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Revisiting Slave Narratives II

Judith Misrahi-Barak

The Island: Martinique: a Narrative of the long Shadow of Slavery

Claude Julien


The Homewood trilogy has established Wideman’s reputation as a writer drawing — reconstructing — material from his own experience and family life, a creation process that of course also primarily applies to his memoirs. The Island Martinique, his third non-fiction book, resulted from a National Geographic commission “to go anywhere and write about it” — a carte blanche he has used freely to bring forth a challenging book (part diary, part fiction and part rumination) in which personal and historical matters merge or, rather, in which past inequities submerge, islandize the modern individual. Wideman has produced a new meditation that follows the probing of the effects of slavery denounced in Fatheralong. Whereas the earlier book focused on family relationships (the deleterious effects of past dehumanization on the rapports between fathers and sons) on American soil, The Island Martinique looks more generally at the long-lasting effects of slavery and racism on attitudes and psyches. World history is brought under consideration as the advent of Christianity is designated as the great divide at the origin of the “either/or” social stratification affecting modern societies.

Texte intégral

  • 1 TuSmith, Bonnie, ed., Conversations with John Wideman (Jackson, MS.: University Press of Mississipp (...)

... a single personality is... pretty much a kind of
J. E. Wideman, 19931

  • 2 Wideman, John, The Island: Martinique (Washington, D.C.: the National Geographic Society, 2003): 31

Authors fragment themselves, shift ground, claim the only
ground is shifting ground.
The Island: Martinique2

  • 3 This is the way the title appears on the book’s dust jacket. It will be hereafter abbreviated as Th (...)

1 The Island: MARTINIQUE 3 is a deeply challenging book, both in terms of form and content. It is moving as a personal text because the island becomes a locus for relentless self-examination and self-criticism, a means for John Wideman to question his status and motivation as a successful person—himself a product of the western capitalism he denounces. It is provocative as a political text because it brings together the island’s past role in the African diaspora and its present role as a showcase of exotic blackness designed to please the western tourist. Brazenly scratching that veneer off, the text presents Martinique as an outpost of colonization where slavery took root and where its after-effects still inform life. Two sides, micro and macro—the historical and the personal—complement each other as Wideman ponders the black man’s condition in the world at large, and his own position within a nascent interracial relationship. Hope gleams faintly as the book closes in spite of the overbearing weight of the racial past and current world politics.

2Let us first focus on the personal: a new relationship is beginning for Wideman after his thirty-year-long marriage unraveled, and he comes to the island with this question: can a new life be invented or created on this soil? The island is dual, both a lush paradise and a former slave colony—a gulag and an Eden. The locale where Wideman is seeking self while denouncing the ways of the western world was not chosen casually. The root of the book is a commission by the National Geographic to “go anywhere in the world and write about it” [xx]. Wideman tells of how he first thought he would travel to a troubled place where to bear witness to the struggle for fairness, as he did when he visited South Africa. But Martinique was his final choice because, tainted as it was by its history of racial oppression, it was conveniently close, yet foreign and, besides, the birthplace of a novelist he likes very much, Patrick Chamoiseau. However, The Island is no travelogue, not even marginally that. The need to speak out is too strong for Wideman to engage in describing landscapes, monuments or a tourist’s day-to-day activities. Like Fatheralong, its immediate introspective predecessor, The Island can be described as a “meditation”—but one that goes farther back. The past in Fatheralong begins with Columbus’s adventure and the subsequent Wideman family roots in the new world, ironically planted in a place called “Promised Land” that cannot be found on the South Carolina road map. The Island goes back all the way to the advent of Christianity, to Wideman a wrongly touted rebirth that provoked racial exclusion and oppression.

3Wideman appropriates the island, turns it into a historico-political as well as an introspective laboratory that zigzags from the present to the past, from dismay to hopefulness, from fact to fiction, a web where the “Great Time” described in the introduction to the Homewood trilogy is given free rein:

  • 4 Wideman, John, The Homewood Books (Pittsburgh, PA.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992): xi.

Do not look for straightforward linear steps from book to book. [...] Imagine the Great Time of our African ancestors, a non linear, atemporal medium in which all things that have been, are, or will be, mingle freely.4

  • 5 Wideman, John, Fatheralong (London: Picador): 62.

