Anthologizing Postcolonial Francophone Literature

Alison Turner


Most North American high school and undergraduate level French programs offer students a narrow and biased selection of French literature on syllabi overflowing with male authors living in France. While Molière, Balzac and Flaubert may have created a significant portion of literature in French up to the nineteenth century, white male authors from France currently represent only one view of a diversity of authors writing literature in the French language. With more than 200 million French speakers in all areas of the world, an adequate study of the French language must recognize literary works that adapt and mix local languages, cultures and perspectives. A French literature course that ignores this diversity defends an imperialistic literary hegemony of France over other French-speaking areas, centering literature from France at the middle of a francophone periphery. I suggest that an anthology of contemporary francophone literature could be used to counter France’s current literary centrality by representing the diversity of both the language itself and the authors who work in this language. Because of the infinite breadth of francophone literature, I propose that such an anthology would benefit from a more specified theme of postcolonial literature, which would help to further destabilize France’s literary authority over its former colonies. By arguing a francophone theory that equalizes all uses of the French language and a postcolonial theory that equalizes all perspectives of colonialism, an anthology of postcolonial francophone literature would not only rescue the authors stranded on the periphery of France, but would also encourage a more accurate scholarship of francophone literature.

The words francophone and postcolonial have numerous implications within academia and otherwise. To some, francophone means simply French-speaker; to others, it is more narrowly defined as a French-speaker who is not from France. Thus, French departments offer ‘French and francophone studies’ with individual courses in ‘Francophone literature’ that focus on regions outside of France, regions like the Caribbean or the Maghreb. The semantic distinction between French and francophone situates authors from France at the center of the French language and other authors, those not hailing from France (the francophones), on the periphery. The term postcolonial is equally ambiguous as it is used by some as a chronological indicator and by others as a marker of the ideological movement that aims to critique “all the culture affected by the imperial process from the moment of colonization to the present day” (Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin 2). Considering the critical nature of postcolonial scholarship, it is surprising that the field has merged with francophone studies, which is clearly heavily affected by the imperial process, only recently. Despite the obvious connections, a serious relationship between the two theories begins only in the twenty-first century. This paper opens with the history of the affiliation between francophone theory and postcolonial theory, then expands upon the challenges inherent in the current term francophone. I will argue that today’s meaning of francophone be used to destabilize France’s literary hegemonyand that postcolonial literary theory supports this goal. Finally, I will suggest that the anthologization of postcolonial francophone literature effectively represents the increasing diversity of the French language and gives equal status to each variety.

Postcolonial Theory and Francophone Theory: An Overdue Encounter

Postcolonial literary studies has, until recently, been monopolized by the anglophone world. For example, in Postcolonial Theory and Francophone Literary Studies, authors Adlai Murdoch and Anne Donadey define postcolonial studies as “an interdisciplinary field of scholarship that developed out of Commonwealth studies in the 1980s and 1990s in the United Kingdom and out of the revelations of ‘orientalism’ in the United States” (2). Additionally, Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin’s 1989 The Empire Writes Back, crucial to postcolonial studies, focuses on the anglophone world and mentions francophone texts only as an aside. This is unexpected not only because of the significant number of French-speaking countries, authors and readers affected by postcolonialism, but also because of the essential contribution that French-speaking critics provided in the early stages of the discipline.

Largely francophone movements such as negritude and anti-colonialism, though separate from postcolonial theory, stimulated the latter’s formation. Negritude philosophy emerged in the 1920s and 1930s as “the earliest attempt to create a consistent theory of modern African writing,” most strongly attributed to the Francophone writers Aimé Césaire and Léopold Senghor (Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin 123). The negritude movement promoted a specifically (black) African essence and psychology that, Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin admit, “would find few totally uncritical adherents today” (123). Nevertheless, the movement was the first to clear the way for the consciousness “which colonization sought to suppress and deny” (Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin 124). In the 1950s and 1960s, a second formative theory sprouted from the francophone voices of Frantz Fanon and Albert Memmi: anti-colonialism (Forsdick and Murphy 11). While critiquing France’s political actions and policies during both colonization and the struggles for independence, anti-colonialist works further emphasized the profound psychological effects on both colonized and colonizer. Researchers Charles Forsdick and David Murphy insist that anti-colonial texts “have become central points of reference in postcolonial criticism” (11), and Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin agree that these theories helped to establish the (former) colonizer-colonized dialogue that is so crucial to postcolonial studies (29).

