Reclaiming Voice in Francophone Polynesia: Chantal Spitz’s Island of Shattered Dreams

Katherine Hammitt, University of Southern California

Francophone Oceania is home to a vibrant and ever-expanding literary community. French Polynesia (Mā’ohi Nui) and New Caledonia (Kanaky), two often overlooked constituents of France’s DOM-TOM, are sites of great literary innovation and exchange, reforging historical routes of community across the Pacific that were cut off during European colonization. In the past two decades, there has been an explosion of literature from these spaces, supported by the founding of several local publishing houses in the 1990s and the establishment, around the turn of the millennium, of two annual literary festivals, the Salon International du Livre Océanien in Nouméa and Lire en Polynésie in Pape’ete. In the vanguard of this literary blossoming is the first text by Tahitian author Chantal Spitz: 1991’s novel L’île des rêves écrasés, translated into English in 2007 as Island of Shattered Dreams.

As the first published novel by a Mā’ohi writer, Island of Shattered Dreams holds a foundational space in the Oceanian canon. Beyond its position of initiation, the novel offers an important exploration of the violence of French nuclear testing in Polynesia in the late twentieth century. It is a politically engaged text that reflects the anticolonial position of its author and the agitation for independence that continues to shape politics in French Polynesia and New Caledonia. The narrative follows three generations of a Mā’ohi family displaced when their home island is chosen by the French government as the site for a nuclear testing facility. While the island named in the story is fictional, the experience of displacement and violation of land and sea by nuclear testing is a very real part of  French Polynesian history. In 1966, Charles de Gaulle’s government established the Centre experimentation du Pacifique, a nuclear testing facility that oversaw France’s “nuclear colonialism” of the region and would be used to detonate 193 bombs in and above the islands of Moruroa and Fangataufa between 1966 and 1996. [1]

The very language of the novel also represents a kind of reclamation and resistance to colonial silencing.

Spitz’s novel rejects the obfuscation of Mā’ohi Nui/French Polynesian history and people by colonial discourse, bringing a buried history to light by mobilizing a Mā’ohi voice to tell a Mā’ohi story. The novel asserts its own voice beyond the subject of its narrative by imbuing the language of the text with a texture specific to the site of the story. There is a significant emphasis on the oral in Spitz’s text, reflecting the long literary history of orality present across Oceania. Characters perform soliloquies within the action of the story, their speech taking the form of poetic interludes that stand in contrast to the prose of the rest of the text. Crucially, the only characters with access to these interludes of parole [2] are Mā’ohi characters; their metropolitan counterparts speak, but do not perform the text’s remarkable poetry. Further, the texture of the prose itself represents an intervention, as the author rejects the constraints of French literary convention, notably in her use of word repetition and establishment of the relationship between verbs and objects. Spitz uses the language of the colonizer, but fashions it into her own medium of expression. Each of these features contributes to the experience of a reclaimed Mā’ohi voice.

The very language of the novel also represents a kind of reclamation and resistance to colonial silencing. The book begins with several pages of untranslated Tahitian text, laid out on the page as poetry, much as the parole will later appear. These pages recount the Tahitian creation myth, going back to the beginning of Polynesian history. [3] They are followed by French prose recounting Christian world creation, a clear performance of the evangelical forces that would colonize the land. These opposing sections set up the conflict that underpins the story to follow, and the play of language, form, and readerly access to meaning underpins the success of this construction.

The novel’s narrative follows the family of Tematua as they are wrenched from their ancestral land so it can be used by the metropole for nuclear testing. The opposition between French and Tahitian plays out in the action of the story and the lives of its characters. The major conflict of the occupation of Mā’ohi land by colonial settlers, chronicled in the prologue, is given modern specificity as Tematua’s family is displaced from their home. This is a violation beyond surface displacement, for the family’s rootedness in the land has been established in the early pages of the book with the planting of Tematua’s placenta in the earth: “This is the union of man with the earth into which he thrusts his roots, the union of the earth with man who makes his food spring forth from her belly.” (24) French nuclear testing, then, not only displaces the family and alienates them from their ancestral home but literally poisons the land, which is both synecdoche and symbiose for that family. The family will never return, even when the testing is complete.

From this forced displacement blossoms a love story. Laura, a woman from the metropole who comes to work at the nuclear facility, falls in love with Tematua’s son, Terii, and their relationship inducts the reader into the emotional weight of a colonial separation that plays out within a younger generation. Laura and Terii are devoted to each other, but the future is finite for their couple of displaced and displacer. Their interactions are full of words unspoken; as Laura articulates, “the deepest grief is mute.” (117) When she asks Terii to “‘tell me about your country,’” he responds, “‘My country cannot be told. You have to live it.’” (105) Terii’s assertion follows many pages of characters using paroles to access their deepest feelings, to engage in a profound experience of expression. Laura does not, however, have access to these words. The colonizing divide seems insurmountable, at least in her relationship with Terii.

By the end of the novel, however, Terii’s sister, Tetiare, has taken up the challenge of telling the story of her family and her people. Encouraged by Terii and prepared by histories passed on by her father, Tetiare becomes an analogue for Spitz herself, ultimately telling the very story we are reading. After speaking with her brother, Tetiare takes up the pen, articulating the need for history written by the Mā’ohi for those who have not had the benefit of her father’s stories. “‘The Words of our collective memory have flown away on the wings of time, deformed by words that are foreign to us.’” (124) [4] By the Epilogue, Tetiare has written the story, and Terii sees the possibilities that publishing it will create for other Mā’ohi writers. “‘The dream passed on by oral traditions is dying because we can’t remember, and we must bring it back to life through writing. Others after you will write a piece of the dream and in the end it’ll become a reality.’” (156) Indeed, Spitz’s novel has served as inspiration for many authors at the heart of francophone Oceania today.