4“Great Time” was later redefined in terms of its literary potential in Fatheralong, a memoir that deals with—and often reconfigures—real people, places, dates and events, as usual in Wideman: “... the always present tense of narrative where every alternative is possible, where the quick and the dead meet, where all stories are true”.5

  • 6 Jean-Baptiste (born Jacques) Du Tertre (1610-1687) served in the army in Flanders then became a Dom (...)
  • 7 The name is spelled “Katrine” in the book. This form will be used accordingly.

5The introduction to The Island begins with Father Du Tertre’s6 affectionate designation for Martinique, “le pays des revenants” [xix]: the land where people return, literally, but also—this is unavoidable when reading in Wideman’s spirit—the land of ghosts. Du Tertre’s appreciative phrase turns Martinique into an ideal terrain for Wideman to destroy temporality and create permeable frontiers between the long-dead slaves and today’s African-American tourist. Wideman grasps Du Tertre’s statement as a license to revamp historical characters, to probe time and identity and fictionalize the new couple he now forms with Catherine, a French lady. The identity question, “who I am and who I am not” [xxvi], troubles the author even as the plane lands: is he a privileged tourist in love with a gorgeous woman, a man blessed by life, or the living memory of someone who might have been a slave in an earlier time in this very place? The personal narrative weaves its way into a plain-spoken critique of the world in black and white resulting from the African diaspora. A constant, insistent shuttle movement nourishes reflection on world and self, on then and now, on body and spirit. The book presents itself in four chapters we will deal with in succession to show how it constructs its way, playing one literary genre against another, swinging from the personal to the historical (and vice versa) toward the uncertain, fragile and merely personal hope it ends with. The first part, titled “Journal”, covers the whole stay, day by day, from Dec. 25, 2000 to Jan. 11, 2001. It is by far the longest. The second, “Père Labat”, plunges into the mind, as reconstructed by Wideman, of a 17th century Dominican who ran a large and highly profitable church-owned rum and sugar plantation. The third, “Fanon”, is a fiction set in the 1960s that encapsulates the shadows of today’s Wideman and Catherine.7 The last, “The Island”, is again a journal, but one that covers just one imaginary day trip (at breakneck speed up and down the western coast) just prior to flying home—an epiphany that rounds the book up while the fear of being shadowed by a police state (embodied by an oxymoronic mangy ghetto mutt) and self-deprecation mix.

6The book’s first chapter is not what its title suggests, a journal. Instead, it reads like stream of consciousness triggered by personal elements, by outside factors heard or seen, or remembered from historical documents. This diary-like aspect (make-believe is part of the world’s game), subverts time. Date-headings appear as each section begins, days follow one another but are irrelevant to anyone expecting a tourist’s sight-seeing memoir.

7Two programmatic days take special significance through their psychological and historical contents: December 25th and 31st. Christmas day is a holiday, a holy day, but such banal considerations are by-passed. Commercial festivities and religious celebrations merely exist in limbo. Instead, Christmas is denounced as a great divide that categorized people, the start of a new world order camouflaged behind the unfulfilled promises of a creed “no better or worse than others” [5] which the faithful have used to bring others down by creating hierarchies granting them “permission to treat non-believers worse than dogs” [id]. This notion of a dichotomous world flowing from religious otherness is an extension from Wideman’s earlier vision of a divided world based on the color line which first surfaced in his introduction to DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk:

Theirs. Yours. Mine Will we blend, change survive, or is the color line one more measure of the limits of our collective imagination, our cultural graveyard of either/or terminal distinctions: black/white, male/female, young/old, rich/poor, spirit/flesh.... These are the monumental questions reverberating in The Souls of Black Folk, matters unresolved by the last one hundred years, which have tumbled us, bloody and confused on the threshold of the twenty-first century. (Wideman 1990: xiii)

  • 8 Wideman’s preoccupation with the identity question consistently reverberates throughout his works. (...)

8The idea of a dual world seems to have first surfaced in Brothers and Keepers. One may consider The Island as a comment on the final essays of DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk whose hopeful prediction, “Surely there shall yet dawn some mighty morning to lift the veil and set the imprisoned free” [id. 231] has not come true.8

  • 9 The shadow of slavery constantly takes on an existential weight, the consciousness that tourists, l (...)