However, in the following decades this sort of criticism travelled away from French-speaking areas and into anglophone countries “where postcolonial criticism emerged in the late 1980s as a sustained but fragmented body of thought with its own set of dominant (if widely contested) methodologies, theorists and canons” (Forsdick and Murphy 11). Scholar Alec Hargreaves wonders at the “paradoxical contrast” between Francophone scholars’ early, “pervasive influence … [that] helped to make postcolonial studies such a vibrant field of inquiry” and its later requisition by anglophone scholars (55). Murdoch and Donadey suggest that the reduction of French-speaking scholars can be partially attributed to the lack of translation from anglophone postcolonial texts into French, but this does not explain why francophone critics had ceased writing their own texts (7). Although the gap of francophone criticism between the 1960s and the twenty-first century is intriguing, this essay addresses the recent convergence of francophone authors, readers and critics with postcolonial discourse.

Postcolonial criticism was taken up by francophone scholarship in the early twenty-first century, perhaps commencing with one of the first major criticisms to combine postcolonial theory with francophone studies in the French language,Jean-Marc Moura’s 1999 Littératures Francophones et Théorie Postcoloniale.Forsdick and Murphy moderately accredit this new membership to the increased number of translations of anglophone postcolonial criticism into French while offering a more compelling explanation for succeeding scholarship (13). They inform that in 2005 France was divided by the “loi du 23 février” ‘February 23rd rule,’ which controversially required educators to teach the positive aspects of colonialism (Forsdick and Murphy 16).[1] Before this time, postcolonialism in France was mostly post-colonialism, “a chronological marker, betokening a straightforward posteriority”; however, this law elevated the more intricate and complicated consequences of the term so that postcolonial “began to suggest the forms of continuity with and rupture from the colonial past that characterized the word’s meaning in the Anglophone world” (Forsdick and Murphy 16). In succeeding years, anglophone authors continued the work begun by Moura, producing works such as Forsdick and Murphy’s 2009 collection Postcolonial Thought in the French-Speaking World. Despite the fresh attention given to the relationship between postcolonial and francophone theories, each discipline remains indefinite. The signification of francophone lacks solid consensus, and its varying interpretations have political, cultural and literary consequences.

Francophone Literary Theory: Putting France into Francophone

The current, popular mentality that French literature centers in France and that francophone literature arises from not-France implies a hierarchy. It is as if French authors who are not from France use a ‘type’ of French, a variation of the pure, France-originating French language. By this ideology, Molière, Balzac, Zola and Sand write French literature while Algerian Assia Djebar, Canadian Gabrielle Roy and Haitian Stephen Alexis all write francophone literature. This paper joins the scholarship supporting the deterioration of this separation and proposes that the term francophone literature imply nothing but literary texts written originally in the French language, regardless of the author’s background. Hence, Djebar and Balzac are both francophone writers, making different – but equal – contributions to literature written in French.

Currently, a search for Francophone Anthologies or French Anthologies of literature published within the last two decades suggests that the backgrounds of Djebar and Balzac are not given equal status. The compilations use the following titles:Plays by French and Francophone Women: A Critical Anthology (1994), Elles: A Bilingual Anthology of Modern French Poetry by Women (1995) and The Yale Anthology of Twentieth-Century French Poetry (2004). Though surprisingly short, the list nevertheless exposes several of the issues with the terms French and/or francophone. The earliest text assumes an essential difference between the two terms by separating the French from non-French (francophone) authors, and the last two compilations are either collections of works by authors from France or collections of works by French-speaking authors from around the world.[2] The assumptions and embedded ambiguities in these titles are consequences of colonization and its aftermath.

France’s literary authority stems from a time of colonization when France infused the French language into the education system of its colonies as part of a “concerted drive to suppress indigenous cultures and languages and replace them with the culture and language of the French colonisers” (Corcoran 5). Afterindependence, the French language remained the only language of instruction, administration and business for the vast majority of the former colonies (Semujanga 14). Critic Patrick Corcoran explains that, for most newly-independent countries, not only did the use of French allow for action in international politics, it was also “the only viable choice as official language since it alone was not associated with specific ethnic or tribal groups” (6). Thus for many of today’s French-speakers and authors, the French language unavoidably echoes a colonial history; the consequences of which extend beyond a linguistic heritage well into contemporary politics. Scholars and students of francophone literature must acknowledge the geographical, linguistic, cultural and political complexity that the term evokes.

The word francophone, first used in 1880 by the geographer Onésime Reclus in his work France, Algérie et Colonies, originally referenced people who spoke French in an area using at least one other language (Moura 1-2). Reclus argues for the indoctrination of the French language on native people so as to strengthen colonial expansion: “In his view, the prestige of France and the cultural values France held dear were inextricably linked to the French language” (Corcoran 13).The word itself was little used until 1962 when the journal Esprit devoted an edition to “Français langue vivante” ‘French: a living language’ and the first Senegalese President, L.S. Senghor, defined francophone as a “symbiose des ‘énergies dormantes’ de tous les continents, de toutes les races” ‘fusion of the ‘latent sprit’ from all continents and all races’who spoke French (Moura 1-2). Senghor used his notion of francophone to promote bilateral agreements between France and its former colonies, creating an “institutional framework of francophonie” (Corcoran 6). Thus, the term spread from Reclus’ specific geographical and linguistic definition to a vague, cultural connotation that continues to today.

