The Suicide Archive(s): Literary Resistance in the Wake of French Empire
Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
This dissertation tracks how literature and aesthetic works figure and extend subversive genealogies of suicidal resistance in former sites of French empire. Despite its pervasiveness as a response to French slavery and (neo)colonial expansion, suicide falls out of frame both in monumentalized accounts of colonization and more recent historiographical work. Despite an immense literature on suicide in metropolitan France from the eighteenth century onward, there is a near total critical silence with respect to the literally countless examples of enslaved or colonized peoples destroying themselves and their cities in deadly acts of resistance against French conquest. My dissertation argues that literature registers what otherwise recedes from view. In the absence of archival sources or in the presence of overdetermined (post)colonial scripts, aesthetic works keep alive occulted histories of African and Afro-Caribbean resistance. The Suicide Archive(s) identifies a problem of legibility and formulates a critical imperative, theorizing suicide as a form of political writing in extremis. My dissertation begins from the observation that the “subaltern” has always been speaking, but that she so often has had to voice her message of resistance in the fatal and fragile idiom of suicide. I show how aesthetic works train the perceptual tools necessary to surface these recessed histories. In this sense, my dissertation is also a defense of literature’s capacity to provide other forms of archiving, to lay out hermeneutical and ethical alternatives through fiction, and to construct new models for writing history by way of points of suicidal resistance. The five chapters of this dissertation chart a roughly triangular itinerary, effectively reversing and retracing the French Atlantic Triangle. Chapter One, “Silenced Histories: Suicide and Slavery in the French Atlantic,” unearths a silenced history of suicide as a response to enslavement. From scant archival traces, I move on to examine literary texts that creatively mine a history of slave suicide in the Atlantic world, reading Daniel Maximin’s quasi-epistolary novel L’Isolé Soleil (1981) and Fabienne Kanor’s fugue-like Humus (2006) together. Both works unsettle the relationship of suicide to the colonial-imperial script by writing into the gaps in dominant discourses and constructing alternative “suicide archives.” Chapter Two, “Other Archives: Suicide and Senegalese Resistance in Wolof and French,” explores the oral history and literary responses surrounding a national tragedy in Senegal: the Talaatay Nder, when an entire village of women self-immolated to resist enslavement during the nineteenth century. Reading across languages and between oral and scriptural archives, I reconstruct the resistance of Nder and trace its reinscription into narrative. My reading focuses on Alioune Badara Bèye’s historical tragedy Nder en flammes (1988) and Boubacar Boris Diop’s first Wolof-language novel, Doomi Golo (2003). Chapter Three, “Impossible Inscriptions: Reading Diouana’s Silence in Ousmane Sembène’s La Noire de… (1962/1966),” rereads perhaps the most iconic suicide in Francophone African cinema and literature: that of Diouana, the protagonist of Sembène’s short story and eponymous film, La Noire de… I first recast Diouana’s suicide as a textual flashpoint where layered histories of resistance and refusal converge. I then reconstruct the real life and death of Diouana Gomis (1927–58) through unstudied archival documents. Chapter Four, “Multiple Exposures: Geologies and Genealogies of Suicidal Resistance,” develops a literary hermeneutic informed by photographic techniques of exposure as a means to access sedimented histories of loss. Focusing on how Constantine-born writer Nourredine Saadi exposes historical and literary examples of suicidal resistance in his novels, and on the ways photographs circulate in his work, I argue for a poetics of superimposition that supplies more supple frames for thinking Algerian history and suicide together. Chapter Five, “Strange Bedfellows: On Suicide Bombing and Literature,” shows how literature and literary criticism open up conceptual possibilities when official discourses meet the limit of suicide bombing. I analyze Mahi Binebine’s novel about the 2003 Casablanca suicide bombings, Les Étoiles de Sidi Moumen (2010), which explodes taboos around suicide terrorism, contesting the idea that there is no language for understanding the suicide bomber. Homicidal suicide forms an unsettling coda to my reflections on suicide, resistance, violence, history, and aesthetics. An explosion of text and author in the same blast, suicide bombing throws into relief human precarity while confronting us with a message that is singular and unverifiable. To respond requires recourse to the imagination and to a language beyond its referential limits. My dissertation gives a name to this—literature.
Calhoun, Doyle David, "The Suicide Archive(s): Literary Resistance in the Wake of French Empire" (2022). Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Dissertations. 460.