9The December 31st entry focuses on slavery as the foundation of an exploitative modern global economy. Contents and chronology come together into a devastating irony. December 31st announces the division of calendar time and January 1st symbolically becomes the “ground zero moment” [59] when Wideman-slave becomes “a wanderer in Babylon” hearing Bob Marley’s song waft in through an open window in a Sainte-Anne hotel “How can we sing King Alpha in a strange land?” [53] Calendar time between the December 25th and 31st entries adds up to seven days: seven days—genesis-fashion—for the book to create the overbearing shadow of our modern world, a (voluntary) dungeon rooted in racism and unfairness.9

  • 10 The Cancun conference ran from Sep. 10 to 14, 2003. The author manipulates time as this detail [15] (...)
  • 11 Readers who are familiar with Wideman’s œuvre will bear in mind the lost child motif in Philadelphi (...)

10Intensely personal matter is nested in those seven world-creation opening entries, or days. Katrine’s body starts to leak red on the morning following their arrival: her period was late and Martinique has released it. So John thinks, but, to Katrine, this is a miscarriage, “her farewell to the child we would never conceive” [10]. The couple had formed at the time of the Cancun conference.10 Then each had drifted apart, John in the throes of his dissolving marriage, not sure he deserved another chance to commit himself. Reunion was followed by the decision to travel to Martinique and led to the hope of inventing “another chance on this island” [22]. Hope for Katrine was a baby, which John terms “a couple of weeks of fanciful speculating” [12]. Hope for John consisted in a fine new relationship. He shows himself indifferent to a turn-of-life child, and jokes about the fetus he calls “a cute little pot-au-feu [beef stew] simmering in her flat stomach” [13] that dissolves into blood.11 Recurrent echoes from the past, echoes of forbidden interracial sex, reverberate though this passage when John, teasing Katrine, postures as the (white) master doubting his paternity because he has seen a maroon negro depart through the back door. The personal and historical strands merge: the couple’s dual dreaming turns sour, as did Columbus’s “soap opera fate he imagined for himself” [18]. Inventing a new life on Martinique fades into a lost maternity for Katrine, and, for John, into the realization that discord is a hair breadth away from harmony. The child will not be conceived. Martinique has been destructive and becomes a locus for isolation which textual images underline: the blue beyond the land is the same as the blue in Katrine’s eyes. Individuals are islands, a point made as the writing minces syntax to pieces while not entirely foreclosing hope: “floating” implies separateness, but “merging” concludes the paragraph

  • 12 That individuals are islands denies the presence of the unifying hand of a Creator implied in John (...)

The island called Katrine. The island called John. The island called Katrine. Called John. Called Katrine. John/Katrine. Katrine/John. Called. Being called. Separate islands. Floating. Merging.12 [13]

  • 13 Frequent allusions bring up memories of Shakespeare’s The Tempest which Wideman calls “a prison nar (...)

11 The couple’s frailty that is made perceptible in their different perceptions of their situations is juxtaposed against the indestructible strength of the brutally unjust world colonization has built: when Port Royal (the capital’s name at the time) is attacked, British iron balls hit the French stone ramparts to no effect. The historical siege mentioned in the text is turned into an existential metaphor: people are topsy-turvy in the impregnable fortress, but the whites are still over the blacks. A stratified society that relentlessly exploits the poor, the ones Fanon calls the “damned of the earth”, is unshakable. An arresting thought is that this metaphorical siege serves as a transition to “the ground-zero moment” [59] of January 1st that ties the past to our modern times—just before history steps in forcefully to evoke memories of the transcontinental evils attendant on slavery. The “Codes Noirs” that Colbert (who is honored in French history books as the initiator of modern manufacturing and national prosperity) proposed and enforced under the authority of King Louis XIV. The social construction of blackness as a means to vindicate the existence of slavery. Emperor Napoleon I who, at the request of Joséphine, his bride who was born a privileged Martinican, reinstated slavery after the Revolution. Thomas Jefferson throwing a Prospero-like13 veil over the world in his hill top mansion designed so that slave servants were kept out of sight in underground tunnels leading to the kitchen and service areas. Nested in the midst of this list of intercontinental evils, Wideman brings creolization up. But the slaves’ way to resist, the proof of their resilience is much less visible than the domination of hostile forces.

  • 14 Wideman lumps two referenda into one and we need to clarify this political matter. In 1946, under t (...)

