Jean-Charles Uses Language, Culture To Talk About Gender

Next week, Ohio State University Press will publish Conflict Bodies: The Politics of Rape Representation in the Francophone Imaginary, about violence toward women in Francophone Africa, by Regine Jean-Charles, an assistant French professor in Boston College’s romance langauges and literatures department.

Jean-Charles offered some thoughts on the subject of the book: “Because of the history and politics of these countries, people write about, talk about, and theorize about violence a lot, but less attention is given to representations of sexual violence,” she said.

She is specifically interested in the issue of rape in Africa. “Instead of just talking about the rape of the African continent symbolically, we must also talk about what rape means for the bodies and subjects affected by it,” she said.

The book is also about how rape is represented in literature, film, and photography.

Jean-Charles, who is currently on maternity leave, began shopping the book in 2011. In addition to making a contribution to Francophone studies, she also wanted to make a contribution to gender and African and African diaspora studies.

Jean-Charles tries to teach courses related to her research. “It’s really great to talk with students about [these issues],” she said. “Sexual violence is a hard topic, but students were interested in learning more about the subject in the context of literature.”

Jean-Charles teaches courses in both French and English. Although her approach remains the same to both types of classes, the experience is quite different for students. “In romance languages, I get students who are not necessarily interested in the subject matter,” she said. “What I love about that is that [for] my students in French, the world really opens up to them when they realize there are black people who are writing in French.”

One of Jean-Charles student’s lives changed after studying Francophone novels in her course. This student later decided to study abroad and use her French in Africa.

Jean-Charles, a Haitian-American, had parents who left Haiti in the ’60s and raised her in Wellesley, Mass. After Jean-Claude Duvalier, former president of Haiti, fell in 1986, her parents returned to Haiti and have remained there since. Jean-Charles visits her parents once or twice a year. Both her parents are medical professionals and were resolute about staying in the country after the earthquake in 2010.

Growing up, Jean-Charles spoke French and English, but later learned Kreyol in college because research in Haiti requires the language. About 15 percent of Haitians speak French. “French is a legacy of colonialism, but it’s too simplistic to say French is for the elites and Kreyol is for the masses,” she said.

Jean-Charles also cited Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Michael Degraff, who wrote an argument against the binary of French and Kreyol in the country. “A lot of scholars remind us, we need to complicate the way we think,” she said.

As for learning Kreyol, Jean-Charles believes it is easier to get from French to Kreyol than the other way around. Kreyol is a contact language born from interactions of slaves, indigenous people, French colonizers, and some Spanish influence.

Verbs in Kreyol always use the infinitive form, and there are no gendered pronouns in the language. Syntax is more similar to West-African Languages than French, although there are many recognizable French words in it. “People have definitely developed an understanding that Kreyol is necessary,” she said. “Haitians have so much respect for those that learn the Kreyol language.”

Jean-Charles is working on a second book about the Haitian diaspora. Many scholars focus on the diaspora in the United States and Canada, but Jean-Charles wants to write about the diaspora in places such as Senegal, Spain, the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, and France.

In greater Boston, there is a large Haitian-American population. Jean-Charles remarked on the many Haitians who work in BC’s dining halls.
“I had a white student from Philadelphia who learned some Kreyol and did oral histories of some of the Haitians who work here,” she said.

As a professor at a Jesuit Catholic college, Jean-Charles also commented on the complicated legacy of the Catholic Church in Haiti, paying particular attention to the relationship between Catholic practices there and the African religion Vaudou.

“One of the things that was important in bringing down Duvalier was the Catholic Ti legliz,” Jean-Charles said. “Aristide used liberation theology, which initially added to his popularity. I do believe in the fundamental idea of Jesus Christ as an advocate for social justice and the poor.”

In the future, Jean-Charles would like to see an immersion trip from the University to Haiti that focuses on the history and culture of the country. There is already a service trip through the Connell School of Nursing, but Jean-Charles believes that an immersion trip would also be efficacious for students.