NOT TO BE MISSED
"Juletane", a novel by Myriam WARNER-VIEYRA
Paris: Présence Africaine, 1982. (146p.).
Ce compte rendu en français
Published in 1982 by Myriam Warner-Vieyra, Juletane tells the poignant story of a young Guadeloupean woman who loses her sanity after she moves to Senegal with her newly-wed husband and discovers he is already married. Beyond this family drama, this novella also proposes the epitome of the issues addressed by early Senegalese women writers: the extravagant life of the "driankées", the wasting of family resources, the pitfalls of polygamy, the traditional rights and expectations of relatives, the difficulties facing mixed marriages, the self-destructive nature of despair, the many configurations of black identity and the double standards of men towards their female folk. Thirty years on, many if not all of these issues are still important literary concerns, thus the appeal of the novel, not only as an historical record, but also as a take on human experience relevant to current preoccupations.
A further interest of the novel is the break-away from French literary preoccupations that tend to limit the issue of mixed-marriage to irreducible skin complexion and racial differences. Juletane and Mamadou are both black but, as it were, they do not share the same cultural background nor the same history and expectations. Mamadou lives in Paris because of his studies, while Juletane was sent there to stay with her elderly godmother after the death of her parents. When the pair meet and fall in love, both feel at ease in the French capital; but they did not develop an attachment to the metropolis that could have prevented them from moving away, wherever fate would take them. So Juletane has no qualms about following her husband to Senegal. As long as they lived in France, on neutral ground, their relationship had blossomed and developed outside family manoeuvrings and influence, but complication arise when they arrive back at Mamadou's home.
Learning that her newly wed husband was already married in Senegal leaves Juletane in shock; but it is chiefly the aggravating fact that her husband had not told her of his first wife and daughter that precipitates her melancholy. And her despondency only deepens as she realises that she has irredeemably lost everything that she held dear, thus her inexorable slide towards nothingness and death. Marriage is a two-way street, but Mamadou does not want to see it that way. Juletane is expected to forget the kind of relationship they had abroad and to submit passively to local rules and customs heavily influenced by tradition, family interference and the pervasive domination of men over their women-folk. That, of course, is something Juletane is not able to accept.
Mamadou's betrayal and cowardice in the face of socio-familial pressures are thus at the root of Juletane's undoing. The attitude of the her co-wives only fuels the process of dehumanisation that leaves her "a being who had lost her soul" (p.107). Mamadou's first wife Awa is kind and gentle. She does what she can to soothe Juletane's plight, but her benevolence also emphasises, unwittingly, the helplessness of the situation. "It is true", the narrator says, "that we could have been a large and congenial family. But for that to happen, I should have been born in a small village in the bush, raised in a polygamous family, brought up with the thought that one must share her master with other women. But on the contrary, my Prince Charming, I dreamed of him as unique and faithful. He had to be everything for me and I everything for him, our union strong as a fortress built on rock. But at the first storm, I found myself naked at the bottom of an abysmal pit of solitude" (p.115).
Juletane's relationship with Ndèye, Mamadou's third wife, is even more devastating as Ndèye's malevolence only aggravates the misery of her co-wife. Not only does she take advantage of Mamadou's weakness and spend much of his income, thus depriving the rest of the family from the essentials, but she also refuses to consider Juletane other than as a mad foreigner, a "toubabesse" that is a white woman in spite of her origins and black complexion. That of course adds to her pain and anguish. Because Juletane is a well-educated woman who loved reading and listening to classical music, Ndèye is associating her with the white wives of the colonisers. "She was even taking from me my black identity", Juletane says, yet "my ancestors paid a heavy price for my right to be black, fertilising the American land with their blood, sweat and desperate revolts that allowed me to be born free and proud of being black... I would never have imagined that, on African soil, one would have considered me as a white person. This insult affected me profoundly" (pp.79-80). Confronted by Ndèye's racist attitude and open violence against Juletane, "Mamadou, true to form, keeps his opinion to himself and moves away" (p.80) but, in the end, his craven attitude destroys Juletane's life as well as that of his entire family.