12Racial history leads on to present-day American politics with flippant polemics on the incumbent president’s policy who— Booker T. Washington-like, at least part of the way—promised his fellow citizens, “united as the fingers of the hand in a fist when fists are necessary, as separate and different as those same fingers when it comes to what each receives as a fair share of bounties and privileges” [72], that they would be immune from the consequences of national selfishness. Censure then shifts back to Martinique that hides the ghosts of the past. Tourists, so many slaves contained in an illusion of freedom, but trapped in a demeaning system that makes them bend, on time to board their coach, to a pre-determined behavior they follow because they have paid for it. Voluntary servitude has become a way of life, and the passage ends with Martinicans who, given an either/or choice in the 1946 referendum, opted for a Prospero-like status, French citizenship, rather than independence through self-determination.14

  • 15 According to Robert Harms, Labat’s management was not so harsh as that of smaller planters. Still, (...)
  • 16 Labat, Jean-Baptiste, Voyage aux isles (Paris: Phébus, 1998): 227 (my translation).

13 The second chapter, “Père Labat” is a historical fiction that strides satirically over centuries. The real Labat15 was a builder of Martinique and Guadeloupe who managed a large (sixty acres) operation employing about 120 Africans and reconciled Christianity and slavery without the least qualm. He has left us a self-serving narration of his Caribbean life that shows him as a pragmatist not entirely closed to compassion who, besides, naïvely believed slaves loved their masters when they treated them well. According to Harms, life expectancy for half the newly imported slaves was eight years, and 1,300 new arrivals were needed yearly to keep the workforce stable. To counter slave mortality, Labat invented “un régime de vie”, a system one may call “seasoning”, to help (did he really believe what he wrote?) “these unfortunate people tired by a long trip”.16 Still, the (self-defined) good Dominican harbored special prejudice toward mulattos whom he believed to be particularly hungry for sex, and could be extremely harsh when ordering a “sorcerer”—that is to say any slave who strayed away from received Catholic practice—chastised.

14Labat’s introductory portrait ( “a bizarre mix of the scientific rationalism of his era and medieval superstition”. [xxvii]) is brief but faithful to historical fact, including the Dominican’s having come down in modern folklore as a hobgoblin whom parents use to threaten unruly children with putting them out of the house so Père Labat comes to fetch them away. However, the chapter in the book’s core invents a totally different personage, a monument of self-centered unrelieved evil. Wideman seems to relish caricaturing the churchman. Labat is shown becalmed in La Rochelle for six weeks before sailing out, whiling time away in a tavern (of all places), farting so his own odor blots out those of others around him, and watching in the eye customers who cannot see him. This fictitious Labat is multi-faceted. A proud man, he feels he is being called as a superior man to lift the islands out of the devil’s reach. Wideman’s narrative voice joins Labat’s who also, cynically, looks upon himself as extending the rotting finger of the old world to the new, a savior launching himself from a charnel house. As a Governor (which, by the way, he never was), he is shown ordering a recalcitrant slave put to a cruel death after trying to talk to him in the only ear he has left. Labat feels especially good with himself for attempting to talk a slave into proper behavior because blacks, contrary to parrots, cannot speak like humans. Finally, in an anachronistic twist reminding the reader this is a bitter satire aimed at slavery and the hypocrisy of the church, Wideman takes Labat, “God’s messenger in winged shoes like Mercury” [112], to a shoe shop in some mall where, miser-like, he hesitates a long time before finally deciding to indulge in— not one, but three expensive pairs of Nikes to last him through his tenure in the Caribbean. The past, the present and the future merge. The lanes of commerce to Martinique are open.

  • 17 This chapter is transformed into an eponymous story in God’s Gym. The same protagonists, Chantal, P (...)

15Contrary to the previous chapter, “Fanon” is openly announced to be a fiction in the introduction. This is a part in which Wideman returns to the intensely personal from another vantage point. “Fanon” is a fragmented piece where quotations from Frantz Fanon (on the harm of colonialism, or on the need to remain thoughtfully militant and independent from the powers that be) head passages narrated by Wideman’s “virtual couple” (xxviii), Chantal and Paul, who are loosely constructed as personas for John and Catherine.17

  • 18 Strangely, taking one’s cue from dates, there seems to be here a twist that once more breaks calend (...)