Because of its current ambiguity, scholars and institutions broadly define and use the term francophone. For example, Francophone Studies in U.S. academia tends to include sub-Saharan Africa, the Caribbean, the Maghreb, Québec, Switzerland, and Belgium; whereas, European scholarship groups Swiss and Belgian literature with that of France and consequently divides studies into French literature, Québec literature and Francophone literature (Ndiaye 6). Some scholars distinguish francophone (those who use the French language in their daily lives) from the capitalized Francophone (implying political connotations) from “l’espace francophone” ‘francophone space’ (a figurative space shared by those with any relation to the French language or culture without necessarily using it daily or politically) (Semujanga 9). Others partition the francophone world into regions with varying relations to the French language. For example, scholar Josias Semujanga demarks four francophone regions: countries for which French is “la langue maternelle” ‘the mother tongue’ where it has been used for several centuries (Europe, Canada); “créolophone” ‘Creole-speaking’ countries where French is spoken by the community and used officially but another language also exists (Haiti, les Antilles); former colonies where French is involved in education (Madagascar, Rwanda); and countries where only traces of French exist (Egypt, Liban) (11-12).

 Corcoran emphasizes that, whatever the various uses of francophone, two over-arching yet opposing philosophies share the term. Francophone defines either an “extension” of France, “almost as though what is involved is a redrawing of some hidden boundary”; or contrarily, francophone separates France from what is not France, creating divisions in literature such as “France and the francophone world” or “French and francophone literature” (7). Many scholars agree that the latter is the more prevalent of the two philosophies, including Murdoch and Donadey who insist that “francophone studies is currently understood specifically to be the study of French-language literature, film, and culture from regions and countries outside mainland France” (3). I reject both of these philosophies, arguing that any divide between French and francophone nurtures France’s central authority in postcolonial literature, a fallacious position that misdirects francophone scholarship.

Scholars Jacques Coursil and Delphine Perret provide a striking example of the political consequences lurking behind a France/francophone distinction. They note how Swiss or Belgian authors (such as Rousseau) are easily clumped into the French authors category; whereas, naturalized French citizens like Césaire, Fanon and Glissant are termed francophone authors because of their foreign origins (200). Thus, racial differentiation situates the literature written in French, placing literature originating in France (or Europe) at the center of a periphery comprised of not-France derived literature. Corcoran details the implications of France’s centrality:

[Being] able to state that one is ‘French’ is to claim a particular identity whereas the fact of being ‘francophone’ merely [indicates] a relationship to an ‘identity’ that belongs to someone else or, at best, to locate oneself in terms of a culture that is not one’s own. The word ‘francophone’ alludes to identity without ever quite conferring it. Inevitably, this is a context of incompletion, marked by difference, an inescapable sense of lower status and ultimately, possibly, exclusion rather than inclusion. (10)

In many ways, forcing non-French to the periphery is nothing less than continuing cultural colonialism or, as critic Michel Laronde puts it, ensuring the preservation of France’s “hegemonic mentality” over its (former) colonies (186).

Laronde exposes several other holes that weaken current scholarship on francophone literature and offers constructive cures. He first proposes that France be included in the term francophone, creating a “French cultural space [that] no longer stands alone with regard to, and in opposition to, a francophone diaspora with its many cultures” (176).  While France must be a part of francophone to strip it of its so-called ‘superior’ status, other sectors need to be included in order to reject an implicitly inferior status. Laronde notes that immigrants in and from francophone countries represent an important yet neglected sector of French-speakers in anthologies; he insists that forgetting immigrants in any postcolonial study is “akin to performing an act of amnesia” (177). Secondly, he points out that authors who lie between established groups become unclassifiable and, as such, are not included. For example, Beur literature is rejected from Algerian “French” literature as well as from the French “national” literary tradition (179). Comprehensive francophone scholarship must include these seemingly misfit authors because they all contribute to the changing directions of the French language.

Other scholars embellish on and agree with Laronde’s suggestions for destabilizing France’s centrality against a non-French (yet French-speaking) periphery. As I do, most of these critics propose a change in the name of the discipline, agreeing with Laronde that the term francophone, rather than French, denotes literature in the French language. Perhaps confusingly, Forsdick and Murphy’s Postcolonial Thought in the French-Speaking World replaces “Francophone” with “French-speaking” in order to “make clear to the reader approaching the text that our focus encompasses a wide spectrum of ... locations, including but not necessarily privileging France itself” (4-5). While the francophone discipline needs to reach a consensus on jargon, these semantics merely symbolize a change in ideology.

A more thorough and profound de-centering can only arise from a different method of reading literature in the French language – namely, a postcolonial reading. As Coursil and Perret conclude, what “is termed ‘francophone’ has to be related one way or another to colonial history” as it is the former colonies (or people with roots to them as evidenced by Césaire, Fanon and Glissant) who are marginalized to the periphery (200). Thus, the use of francophone that Laronde proposes, and that I support, in some ways returns to the meaning originally given by Reclus: francophone authors are those who write in the French language. Writers identifying with France can no longer be distinguished as better than or distinct from other French authors; they are merely a fraction of the many contributors to the greater francophone oeuvre. This goal parallels that of postcolonial theory, which seeks to de-centralize both the colonist perspective and the effect of colonialism so that, rather than a peripheral colonial perspective, there is only one literary corpus of postcolonial experience.

Postcolonial Literary Theory: New Readings of New (and Old) Texts

Scholarship generally divides post-colonial from postcolonial, the former signifying the time after a period of colonization, while the unhyphenated term is a method of reading, writing and criticism (Moura 4, Laronde 177, Corcoran 27, Young 109).[3] The use of the historical post-colonial has little value for literary studies for many reasons but most immediately because the issues addressed in postcolonial writings arose before any ‘official’ end of colonization. Coursil and Perret even argue that any post-colonial study is not only simplistic but also absurdbecause “before being ‘post,’ these states did not exist” (198). Additionally, restricting postcolonial to a certain time assumes a distinct change that may not have been the case. Author Robert Young points out that in many cases independence meant change for only a small group of elites to whom power was transferred – for the majority of the colonized, particularly the women, “the struggle continued” (99).

Thus, a postcolonial literary theory rejects a distinct change between pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial culture, insisting that the literature emerging from affected cultures represents a continuity of change and adaptation. Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin explain that it “is not possible to return to or to rediscover an absolute pre-colonial cultural purity, nor is it possible to create national or regional formations entirely independent of their historical implication in the European colonial enterprise” (195-196). Postcolonial research recognizes the mutual cultural influences on both colonizers and colonized as being irreversible, profound and as continuously impacting the work of authors.

Scholarship most commonly deems literature as postcolonial if it “critically scrutinises the colonial relationship” (Elleke Boehmer, qtd. in Corcoran 27). Postcolonial researchers employ two strategies when studying literature: scholars study texts that are in themselves deemed postcolonial (those consciously “scrutinizing the colonial relationship”) and/or they utilize a new method of reading other texts that may not have had such an aim (Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin 193). Murdoch and Donadey explain a postcolonial reading as “a reinterpretation of literature and history that [accounts] for the colonial experience while insisting on its centrality” (2), and Moura defines it as “attentive aux thématiques colonialistes et à la manière dont le contexte colonial détermin[e] certaines conditions de possibilité de cette literature” ‘an awareness of colonialist themes and the manner in which the colonial context determines the possibilities of the literature’ (148). Both of these approaches aim to challenge the lingering centralized position that is held by former colonizers by including the voice and experience of the colonized. For example, a postcolonial reading of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest could take the character Caliban as representative of future colonized countries. Though Shakespeare wrote the play centuries before the emergence of the postcolonial ideology, recently established by Murdoch and Donadey  in 2005 and Moura in 1999, a retrospective interpretation of Caliban as the colonized redefines the text’s interpretation. 

An effective strategy for rebelling against a centralized authority is to elevate the plurality of perspectives that have been neglected on the periphery. Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin argue that “[theories] and models of [postcolonial literatures] could not emerge until the separate colonies were viewed in a framework centred on their own literary and cultural traditions,” resulting in a “hybridized phenomenon involving a dialectical relationship between the ‘grafted’ European cultural systems and an indigenous ontology, with its impulse to create or recreate an independent local identity” (18-19,195-196). Each culture responds to the past and present effects of colonialism differently so that postcolonial theory must stress plurality over hegemony and discourse over authority.[4] Thus, postcolonial theory has much to offer a francophone mentality aiming to offset the literary authority of France. Validating all types of postcolonial experience and perspectives (be they from the colonizer, the colonized, immigrants or any other situation considered to be a mixture of the three) parallels the equalization of all types of the French language containing any degree of creolization, hybridity, code switching or local slang. France does not maintain a pure form of the French language any more than it represents a central perspective of colonization and its repercussions.

The Postcolonial Francophone Oeuvre

Postcolonial Francophone Studies aims to de-center France by emphasizing an over-arching counter-discourse. Corcoran notes that “the plurality of voices and histories” contesting “France’s ownership of History” is, in some sense, one of many examples of recently emerging “alternative histories” in scholarship (17). Equalizing the various uses of the French language – as well as the diverse perspectives of the historical events involving colonialism and its aftermath – casts doubt on French cultural (or otherwise) authority. Postcolonial Francophone Theory is thus a “counter-discourse in which difference, fragmentation and discontinuity are allowed free play” (Corcoran 19). When applied to literature, this theory requires the postcolonial strategy of reading francophone texts. The combined theories can be more specifically applied to the reading of postcolonial francophone texts, a corpus displaying diverse postcolonial perspectives and equally diverse uses of the French language to express them.

Postcolonial francophone scholars recognize the acceleration of linguistic and stylistic changes in francophone literature due to colonialism. Linguistically sandwiched between the French language of their compulsory education and the pre-colonial native language of their family or society, postcolonial francophone authors incorporate new linguistic and cultural backgrounds into the French language:

La dispersion géographique du français a ainsi occasionné de notables variations linguistiques dénotant l’espace culturel des utilisateurs. Ainsi, les écrivains en tirent profit pour écrire des textes originaux jouant sur l’ambivalence sémantique que permettent, par exemple, les expressions tirées des langues locales ou de nouveaux mots inventés sur le modèle du français standard pour décrire des réalités inexistantes en France. ‘The geographic dispersion of French has caused notable linguistic variations that indicate the cultural space of its users. Writers took advantage of this by writing original texts that experiment with semantic ambivalence, allowing, for example, the inclusion of expressions from the local language or words that were new to standard French, for the purpose of describing realities that do not exist in France.’ (Semujanga 15)

Whether a former colonizer or formerly colonized, postcolonial francophone authors have something new to write about; furthermore, merging languages, societies, historical perspectives and politics inspires a new way of writing. In Moura’s words, the heterogeneous linguistic and geographical surroundings expose “des limites non encore explorées” ‘unexplored limits’ within francophone literature, building a literary corpus in which “[l’hybridité] générique semble la règle” ‘hybrid genres seem to be the rule’ (90-91, 136).

Similarly, the unstable position of postcolonial authors directs the postcolonial text even further into unchartered literary territory. Moura summarizes that “leur oeuvre doit produire une définition de la littérature légitime qui demeure fidèle à l’originalité de leur culture. Il s’agit de rien moins que de l’invention d’un champ littéraire non européen” ‘their oeuvre must produce a definition of legitimate literature that remains faithful to the originality of their culture. It is nothing less than the invention of a non-European field of literature’(70). Authors do not write from a European perspective or a culturally pure native perspective but instead from experience gleaned from the two perspectives. In this way, the text might be seen as a “site of struggle” manifested in “theme, form, genre definition, implicit systems of manner, custom, and value” (Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin 115). The colonial consequences experienced by a tiny minority are just as valid as those experienced by France. The literature produced by any postcolonial author is not part of a center or periphery; rather, it is part of one postcolonial literary corpus.

Algerian-born Assia Djebar (b. 1936) exemplifies how postcolonial texts impact the francophone oeuvre. Djebar, daughter of an Arabic-speaking father and Berber-speaking mother and educated from an early age in French, is well known for her polyvocal works that retrieve “the stories of individual women ... to demonstrate their role in Algerian history” (de Medeiros 25). In her book Ces Vois Qui m’Assiègent, Djebar explains that because of her multicultural and multilingual upbringing in Algeria, she figuratively “hears” inspiration for her fictional characters in Arabic, Berber and French (29), which helps her to create what scholar Muriel Walker calls an oeuvre of “structure multicolore, presque une mosaïque ... poésie de l’arabe qui surgit dans les métaphores recherchées et le vocabulaire rare, [avec la] force de tornade du berbère spiralé” ‘multicoloured structure, mosaic-like … poetic usage of Arabic that manifests through apt metaphors and rare vocabulary, with the force of a tornado of whirling Berber’ (48). Djebar’s short story, Femmes d’Alger Dans Leur Appartement, exemplifies this mosaic style with its multiple perspectives from women of all classes (including Algerian natives and French visitors), its sectioned narration with the occasional use of italics for emphasis and its inclusion of Arabic words like hazab. Because Djebar hears voices of Algerian Berber and Arabic-speaking women, voices that are not heard by other francophone authors, her use of the language is unique and takes the French language to the unexplored limits as described by Moura.

