It is a hundred years since the birth of my grandfather, Martinican writer Joseph Zobel. While celebrations and events (in the form of conferences, workshops, commissioned art pieces and museum exhibitions) have been taking place across France, the Francophone Caribbean and French-speaking West Africa, Joseph and his novels are less well known in the UK. I wanted to contribute to the international centenary celebrations here in Leeds with the screening of an exceptional film based on his most famous semi-autobiographical novel, La Rue Cases-Nègres (1950), translated as Black Shack Alley or Sugar Cane Alley.
Sugar Cane Alley (1983) was directed by Martinican-born Euzhan Palcy when she was just 25 years old. The film won the Silver Lion award for Best First Film at the 1983 Venice International Film Festival and a César Award for Best First Feature Film in France. Palcy went on to become the first black female director of a Hollywood film for A Dry White Season (1989). With the support of the Center for Culture and the Arts at Leeds Beckett University, I worked in partnership with event organiser and film programmer for Leeds Film Festival, Laura Ager, to organise the screening. We also submitted a successful bid for the screening to be added to the ‘Being Human National Festival of the Humanities’ calendar of events.
My mother, Jenny Zobel, and I both live in Leeds and we will be introducing the film together. Sugar Cane Alley transports viewers back to 1930s Martinique, an island under French colonial rule, where poor rural black children can hope for little more than a life of back-breaking work in the sugar cane fields; working for the wealthy béké (white boss). Young José escapes this fate and gains an education through the many sacrifices of his extraordinary Grandmother.
As depicted in the film, education was the main focus of Joseph Zobel’s life during his childhood and adolescence in Martinique. He was a firm believer in education as a path to success, an idea passed down to him from his grandmother. He was a conscientious scholar and, a few years after gaining his Baccalaureate and working as a journalist, he felt equipped to move to Paris in search of success as a writer in 1946. Joseph made his living as a novelist and schoolteacher in Paris and Fontainebleau for 11 years until he accepted a job offer to move to Senegal in 1957; working first as a headmaster of a secondary school and then as head of the cultural program for Radio Senegal. His final move, 17 years later, was to the Cevennes in the south of France, where he lived until his death in 2006. Joseph wrote four novels and five collections of short stories and poetry during his lifetime. In the main, the theme of his writing and poetry was his beloved island homeland, Martinique – but he also criticises Martinican society, with its colour hierarchy, internalised racism and ambiguous love affair with France.
My mother and I have jointly published articles on Zobel’s work in the international literary magazine Wasafari: International Contemporary Writing entitled ‘“Dans Cette Immensité Tumultueuse” (In this Tumultuous Immensity): Joseph Zobel’s Letters of Migration’ (2013) and ‘“Lorsque je Vais dans mon Village” (When I return to my Village): Zobel’s Visions of Home and Exile’ (2011). My cousin, photographer Charlotte Zobel, is also completing the publication of a book of photographs taken by Joseph. The box of negatives lay undiscovered for several years after his death. When Charlotte finally developed them in her dark room she found they provided an intimate insight into Joseph’s life in France and Senegal in the 1940s and 1950s and an invaluable source of historical information.
I have only recently introduced Joseph’s novel, Black Shack Alley, alongside Palcy’s film, to my students. We examined the text on my third-year ‘Literatures of the African Diaspora’ module at Leeds Beckett – I had long been worried that my relationship to Joseph would not allow me enough critical distance to analyse his work. I was surprised by how objective I could be and also by the many positive responses and insights from my students, who enabled me to look at the novel and film from a fresh perspecive.
I am very excited about the screening of Sugar Cane Alley in Leeds as part of Leeds Film Festival and I hope it will promote debates about the impact of colonialism and colonial education, resistance to oppression, Creole culture and the effects of Empire in the postcolonial world. I also hope it will raise awareness of the impact and relevance of film and narrative on reflecting on our shared histories and influencing the way we understand our past and visualise our futures.
A comic book version of Joseph’s novel Diab-la by graphic artist Roland Monpierre, edited by Nouvelles Editions Latines and released as part of the 2015 centenary celebrations