16Chantal is a French woman, a committed anti-colonialist who in the 1960s defied tradition in the arms of non-white lovers. Paul is a black New Yorker, formerly a student committed to succeeding through college, and therefore inattentive to events in Africa then in the throes of decolonization with the cold war for a background. He is pictured as someone beholden to western promises, an egotist closing his eyes to atrocities in Africa, on important developments like Fanon’s meeting with soon-to-be-butchered Patrice Lumumba— two men that are “irrelevant to the hazy plans [he] day-dreamed for [his] future” [120]. Paul has become a writer who is splurging his advance on his first novel with Chantal in Martinique.18 Although he is working toward a new book based on Fanon, Paul is at first unable to grasp the significance of a weather-beaten partly erased face stenciled on a greenish-gray metal shed he strolls by with Chantal. And neither can anyone, least of all a nonchalant native, a young man on a bicycle, tell him the face represents Fanon—Fanon so quickly forgotten in his birthplace.

17On a dream-perfect day, the pair finds their way to an isolated beach where they strip naked, even though their privacy is broken by other tourists, some with clothing on, some without. The passage is reminiscent of Wideman’s “The Statue of Liberty” (in Fever. Twelve Stories, 1989), but this time without the least uneasiness on the part of the black man. The white woman shows her intimate self, “what belonged to you and to me what couldn’t be stolen from us, what couldn’t be owned or possessed” [128]. Paul believes himself free of jealousy in this you/me/us situation. In spite of the insistent stare of a sun-tanned white bather, he is free of jealousy “that day and maybe in the days to come” [id.]. A fleeting delusion, for love unravels, not because of the present but of the past: Paul grows jealous of Antoine, one of Chantal’s former lovers, white, rich, dominant—her employer, in fact—who took her to Martinique years before Paul and Chantal’s own interracial relationship. The lovers quarrel and break up. Paul needs excuses. He first blames their failure on their having been enslaved by the island’s “erotic presence” [121] that provoked his infidelity right after coming back to New York. After acrimonious unspoken dialogues churning first in Paul’s mind then in Chantal’s, the narrative moves out of the 1960s to “the threshold of the twenty-first century” [142], to the continued reality of inequality between the colonizer and the colonized that posits the frailty of interracial relationships. The fiction’s resolution (maybe an attempt at exorcising fear) is an impossible but all the same true story headed by a quotation from Frantz Fanon “Today I believe in the possibility of love” [144] taken out of context: Fanon and Marilyn Monroe, co-victims of the modern world who have crossed the Atlantic in the hull of a slave ship, are reunited in a Washington, D.C., hospital where Marilyn encourages Fanon, to hold his own against disease, to go to sleep— “Sleep, sleep, my pumpkin” [145]—and wake up in another dream where everything will be different.

18“Fanon” is a fiction nourished by the ghosts from the 1960’s and a failed interracial marriage. A story haunted by the question of the durability of interracial love that ends on the improbable hope the world will change. “The Island” is the title Wideman chose for the fourth and last chapter, perhaps because it best sums up the existential specters that crisscross the book. Martinique offers many shades. Formerly a gulag for the slaves, it is today a deleterious tropical Eden for African-Americans, a place that stands as a metaphor for the individual’s isolation, a theme already vented in the diary. But the island is also history, and Wideman returns to extra-personal material in the last part. “The island” presents itself as an account of a day trip from Sainte-Anne to Saint-Pierre: a massive flow of consciousness eleven pages long without a period, not even a full stop, with commas only. As we shall see, it only takes a short leap of the imagination to grasp this flow of words as a poetic embodiment of the 1902 volcanic eruption that ravaged Saint-Pierre and the environs, an uncontrollable natural catastrophe matching the man-made evils that govern human relationships. As always in Wideman, dates, events—personal and historical—and feelings overlap.

  • 19 The book may be appreciated more fully with the help of its genesis. Did Wideman actually write the (...)

19Snow outside Wideman’s window in New York19 stirs up memories of Martinique, of the “petite neige”— whitish ash—the residents of the Saint-Pierre area could see blowing from Mount Pelée, but did not heed, in the weeks preceding the fateful eruption. The passage insists on the absurdity of it all. No one fled the area until the volcano’s first tremors were felt. Only then did the surrounding villagers flee to the city for protection... when it was too late—too close anyway. There were two survivors, petty delinquents protected from the heat by the thick walls of their dungeon. 30,000 lives were cut short because people had been encouraged to stay for the coming election, or hid their heads in the sand for some other personal reason, or believed their faith in God would “charm away the inconceivable cataclysm” [152].

