Professor of French & Francophone studies, Mary Gallagher talks about the Creole Culture and Lafcadio Hearn

"I think Hearn would tell us to cherish both the diversity and the interdependence and oneness of both natural and cultural life, human, non-human and transhuman, to respect the planet, and to take care of all its creatures and forms, especially the most modest and vulnerable."

Dr. Mary Gallagher:

The Creole Blues of Lafcadio Hearn

Mary Gallagher is Professor of French and Francophone Studies in UCD's School of Languages, Cultures and Linguistics. Mary Gallagher teaches in the Department of French at University College Dublin. She is the author of La Créolité de Saint-John PerseSoundings in French Caribbean Writing Since 1950, World Writing: Poetics, Ethics, Globalization and of new editions of the 1920s French translations Lafcadio Hearn’s Two Years in the French West Indies (1890) —Esquisses martiniquaises and Un voyage d’été aux Tropiques and of his New Orleans ‘Fantastics’. "I completed my undergraduate studies in French and German at Trinity College Dublin (BA Mod) and then graduated with a DEA in French Literature (Pre-Doctoral qualification) from the Université de Paris VII and later a doctorate on the poetics of cultural difference from the Université de Paris VII, with the blessing of the late, great Martinican writer Edouard Glissant, who chaired the viva committee."          (Photo: Mary Gallagher, 2019)

"In the seventies I contributed to my college fees by working as a freelance sandwich-maker for Trinity College Dublin’s ‘Elizabethan Society’, as a two-legged office spell-checker in Farm-Building Insurance Ltd Dublin, as a famished cleaner/chamber-maid in a Black Forest spa-hotel, as a home-help to a salt-of-the-earth Normandy septuagenarian, as a tour-guide/interpreter in Paris and all over Ireland. From 1981, I worked mainly as a tutor, teacher, lecturer and researcher in language and writing. I was an English-language teaching assistant for two years at the Université de Paris III (Sorbonne Nouvelle), a Lecturer in French and German at the Dundalk Institute of Technology, a Lecturer in French at St Patrick’s College Maynooth, before landing in the largest college of the National University of Ireland in 1991 – University College Dublin. There have been lots of Visiting Professor and External Examiner gigs mainly in Europe (UK and France) but also in the Americas, in Asia and Australia, with Africa (Tunisia) to come I hope. It’s a privilege to be still working away in Ireland’s largest university as the island is buzzing with a remarkable, rapidly and multilaterally re-creolizing renewal from all over the world: Nigeria, Brazil, China, Egypt, Poland, India, Vietnam …"

Interview by Michael Limnios   Special Thanks Mary Gallagher & Takis Efstaphiou

Why did you start to research Creole culture? What characterizes the "Creole philosophy" of life?

I became interested in Creole culture through my doctorate on the 1960 Nobel laureate for literature, the poet Saint-John Perse (pseudonym of the French diplomat Alexis Leger 1887-1975). The poet was born in the Francophone Caribbean, on the island of Guadeloupe and grew up there until the age of twelve when his family moved to Metropolitan France. His poetry is for me a prime ‘lieu de mémoire créole’ (a prime site of Creole memory). My first published book was on the Creoleness of Saint-John Perse. Creole culture is a by-product of colonialism. It mostly relates to the legacy of non-English colonialism (ie. French, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch) in what we now call the Global South, especially the tropical plantation zone in the Indian Ocean, in the Caribbean basin and Louisiana. The word ‘Creole’ originally applied (in Portuguese) to a person ‘born in the master’s home’ and referred therefore to double origins, or to colonial displacement and resettlement of both Europeans and Africans in the so-called ‘New World’. The ‘créolité’ movement that blossomed in the French Caribbean in the 1990s is based on a philosophy of cultural and linguistic relationality and interconnectivity in displacement. Creoleness is a supremely creative phenomenon, though it’s necessarily underwritten by the losses of displacement and even of an exile that can never be undone. In the Caribbean and in the American South in particular, it was founded on the traumas of a brutally extraterritorial, expropriating, extractive capitalism and of its main instrument: race-based chattel slavery.

How have Lafcadio Hearn's books and life influenced your views of the word ‘Creole’? What's the legacy of Lafcadio Hearn?

One hundred years before it captured my imagination in my studies in Dublin and Paris, the Creole world had captivated Lafcadio Hearn. Hearn’s main influence on my view of what it means to be ‘Creole’ was the way he shows that the Creole world is not limited to the places where Creoles are spoken. It is not a place, indeed, but rather a state of mind: a state broken open by the shock of loss and dispossession and by the creative possibilities of complexity, combination and contradiction. Creoles are not really spoken in English-speaking colonies (Hiberno-English is not really a Creole) but characterize rather the French, Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch colonies. Hearn’s initiation into this world began in Cincinnati where a mixed Irish and African American culture had developed. He moved deeper into the ‘Creole’ world after he married Mattie Foley, a Kentucky-born freed slave. And he moved in deeper still when — after the marriage broke up — he settled further south in the much more radically mixed, French and Spanish Creole environment of New Orleans. Ten years later, he moved to the French Creole heartland of Martinique, where he spent almost two years. For me, Hearn further incarnated Creole desire in his life and in his life’s work when he moved to the extreme cultural distance of Japan and founded a rich working and writing life there as well as a whole new extended family life.

