Professor Emmanuel Bruno Jean-François is the Marian Trygve Freed Early Career Professor in the Department of French and Francophone Studies, and serves as an Assistant Professor of French and Francophone Studies, as well as Comparative Literature at Pennsylvania State University. A prominent scholar in the fields of postcolonial literatures and Francophone studies with a focus on the Indian Ocean, his research and teaching interests include the study of violence, transcultural and transnational identities, multi-ethnic societies and Creolization, and global citizenships.
Brotherhoods of the Sea:
Comparative History, Minor Solidarity, and Transoceanic Empathy
Emmanuel Bruno Jean-François, Marian Trygve Freed Early Career Professor of French and Francophone Studies, and Comparative Literature | Pennsylvania State University
By engaging consistently with narratives of migration and displacement that have put diverse peoples, cultures, and languages into close contact over extended historical periods, Creole literatures from ex-plantation colonies located in the Mascarene and Caribbean regions have long trained our minds to think transnationally. The complex overlapping of universes they portray through cartographies of human mobility indeed tests one’s capacity to conceive differently of world history, and to question the colonial taxonomies that have ultimately resulted in the division between the powerful North and the “peripheral” spaces of the Global South. In the face of the relentless “migration crisis,” which has seen the relocation of millions in the last decade, I reflect on how this transnational and multilingual imaginary of “Creole” writers also extends to more contemporary experiences of migration, displaying a planetary reach that engages with questions of precarity and survival, global mobility and ethical hospitality.
As they navigate multiple geographies, temporalities, cultural landscapes, and epistemologies, the works of writers such as Martinican Patrick Chamoiseau, Haitian Emile Ollivier, and Mauritians Ananda Devi and Nathacha Appanah, produce powerful relational imaginaries that reinvest diasporic and transoceanic connections to better challenge the (neo)colonial divides that have kept minor groups, “peripheral migrants,” and subaltern histories separated from each other. Offering instead the image of a plural history—which points to the ever-reiterated structures of oppression across multiple localities—their transformative readings of both colonial and postcolonial histories have become a creative terrain for thinking anew the commonalities between various experiences of human displacements over time. This rhizomatic cartography, I suggest, further contributes to a desubalternization of narratives and trajectories that challenges linear definitions of time and space, as well as of the modern world system. By shedding a different light on those shadowed narratives that emphasize body politics of sovereignty in postcolonial states, it also reveals the persistent making of stateless populations, and the enduring crisis of Be-ing in the Global South.
Building on such geographical, historical, and ethical links, my paper aims to articulate an interpretive framework relating notions of comparative history, minor solidarity and transoceanic empathy, to plot out some of the tactics by which these writers explore potentialities for mutual support and transmittable agencies through the overlapping of histories. Through re-locating and thus recalibrating our vision of diasporic minorities and dispossessed subjects across imperial, national, linguistic and historical contexts, I argue that their literary intervention “re-worlds” the world we know by re-investigating the intersectionalities and border-crossing processes that subaltern perspectives and minor transnationalisms have produced. As they bring together geographies, mobilities, political systems and cultural experiences located at the periphery of the so-called developed Nation-States of the North, their fictions embody and perform emancipatory projects, extending to ontologies of making place—as processes involving the transforming, re-imagining, and re-configuring of human subjects.