20Time is once again manipulated. This all-in-one-piece chapter presents itself as a temporal merry-go-round in which the 6: 00 a.m. beginning of the volcanic eruption corresponds to John and Katrine’s 6: 00 p.m. visit of the cathedral’s ruins. The past and the present merge, bringing dawn and dusk together, though about one century apart. Dusk makes the writing on the cathedral’s plaque (the date of the 1902 catastrophe) undecipherable, like “runes” [154-155]. Runes. Ruins scattered like Ozymandias’s statue in Shelley’s poem, the king of kings fallen from power to rubble:

Round the decay Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch far away.

21The cathedral’s ruins, a hard climb from the town, are deserted. The only other visitor is a “skinny, scruffy, typecast ghetto dog watching us, too curious about our business to be just an innocent mutt” [156]: an insistent presence.

22Down from the cathedral, and probably visited before climbing out of the town is the museum where artifacts from the eruption, such as bottles deformed by heat, are on display. Chronology goes backward, as one museum leads to another. The reader is led back to 1888 and the Gauguin museum our tourists must have visited earlier that day on the way up to Saint-Pierre. Nothing is said about that place, no painting is described. Wideman is strictly concerned with the island’s meaning for the painter who found respite after a painful stay in the Panama canal area. The island was beneficial to the sickly outsider. Or, rather, its resilient inhabitants. It was in Martinique that Gauguin healed by learning from “a brown, sturdy people” [159], and moved on to a rejuvenated artistic expression that was to bloom in Polynesia.

23Next to the Gauguin museum, up in the hills from the town of Le Carbet lies Habitation Latouche. Wideman does not follow the crowds drawn to the Balata botanical gardens next to the former plantation. This major attraction is not even mentioned. Alone with Katrine among the “grave-quiet” ruins, Wideman mourns those that baptized “the land with their blood and sweat, African artisans and mechanics who built whatever the plantation required”, men and women who were “invested... imprisoned... buried” [160] there. He “interrogate [s] the silence with [his] own” [161]. A silence broken by the same unearthly squeals “fracturing the morning’s stillness” [62] first heard from the hotel bedroom in Sainte-Anne: maybe “ghost-colored long-horned African cattle” [61] stung by insects. Or maybe the caterwauling of cats in heat. Or maybe the moans of Africans detained, exploited, abused there. Maybe none of the above as the mysterious cry takes Wideman back to his days at Oxford, UK, where, a Rhodes scholar, he heard peacocks in a pub. Although it is not said in so many words, this late-coming reminiscence associates Wideman with Paul, his protagonist in “Fanon” dedicated exclusively to his personal success, living in blissful ignorance of the plight of Third World countries, “blank regions on the map of [his] imagination” [120], of the fate of Patrice Lumumba whose body was chopped and burned “in an oil drum” [119]. A personal sense of early guilt—of having been hoodwinked by the surrounding world—surges in as Habitation Latouche turns into

  • 20 Cecil Rhodes, for whom Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) formerly was named, is called an exploitative “bandi (...)

an early outpost of the mission, the burden we Rhodes20 scholars had been anointed to assume, the white man’s burden I’d been schooled to believe was mine too, spreading the net of civilization to green islands such as Martinique... [162].

24Still proceeding backward, the first leg of the day trip to Saint-Pierre is described in the concluding pages which again focus on the couple. Martinique also means John and Katrine as tourists, purchasing food from vendors and having a good time on a beach. Not quite a refuge from post-9/11 Big Brother, though: the sneaky dog seen among the ruins of the cathedral now is roaming around on the beach. And John hopes it is not a cop dog, or a cyborg device reporting on Katrine’s squatting to wet the grass between two boulders, or on John “loosing a steaming Mount Pelée burst, huddled in [his] pocket of shadow” [167]: maybe a fart massive enough to drown Père Labat’s in his tavern. Who knows?

25This self-derision and Katrine’s “desecrating holy ground” [167] that roll the cathedral ruins and the beach into one resonates with the book’s beginning, the built-in deleteriousness of the Christian religion, the tool of colonizers. John’s and Katrine’s innocent fun on the beach, John’s admiration for his partner’s expert swimming defying the waves may be read as the hope the racial ghosts that vitiated the relationship of Paul and Chantal are now exorcised: Paul is alone on returning to New York. John and Katrine go back together.