Hearn’s legacy is a translingual, transcultural, transcontinental openness to the stories of others, an extraordinary openness radiating out from the core of his life and of his life’s work. It was dispossession, specifically the loss of his mother’s southern nature and culture, of his motherland, mothertongue and mother lore that broke open the young man’s mind. As a person of mixed heritage – with a pale Northern, Anglo-Saxon father and a sun-kissed Southern, Mediterranean mother – he knew what it was not to belong fully and not to feel ‘at home’ in the British Isles. Having been abandoned by his immediate family, having been cast out of Europe and having fled to the so-called ‘New World’ of America, he embraced the painful yet resilient cultural legacy of extractive plantation culture. In other words, he gravitated towards the stories, the lyrics and the rhythms of the Cincinnati levee, sealing his attraction by insisting (in defiance of Ohio’s anti-miscegenation law) on marrying Mattie Foley, a former farm-slave with a young son. After Cincinnati, he moved ever deeper into the Creole world-view, in New Orleans and in the French Caribbean, and conducting his own radically Creole displacement / resettlement / intercultural experiment in Japan.

"The main lesson is that writing is our main chance of an afterlife. Writing allows human lives and thought to transcend the limits of time and space. Hearn gave eternal life not just to Japanese lives, but also to American and Caribbean Creole lives by recording their stories and songs, their voices, their words and their rhythms in the universal Republic of Letters. If I had ten lives, I wouldn’t be able to sound out even half of the human life stories that Hearn collected during his lifetime. Much of it has yet to be collected and presented properly; his Cincinnati journalism and his voluminous lifelong correspondence are particular treasure-troves. Hearn’s life was extraordinarily packed and is endlessly rich and fascinating, yet even though his writings are bound up with his life, they transcend it exponentially in meaningfulness and importance." (Photo: Mary Gallagher's books)

Why do you think that Lafcadio Hearn continues to generate such a devoted following in music culture?

I don’t know enough about Hearn’s historical and contemporary following in music culture in order to answer this question properly. All I can say is that Hearn shows great sensitivity to music, particularly to song. His appreciation of African- and Irish-American and of Creole stories is linked to his interest in oral culture, in the sounds of African and Irish dialect (Hiberno-English, for example) and in the musicality of Creole especially. I would imagine, however, that it’s above all his writings on the music and dance and on the songs and lyrics of Cincinnati’s black and Irish ghettoes that lie at the heart of Hearn’s following in music culture. He gravitated immediately to the vibrancy of African American musical forms and riffs and was fascinated by the way that these were combined with other folk traditions, particularly the Irish one. His friendship with the Cincinnati musicologist Henry Krehbiel speaks to the depth of his interest in this aspect of folk culture.

How important was Afro-American music and Creole culture in his life? How does music affected his inspirations?

Your question again makes me realise that I need to research more and to think more about the presence of Afro-American music in Hearn’s life and in his attraction to Creole culture. It is very clear from his work on Afro-American music that he believed that it merited intense cultural and even scholarly attention. He notes that in comparison to ‘classical’ music — ‘the music of the masters’ as he calls it in his piece entitled ‘The Music of the Masses’ — Afro-American music (eg. the ‘school of Negro Melodists’) and Irish music (‘ballads brought over from the old country’) are worthy of sustained ethnographic and journalistic attention. He writes that the music of the ‘streets and Variety Halls’ is neglected because it belongs to the ‘lowly’ people. He seems to see this neglect as class-based rather than colour-based or race-based. In his piece ‘Pariah people’, however, he makes it clear that the popular music and dance that interests him most is not only that of the streets and variety halls, but quite specifically the forms and rhythms that arise where blacks and whites mingle in the taverns and dance halls of the dockland ghettoes like Bucktown. He admires the dances and the songs in particular, notes the ballad lyrics meticulously and praises the instruments that carry these melodies and rhythms: banjos and drums, but also barrel organs and, of course, voice and whistle.

"Hearn’s legacy is a translingual, transcultural, transcontinental openness to the stories of others, an extraordinary openness radiating out from the core of his life and of his life’s work. It was dispossession, specifically the loss of his mother’s southern nature and culture, of his motherland, mothertongue and mother lore that broke open the young man’s mind." (Photo: Mary Gallagher & Lafcadio Hearn known as Yakumo Koizumi in traditional Japanese dress)

What has made you laugh from Lafcadio Hearn's life and travels? How do you want his work to affect people?

