Exploring the French Caribbean: Identity, Language and Memory

Schoelcher Library, named after the French Abolitionist Victor Schoelcher, who pioneered the abolition of slavery in the French colonies in 1848

How can culture influence the way we think about identity, language, history and memory? How does it shape our understanding of the colonial past and post-colonial present? 

Over the past year, I have been leading a European Commission funded research project on Caribbean literature (203,000 Euros), with a particular focus on the French-speaking Caribbean islands of Martinique, Guadeloupe and Haiti. Throughout 2013, I have been invited to speak at a series of cultural events with a Caribbean focus, taking me from Atlanta, to Martinique, Normandy and London.

The Caribbean island of Martinique, which is located between Dominiqua and St Lucia, has been French since 1635, and in 1946 it became an Overseas Department of France. This makes the island one of the more far-flung regions of the EU, along with the Overseas Departments of Guadeloupe and French Guiana, which has its own infamous place in world history as the penal colony where Alfred Dreyfus was sent (also described in the novel and film, Papillon).

Martinique’s history and culture reflect a rich, diverse heritage and the island has produced some of the greatest authors of modern Caribbean literature, notably Aimé Césaire, Edouard Glissant and Patrick Chamoiseau, whose work presents a compelling examination of colonialism, transatlatlantic slavery and their contemporary legacies.

My current project is a collaboration with Italian researcher Dr Alessandro Corio, and together we conducted fieldwork in Martinique in the spring. The visit was a vital opportunity to discover the most recent social and cultural developments in Martinique and to develop our research perspectives and approaches.

During the visit, we met with leading Martinican figures including Martinique’s Director of Museums and the Directors of libraries and cyber-centres. Our discussions focused in particular on the social and economic impact of the arts and the ways in which Caribbean history and culture are being commemorated and celebrated at public events and in local schools. In addition, we conducted interviews with Martinican authors, journalists and artists to find out about the emerging generation of Martinican authors. We also met with academics at the University of the Antilles and Guyane (UAG) and attended an inaugural event at the UAG’s Caribbean Campus of the Arts, where they had the chance to discuss the social and political significance of literature and the visual arts with lecturers and students.

My research to date has focused on autobiography and processes of identity construction in Caribbean literature, and in Martinique, I was invited to donate a copy of my most recent book, Childhood, Autobiography and the Francophone Caribbean  (2013), to the iconic Schoelcher Library in the island’s capital, Fort-de-France. The Library’s distinctive main building is shown in the photograph, a steel-framed structure, designed to withstand a tropical climate of cyclones and earthquakes. It takes its name from the famous abolitionist and politician Victor Schoelcher, who can be considered as the French counterpart to William Wilberforce.

The visit drummed up lively local interest leading to  Alessandro and I giving an interview in French for the Martinican newspaper, France-Antilles. This focuses on our research and the insights that the substantial, prize-winning body of Francophone Caribbean literature provides on urgent European and global debates concerning history, memory, domination, resistance and compassion.

Most recently, in September, I travelled to the internationally renowned French conference centre at Cerisy-la-Salle, Normandy, to present a French paper on my latest research into the great poet and politician Aime Cesaire (1913-2008) at a conference held in honour of the centenary of his birth. The conference, organised by French colleagues Professor Anne Douaire-Banny and Professor Romuald Fonkoua in collaboration with Professor Mamadou Ba from Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar, Senegal, was a fantastic and rare chance to discuss perspectives on Caribbean literature with experts from Martinique, Guadeloupe, Haiti, French Guiana, Senegal, Nigeria, Japan, China, France and the United States. My work will appear later this year in print, in the leading French-language journal discussing the black diaspora, ‘Presence Africaine’, which is commissionning a special journal issue in memory of Cesaire at the end of 2013.

The research project has its own blog with regular cultural and academic reviews and updates, which you are warmly welcome to consult at: www.caribiolit.wordpress.com

Dr Louise Hardwick, Department of Modern Languages, Univeristy of Birmingham, UK

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