Raylene Ramsay’s monograph The Literatures of the French Pacific: Reconfiguring Hybridity has a misleading title. The book deals not with the French Pacific as a whole, but specifically with the French-speaking country of New Caledonia. I can only think this title was a marketing decision reflecting how little known is this country in the English-speaking world. Ramsay is the leading anglophone scholar of New Caledonian literature. Whereas her previous book Nights of Storytelling: A Cultural History of Kanaky–New Caledonia is a compilation of extracts from New Caledonian texts, embedded in a contextualising narrative, The Literatures of the French Pacific is a full-blown critical study based on her many journal articles in this field.
The plural ‘Literatures’ is well chosen to reflect the multiple kinds of literature that have arisen and cross-fertilised each other in New Caledonia: the oral tales of the indigenous Kanak; translation of these into written French texts; memoirs and studies written by European explorers, missionaries, and colonists; emergent literary writing by Kanak authors; and literary writing from the French settler community. Ramsay deploys postcolonial critical apparatus from the likes of Homi Bhaba and Stuart Hall to ruminate upon the space of encounter between Kanak, European, and other immigrant communities (Wallisian, Tahitian, Vietnamese); but develops her own theorisation, in terms of cultural ‘hybridity’ and ‘métissage’, of the ways that New Caledonian literatures give expression to the unique circumstances of this country, in which neither the Kanak nor the white Caledonian community constitutes a majority of the population.
Particularly interesting to me as a writer who is also a storyteller is Ramsay’s analysis of Kanak oral tales and the ways these have been reworked, not only in translations and retellings, but also in plays and prose fiction. She gives very detailed attention to the writings of Déwé Gorodé, the first Kanak novelist (also a poet and politician); and evident in these and other Kanak writings is a understanding of reality that resists rationalist European norms and reflects the continuing importance to Kanak of the invisible world of spirits and its influence upon human well-being. Equally interesting is Ramsay’s discussion of contemporary white writers, such as Claudine Jacques and Nicolas Kurtovitch, who have moved beyond the preconceptions of their literary predecessors and interfaced with Kanak tradition in ways that are respectful, informed, and creatively innovative; work that transcends default anxieties about cultural appropriation and makes a positive contribution towards fulfilling the vision of New Caledonian peoples’ ‘common destiny’ in their beautiful island home.