Books

Estelle-Sarah Bulle: Guadeloupe in Four Voices

Born in the Paris suburbs to a Guadeloupean father and a Franco-Belgian mother, the author looks back over 60 years of a family’s history between Guadeloupe and France. Written in French with smatterings of Creole, Where Dogs Bark with Their Tails, her debut novel, which was just released in the U.S., is an exciting testimony to the interior exile of people from the French Caribbean and the search for one’s roots.
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© Sophie Carrère/Télérama

There are four narrators – three women and one man – who recount the story of three generations of the Ezechiels, a family from Morne-Galant, an inhospitable area of Guadeloupe. The one who speaks first, the oldest, is called Antoine. Originally named Apollonne, she has always kept her nom de savane (“savanna name”), the one given to children to chase away evil spirits. Pious, wild, and no stranger to witchcraft, Antoine is the oldest daughter of Hilaire, the patriarch, and his wife Eulalie, who descends from the Blancs-Matignon line of white, blue-eyed plantation owners who refused to mix with the descendants of slaves. The second voice is “the niece,” a young woman born in 1974 in Créteil, a new town in the Parisian suburbs built in the early 1970s, who was raised by a Guadeloupean father and a Belgian mother. They are then joined by Hilaire’s two other children: Lucinde, who is as well-behaved and conformist as Antoine is brazen, and Petit-Frère, the youngest, who is also the father of “the niece.”

Drawing inspiration from William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying for its choral form and succession of monologues, Estelle-Sarah Bulle unravels a family saga between 1947 and 2006, written in the first person and intertwined with a little-known collective history. Contrasting the perspective of four characters with very different experiences, the author recounts two visits by Charles de Gaulle to the French Caribbean, the quashed revolt of May 1967 one year before the student and workers’ movement of May 68, the exile of the younger generation to the city of Pointe-à-Pitre, followed by their massive exodus to the French mainland to work in factories and government offices. Through the character of the niece, the novelist explores the search for one’s roots, “the constant feeling of confusion, of being out of step,” the challenge of being Black in France, and the need to look for models with whom to identify in the United States.

While she never learned Creole, Estelle Sarah-Bulle, who was influenced by Patrick Chamoiseau’s novel Texaco when she was a teenager, has reinvented her father’s language in her writing, introducing expressions that drive the pace of the book and lend it a poetic dimension. Blending narrative mastery and questions about transmission, she has written a radiant debut novel that highlights the ambiguous and complex relationship France has with its minorities.

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Where Dogs Bark with Their Tails by Estelle-Sarah Bulle, translated from French by Julia Grawemeyer, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022. 304 pages, 27 dollars.


Article published in the July 2022 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.

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