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Thursday, September 21, 2023

Patrick Chamoiseau: A Distinguished Caribbean Writer

No one can speak of Caribbean literature without referring to Patrick Chamoiseau (left in the picture), especially when it comes to the hot debate concerning the role of our beautiful Creole in the Caribbean modern literature. Beside being a novelist, Chamoiseau is an essayist well known for the essay “Lettres Creoles” that he coauthored with Raphael Constant. Patrick Chamoiseau wrote the Tabou Combo classic “Yo” made to honor Haitian refugees who perished in the high seas trying to come to the US. For some time, he was a little known Martinique writer and virtually unknown in the Anglophone world. But it was his novel “Texaco” that earned him world recognition after winning “Le Prix Concourt” in 1992. In this article, James Pearl explains why this author with an impeccable brilliance was overlooked for a long time in the English speaking Caribbean.In an interview with Mr. James Ferguson, an English writing critic, Patrick Chamoiseau, the Martiniquan novelist, complained that “Martinique is cut off from the rest of the Caribbean”. It is a statement which recognizes the extent to which various forms of colonialism has fragmented the region into self-contained linguistic pockets, giving rise to cultural and other forms of isolation. As a result, different parts of the Caribbean find it difficult to communicate or be in touch with other parts. To the English speaking Caribbean, their French counterparts, especially the writers and other exemplars of culture, are mostly unknown. This explains why a writer of such brilliance as Patrick Chamoiseau is not as well known as he should be to the English speaking Caribbean. It is a remarkable fact that a West Indian who has won the highest literary prize in France, the Prix Goncourt, for his novel “Texaco” still remains obscure, even though he is the compatriot of such distinguished West Indian writers as Franz Fanon and Aimé CesairéInterestingly enough, it is Derek Walcott from the Island of Saint Lucia, with an understanding of the French historical background in the Caribbean and his knowledge of Creole (Creolese in Martinique and Saint Lucia is roughly similar), who was among the first to recognize Chamoiseau’s great talent. His now celebrated letter which appeared in the August 1997 New York Review edition of books goes a long way to preparing the ground for an understanding of Chamoiseau’s work. Walcott [Dereck], in a sense, is in the perfect position to do so because he enjoys a friendship with Chamoiseau. Who therefore is Patrick Chamoiseau?Patrick Chamoiseau was born in 1953 in Fort de France, Martinique, where he still lives. He studied law at the University of Martinique and in France. Patrick Chamoiseau revealed in the interview, to which reference has already been made, that he is a full time probation officer in Fort de France and described his job in the following terms: “… I have been working with young offenders for 15 years, going to Court, getting to know their problems, trying to help them sort out their lives.It sounds terrible, but understanding these people’s experiences has helped me hugely as a writer, as it has allowed me to look into aspects of life that you wouldn’t normally encounter.” Patrick Chamoiseau has become an important literary personality in Martinique. Along with two friends, Raphaël Confiant and Jean Bernabé, he published in 1989 a literary manifesto called the Elogé de la créolité which questioned the relevance of negritude to modern day Martiniquans and which proposed, among other things, a substantially different way of looking at the Island’s relationship with France. In particular, Chamoiseau and his colleagues are emphatic that a Caribbean literature has to be created: “Caribbean literature does not yet exist. We are still in a state of pre-literature.”Such radical views have ensured Chamoiseau a certain notoriety and brought him into conflict with established figures. In this manifesto too, Chamoiseau and his friends explained why the use of Creolese is the only effective way at reaching beyond the surface of things to understand the reality of Caribbean existence. In his interview with Ferguson, Chamoiseau explains it this way: “If a writer can use Creolese, then he is much more in touch with the thoughts and expressions of ordinary people.”Chamoiseau has written several other books apart from his novel, Texaco, which won the Prix Goncourt 1992. He had just published his autobiography entitled “Childhood” and a novel “Solibo Magnificent”. Chamoiseau is also known for such works as The Chronicle of Seven Sorrows, Creole Folk Tales, School Days and Seven Dreams of Elmira. He is regarded as a prolific writer who, on his own admission, works “evenings, week-ends, holidays …” But he has opted not to become a full time writer because, as he says, “I’d miss my work, my involvement”.Chamoiseau’s determination to free himself from the French language which he regards as the very embodiment of colonialism and the freedom he exploits to subvert it by the use of Creole expressions, and the unforgettable characters he has created in “Texaco” have announced that he is a formidable force in the literary world. Derek Walcott has pronounced “Texaco” a ‘great book’ and others have acclaimed it as an exceptional work. The brilliance of “Texaco” and the high quality of his other works ensure that Chamoiseau must stand along with the other West Indian writers who have distinguished themselves and especially that elite band who have scaled the heights and won the Nobel Prize.

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