Françoise Lionnet

Postcolonial Representations: Women, Literature, Identity, 1995 Autobiographical Voices: Race, Gender, Self- Portraiture, 1989

Principal Criticism

Autobiographical Voices: Race, Gender, Self- Portraiture, 1989.

Postcolonial Representations: Women, Literature, Identity, 1995.

Other Literary forms
Although Lionnetís primary contribution has been to a study of Francophone literature, her close links with cultural studies and anthropological interests have also lead her to writing essays about cultural issues such as female excision in France and other topics concerning the female body. She has also worked as an editor for two installments of Yale French Studies, entitled "Post/Colonial Conditions: Exiles, Migrations and Nomadisms", I and II, in 1993.

Lionnet has influenced post-colonial literature and theory, and Francophone studies in particular. She draws from her broad and diverse background to bring together many strands of thought and expression, reaching across languages, cultures and theoretical standpoints. She is truly a comparatist, and her flexibility adds to the depth of her work. As a professor and as a scholar, she reaches people from different disciplines to bridge the gaps which divide them.

Françoise Lionnet was born in Mauritius, an island controlled by France and England until its independence in 1968, a fact which has influenced her comparatist mode of thought ever since. She grew up speaking both French and English, and during the last years of high school she moved to a neighboring island called Reunion. Since then, she has traveled widely, attending a variety of schools in many different parts of the world. She went to the university in Aix-en-Provence, where she studied philosophy, literature, and American studies, and from there, in 1969, went on an exchange to Ann Arbor, Michigan to further her education. After receiving her Masters in English, she changed over to Comparative Literature. She moved to Canada and taught there, while becoming interested in the questions of language which influenced the life and literature of Quebec. From there she moved once again to the United States, where she attended classes at the New School, Columbia University and New York University. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Michigan under the influence of Ross Chambers, and her dissertation was entitled Autobiographical Tongues: (Self-) Reading and (Self-) Writing in Augustine, Nietzsche, Maya Angelou, Marie Cardinal, and Marie-Therese Humbert. She has followed through in her attention to womenís autobiography and has continued to draw her examples from many different and at first glance incompatible sources. "Augustine and Nietzsche? Along with black women writers? Are you serious?" She reveals these questions in her personal account of her career in "Spaces of Comparison," questions thrown at her after the publication of her first book. But she does, in fact, successfully find and expand these "spaces of comparison" within her work. Lionnet has been awarded various awards and scholarships throughout her illustrious career, including being nominated for the ACLA Rene Wellek Prize for her book Autobiographical Voices, receiving a postdoctoral fellowship at the Society for the Humanities at Cornell University in 1987-8 and a Senior Rockefeller fellowship at the Center for Advanced Feminist Studies at the University of Minnesota in 1991-2. She participated in the University of California Humanities Research institute project on "Minority Discourse" at Irvine in 1992. Lionnet now teaches French and Comparative Literature at Northwestern University along with her husband John McCumber who is in the Philosophy Department. She has also taught at Duke University, and has spent time recently in Mauritius. She has two children.

Theory and criticism
"Growing up on a small island, you become intensely aware of the rest of the world. When it is an island in the Indian Ocean whose history is completely contained within that of colonialism, your awareness of that world is the only canvas that you have, the only mirror into which you can look." This is how Lionnet begins her biographical essay "Spaces of Comparison" (1995), in which she explains how her diverse and varied background has lead her to derive from her experiences a theory which takes into account the many forces at work within the identity of a marginalized population. She adopts a post-structural standpoint to provide new ways of looking at the actions and writings of both the "colonized" and the "colonizer", not simply limiting herself to the marginalized populations themselves, but adding a level of signification to certain "canonical" writers and their works. Her work focuses on what can be referred to as "postcolonial theory", yet she is careful to define this term so that it does not become an ambiguous, floating one which can become vague and ineffective: "What I want to suggest in my use of this word (postcolonial) is that it refers to more than the static periodization that the "post-" implies. In fact, I find it useful to think of "postcoloniality" in terms of "postcontact": that is, as a condition that exists within, and thus contests and resists, the colonial moment itself with its ideology of domination" (PR 4). Lionnet's work is anchored by the concept of "métissage", which she defines in her book Autobiographical Voices as "a concept and a practice: it is the cite of undecidability and indeterminacy, where solidarity becomes the fundamental principle of political action against hegemonic languages" (6). She develops this concept through such theorists as Edouard Glissant, a poet from Martinique, who defines it as a type of "braiding", and writes,

This practice of cultural creolization [practique de métissage] is not part of some vague humanism, which makes it possible for us to become one with the other. It establishes a cross-cultural relationship, in an egalitarian and unprecedented way, among histories which we know today in the Caribbean are interrelated...We also know that there is an obscure residue of something unexpressed deep within every spoken word, however far we may push our meaning and however we may try to weigh our acts. (AV 4)

Lionnet applies this "cultural creolization" in many ways, focusing on the "border zones" of cultures in order to study this "mixing" of voice and culture. She draws from Renato Rosaldo's conception of these border zones, in which we can witness the workings of métissage through language: "In those areas on the periphery of stable metropolitan discourses, Rosaldo explains, there is an incessant and playful heteroglossia, a bilingual speech or hybrid language that is a site of creative resistance to the dominant conceptual paradigms" (PR 6). For Lionnet, every culture, not only those considered "marginal", share a degree of métissage, as "(c)ross- or transcultural exchange has always been "an absolute fact" of life everywhere, even if, as Edouard Glissant has pointed out, "the human imagination, in Western tradition, has always wished to deny or disguise it" (PR 12).

