On 24 September 2018, the British Library welcomed a galaxy of leading specialists to a study day addressing the history, literature and arts of the French Caribbean and its diaspora.
The day kicked off with a comparative overview of Francophone and Anglophone Caribbean colonisation and post-war migrations by keynote speaker Professor H. Adlai Murdoch. French colonisation of the Caribbean was such that by the late 18th century Haiti, an island of 600,000 slaves, produced 60% of the worldâs coffee. Despite the abolition of slavery, France retained political power over les Antilles and the legacies of colonisation remain to this day. In 1946 the islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe were given the status of dĂ©partements, i.e. officially part of France. However, when Martiniquans and Guadeloupeans were invited to join the French workforce in the 1960s, they were met with racial prejudice and unfairly treated as immigrants, when they were only moving from the periphery to the centre of their own country. (A finalized version of Professor Murdochâs presentation is available on the website of the French Studies Library Group).
The morning panel focused on history, heritage and migration. Sophie Fuggle spoke about the legacy of the âbagneâ (penal colonies) in French Guiana and âdark tourismâ, and Antonia Wimbush discussed the French Caribbeanâs contribution to the Second World War, events that are left out of official French narratives. Emily Zobel Marshall, the granddaughter of writer Joseph Zobel, movingly read excerpts from letters he wrote to his wife describing his experience as a Martiniquan in Paris in 1946.
Beth Cooper closed the morningâs proceedings with a presentation of the British Libraryâs exhibition âWindrush: Songs in a Strange Landâ.
The afternoon opened with a panel on Francophone Caribbean literature. Jason Allen-Paisant gave a presentation on French Caribbean theatre and showed us a fascinating video of the first production of AimĂ© CĂ©saireâs Le roi Christophe at the Salzburg festival in 1964. Vanessa Lee talked about Suzanne CĂ©saireâs plays, and Kathryn Batchelor looked at how Frantz Fanonâs classic The Wretched of the Earth was disseminated worldwide: the English translation was written in much more accessible language than the original French, which explains its impact in the Anglophone world.
The state agency in charge of organizing the migration flows from the Antilles to France between 1963 and 1981 was the BUMIDOM (Bureau pour le dĂ©veloppement des migrations dans les dĂ©partements d'outre-mer). Jessica OubliĂ© and Marie-Ange Rousseau, the author and illustrator of the graphic novel Peyi an nou, told us about their research into the small histories of families who came to France. The book originated in Jessicaâs desire to record her terminally ill grandfatherâs life for a family scrapbook. It rapidly became clear to her that the story of his move to Paris was about much more than one individual, and reflected the destinies of a wider community. The graphic novel thus shows the authorâs research process using archives and interviews, âpour relier petite histoire et grande Histoireâ (to connect the story with History).
The event concluded with a presentation from Jean-FranĂ§ois Manicom on curation and visual arts in the French Caribbean.
The study day was rounded off by an evening with Canadian-Haitian writer Dany LaferriĂšre at the Institut franĂ§ais focusing on his book The Enigma of the Return. He reluctantly but jokingly read an excerpt he was not proud of, and talked about his election to the AcadĂ©mie franĂ§aise. Describing QuĂ©becois as humble and Haitians as âmegalomaniacâ, he affirmed that the award was both âbeyond himâ and âsimply not enoughâ. He is, after all, in his own words, âle plus modeste poĂšte du mondeâ (the most modest poet in the world).
The study day was organised by Professor Charles Forsdick (University of Liverpool/AHRC) and Teresa Vernon (British Library). in partnership with the AHRC âTranslating Culturesâ theme, the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library and the Institut franĂ§ais.
Laura Gallon was a PhD placement student at the British Library where she worked on a project assessing holdings of migrant narratives in the North American collections. She is in the second year of her PhD at the University of Sussex looking at contemporary American short fiction by immigrant women writers.