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Mélanie Joseph-Vilain and Judith Misrahi-Barak (eds), Another Life/ Une autre vie

Montpellier, Presses Universitaires de la Méditerranée, 2012, 309 p. ISBN 978-2-84269-969. 7, 24 €
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Montpellier, Presses Universitaires de la Méditerranée, 2012, 309 p. ISBN 978-2-84269-969. 7, 24

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1After reading this book one feels enriched by a host of living presences. Landscapes have become embodied, social structures translated into human drama, private fictional or aesthetic worlds brought to light, forgotten histories and cultural points of encounter unearthed. As the editors write in their introduction, “The Writer’s Many Lives”, their approach is a “near-archaeological” one, and they have gathered together a wide range of culturally-specific discourses that convey nonetheless a strong sense of unity. The book is an excellent illustration of postcolonial practice filtered through judicious – and imaginatively inspiring – theorizing.

  • 1 Couturier, Maurice, ‘Postface à la figure de l’auteur’. Cycnos, 14.2 (1997), 63, (Another Life, Une (...)

2Consisting of thirteen critical articles, a poem and two autobiographical pieces mostly written in English (only two of the contributions are in French), Another Life / Une autre vie posits the framework of a post-structuralist intersubjectivity constructed by the interactions of textual and epitextual authoriality and the agency of the reader. Taking their cue from Barthes’s afterthoughts on his celebrated announcement of the death of the author, in which the latter is reinstated but as the figure of the reader’s desire (12), and in particular from Maurice Couturier’s emphasis on the real author “as he can be decoded in the text”,1 the editors present the often fraught perception of the relations between text and author in terms of “neither a biographical conception of the author in a Lansonian life-and-work perspective, nor a fictionalized version of the author reconstructed from what he wrote, but the presence of the author as it can be found in his text and in the interactions between the reader and the text” (13). In the light of the ensuing contributions, this formulation seems not only perfectly apt but highly profitable.

3Moreover, the book achieves its further aim of exploring the question of the specific relevance to postcolonial literature of a writer’s “other lives”, with the abiding impression it conveys of a strongly pervasive “logic of haunting” by these writers’ “biographical ghosts”. It may indeed be the case that, as Derek Walcott suggestively intimates in the poem whose title has been borrowed for the present volume, “Another Life”, such literature is characteristically aimed at eliciting in the reader a desire to be haunted in just this way :

And from a new book,
Bound in sea-green linen, whose lines
Matched the exhilaration which their reader,
Rowing the air around him now, conveyed,
Another life it seemed would start again […]. (149)

4The “exhilaration” of the reader as agent of the text is instrumental in bringing forth other lives, whether through fictional characters, poet personas or biographical traces, and postcolonial literature elicits perhaps a particular kind of reading agency, a particular kind of desire for the author, depending on where on the spectrum from former colonized to former colonizer the reader is situated.

5The book is thus named after a poem, and the title is itself highly evocative in a postcolonial context. However, the specific meaning focused on in Another Life / Une autre vie concerns the professional life of a writer before becoming a writer, or the life he or she continues to have while writing. It explores the various ways in which this previous or concomitant life affects the writing produced, whether enhancing it in some way, or inhibiting it. In some cases that life is found in the shapes or structures of literary form, as with Arundhati Roy’s use of architecture in The God of Small Things; in others it provides conceptual models, as with Edward Said’s metaphors from Western classical music. These “other lives” may interact paradoxically writing, such as when the creative impulse exploded the rational parameters of the visionary poet Wilson Harris, who started out as a land surveyor; or a writing project may risk being rendered obsolete by the life being led in parallel, nipped in the bud by history-in-the-making, the very thing that inspired and legitimized it, as in the case of Jan J. Dominique, a Haitian writer-journalist.

6Of course, as the editors point out, focusing on “other lives” is not on the face of it a postcolonial prerogative (what impact does T.S. Eliot’s job as a bank clerk have on his poetry, for instance, or Basil Bunting’s tedious job on the Newcastle Chronicle on his?). In the case of postcolonial writing – which in this volume includes literature and non-fiction writing –, exploring the writer’s “other life” nonetheless seems particularly fruitful, possibly because often that life connects in some way with issues of postcolonial identity as enacted in the writing. For instance, when Fred D’Aguiar writes of his experience as a psychiatric nurse, of how the onus on the individual and on interiority that he brought from it enriched his approach to poetry first as a student and then as a poet, he also presents himself as a young man steeped in postcolonial theory:

I listened in earnest to a patient’s description of his or her psychosis. I invoked many passages from Fanon to help me make sense of the fragmented black mind in a white constructed reality: that the black psyche is fractured by this schism of compliance, of public acceptance purchased at the exorbitant cost of a private negation. (279)

7Sometimes the tensions between the two lives are acute, and this too, as in the case of Patrick Chamoiseau, may be part of an overreaching postcolonial project. As a youth worker in Martinique, he used oral language to help young people, whose loss of a sense of national belonging had often contributed to trauma, progress towards a stronger sense of self; yet in his writing, he fragments the self and extrapolates from private to public identity, backtracking as it were in an effort to “reactivate the collective consciousness”, which is the role ascribed to the Caribbean artist by Edouard Glissant and himself:

Chamoiseau’s works clearly reflect the ‘haunting’ influence of his (first) profession. The narrator in his novels (who is more often than not a (re-)created self of the empirical author) is constantly aware that he is but an ‘observer’ of society rather than an active agent trying to bring about social change. Is this because Chamoiseau considers his literature as a ‘pre-literature’, still in the process of finding its own ‘socioliterary’ space ? (209)

8The articles are well-written, with theory used to good effect; the two autobiographical pieces that close the volume, by Marie-Cécile Agnant and Fred D’Aguiar, are fascinating analytical testimonies; and Cecil Dabydeen’s poem, “Wilson Harris: Land Surveyor”, is a celebration of cultural hybridity that sets the tone of the volume as a whole. Anyone interested in postcolonial literature will find much here to enrich their knowledge and deepen their thinking in the field, while Another Life / Une autre vie also raises some more universal questions about writing and political action.

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1 Couturier, Maurice, ‘Postface à la figure de l’auteur’. Cycnos, 14.2 (1997), 63, (Another Life, Une autre vie, 12).

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Référence électronique

Sara R. GREAVES, « Mélanie Joseph-Vilain and Judith Misrahi-Barak (eds), Another Life/ Une autre vie », E-rea [En ligne], 12.2 | 2015, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2015, consulté le 24 mars 2017. URL :

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Aix-Marseille Université, LERMA EA 853

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