Mamadou is definitely no role-model. And except for a young doctor who examines Juletane towards the end of the novel, one would be hard-pressed to find a male character worth knowing. It is as if men's claim to power was nothing but an exercise in smoke and mirrors. While Mamadou lives well above his means in order to keep up appearances and poses as a grand seigneur, women are indeed in charge of proceedings, but they act in a great variety of ways that reflect their nature and temperament. Not only do Juletane, Awa and Ndèye provide interesting aspects of human nature, they also allow Myriam Warner-Vieyra to gauge the lesson to be learned from their behaviour.
The character of Hélène is most interesting in this context. Like Juletane, she was the victim of a man who asked her to marry but did not have the courage to tell her the truth when he tied the knot with another woman. But unlike Myriam Warner-Vieyra's heroine, Hélène did not collapse: she decided to take her revenge by becoming a free, independent and ruthless woman, using the weakness of the men around her to her best advantage. From a "Juletane" type of character she becomes a modernised, self-centred variant of Ndèye; but as time catches up with her, it is the softly spoken and trusting Awa who increasingly appeals to her resurging sense of humanity. The story does not tell whose influence will eventually prevail in Hélène's later years, yet it is certain that, contrary to Juletane's ordeal in the 1950s and 60s, her future will not be determined by the tyranny of traditional wisdom and patriarchal domination.
Times have changed, but half a century after the painful experience of Juletane, many of the issues raised by Myriam Warner-Vieyra in her novel are still resonating: Mixed marriage, racism, domestic violence, mistrust of foreigners, cultural shock, relatives' intrusion in family life, the urge to impress, the lure of money, depression, family tragedies and many more issues broached by the author are still very much at the forefront of contemporary life. Adding to this already substantial interest of the novel is the fact that the author who was born in Guadeloupe was one of the very first women authors writing about Africa, in French, to move beyond the French-African divide. She was a pioneer in showing that the issues that were often exposed by francophone texts, in the narrow confines of this dichotomy, were in fact universal. In addition or perhaps because of that none of Myriam Warner-Vieyra's characters conform to the stereotypical and dichotomous characterisation that had dominated the French-African psyche for centuries.
Juletane shows, for example, that skin colour does not determine people's aspirations, attitudes, strengths and weaknesses, qualities, likes and dislikes, hurts and feelings. Juletane is black but that has no bearing on the fact that she expects Mamadou to be faithful, that she is a poor dancer but enjoys classical music and, she says, finds solace in Beethoven; "... I choose the Ninth Symphony because I know that listening to Albinoni Adagio a true hymn to love would depress me, whereas the final chorus of the Ninth fills me with hope" (p.90). Moreover, the way she is perceived by others also shows that the very notion of blackness is subject to interpretation. In France, Juletane hears people on the street saying, "Isn't she cute, this little Black chick" (p.81), whereas in Senegal, the first thing Ndèye tells Mamadou, after meeting her, is "I just met your white toubabesse" (p.79): racism, prejudice, rejection of "Other" and parochialism were pervasive in the 1960s; and this has not changed. Angst-ridden people are still being hurt and alienated the world over because they do not conform to mainstream expectations and refuse to sacrifice their own sensibility and uniqueness for the sake of conformity.
During a conversation with Mildred Mortimer, Myriam Warner-Vieyra was asked if she felt one hundred percent Caribbean or African. Her answer may well have been that of her heroine Juletane had she been asked the same question: "I am me, that's all! I am not one hundred percent Caribbean because I left Guadeloupe at the age of twelve. I am not African because I arrived here at the age of twentytwo. I'm not French: I'm all of the above".
1. Mildred Mortimer "An Interview With Myriam Warner-Vieyra". "Callaloo", Vol. 16, No. 1 (Winter, 1993), p.114.
This novel was translated into English: Myriam Warner-Vieyra. "Juletane". Oxford: Heinemann, 1987. (80p.). Translated from the French by Betty Wilson.
This review is based on the original French version of the novel.
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities