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Twenty Years of Île en île: A Conversation with Thomas C. Spear

By Words Without Borders

From 1998 until January 2021, Professor Thomas C. Spear edited Île en île, an extensive virtual archive of literature from French-speaking islands and their diasporas. Although there will no longer be updates or new material, the entire Île en île archive remains accessible online. Today on WWB Daily, Professor Spear speaks with us about the evolution of Île en île over more than two decades and recommends some of his favorite authors in the archive, many of whom have yet to be translated into English.

WWB: Can you tell us about the history of Île en Île? How did you get started, and how has the project evolved over the years?

Thomas C. Spear (TCS): Île en île began soon after my pioneering presence online in French in the 1990s, seeing how the internet’s erasure of frontiers permitted a global dissemination of diverse documentation, bypassing Europe entirely. It branched off from my Francophone resources site that began in 1996, with specific needs for a course I was teaching in Caribbean literature in 1998. There was nothing available online. The internet had hardly begun, but it immediately offered a means to share not only with my own students, but also with other scholars and teachers studying the Francophone Caribbean. The evolution over the years was technical, following the transformation of the Internet (adding audio, then video material) as well as quantitative, giving breadth and depth to the biographies and bibliographies, with the intention to move beyond familiar canonic and geographical considerations of literature. The history and evolution of the site was explained in English during a webinar sponsored by the CUNY Center for the Humanities last November (the video is available here). In French, there's a detailed "historique" of Île en île on the website.


WWB: Why did you feel it was important to have a resource specifically devoted to the literature and culture of Francophone islands?

TCS: With the exception of emerging databases for the literature of Québec, there were few resources available online (during the first years of the internet) for teaching global literature in French. With the vast lacunae starting to be filled in by specialists of sub-Saharan Africa and the Maghreb, my personal interest in the Caribbean led to natural associations to other under-studied islands with cultural production in French. The islands in three bodies of water (the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean, and the Pacific) remain the primary focus of the archive. It was important to make available to scholars and the general public reliable encyclopedic information and literary samples. I knew these primary resources would lead to discoveries by students and teachers.

It was important to remain limited in scope, while maintaining logic. Francophone islands include many others, from the Mediterranean and the Atlantic (Djerba, Gorée, etc.), without a sizable literary production, and, after all, even Montréal is an island! French Guiana is the notable continental exception to the islands, but its authors have many (geographical, linguistic, historical) reasons to be included with writers of the Francophone Caribbean.

The geographies were determined partly by the greatest needs. Île en île presents many authors from the diaspora, as well, including authors who do not write in French; at times, one might even question whether these writers are “of” the islands.


WWB: Who is the main audience of Île en Île, and what kind of response have you gotten from readers?

TCS: The audience has changed over the years, especially as what one could call the Global South has become more connected to the internet. The top countries of visitors remain France, the US, Canada, and Haiti, but those numbers do not reflect the proportionate numbers of visits from the featured islands (and French Guiana) with small populations. The majority of visits are from a general public, but presence from countries such as Italy, Brazil, and Germany seem to indicate places not only where there are diasporic communities, but also where sporadic rises of views of the pages (and videos) of particular authors seem to indicate works of literature studied in classrooms.

The response has been overwhelming, with all kinds of requests to contact authors, to publicize publications, or for help with research. I filter the responses to the videos (not authorizing, for example, the many comments on conversations concerning Vodou that exhort readers to find Jesus, or the many commercial promotions), but they are primarily from a general public, and can be quite emotional, as when viewers are touched by a text or an anecdote that speaks to them personally or are moved by seeing or hearing an author (often deceased) for the first time, known otherwise through his or her writing.

“Even relatively well-known names are not often taught nor read.”

WWB: What have you enjoyed most about the project? What has been most challenging?

TCS: Getting to know so many of the writers—and their works—and my travel to these islands and countries has given depth to my understanding of historical and contemporary realities. It has been personally enriching in many ways. With an extensive address book and the public presentations of the authors online, I’ve been directly and indirectly rewarded, building or solidifying many authors’ reputations on a global level through many invitations, translations, and intercontinental connections.

I could tell endless anecdotes, not limited to the many off-the-beaten-path adventures, unexpected coincidences, and encounters…

The archive has served the curiosity of many. I’m pleased to know that Caribbean authors are discovered by readers in West and North Africa, for example, where such authors are not necessarily on the curriculum or in local bookstores. In Haiti, the most popular author viewed is Oswald Durand (a poet of over a century ago), so it’s a pleasure to know that even on a cell phone, internet surfers can find succinct, factual presentations and discover other national literary treasures.

It’s been challenging to devote so much time to Île en île when I have a heavy program teaching in an urban, public university without the resources to support such research, deemed marginal for funding in the United States (when working in French), and when Canadian and French institutions support primarily their own citizens (although the French rarely pay much attention to writers from their own overseas territories).

