Prospectus: Leonora Sansay’s Secret History (2007)

This is my prospectus for Leonora Sansay’s Secret History. Some of my ideas are a little diffuse at the moment and I may be trying to accomplish too much in this paper but as always constructive criticism and other secondary source suggestions will be greatly appreciated.

In Secret History or The Horrors of St. Domingo, Leonora Sansay complicates our understanding of the Haitian revolution as a colonial race war by foregrounding gender relations and narratives of domestic violence. Rather than the brutal massacres and military conflicts of the times, Sansay suggests that the true “Horrors of St. Domingo” pertain to the repressed history of female oppression, particularly through the tyrannical institution of marriage. By embroiling acts of patriarchal violence in the context of a broader revolutionary struggle, Sansay troubles the conventional conception of the “domestic” as a closed, private sphere. In my paper I am interested in exploring how male-female relations are politicized in the novel, how they are shaped by colonial power structures and deeply implicated in the colonial project.

Many of Mary’s letters describe an intense “public joy” for impending balls (71). The prospect of participating in such a social engagement seems to enable Clara to physically overcome her yellow fever and emotional depression. Mary further emphasizes that this is the first time Clara appears to be truly happy since their arrival on the island. Therefore, rather than frivolous, peripheral events, I argue that these balls serve as a crucial space for the performance of “normative” male-female relations—structured dances, courtship, and romance—to reinforce the fantasy of colonial control and social order. Despite the constant uprisings and threats from Haitian revolutionaries, Sansay suggests that these extravagant displays of wealth, fashion, and culture are necessary to uphold a sense of European supremacy and indeed a means for the French to convince themselves of their ability to recapture their colonial possessions.

Sansay presents the courtships that occur in the ballroom as a revealing lens for understanding the broader revolutionary conflicts of the times. In one letter Mary notes: “the gallantry of the French officers is fatiguing from its sameness. They think their appearance alone sufficient to secure a conquest, and do not conceive it necessary to give their yielding mistresses a decent excuse by paying them little attention” (77). Here, the deliberate embroiling of the rhetoric of colonial conquest in situations of courtship and romance compels a political reading of these lines. When Mary suggests that the French believe their “appearance alone” is enough to ensure victory, there is an ambiguous conflation between physical appearance, in terms of the attractiveness to win ladies’ hearts and literal arrival on the island as sufficient to defeat the Haitian insurgents. Mary critiques the French for being totally absorbed in the fantasy of European white supremacy and failing to recognize the precariousness of their situation, an insight made possible by her position as an American woman in Haiti.

But while the balls perpetuate a colonial fantasy, they also have real political consequences as funds are drained to pay for these lavish social events and soldiers’ attention is drawn away from the riots and military conflicts. Clara’s relationship with General Rochambeau particularly demonstrates how male-female interactions are not only shaped by the conditions of the Haitian revolutions but also directly influence colonial politics. In the novel, Rochambeau uses unsafe wartime circumstances as an excuse to lure Clara to his home and later imposes an embargo to prevent her from leaving the island. Sansay therefore re-writes women into the colonial race narrative of the Haitian revolution, not as simply subjects of private domestic abuse but rather figures of public, political consequence.

In her essay, “The Secret History of the Early American Novel: Leonara Sansay and Revolution in Saint Domingue,” Elizabeth Maddock Dillon further discusses how the depiction of “elite, white domestic relations” parallels and intersects in interesting ways with the “anti-colonial revolution” (78). She asserts that while Clara is initially introduced as a “French colonial wife,” General Rochambeau’s continual pursuit and attempt to conquer her, transforms Clara into an oppressed subject whose body faces the threat of colonization (91). Dillon also notes that in the novel, Sansay figures female liberation as the surprising, simultaneous consequence of the Haitian revolution: “when Mary and Clara flee Saint Domingue for Cuba, they repeatedly find themselves in the company of unhusbanded women who appear to blossom in the absence of the men who previously controlled them” (92). By the end of Secret History we do see an emerging transnational, cross-racial network of women that strongly parallels the “Underground Railroad” in helping oppressed peoples attain freedom. In my paper, however, I want to shift the focus to a more nuanced analysis of the complex and highly antagonistic female relations depicted at the beginning of the novel, which can be problematically overlooked if we too readily embrace the feminist fantasy Sansay leaves us with. The Secret History does not present the Haitian revolution as merely a racial, colonial conflict or even a simple battle between the sexes. Sansay also vividly describes the brutal acts of violence that women commit against each one another.

Jeremy D. Popkin, in “Facing Racial Revolution: Captivity Narratives and Identity in the Saint-Domingue Insurrection,” asserts that the Haitian revolution sharply destabilized Euro-American conceptions of race by demonstrating that people of color were capable of successfully organizing a revolt and defeating a white colonizing power. Sansay’s novel reveals another interesting facet of this argument by presenting accounts where women of color pose a real threat to white women, emerging as competitive rivals for male desire and affection. In my paper I intend to examine the colonial structures that fuel the murderous jealousy and ruthless competition between the women in Haiti. I will particularly explore the implications of Mary’s systematic, almost anthropological observation and classification of women and whether the common vulnerability towards patriarchal violence and domestic abuse can transcend national, racial and class difference to serve as unifying link for the establishment of a transatlantic female network.

Works Consulted

Buck-Morss, Susan. “Part One: Hegel and Haiti.” Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009. 3-75. Print. (Annotation)

Dillon, Elizabeth Maddock. “The Secret History of the Early American Novel: Leonora Sansay and Revolution in Saint Domingue.” Novel 40.1/2 (2006): 77-103. Print. (Annotation)

Drexler, Michael J. “Haiti, Modernity, and U.S. Identities.” Early American Literature 43.2. (2008): 453-65. Print.

