Joseph Zobel: Négritude's Novelist? The Transnational Politics of a French Caribbean Author working between the Caribbean, Africa and Europe

This Research Fellowship proposes  major re-reading of the major French Caribbean author, Joseph Zobel (1915-2006).

To date, Zobel is best-known for writing one of the most important Caribbean childhood memoirs on schooling and colonialism, La Rue Cases-Nègres / Black Shack Alley (1950), but the author also published several other novels and collections of short stories and poetry. These lesser-known works reveal his deep concern with discussing the complex social, political and economic situation of the French Caribbean population, whose identity is shaped by their ties to France, Europe, Africa and the Caribbean. At a time when other Caribbean authors were writing to persuade and convince a European readership of the dignity and beauty of their culture in the wake of centuries of colonialism and slavery, Zobel stands out for his remarkable determination to write literature destined for the people, rather than targeting elite readers. For example, Zobel's first novel, Diabl'-là, was written in 1942, but was banned from publication during World War Two in Vichy-controlled Martinique because it encouraged poor Martinicans to desert the sugar cane plantations and work to achieve their own autonomy. Seen as a threat for its potential to politically awaken Martinicans, the novel was only published in 1946 and remains an under-appreciated classic of Caribbean literature.

The project also reconsiders the influence of Negritude, the prominent Francophone black consciousness movement, on Zobel's literature, arguing that Zobel's focus on economic realities develops our understanding of Negritude in an important new direction. More broadly, the project will analyse how Zobel's literature can be better understood and placed in a global framework through reference to works written in English by authors Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Claude MacKay and Sam Selvon. It offers a concrete example of how the arts and humanities play an essential role in discussing and understanding important cultural issues surrounding identity, race and society, and continues the work being undertaken as part of the AHRC's 'Translating Cultures' theme. The Fellowship draws on close literary analysis and archival research in the Caribbean, working with a team of librarians and curators in Martinique.

Project team

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  • Public engagement and Impact activities with a range of non-academic partners in the Caribbean, France and UK.
  • Key publications will include a monograph, teaching materials and peer-reviewed journal articles.

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