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By analogy with the lucrative triangular trade, this paper investigates cases of literature feeding off literature along the edges of that same triangle between Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean. It invites the reader to use the "borro(w)meter of the palimpsestuous." Culture-specific conventions are shown to be involved in judging written texts, the very notion of authorial copyright being utterly alien to oral tradition. The earliest writings by blacks attracted suspicions of plagiarism or accusations of being ghosted: Francis Williams in the eighteenth century, Bakary Diallo in the 1920s. Independent writing and thinking were sensed as a threat to white supremacy, and the celebrated cases of Ouologuem and Beyala seem to confirm the trend. Racist disdain pullulates. Yet little attention has been paid to whites who have plagiarized blacks, and Guy des Cars is here denounced for blatantly unacknowledged copying from Senghor. Literary judgments, however, should be preferred to law courts.
Tous les Codes decernent des peines contre celui qui derobe le bien d'autrui: cependant, il est un genre de vol, souvent plus criminel et plus avilissant, qui occupe rarement les tribunaux judiciaires, mais qui n'echappe point celui de l'opinion, c'est le plagiat litteraire; une lache hypocrisie aggrave toujours cet attentat sur la propriete.
L'opinion, tribunal d'appel, juge en dernier ressort, et casse quelquefois des sentences emanees, meme d'autorites 14gales ou reputees telles.
All legal codes provide for penalties against anyone who robs someone else, yet there is a type of theft, often more criminal and demeaning, which rarely occupies judicial tribunals, but which does not escape the attention of public opinion, namely plagiarism; this attack on property is always made worse by cowardly hypocrisy.
Opinion, the court of appeal, makes the final judgment, and
sometimes overturns sentences passed by legal authorities or those
reputed to be such. (Gregoire, Des peines infarmantes 10) (1)
If my title refers, through the use of the phrase "triangular trade," to the infamous slave trade, in which the triangle lay between Europe, Africa, and the New World, it is because I see an analogy between it and the traffic in texts. This more recent traffic is of course anodyne by comparison, but it has disturbing implications insofar as Europeans have once again both fashioned the laws and acted as judge and jury. In other words, a form of neocolonialism is involved, and this is what I want to explore in this paper on the basis of the interactive textual relationship between writers in French from Africa, the Caribbean, and Europe.
The notion of textual ownership is formulated legally in the laws of copyright, but I have immediately to disclaim any legal qualifications and therefore any juridical expertise in respect to plagiarism. What I observe in various francophone writers with whose work I am familiar is the age-old phenomenon of literature feeding on literature. Occasionally, this becomes a feeding frenzy, but the sliding scale between reminiscence, imitation, parody, pastiche, influence, intertextuality, and plagiarism is not clearly calibrated. Only when lawyers become involved is the last of these phenomena determined as a separate--and potentially punishable--entity. Yet the arbitrariness of some of the criteria brought to bear on that decision is manifest. In Europe now, for example, copyright remains in force in most cases for 70 years after the writer's death. (2) Copy something a day before those 70 years have elapsed and you are in trouble over something that you could copy the following day with impunity. It is not, of course, unreasonable that an author's rights should be protected, but we have to be aware that convention is involved and that convention, by its nature, is arbitrary and--very important in the present context--culture-specific. Conventions impose their terms on individuals or groups of people who had no say in their formulation. The copyright agreement might therefore be considered to be of the same order, if not of the same degree of contemptuous arrogance, as the division of Africa by the European powers, in the absence of any Africans, at the signing of the General Act that concluded the Berlin conference of 1884-85. (3)
Academic writers learn, as part of their training, to acknowledge the sources of their ideas or formulations. Creative writers, by definition, are not party to that rigor. Moral scruples in respect of scrumping words or ideas from a fellow-writer's patch are determined by the general social traditions of a given community and the particular form of upbringing and civic education brought to bear on an individual case. In much of Africa there is no long-standing tradition of writing. As far as French-speaking West Africa is concerned, the first recorded literary work, Les trois volontes de Malic, dates from 1920, considerably less than a century ago. Recycling is inherent in oral transmission, the sole narrative and poetic form until that date and of course dominant for some time afterwards: much will be retained from telling to telling, since that is the nature of oral history and myth. Around that core a particular performer will embroider a contribution that, depending on its memorability or otherwise, will in turn become part of the stock-in-trade of further performers. To memory are added at each stage features that adapt the tale to a new audience and highlight the performer's special presentational skills honed by the frequently dynastic experience of the performing bard known as the griot. The question of copyright simply does not arise: the griot is the living memory of the tribe, one of those of whom Hampate Ba remarked that their death is the equivalent of a library burning down. Only when such oral narratives are written down are they fixed in time and space, acquiring the status of a text. But this text is only apparently definitive: awareness of the circumstances of its accretive composition and analysis of variants if they exist reveal its fundamental …