Dr Louise Hardwick, University of Birmingham
This project proposes a re-reading of the legacy 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. After growing up in the Caribbean, Zobel moved to France, and then spent almost twenty years in Africa; Dr Hardwick will demonstrate how these transnational experiences influenced his literature.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 this reason, Dr Hardwick will explore how his literature attempts to democratize knowledge and reach a wider audience. 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 will also consider 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. The movement is usually concted with poetic and stylistic literary developments, which authors used to produce startling images through experiments with language and form. However, by re-reading Zobel, Dr Hardwick will argue that in addition to what we already understand about Negritude’s formal experimentation, it is essential to reappraise the importance of the representation of material conditions, environmental criticism and class consciousness in literature from the Negritude period.Her Fellowship will draw on close literary analysis and archival research in the Caribbean, working with a team of librarians and curators in Martinique at the Schoelcher Library and the Zobel archives. It will use this material to draw attention to previously unexplored aspects of Zobel’s cultural production, in particular determining the importance of economics, politics, literary style, gender and ecocriticism in Zobel’s work. Dr Hardwick will give a series of public talks about her findings in Birmingham, London and the Caribbean, working with the Midlands Art Centre, the British Library, and the Bibliothèque Schoelcher and Ecomuseum in Martinique.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, George Lamming 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.

Planned Impact

Major milestones will be in 2015, the centenary of Zobel’s birth, when I carry out a series of impact events (when appropriate, I will use questionnaires to gather feedback and measure progress against the ‘Pathways to Impact’ document). The research will be of particular interest to African-Caribbean and African populations in the UK. The BL and MAC have fostered close links with these communities, particularly in London and the Midlands (for example, the BL has dedicated webpages on Caribbean and African holdings and in 2011, the MAC held an exhibition of photography by Jamaican-born Vanley Burke). My 2015 Lecture and Film Introduction will strengthen these ties, bringing Zobel’s significance to public attention. In addition, in Martinique, little is known by the public about how Zobel is understood abroad by foreign readers, and my research and public activities will demonstrate his international cultural appeal. The public will be invited to attend my engagement activities and to consult the website. This has the potential to increase public understanding of the issues at stake. The project aims to increase public appreciation of research carried out in the arts, particularly concerning the role played by the arts in translating other cultures. It will also highlight the importance of learning modern foreign languages in a globalized world. The project will generate a modest commercial impact through sales of film tickets at the MAC, and has longer-term potential to promote tourism to the Caribbean and to lead to future translations of Zobel’s untranslated works into English.