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Francoise Lionnet, French and Francophone Studies

  • By Meg Sullivan, Reed Hutchinson
  • Published May 1, 2002 8:00 AM

A jolt of recognition ran through Françoise Lionnet when she discovered William Faulkner's imaginary Yoknapatawpha County while growing up in the former French colony of Mauritius during the 1960s.

There, in a Livre de Poche translation of "Light in August" were the same sort of mixed-race characters, barefoot women and stubborn patriarchs who populated the Indian Ocean island nation where Lionnet was a high school student.

"The colonial schools I attended only taught us what was known then as the 'Great Tradition' of European letters," recalls the chair of the Department of French and Francophone Studies. "Nowhere in these books had I seen representations of the kind of natural world with which I was familiar. But 'Light in August' was a revelation that our world could also be represented."

By beefing up offerings in the literature from the 47 countries that share a history of French colonial dominion, Lionnet — whose great-great-great-grandfather fell under Mauritius' spell in 1810 while fleeing Napoleon's France — hopes to help a new generation of students find themselves in unexpected places.

Her fascination with Faulkner whetted an appetite for American studies, which, in turn, opened her eyes to the possibility of combining the seemingly antithetical strands of French culture — the continental and colonial or postcolonial. (Algeria, the last French colony to declare independence, did so in 1962; meanwhile, Réunion, Guadeloupe, Martinique and French Guiana retain dominion status as French overseas departments.)

"By acknowledging the powerful cultural influence of once-marginalized people, Francophone studies tries to do for French culture what Asian-American, Latino/a-American and African-American studies have done for the study of American culture," says the holder of a B.A. and master's degree in American studies and a doctorate in comparative literature. "It energizes the discipline and brings people into the fold who might not otherwise be interested."

After a 12-year career at Northwestern University, Lionnet assumed the UCLA chair in 1999. In recognition of courses already being offered in the literature of sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa, Southeast Asia, the Caribbean and Quebec, she proposed renaming the French Department in the spring of 2000, and the change became effective the following fall. Au revoir, French Club; bonjour, Le Cercle Francophone. By marshaling existing talent — both from within and outside the department — and by signing on a specialist in Franco-African and immigrant literature, the department now claims a depth in Francophone studies rivaled only by a handful of institutions nationwide.

The approach appears to be working. In four of the past five years, the number of Bruins graduating with a bachelor's degree in French and Francophone studies has steadily increased. Last year, the number of graduates surged by 23%.

"Due to the cultural diversity of California, our students have a personal history with displacement, cultural mixing and immigration, and this literature really speaks to those experiences," Lionnet says.