The postcolonial francophone literary goal, then, is to replace French with francophone just as scholars have been replacing English with english. Capitalized English or French literature would be only that which comes from England or France, just as Mauritanian literature comes from Mauritania, yet if both a Mauritanian and a French person writes in the French language, they are both considered francophone authors. Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin suggest that this collapse of the literary hierarchy is achieved through the postcolonial “capacity to interrogate and subvert the imperial cultural formations,” specifically via abrogation and appropriation (11).[5] The aim of the postcolonial literary corpus, they advocate, is to inspire “an acceptance of difference on equal terms” (Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin 36). I propose an additional strategy for de-centering France in francophone studies: anthologizing.

The Call for a Postcolonial Francophone Literature Anthology

To anthologize is to select only a sliver of the endless options of texts that are available. Accepting that selections must be made, it is crucial to inquire why one author was chosen instead of another. Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin insist that a compilation is never neutral because it is a “privileging” of certain experiences that are “capable of being rendered as ‘literature’” over others that are not (88). Scholar Wail Hassan’s essay “World Literature in the Age of Globalization: Reflections of an Anthology” persuasively demonstrates an anthology’s act of privileging by using perhaps the most readily available and, therefore, authoritative anthology, the Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces, as an example.[6] Hassan argues that, although the compilation boasts a global perspective, it is actually “unabashedly” Eurocentric to the extent that “‘world literature’ [is] fully coterminous with ‘Western literature,’” resulting in “a fundamentally slanted vision of world literature that has always obeyed the logic of imperialism” (40-41). The choices made by Norton privilege Western texts over those from the rest of the world, establishing a hierarchy that is difficult to challenge pedagogically and practically.

Hassan’s slanted version of world literature (or francophone literature or any category of literature) has more extensive effects than a partial table of contents. Genre theorist Alistair Fowler insists that the “current canon sets limits to our understanding of literature, in several ways. The official canon is institutionalized through education, patronage, and journalism” (214). Scholar Jeffrey Di Leo further argues that anthologies “are shaped by pedagogies, and pedagogies shape anthologies ... [Anthologies] can empower subjects, ideologies, and canons, making them relevant to students and faculty, they can also disempower them and make them irrelevant. Anthologies have consequences, and are grounded in commitments” (5). Because collections of texts have such an impact on scholars and students – especially on young students who may not care to consider what exists outside of an assigned text – an anthology must be meticulously and consciouslycomposed.

Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin remind that, while publishers’ decisions create a ranking of literature, these same decisions offer an opportunity for “reconstructing” the canon that others have built (176). Fowler further encourages a hopeful outlook against an established authority by assuring that the “literary canon varies obviously – as well as unobviously (sic) – from age to age and reader to reader” (213). What is seemingly cemented as literature in High Schools and Colleges today will differ for future generations. However, the threat remains that the same kinds of literature will continue to be ignored as the canon shifts, particularly texts written by marginalized authors like women or francophone writers stranded on France’s periphery. In order to make the neglected text a part of the canon, anthologizers must make changes more profound than the addition of a few titles to the table of contents.

Speckling an authoritative collection like the Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces with a few new texts swallows them into the accepted canonical style more than it celebrates their novelty. Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin insist that the conditions of reading must change if the originality of marginalized literature is to be appreciably added to a canon (176). They argue that:

 A canon is not a body of texts per se, but rather a set of reading practices [which] are resident in institutional structures, such as education curricula and publishing networks. So the subversion of a canon involves the bringing-to-consciousness and articulation of these practices and institutions, and will result not only in the replacement of some texts by others, or the redeployment of some hierarchy of value within them, but equally crucially by the reconstruction of the so-called canonical texts through alternative reading practices. (189)

A postcolonial reading exemplifies such an alternative reading practice. While the strategies of teachers and students must change in order to understand and shape a new canon, their opportunity to do so depends upon the informed reading practice of scholars, publishers and anthologizers.

If to anthologize is to choose, then to choose is to argue for or against something. Critic Alan Schrift suggests that anthologizing is not so different from writing a thesis: to include one author over another argues that the former’s work more aptly testifies to the type of literature that the collection propounds (n. pag.). In other words, an anthology’s title states a thesis, and its contents support that thesis. Anthologizer Robert McLaughlin confesses his personal struggles with anthologizing in his concerns that the representation of one aspect of the text comes at the sacrifice of another:

How much was I distorting the texts by Murasaki and Rushdie, for example, by viewing them and asking the reader to view them through an admittedly Eurocentric aesthetic lens? In which other less obvious cases was I distorting texts by treating them aesthetically to the exclusion of their cultural contexts? (n. pag.)