Fischer, Sibylle. “Introduction.” Modernity Disavowed: Haiti and the Cultures of Slavery in the Age of Revolution. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004. 1-38. Print. (Annotation)

Gaul, Theresa Strouth. “Recovering Recovery: Early American Women and Legacy’s Future.” Legacy 26.2 (2009): 262-83. Print.

Popkin, Jeremy D. “Facing Racial Revolution: Captivity Narratives and Identity in the Saint-Domingue Insurrection.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 36.4 (2003): 511-33. Print. (Annotation)

Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. “An Unthinkable History: The Haitian Revolution as a Non-event.” Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Boston: Beacon Press, 1995. 70-107. Print. (Annotation)

Woertendyke, Gretchen. “Romance to Novel: A Secret History.” Narrative 17.3 (2009): 255-73. Print. (Annotation)

Abstract: Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt (2004)

Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt (2004): Unsanctioned (Hi)stories of Love Caught in the Circuits of Global Capitalism

In The Book of Salt (2004), Monique Truong challenges the conventional portrayal of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas’ lesbian love relationship as an indication of progress and greater tolerance towards aberrant sexual identities. By re-imagining their romance from the perspective of Binh, their live-in Vietnamese cook, Truong accentuates how Stein and Toklas’ relationship becomes a new normative model of love that renders Binh’s queer romances illegitimate because they cross racial, cultural, and class lines. In “The End(s) of Race,” David Eng emphasizes that Stein and Toklas are able to emerge as “the iconic lesbian couple of historical modernism” through the “forgetting of both Asia and Africa,” of queer relationships like Binh and Lattimore’s, a Vietnamese exile and American mulatto. While Stein and Toklas’ romance has been inscribed in history, Eng reveals how Binh’s love becomes a history that must be told as fiction. I further this discussion by considering how colonization and global capitalism perpetuate this historical erasure. Truong demonstrates how Binh’s status as an exiled, migrant laborer renders his love vulnerable to commodification. She presents the job hunt as a compulsory “courtship” Binh must engage in due to desperate financial straits and that as a chef he performs labor akin to prostitution.

As someone whose success in work and love hinges on ever-fluctuating market flows, Binh’s life is deprived of historical coherence—localized time and space. Unlike Stein and Toklas whose relationship has been historically integrated as part of the “Modernist” movement, Truong suggests that the romance of queer migrant laborers often remains omitted. I argue, however, that Truong reveals the power of fiction to recover marginalized, repressed (hi)stories of love. The novel allows Binh to re-appropriate the voice that has been caught and silenced in the circuits of global capitalism, providing him the agency to narrate his own tale.

Works Consulted

Babb, Florence E. “Queering Love and Globalization.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies. 13.1 (2007): 111-123. Print.

Bhabha, Homi K. “Introduction: Location of Culture” The Location of Culture. New york: Routledge, 1994. 1-18. Print.

Brocheux, Pierre. “Ho Chi Minh: A Biography.” Encyclopedia Britannica. 2008. 14 Mar. 2010. . Web.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge, 1999. Print.

Ciuraru, Carmela. “Gertrude Stein’s Cook.” Lambda Book Report 11.7 (2003): 24-5. Print.

Clausen, Jan. “Review: The Cook’s Tale; the Book of Salt Read.” The Women’s Review of Books 20.10/11 (2003): 23. Print.

Cohler, Deborah: “Teaching Transnationally: Queer Studies and Imperialist Legacies in Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt.” Radical Teacher. 82 (2008): 25-31. Print.

Eng, David L. “The End(s) of Race.” PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 123 (2008): 1479-93. Print. (Annotation)

Fanon, Frantz. “The Fact of Blackness.” Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove Press, 1967. 109-140. Print.

Hooks, bell. “Loving Blackness as Political Resistance.” Black Looks Race and Representation. New York: South End Press, 1999. 9-20. Print.

Jackson, Peter A. “Capitalism and Global Queering: National Markets, Parallels among Sexual Cultures and Multiple Queer Modernities.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies. 15:3 (2009): 357-387. Print.

Luibhéid, Eithne. “Queer/Migration: An Unruly Body of Scholarship.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 14.2-3 (2008): 169-190. Print.

—. “Sexuality, Migration, and the Shifting Line between Legal and Illegal Status.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 14.2-3 (2008): 289-315. Print. (Annotation)

Lowe, Lisa. Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics. Durham: Duke University Press, 1996. Print.

Marx, Karl. “The Commodity.” Capital: Volume I. Trans. Ben Fowkes. New York: Penguin, 1992.125-177. Print.

Povinelli, Elizabeth. Empire of Love: Toward a Theory of Intimacy, Genealogy, and Carnality. Durham: Duke UP, 2006. Print.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1979. Print.

Troeung, Y-Dang. “‘A Gift or a Theft Depends on Who is Holding the Pen’: Postcolonial Collaborative Autobiography and Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt.” MFS Modern Fiction Studies. 56.1 (2010): 113-135. Print. (Annotation)

Truong, Monique. The Book of Salt. New York: First Mariner Books, 2004. Print.

Wang, Ban. “Reimagining Political Community: Diaspora, Nation-State, and the Struggle for Recognition.” Modern Drama 48.2 (2005): 249-271. Print.

Xu, Wenying. “Sexuality, Colonialism, and Ethnicity in Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt and Mei Ng’s Eating Chinese Food Naked.” Eating Identities. Manoa: University of Hawaii UP, 2007. Print.

Žindžiuvienė, Ingrida’s. “Transtextual Bridge Between the Postmodern and the Modern: The Theme of ‘Otherness’ in Monique Truong’s novel The Book of Salt (2003) and Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1932).” Literatūra 45.5 (2007): 147-155. Print.