26Thus does the book’s circularity tie the loop in a way that underlines a pessimistic outlook on a changed but really unchanging world, and expresses the fragile hope that an interracial relationship can survive the ghosts from mankind’s past history. Du Tertre’s favorable “revenants” can always come back.

27 The Island is a book in which two strands, one personal and one historical, keep interfering, simply because Wideman is persuaded that historians are “novelists who haven’t come out of the closet” (TuSmith 1998: 120). An itinerary that deconstructs chronology, invents or misrepresents, robes and disrobes facts, takes the reader from the personal to the historical, and vice versa, challenging philosophical and religious assumptions, and making mince meat of political correctness. Great Time ( “I’ve learned through the old people in my family that Great Time is where we have a sense of community and unity of being which can’t be touched by oppression or slavery” [TuSmith 1998: 124]) has not yet dawned on the western world.


Works Cited

Harms, Robert. The Diligent. A Voyage through the Worlds of the Slave Trade. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2002.

Labat, Jean-Baptiste. [Michel Le Bres, ed.] Voyage aux isles, chronique aventureuse des Caraïbes, 1693-1705. 1719. Paris: Phébus, 1998.

TuSmith, Bonnie. Conversations with John Edgar Wideman. Jackson, Ms.: University Press of Mississippi, 1998.

Wideman, John E. Brothers & Keepers. 1984. London: Allison & Busby, 1985.

Wideman, John E. (Introduction to) The Souls of Black Folk. New York, NY: Vintage, 1990.

Wideman, John E. The Homewood Books. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992.

Wideman, John E. Fatheralong. A Meditation on Fathers and Sons, Race and Society. 1994. London: Picador, 1995.

Wideman, John E. The Island: Martinique. Washington, DC: the National Geographic Society, 2003.

Wideman, John E. God’s Gym. Stories. Boston, Ma.: Houghton Mifflin, 2005.


1 TuSmith, Bonnie, ed., Conversations with John Wideman (Jackson, MS.: University Press of Mississippi, 1998): 122.

2 Wideman, John, The Island: Martinique (Washington, D.C.: the National Geographic Society, 2003): 31.

3 This is the way the title appears on the book’s dust jacket. It will be hereafter abbreviated as The Island. “The Island” between inverted commas will be used to refer to the book’s eponymous fourth chapter. All references appear in the text between square brackets.

4 Wideman, John, The Homewood Books (Pittsburgh, PA.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992): xi.

5 Wideman, John, Fatheralong (London: Picador): 62.

6 Jean-Baptiste (born Jacques) Du Tertre (1610-1687) served in the army in Flanders then became a Dominican who stayed in the West Indies as a missionary from 1640 to 1658. Also a botanist, he was charmed by the Caribbean and wrote several treatises describing plants and animals. Incidentally, he was the first to describe how the slaves processed alcohol from sugar cane.

7 The name is spelled “Katrine” in the book. This form will be used accordingly.

8 Wideman’s preoccupation with the identity question consistently reverberates throughout his works. One may suggest that the anti-Christian strain at work in The Island has arisen as a reaction to the contemporary rise of world wide religious fundamentalism. Wideman’s contention has its weaknesses. Christian principles do not recommend slavery.

9 The shadow of slavery constantly takes on an existential weight, the consciousness that tourists, like anyone else, are just so many willing prisoners: “Like slaves, we forget that the choice to live or die empowers us to withhold labor, to rebel, to organize, to disrupt the imaginary holding us in place. We’re enmeshed in a package deal, distracted, entertained, maybe a bit frustrated occasionally, but also enthralled”. [95]

10 The Cancun conference ran from Sep. 10 to 14, 2003. The author manipulates time as this detail [15] does not square chronologically with the couple’s stay in Martinique around December 2000. On the other hand, an interest in the Cancun conference where the WTO could find no compromise between the interests of wealthier and poorer nations squares with the political views expressed in The Island. Unrelated elements can legitimately merge to form a true story. Even if, as inscribed on Wideman’s collection all stories are true cover page, the phrase subliminally reads “L.I.A.R”.

