Saturday, 1 August 2009

Those who resist do not speak the same language

A lazy Saturday morning gave me time to go to Ferney's wonderful book shop and to indulge ...
Now I have begun reading Suzanne Césaire's Le grand camouflage and I am fascinated by her feisty and tragic life story and the extraordinary power of her language.
During the second world war she edited the literary journal Tropiques in Martinique with her husband Aimé Césaire. Tropiques was a politico-poetic journal, the formal abstract poetry often needing to be read between the lines and certainly up to the end to get the message. It was finally banned by the Pétainist censors in May 1943 by a censor who had at least read the work. Suzanne Césaire penned their response:
Nous avons reçu votre réquisitionnaire contre Tropiques.
"Racistes, sectaires, révolutionnaires, ingrats et traîtres à la Patrie, empoissoneurs d'âmes" aucune de ces épithètes ne nous répugnent essentiellement.
"Empoissoneurs d'âmes" comme Racine au dire des Messieurs de Port Royal.
"Ingrats et traitres à notre si bonne Patrie", comme Zola au dire de la presse réactionnaire.
"Révolutionnaires", comme l'Hugo des châtiments.
"Sectaires", passionnément comme Rimbaud et Lautréamont.
"Racistes", oui. du racisme de Toussaint Louverture, de Claude Mac Kay and et Langston Hughes, contre celui de Drumont et d'Hitler.
Pour ce qui est du reste, n'attendez de nous ni plaidoyer, ni vaines récriminations, ni discussion même.
Nous ne parlons pas le même langage.

Reading this made me smile and admire the wonderful defiant spirit of the letter. It also made me pause and reflect on my ongoing theme of resistance and a spirituality of resistance. Do those who resist not speak the same language as those they seek to resist? How far do you have to give ground in order to get some of what you want? The situation varies according to the context of resistance - do you compromise to save a life, your job, family, livelihood? One thing I do understand by learning a bit more about Tropiques is the vital rôle of poetry, song, language, the arts and creativity in keeping resistance alive. I would also add prayer to that list, though I am sure Suzanne Césaire would not have. Her daughter Ina writes this of her at the end of the book:

"ma mère militante avide de liberté,
sensible à toutes les douleurs des opprimés,
rebelle à toutes les injustices,
éprise de littérature et férue d'histoire ...
ma mère active féministe avant la lettre ...
ma mère qui croyait plus aux luttes qu'aux larmes ...
à la santé fragile, mais à l'infatigable ténacité .
I should add that although Tropiques included two women on the editorial board it is only recently that Suzanne's own rôle has been more widely recognised - many interviews about Tropiques only ever refer to the more famous men!

Repeating Islands has some interesting background in English to the Césaires and on these writings in particular. Here's an extract:
The essays collected in the volume have a single place of origin-a memorable spring day in April 1942, which the Césaires spent walking on the Absalon forest near the Mont Pelée volcano in northern Martinique with a set of new friends: René Ménil, André Breton, his wife Jacqueline Lamba and their daughter Aube, André Masson, Cuban painter Wifredo Lam and his wife Helena-all of whom later acknowledged that their lives had been changed during that day spent in the moist and luxuriantly tropical forest.