White Spirit translator Betsy Wing was kind enough to direct a few questions from Anne Fernham to author Paule Constant. Not only did Wing send off the questions, but she was graciously offered a down-and-dirty English translation for Constant's responses.
How conscious an influence was Heart of Darkness?
To my great regret I have never been able to get into any of Conrad’s books. I’ve frequently been told that I reminded readers of him but I don’t know to what extent. However, I believe that landscapes dictate their own laws to literature. That’s how all novels, American, Japanese or African are written.
This one is harder to word but one that I'd like to hear more about. I'm wondering about the *cultural* translation of the book's theme of skin lightening. It's my sense that, in the current cultural climate, talking about differences in skin tone is pretty taboo, underground--not absent, but cautious. Certainly, I would suspect that white American writers would face some pretty loud objections from all corners if they wrote a novel about blacks wanting to lighten their skin. It's easy to find literature in the states by African Americans from the twenties (Nella Larsen, Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer) about the significance of various skin tones, but since "black is beautiful" in the seventies, the conversation about skin tones seems to have gone underground. How is the topic of skin color and race treated in France and postcolonial French Africa?
I spent almost all my life in Africa which is like a motherland to me. My entire formation is African. It’s natural that like any writer I return to the sources of myself. If I have no tabous in respect to Africa it’s because in my first novel, Ouregano, published in 1980, I forcefully denounced colonialism. Though, taking into account sociologists and philosophers, I was not the first to do so, I was certainly one of the first novelists who did. Consequently, when White Spirit came out nobody thought to criticize me. All literature transgresses (otherwise it is called journalism), but the transgression in White Spirit isn’t the fact that a Black woman (actually mulatto) wants to lighten her skin, always a widespread practice (see, for example, the dermatologists’ repeated cautions about the dangers of the products used). The White Spirit in this book is a symbolic product; it represents a false Holy Spirit given to humanity to make up for its hardships. As in most of my novels the real transgression takes place on a religious plane. What I find most troubling in the novel is the erasure of the borders between human and animal. The White Spirit, which destroys the young woman’s skin and kills an entire village, symbolizes western evil imposed on a natural world. If taken in that way my novel is very “politically correct.”
But your question concerns censoring and self-censoring. As you know we, particularly in France, have had to fight religious censorship. In libraries there was always a “hell” composed of forbidden books, in which you’d find great writers such as Francois Mauriac and Julien Green. Writers have also had to fight erotic censorship (Proust, Julien Green). One begins to realize that in every period the writer has been accused of immorality by society, which means that he or she has not gone along with the morality of that period. Is political correctness, perhaps, the new morality of the contemporary world which believes its freedom is demonstrated in relation to religious or sexual issues? Here too, of course, one feels the pressure to be politically correct, but I believe it necessary to refuse to do this and not write communal literature. The novelist’s freedom has to be the ability to talk about everything, even about things he doesn’t know. I even believe that one becomes a writer when one dares talk about things one doesn’t know on the basis of what one is not. White Spirit marks an important stage for me; it represents the moment in which I am no longer recounting the Africa I experienced (as I did in Ouregano and Balta), but begin to invent it. And this, of course, is where (this is the novelist’s secret)—
Thank you, Paule and Betsy, for taking the time out to respond and translate, respectively!
Stay tuned this weekend, when we offer our podcast interview with Betsy Wing. Even Betsy's dog makes a brief barking cameo.
Incidentally, you can find Betsy's translation work in the following books:
The Book of Promethea/Le Livre De Promethea by Helene Cixous (University of Nebraska Press, 1991)
Outwitting the Gestapo by Lucie Aubrac (University of Nebraska Press, 1994)
Poetics of Relation by Edouard Glissant (University of Michigan Press, 1997)
So Vast the Prison by Assia Djebar (Seven Stories Press, 1999)
As to more Constant-Wing adaptations, the University of Nebraska Press has the following novels available:
The Governor's Daughter (1998)
Trading Secrets (2001)