McLaughlin decides that,“the more we [limit] the parameters of the anthology, the less we would be guilty of leaving out” (n. pag.). Perhaps a title along the lines of An Anthology of Hunting Stories by Alaskan Women Written Between 1985 and 1995 should replace the Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces type of anthology. Although an exaggeration, this hypothetical title reveals the problem with such a narrow thesis: it is pedagogically useless. I argue that, despite its comparatively broad range, an anthology of postcolonial francophone literature could nevertheless support a poignant thesis.

An anthology on postcolonial francophone literature would advocate an inclusive, egalitarian perspective on the postcolonial experience expressed by authors writing in French. This means that it would represent the formerly colonized, the former colonizers, immigrants and all sectors supposedly between such categories. Schrift’s standards for a successful anthology encourage a postcolonial francophone collection. He argues that an anthology need not instigate an entirely new tradition or even challenge existing traditions; according to Schrift, an anthology can “introduce a new field to an audience that should be interested but doesn’t yet know enough about the particular field to be interested ... [It] fills an intellectual void” (n. pag.). The fresh convergence of postcolonial and francophone theory would not only be illustrated by such a collection; it would be propagated.

The relatively new field of postcolonial francophone literature already affects the world’s view of the French language. Several websites offer resources for information on francophone authors and circumstances from all over the world.[7] Perhaps more encouragingly is the changing perspective in France, the supposed former literary authority. Even the most conservative of literary communities, the French Academy, begins to accept new influences on the French language. In itsstated aimto “fixer la langue française, de lui donner des règles, de la rendre pure et compréhensible par tous” ‘fix the French language, to give it rules, to make it pure and understandable by all,’theAcademytraditionallystrivesto “éviter tel ou tel mot étranger”‘avoid foreign words’ fromentering the French language (, n. pag.). However, in 2006 the Academy elected Djebar as their newest member. In her acceptance speech, she used the foreign word ijtihad to explain her feelings – a significant moment considering the Academy’s phobia of foreign words (“Réception de Mme Assia Djebar: Discours Prononcé dans la Séance Publique”). This speech and the induction of a writer expressing the many foreign voices already described, reveals the Academy’s increasing inclusion of other French-speaking communities. An anthology of postcolonial francophone literature, along with the continued insistence of scholars, authors and critics to acknowledge the diversity of francophone authors, would encourage the ideological shift that is already underway in the French Academy. This outlook equalizes all uses of the French language and perspectives of colonialism. Such an anthology would not only rescue the authors stranded on the periphery of France, but would also encourage a more accurate scholarship of francophone literature.


Works Cited


“Académie Francaise.” acadé np, nd. Web. April, 2010.

Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin. The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literature. London: Routledge, 1989. Print.

Caws, Mary Ann. The Yale Anthology of Twentieth-Century French Poetry. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004. Print.

Chénieux-Gendron, Jacqueline, and Martin Sorrell. Elles: A Bilingual Anthology of Modern French Poetry by Women. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1995. Print.

Corcoran, Patrick. The Cambridge Introduction to Francophone Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Print.

Coursil, Jacques, and Delphine Perret. “The Francophone Postcolonial Field.” Postcolonial Theory and Francophone Literary Studies. Ed. H. Adlai. Murdoch and Anne Donadey. Gainesville: University of Florida, 2005. Print.

Di Leo, Jeffrey R. “Anthologies.” Symploke: A Journal for the Intermingling of Literary, Cultural and Theoretical Scholarship. 8.1-2 (2000): 5-233. Print.

Djebar, Assia. Ces Voix Qui m’Assiègent: --En Marge de ma Francophonie. Paris: Albin Michel, 1999. Print.

---. Femmes d’Alger Dans Leur Appartement. Paris: Albin Michel, 2002. Print.

---. "Réception de Mme Assia Djebar: Discours Prononcé dans la Séance Publique." acadé, nd. Web. 25 December, 2010.

Forsdick, Charles and David Murphy. Postcolonial Thought in the French-Speaking World. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2009. Print.

Fowler, Alastair. Kinds of Literature: An Introduction to the Theory of Genres and Modes. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982. Print.

Hargreaves, Alec G. “A Neglected Precursor: Roland Barthes and the Origins of Postcolonialism.” Postcolonial Theory and Francophone Literary Studies. Ed. Adlai Murdoch and Anne Donadey. Gainesville: University of Florida, 2005. Print.

Hassan, Wail S. “World Literature in the Age of Globalization: Reflections of an Anthology.” College English. 63.1 (2000): 38. Print.

“In the World of African Literature: African and Women Authors.” Discipline of European Languages and Studies, French. University of Western Australia, 15 December 2010. Web. May 2010.