I was a bit pestered by many self-published authors who asked for their place, when I was already limited in time when trying to present neglected literary figures, especially of the past. While I’m pleased by the historical depth of the archive, it’s not without regret that there was not more time nor resources to devote to the never-ending needs.


WWB: Île en Île is a vast archive with work by more than four hundred authors. Can you recommend a few favorite writers, whether established or up-and-coming, for newcomers to Île en Île?     

TCS: Some of the many “greats” are certainly already well-known; the archive presents considerable bibliographies of criticism of such writers, especially novelists. Only a few? There are so many. In prose, I could recommend Alfred Alexandre or Chantal T. Spitz, for example, who merit attention and whose works I have not yet taught. Of those I’ve brought to the classroom, Raharimanana is a name worth mentioning when completing a list of a “few” writers of exceptional talent. Of the many poets, even relatively well-known names are not often taught nor read, including Saint-John Perse, Édouard Maunick, Léon Laleau, and, especially neglected, the magnificent poet Jacques Rabemananjara.

A number of up-and-coming novelists have been getting much attention with first works—promising talents from whom I'll await subsequent texts to see if the buzz they're generating now will last. More established writers worth recommending include Kettly Mars and Fabienne Pasquet, when thinking of novelists. It's also worth mentioning important essayists as well as writers whose works are more important in their staged form than in print. In addition to playwrights, I think of contemporary slam poets such as Négresse Colas and the artist Maya Kamaty, who has put to music (not only her own texts but) poetry by writers from Réunion and Mauritius. The archive is indeed vast, and includes writers I've yet to read myself, including the Tahitian novelist Titaua Peu, an example of the many authors presented on Île en île whose works merit discovery.


WWB: For our readers who don’t speak French, can you recommend a few of your favorite authors from Île en Île whose work is available in English?

TCS: It’s worth mentioning the vast numbers of authors who are not translated and who should be! For those that are, it’s hard not to return to fundamental texts by authors such as Jacques-Stephen Alexis, Marie Vieux Chauvet, Édouard Glissant, and Simone Schwarz-Bart.

I take my hat off to the many translators who rarely receive the recognition they deserve when they render the complexities and beauties of the original texts, ultimately an impossible task. I’m at times surprised by the commercial and academic attention paid to some authors that have been translated; certain themes clearly suit English-language readers more. Having taught some favorite texts in translation by René Philoctète and Lyonel Trouillot without enormous success makes me want to ask English readers to give them another try!

I know of translations “in the works,” so I hope English-language readers will soon be able to read some of my favorite works by Nassur Attoumani and Michèle Rakotoson; a short novel by Carl de Souza will be published in English in 2021.

Again, it’s hard to pick just a few! Authors whose works have been translated relatively recently and who might not be well known to English speakers include Marie-Célie Agnant, Gerty Dambury, René Depestre, Ananda Devi, Dany Laferrière, and Yanick Lahens.


WWB: Now that Île en Île is being archived, what’s next for you?

TCS: There should be a few events in the near future to speak of the recent publication of a collection I edited, Une soirée haïtienne: short, original texts by thirty contemporary authors from Haiti. With online teaching and the intense focus on putting a closure to the archives of Île en île, it seems I’ve spent most of the COVID-19 year in front of the computer. With the fall semester and the website in my rearview mirror, I’m looking forward to starting 2021 by catching up on some of my reading. And, after more than two decades promoting other writers, it’s time to focus on my own writing. I’ve neglected two large manuscripts well underway, and will likely finish the second one first, an autofiction set in the Midwest with a troubled counternarrative to the idyllic façade of the baby boom years. The other is a sidafiction of the 1980s, celebrating the lives of nine “characters” who died of AIDS. I find it almost amusing to see what attracts readers and publishers in English and in French. I’m told I should be writing in English, for potentially larger audiences or better publishing opportunities, but while the two languages are natural to me in different ways, French has taken precedence in my writing.

Thomas C. Spear is Professor of French at Lehman College and the Graduate Center of CUNY. Author of numerous articles on French and Francophone novelists, he specializes particularly on forms of autofiction. His publications as editor include two collective volumes of short texts by Haitian authors—Une journée haïtienne (2007, reprint 2020) and Une soirée haïtienne (2020)—and, with Colette Boucher, Paroles et silences chez Marie-Célie Agnant (2013). For more information, visit his website.

Related Reading:

Telling Truths with New Words: Jeffrey Zuckerman on Translating Mauritian Literature

The City and the Writer: In Antananarivo, Madagascar, with Naivo

Neverending Story: Haiti's Vibrant Literary Sphere Endures

Published Mar 4, 2021   Copyright 2021 Words Without Borders

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