Nothing really makes me laugh about Lafcadio Hearn. He had a terribly sad, lonely start in life and after he left Europe behind he seems to have been haunted by the all the losses of his early life and to have henceforth taken all his responsibilities, especially to women and children, extremely seriously. He seems to me, especially for a young man in his mid twenties, to have been very kind and honourable towards Mattie Foley and her young son. He continued to worry about her long after she left him, bringing a photo of her with him to Japan. He met mostly with great kindness in his American, Caribbean and Japanese lives, whether he was working as a reporter, a journalist-writer, or as a teacher-academic. He was able to have a particularly rich home-life in Japan, a family life that was in keeping with his gentle, faithful temperament. I do smile when I read about the spirited and sometimes extremely rude terms in which he responded to perceived disrespect or slights (many of them real, some no doubt imagined). He may not have been always able to give as good as he got (from the predatory and condescending Dr Gould for example), but he was probably right to claim that these upsets fuelled his writing drive like nothing else. I find it heartbreaking, though, to realise how prematurely he aged and how his worn-out heart stopped beating far too soon, when he was just 54. The extraordinary, transcontinental scale and openness and connectedness of the life that Hearn lived and of the folk-stories that he told —- that is, for me, his overwhelming legacy. That’s what affects me. He understood viscerally, in his own flesh and blood, as the son of a British army officer, what colonial displacement did to people’s sense of who they were and of where they belonged. And yet he knew, or sensed, that something cosmically big was happening culturally in the Americas as a direct legacy of European colonialism there and of the mass plantation culture based on the African slave trade, chattel slavery, and (in the Caribbean at least) on Asian indentured labour. The supernatural strain in Hearn’s work, the obsessive linking of death to life and to love and the underlying obsession with the uncanny (or unheimlich), all this shows that he was at some level perfectly alive to the scale of the mass trauma on which Europe’s ‘New Worlds’ were founded. And yet, the poetic strain of his work shows that he was somehow even more alive to the creative, artistic, imaginative potential of that ghastly history of transportation, zombie labour, and enduring racism.

What is the impact of Lafcadio Hearn and Creole culture spiritually and in socio-cultural terms?

My friend Antony Goedhals has recently written a wonderful book on Hearn’s Buddhism, or at least on his connection with Buddhism. I think that, along with Hearn’s bulimic interest in real people’s stories, this author’s belief in the connectedness and oneness of life (and of space and of time indeed) lies at the very heart of the value of his work. Much emphasis has been placed on the Japanese ghost stories. However, the Creole ghost stories are just as significant and, along with his belief in metempsychosis, they too bear witness to what Antony Goedhals calls Hearn’s ‘Neo-Buddhism’. The fact that Hearn accorded as much attention to the spiritual and the natural worlds as to socio-cultural worlds is of itself crucial. His lack of elitism, indeed his reversal of social and cultural snobbery and his focus on the socio-culturally vulnerable, subordinated or dominated define his aesth-ethics from start to finish.

"Creoleness is a supremely creative phenomenon, though it’s necessarily underwritten by the losses of displacement and even of an exile that can never be undone. In the Caribbean and in the American South in particular, it was founded on the traumas of a brutally extraterritorial, expropriating, extractive capitalism and of its main instrument: race-based chattel slavery."

(Photo: Mary Gallagher's book Lafcadio Hearn’s Esquisses Martini-Quaises, II)

What are the most important life lessons you have learned from your experience in Hearn's work and Creole culture?

The main lesson is that writing is our main chance of an afterlife. Writing allows human lives and thought to transcend the limits of time and space. Hearn gave eternal life not just to Japanese lives, but also to American and Caribbean Creole lives by recording their stories and songs, their voices, their words and their rhythms in the universal Republic of Letters. If I had ten lives, I wouldn’t be able to sound out even half of the human life stories that Hearn collected during his lifetime. Much of it has yet to be collected and presented properly; his Cincinnati journalism and his voluminous lifelong correspondence are particular treasure-troves. Hearn’s life was extraordinarily packed and is endlessly rich and fascinating, yet even though his writings are bound up with his life, they transcend it exponentially in meaningfulness and importance.

If he was speaking seriously to us, what do you think he would tell us? What would you like to ask Lafcadio Hearn?

I think Hearn would tell us to cherish both the diversity and the interdependence and oneness of both natural and cultural life, human, non-human and transhuman, to respect the planet, and to take care of all its creatures and forms, especially the most modest and vulnerable.

The one question I’d really like to ask Hearn if I could is this: had you been given four more decades on earth, where and how would you have wanted to spend  them?

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