Laronde, Michel. “Displaced Discourses: Post(-)coloniality, Francophone Space(s), and the Literature(s) of Immigration in France.” Postcolonial Theory and Francophone Literary Studies. Ed. Adlai. Murdoch and Anne Donadey. Gainesville: University of Florida, 2005. Print.

Makward, Christiane P., Judith Graves Miller and Cynthia Running-Johnson. Plays by French and Francophone Women: A Critical Anthology. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994. Print.

McLaughlin, Robert L. “Anthologizing Contemporary Literature: Aesthetic, Cultural, Pedagogical, and Practical Considerations.” Symploke: A Journal for the Intermingling of Literary, Cultural and Theoretical Scholarship 8.1-2 (2000): 90-100. Print. de Medeiros, Ana. “An Interview with Assia Djebar.” Wasafiri.23.4 (2008) : 25-8. Print.

Moura, Jean-Marc. Littératures Francophones et Théorie Postcoloniale. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1999. Print.

Murdoch, H. Adlai, and Anne Donadey, eds. Postcolonial Theory and Francophone Literary Studies. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2005. Print.

Ndiaye, Christiane. Introduction aux Littératures Francophones: Afrique, Caraïbe, Maghreb. Montréal: Presses de l’Université de Montréal, 2004. Print.

Schrift, Alan D. “Confessions of an Anthology Editor.” Symploke: A Journal for the Intermingling of Literary, Cultural and Theoretical Scholarship. 8.1-2 (2000): 164-76. Print.

Semujanga, Josias. “Panorama Des Littératures Francophones.” Introduction aux Littératures Francophones: Afrique, Caraibe, Maghreb. Ed. Christiane Ndiaye. Montréal: Presses de l’Université de Montréal, 2004. Print.

“La Voix de la Diversité .” Internationale Organisation de La Francophonie, nd. Web. May 2010.

Walker, Muriel. “Femme d’Écriture Française: La Francographie Djebarienne.” Esprit Créateur.  48.4 (2008): 47-55. Print.

Young, Robert. Postcolonialism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. Print.




Alison Turner earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in Comparative Literature from the University of Colorado at Boulder, and has nearly completed her Master of Arts in Comparative Literature at the University of Alberta.  Her research interests include canon formation, national literatures and the short story genre.



[1] Unless otherwise noted, all translations are my own.

[2] The introduction to the Yale anthology specifies the compilation as one of “French-language poetry” and boasts a “wide-ranging selection of francophone authors” (meaning those outside of France) (xxv-xxvi). The list of contents for the 2004 anthology includes non-French authors such as Andrée Chedid (born in Cairo) and Amina Said (born in Tunisia). What I propose, then, is that replacing the word French with francophone would dispel this ambivalence. “Modern French Poetry by Women” would include only authors identifying with France, and “Modern Francophone Poetry by Women” would indicate the international scope of the current compilation.

[3] This notation, though popular, is not accepted by all. For example, Ashcroft, Griffith and Tillins’, influential The Empire Writes Back continues to use the hyphen even when speaking of ideology, not chronology. In this paper, I use the unhyphenated postcolonial to indicate the methodology and have conformed all quotations accordingly. 

[4] Because of postcolonialism’s principles of fluidity and hybridization, it is often grouped under umbrellas of Western movements like postmodernism, poststructuralism or feminist criticism. Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin argue that, although postcolonialism overlaps with these theories in many ways, it is crucial to recognize postcolonialism as “prior to and independent of them” in order to prevent the “[assimilation of] postcolonial works whose political orientations and experimental formations have been deliberately designed to counteract such European assimilation” (155, 172). This type of assimilation, they argue, reinforces European authority so as to “once again [make] the rest of the world a peripheral term in Europe’s self-questioning” (172-173).

[5] Abrogation is the “refusal of the categories of the imperial culture, its aesthetic, its illusory standard of normative or ‘correct’ usage, and its assumptions of a traditional and fixed meaning ‘inscribed’ in the words,” and appropriation is “the process by which the language is taken and made to ‘bear the burden’ of one’s own cultural experience, or, as Raja Rao puts it, to ‘convey in a language that is not one’s own the spirit that is one’s own’” (Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin 38-39).

[6] The most recent edition of the Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces was published in 1999.

[7] TheInternational Organisation of La Francophonie (, for example, provides statistics about the French language and linguistic and cultural francophone projects from all over the world.  There are also more specific websites like “In the World of African Literature: African and Women Authors,” giving information about francophone publications and authors.



Inquire: Journal of Comparative Literature

Brought to you by Graduate Students from the Program in Comparative Literature
at the University of Alberta

ISSN 1923-5879
Email: inquire [at]

Join the Discussion