Scholar to bring to life migrants’ perilous crossings

When Françoise Lionnet delivers UCLA’s 114th Faculty Research Lecture in Schoenberg Hall on Monday, she will begin by talking about a shipwreck.
And not just any shipwreck. This one, which occurred in 1744, captured the collective imagination of 18th-century French painters and writers, who romanticized the unfortunate event on canvas and in fiction.
Francoise Lionnet Photo
Francoise Lionnet
Why this particular shipwreck proved so popular among the creative minds of the late 1700s will be revealed by Lionnet in her talk, titled "Perilous Crossings: Shipwrecks, Migrations and the Global Pursuit of Hope." She will use the subject of shipwrecks to introduce a topic that is as relevant today as it was then — people’s willingness to leave home in search of a better life.
It’s a subject that is very familiar to Lionnet, a distinguished scholar of French, Francophone, and comparative literary and cultural studies, who also serves as the director of UCLA’s African Studies Center. She’ll talk about the thousands of migrants who continue to leave northern and western Africa in hopes of reaching the shores of European nations, particularly Spain and Italy.
"We’re in the era of supersonic travel, so why talk about shipwrecks?" she said. "In fact, many people still try to use small, wooden boats to travel long distances at sea, and do so at their own peril. Thousands of people — and only about 10 percent of them make it alive."
She’ll also discuss issues of colonialism and gender — how women on ships functioned as interesting, symbolic images — before moving on to more contemporary times, even touching on the Titanic and what playwright George Bernard Shaw had to say about the mammoth ship.
"It was funny, actually," she said, laughing. "I hope it’ll make people think and laugh, and be sad as well."
Born in Mauritius to a Franco-Mauritian and Seychellois family, Lionnet grew up speaking French and Creole and learned English at the age of 4. She was educated in Mauritius, Reunion Island, France, England, Germany and the United States, receiving a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan and serving as a postdoctoral fellow at Cornell University. She held the Pierce Miller Chair of Literary Studies at Northwestern University before joining the UCLA faculty in 1998.
Her work in the fields of feminist literature, postcolonial studies, autobiography, and African, African American, Caribbean and Mascarene Island studies made her an ideal choice to become director of UCLA’s African Studies Center in 2011 — the first woman to hold the position in the center’s 54-year history.
Last month, the center received a $1-million grant to fund a capacity-building partnership with the Kigali Institute of Education (KIE) in Rwanda, where too few girls are completing secondary school and even fewer are enrolling in teacher-training programs. The partnership’s main goal is to help KIE provide the human and institutional resources needed to help girls achieve more in education, work and society.
"That is certainly one area in which I’d hoped to achieve something, and that has happened. We’ve gotten the funding," Lionnet said. "Azeb [Tadesse], my wonderful deputy director, has already taken a trip to Rwanda to make contact with the KIE."
Lionnet hopes that her lecture might shine a light on the tragic circumstances of migrants who continue to leave Africa by the thousands, with many still dying in the process. Most Westerners — except for the people living near those beaches in Italy or Spain — don’t realize the extent of this boat-people phenomenon, she said.
"We used to talk about boat people in this country right after the Vietnam War, when we had the Vietnamese boat people. And there was a time when we heard about the Haitian boat people, who were trying to leave Haiti to get to the shores of Florida. We don’t hear much about this anymore," Lionnet remarked.
"But in the Mediterranean, and in the northern part of the Atlantic Ocean, this is a phenomenon that is still enormous."
The 114th Faculty Research Lecture will take place on Monday, April 15, at 3 p.m. in Schoenberg Hall. Admission is free. For more information on the lecture series, click here.