11 Readers who are familiar with Wideman’s œuvre will bear in mind the lost child motif in Philadelphia Fire, in Two Cities, in Fatheralong, as well as in stories like “Casa Grande” and “Newborn Thrown in Trash and Dies” that are included in alL storIes Are tRue.

12 That individuals are islands denies the presence of the unifying hand of a Creator implied in John Donne’s Meditation no XVII (1623). Islanded individuals and the odds and vagaries of love recur insistently, as in this quotation whose existential pessimism spins words from an image to the next one: “Each life an island floating in the sea. Here on Martinique we are tempted to forget for a while that each island possesses its unforgettable history, the past (whether we choose to read or to ignore it) indelibly inscribed in its features, its sounds, the barely perceptible pulse of engines animating the present of its sensuous moments, the éblouissance of its changing weather. Each life distinct and often opaque even to the gaze around which it forms, the subject that the gaze creates a visitor, a tourist of itself, losing as much ground as it gains, the gaze temporal, temporary, mortal—the island disappearing at a slightly slower rate that it appears, materializing from the mist, but disappearances always gaining on the speed of appearances until inevitably the two lines meet, cross, and, nothing else appears. I’m trying to imagine that instant but it is not me, not yet, so I can’t. No more than it will imagine me after lines converge”. [75]

13 Frequent allusions bring up memories of Shakespeare’s The Tempest which Wideman calls “a prison narrative” [76], “a prescient vision of the contemporary muddle” [77] prefiguring a world in which both the colonized and the colonizer are now jailed. One insistent motif is an eerie cry that is reminiscent of Caliban’s. This is heard at the beginning and end, from a hotel room in the early morning then amid the ruins of Habitation Latouche, a plantation inland from Le Carbet.

14 Wideman lumps two referenda into one and we need to clarify this political matter. In 1946, under the leadership of Aimé Césaire, Martinicans opted for départementalisation—meaning the island became a full-fledged French département electing representatives to the national assembly and administered by a préfet. Césaire’s support of the change rested on cultural grounds and he later denounced a misunderstanding between the island and the mother country. Had Martinicans chosen to remain a colony by rejecting the 1946 status, they might have opted for autonomy developing into independence at the time of the 1958 referendum to ratify the constitution of the fifth republic, potentially becoming part of the West Indian Confederation whose future was then thought promising.

15 According to Robert Harms, Labat’s management was not so harsh as that of smaller planters. Still, Labat was a proud man who “fancied himself a model plantation owner who was setting a good example... It was a sign of his times that Labat... became extremely upset when people accused him and his fellow priests to dabble in commerce”. Harms, Robert, The Diligent (New York: Basis Books, 2002): 351.

16 Labat, Jean-Baptiste, Voyage aux isles (Paris: Phébus, 1998): 227 (my translation).

17 This chapter is transformed into an eponymous story in God’s Gym. The same protagonists, Chantal, Paul, Antoine, Fanon and Marilyn Monroe are involved in the same plot, also in Martinique, New York and Washington, DC. But the story’s skein is rearranged. Only one quotation from Fanon, “Today I believe in the possibility of love”, appears to head the story and the elements of the narration are re-sequenced—except for the closing part, the meeting between Fanon and Marilyn that concludes the story with a very unlikely prediction that things will change: “It doesn’t end like this. This is just a dream. We’re trapped in someone’s evil dreaming. Sleep, sleep, my pumpkin. Soon we’ll wake up in another dream. Everything will be different.” [Wideman, John, God’s Gym (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005): 137].

18 Strangely, taking one’s cue from dates, there seems to be here a twist that once more breaks calendar time up and invests different people into the same protagonist. The fictitious Chantal has another double besides Catherine: Judy, Wideman’s wife of thirty years, with whom he might indeed have come but did not if we believe Brothers & Keepers that hints at a honeymoon in Maine [Wideman 1985: 28]) to spend his advance for his first novel, A Glance Away, on the island. The dates match.

19 The book may be appreciated more fully with the help of its genesis. Did Wideman actually write the first part as day-to-day essays on the island and the other three sections back at home?

20 Cecil Rhodes, for whom Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) formerly was named, is called an exploitative “bandit” [162]. The older Wideman feels guilty for having been distinguished as a Rhodes Scholar, the second African-American thus honored.

© Presses universitaires de la Méditerranée, 2007

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