User's Guide to Exile
Graduate student conference looking at literary exile in the age of globalization finds that it's not all bad.
Published: Tuesday, November 01, 2005
Julie Nack Ngue and Amy Marczewski
The Department of French and Francophone Studies at UCLA hosts an annual graduate student conference organized entirely by the graduate students of the department. As co-chairs of this year's conference, we chose the topic of exile and invited Congolese author Emmanuel Dongala and Yale professor of African and Francophone literature Christopher Miller to contribute keynote addresses on 13-14 October. Our call for papers solicited a large response; we received a record number of abstracts and had to turn down excellent proposals from universities in Canada and France and across the United States.
The Tenth Annual French and Francophone Studies Graduate Student Conference, "Exil: mode(s) d’emploi—Experiencing Exile in Literature and the Arts," boasted 16 participants and two keynote speakers, and brought the entire faculty of the department of French and Francophone studies together to celebrate the occasion. The conference was also sponsored by the UCLA African Studies Center, the Art History Department, and the Fowler Museum of Cultural History.
Selecting and developing a theme for our tenth annual conference was no small task, given the significance of the occasion. Since we are both scholars of Francophone African literature, certain themes automatically came to mind, but of course we wanted to choose a topic that would appeal to a wide audience and solicit interesting and varied scholarship from our peers across disciplines. As the topic of exile emerged, we began to consider it in terms of its "success" in the field of Francophone African literature: examples of prolific authors living in exile range from Tierno Monénembo and Véronique Tadjo to our distinguished guest Emmanuel Dongala.
We therefore decided to reevaluate exile as an experience as well as a state of being; a means of movement and a state of latency; a means to an end and an end in itself; a pathway to creativity and an agent of artistic censorship. But how can we reconsider the stakes of exile without automatically resorting to negative connotations? Our title references this reconsideration in the expression mode(s) d’emploi (user’s guide), which encourages, through the pluralization of "mode," a reinvestigation of the very nature of exile itself, be it positive, negative or something in between.
Our graduate student panels offered many readings of exile, from the role of language in exile and the performance of exile to linguistic exile and performing exile. We listened to a musicologist discuss how exile affected a Canadian composer in the mid-twentieth century and to an historian who demonstrated the ways in which exile is implicated in diasporic studies. Besides these social ramifications of exile, we also considered psychic ones: self-imposed exile was an important theme that was broached in the context of a poet's experimentation with the drug mescaline and in the context of one of French author Jean-Paul Sartre’s late theatrical works.
Keynote speakers Dongala and Miller were present at many of the graduate student panels this year, a rare occurrence at graduate student conferences. Their interest in the graduates’ scholarship was evidenced in their keynote addresses, which made explicit reference to some of these papers. Dongala guided us to a new understanding of the exilic experience for contemporary African writers in the age of globalization, where migration is central and the “return home” is slowly losing its relevance. Christopher Miller explored the silence of Francophone literature on the topic of slavery, as well as the important place Edouard Glissant’s recent novel Sartorius holds as a narrative of slavery and African exile. The audience discussion following the addresses was stimulating, and provided a wonderful precursor to the reception that followed. As it was our tenth anniversary, we celebrated with French wine, hors d’oeuvres, and a jazz quartet.
We have now passed on the torch to the 2006 conference chairs, who are already planning next year's event. Theme to be announced!
Julie Nack Ngue and Amy Marczewski are graduate students in the UCLA Department of French and Francophone Studies.