her first confrontation with the policeman in the airport: “The thin, nervous type. Somewhat distinguished. Surely from that part of the coast that produced my father’s ancestors. He too was somewhat on edge and somewhat handsome. He reminded me of that Mandingo marabout I had seen in my history book when I was seven” (3). Veronica, here is primarily interested in constructing a narrative of identification for herself—a narrative that is pre-dominantly predicated upon certain phenotypical characteristics. Or, in other words, upon a biological understanding of race and racial features. However,Veronica’s perception of a common blackness does not prevent her from casting the African landscape and bodies in terms of categories which are extremely problematic. Let’s for example, take this passage. Veronica, in her attempt to describe the village she visited with Ibrahima Sory, writes,
We arrive at a well dug in the center of a square mud huts. Nobody. Some girls are drawing water in black, rubber water skins. How do they live in a village like this? What is life like in these surroundings? Surprise! [...] The jeep bumps along on the ruts in the road. We pass men with conical shaped hats riding donkeys. They move over in fright as the car goes by. Their hats hide their faces (55).
As a reader, I was fascinated to see how Veronica’s narrative here reproduces quite unproblematically the stereotypical colonial gaze of the imperial travel narratives. The locals have been reduced to silent subalterns, who do not know how to confront modernity, the African nature and landscapes have literally been described as “immobile.” Her blackness, obviously, is not adequate enough to prevent her from falling back upon certain dominant tropes and categories to read Africa. Conde’s novel, thus, begins to interrogate any easy understanding of blackness and racial solidarities. And what is especially interesting for me, is how that political-ideological interrogation is based upon her aesthetic interrogation of the traditional tropes of colonial travel narratives. The question, then, becomes, is Conde’s novel problematizing the aesthetic and ideological conventions of colonial travel narratives or is it reinforcing the categories of traditional travel narratives, albeit within a theoretical framework of African Diasporic transnational interactions and travels?