Given the importance of linguistic texture to this novel, and the performative nature of the text, its translation into English is especially remarkable. It is not a novel that lends itself to easy translation, making Jean Anderson’s efforts a masterwork in negotiating the essence of Spitz’s authorial intervention. How could a translator make this text accessible to a wider linguistic audience without undermining the agency the story reclaims? What translation is possible for a text built on a certain distance from literary convention? How can a translator preserve the reclamation performed by the author? Anderson, an accomplished translator and scholar who has dedicated much of her work to literature in the Oceanic region, provides a painstaking and conscientious translation in Island of Shattered Dreams, published in Aotearoa/New Zealand by Huia Press. One of the few anglophone translations of francophone texts from Oceania, Island of Shattered Dreams preserves Spitz’s original intervention, and serves itself as an essential text in the translated anglophone literature of the region.

The Translator’s Note at the novel’s beginning acknowledges the political and historical resonance of the story it is about to tell. Situating the importance of the family narrative against the background political turmoil, Anderson terms the novel “a political love story.” (1) She emphasizes Spitz’s relationship to French as the language of the colonizer and iterates how the author resolves her own estrangement from the Tahitian language by “radically disrupt[ing] many of the parameters of accepted literary French, and reach[ing] beyond French, through French, perhaps, to reclaim some of the powerful and beautiful traditions of ancestral rhetoric.” (2) [5]

Beyond the excellence of Anderson’s work, that this text has been translated into English is remarkable in itself. The Pacific Oceanic region has a long history of exchange that was interrupted by colonization and is working toward restoration today. However, the separation between anglophone and francophone spaces remains a significant barrier to literary exchange, one most readily bridged by translation. While publishing houses in francophone Oceania, notably Au Vent des îles, have invested in translating many anglophone authors into French, the reciprocate has not found the same traction. Island of Shattered Dreams is thus an exceptional tool for Transpacific literature and literary critique.

It would be difficult to overstate the importance of this novel or its author to the current vibrancy of literature in francophone Oceania. With Anderson’s translation, it becomes a crucial resource for anglophones interested in that dynamic corpus. It is a text to be read and experienced, a moving story and incisive political critique. Its incorporation of prose and poetry lends well to close reading, and its engagement with multilingualism presents an opportunity for extended research. And while it chronicles profound sorrow and pervasive violence, it is ultimately a hopeful text, inviting readers to better understanding as it makes space for its own voice to be heard.

Chantal Spitz, Island of Shattered Dreams, trans. Jean Anderson (Wellington: Huia, 2007).


Jean Anderson, “Translating Chantal Spitz: Challenges of the Transgeneric Text” Australian Journal of French Studies 50.2 (May-Aug 2013): 177-188.

Natalie Edwards, “Staging Resistance to the Language of the Colonizer: Chantal Spitz’s Translanguaging” in Natalie Edwards, ed., Multilingual Life Writing by French and Francophone Women (Routledge: New York, 2019), p. 114-138.

Julia Frengs, Corporeal Archipelagos: Writing the Body in Francophone Oceanian Women’s Literature.( Lanham: Lexington Books, 2018).

Michelle Keown, “Littérature-monde or Littérature océanienne? Internationalism versus Regionalism in Francophone Pacific Writing,” in Alec G. Hargreaves, Charles Forsdick, and David Murphy, eds., Translational French Studies:Postcolonialism and Littérature Monde (Liverpoool: Liverpool University Press, 2010), p. 240-257.

Anaïs Maurer, “Snaring the Nuclear Sun: Decolonial Ecologies in Titaua Peu’s Mutismes: E ‘Ore te Vāvā,The Contemporary Pacific 32:2 (2020): 371-397.

Titaua Porcher, “L’île des rêves écrasés, premier roman tahitien” Littérature 205 (Mars 2022):112-121.

Chantal Spitz, Pensées insolentes et inutiles. (Papeete: Te ite, 2006).


[1] See Maurer.

[2] The distinction between parole and mot is significant throughout the novel and indeed in oral traditions throughout Oceania. As Michelle Keown explains in her discussion of the politics of translation in literature from the region, “In both Kanak and Mā’ohi cultures, the French term la Parole is used to refer not just to the spoken word, but more specifically to the oral traditions that connect all facets of spiritual, material, and social life” (249).

[3] While the prologue has not been translated, Fare Vāna’a (the Académie tahitienne) has an online Tahitian-French dictionary, which allows the motivated reader access to the story told in the prologue.

[4] This line demonstrates a deft intervention on the part of the translator, Jean Anderson. In her “Translator’s Note,” Anderson outlines the difficulty of translating the distinction made in the original French between parole—which “remains the domain of Mā’ohi, as part of the author’s highlighting of the power of ancient rhetorical tradition”—and mot. (3) English does not easily distinguish between the two “word”s, so Anderson mobilizes capitalization to highlight the difference.

[5] Spitz herself has spoken of her relationship to the language of the colonizer in her collection of essays and poetry, Pensées insolentes et inutiles. (Papeete: Te ite, 2006). On French, she says, “Langue familière délibérément imposée dès la naissance… Langue de mon écrit non parce qu’élue mais parce que la seule maîtrisée… Langue de mon écrit non parce que je m’y reconnais mais parce que je m’y transcris.” (36)