Throughout her books, Lionnet examines the linguistic markers of this mixture, looking at the works of such authors as Michelle Cliff from Jamaica, Anada Devi from her home island of Mauritius, Maryse Condé from Guadeloupe, Nawal El Saadawi from Egypt, and Gayl Jones from the United States in order to draw out the more concrete manifestations of these hybrid identities. She recognizes that the definition of racial categories varies greatly between different cultures, and even between the words in different languages to designate categories, and she looks specifically to the works of literature in order to examine each cultural definition and its implications for the nation described or critiqued in the work. The idea of "linguistic métissage" is especially valuable to her work, as language carries with it important issues of power. Lionnet draws from her own experience in Mauritius, with its position between English and French: "You know that your identity is marked by these languages; yet you do not feel circumscribed by them. Your sense of place is relational" (Spaces of Comparison 165). However, she goes on in "Logiques métisses" to identify the agency of writers to appropriate the language and add their own voices to a language which does not truly reflect them: "To write in French is also to transform French into a language that becomes the writer"s own: French is appropriated, made into a vehicle for expressing a hybrid, heteroglot universe. This creative act of "taking possession" of a language gives rise to the kind of linguistic métissage visible in many contemporary francophone works" (326). She rejects the "victimization" of the marginalized groups, and instead points to their moments of linguistic and cultural agency within the texts she examines. Cultural anthropology provides Lionnet with two useful terms, acculturation and assimilation, which she utilizes as tools to critique the common view of passivity and inevitability attributed to the merging of groups of people. She quotes the dictionary's definition of acculturation as "the transfer of culture from one ethnic group to another", and assimilation as "the act of bringing or coming to a resemblance;... the merging of diverse cultural elements" (PR 8). Lionnet sees the process as one in which two cultures together form a third, unique entity; one which cannot be subsumed into either of its components, yet possessing certain aspects of both:

(I)t would more truly be a process whereby all elements involved in the interaction would be changed by that encounter. Dominant systems are more likely to absorb and make like themselves numerically or culturally "weaker" elements. But even then, the "inferior" or subaltern elements contribute to the evolution and transformation of the hegemonic system by producing resistances and counterdiscourses. (PR 9)

She adopts the terms given by Nancy Morejín, who uses the word "transculturation" to describe the process of cultural integration as one that does not solely move in one direction, but rather is "a process of cultural intercourse and exchange, a circulation of practices which creates a constant interweaving of symbolic forms and empirical activities among the different interacting cultures" (PR 11). Lionnet focuses on the fact that cultural (and linguistic) exchange effects both the assimilating group as well as the group with which the people are assimilating, a "reciprocal influence". For Lionnet, the issue of singularity and the "pureness" of ethnic groups is a myth, as she claims that "métissage" has been a feature of the cultures of the world for time immemorial. She cites Jean-Loup Amselle, and his concept of "logiques métisses", that "even before colonial times the interrelation of cultures was the norm, that it is the Western anthropologist who has 'invented' separate ethnic groups as his objects of study" (PR 16). Lionnet's work seeks to revalue the concept of métissage and all of its implications, which has been given a negative connotation historically in the search for "racial purity". She writes in Autobiographical Voices, "It is in large part because of the scientific racism of the nineteenth century that hybridization became coded as a negative category" (9). In Autobiographical Voices, the attention to métissage and its manifestations can be seen through her work with autobiographical writing . In this book she utilizes the genre of autobiography to draw out her conclusions, and rereads such "canonical" writers as Augustine and Nietzsche to demonstrate the broad scope of her ideas. She reevaluates the traditional texts, placing them on the same temporal and aesthetic plane as contemporary texts in order to open up the possibilities of new readings and "establish nonhierarchical connections". She writes in the introduction,

By its very breadth, this book may fly in the face of he scholarly conventions we have inherited from the nineteenth century- the need to order and classify the world, to artificially separate into discrete units entities that, if studied together, would teach us far more about the status and function of our own subject positions in the world.(7)

Lionnet has a clearly defined view of literature and its relation to culture, which makes her work powerful and accessible. Although she mainly focuses her writing on Francophone traditions, her ideas about the nature of identity formation and subjectivity as well as autobiography and métissage can apply widely, throughout many different literary backgrounds and times. She is an important postcolonial scholar, who is able to tie together many different aspects of the field in her work.

Other major works
"Logiques métisses": Cultural Appropriation and Postcolonial Representations" in Postcolonial Subjects: Francophone Women Writers, 1996.

"Spaces of Comparison" in Comparative Literature in the Age of Multiculturalism, 1995.

"Dissymmetry Embodied: Feminism, Universalism, and the Practice of Excision" in Borderwork: Feminist Engagements with Comparative Literature, 1994.

"Métissage, Emancipation and Female Textuality in Two Francophone Writers" in Displacements: Women, Tradition, and Literatures in French, 1991.

"Autobiographical Voices: Race, Gender, Self Portraiture: by Françoise Lionnet and edited by Shari Benstock and Celeste Schenk," in Journal of Modern Literature. v17 n2-3 (Fall 1990), pp. 232-3. "Perspectives on World Literature: Autobiographical Voices: Race, Gender, Self Portraiture by Françoise Lionnet," in World Literature Today. v64 n4 (Autumn 1990), p.708. "Perspectives on World Literature: Postcolonial Representations: Women, Literature, Identity by Françoise Lionnet," in World Literature Today. v70 n2 (Spring 1996), pp. 480-1.