Z is for Joseph Zobel (1915-2006)

Martinican novelist and poet Joseph Zobel wrote four novels and five collections of short stories and poetry during his lifetime, his most famous being his semi-autobiographical novel, La Rue Cases-Nègres (1950), which tells the story of his childhood in Martinique. He gained international attention when La Rue Cases-Nègres was made into a film in 1983. The film, translated as ‘Black Shack Alley’ or ‘Sugar Cane Alley,’ was directed by Martinican-born Euzhan Palcy when she was only 25 years old. It 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. 

Zobel was born in 1915 and grew up in a little village named Petit Bourg on ‘black shack alley,’ a sugar cane plantation where the inhabitants lived in the shacks of former slaves and worked for the white boss, or béké. Education was the main focus of Zobel’s 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, who made enormous sacrifices for him to attend school. She worked in the cane fields to support Joseph’s education, a sacrifice documented in La Rue Cases-Nègres

Zobel 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. When Zobel set sail on the passage ship the Colombie on the 29th November 1946, he was thirty-one years old, his wife was pregnant with their third child and he had written a short story, ‘Laghia de la Mort’, and several articles for the Fort de France newspaper Le Sportif. Despite the suffering of the Parisian population in post-war Paris, the intellectual milieu in which Zobel found himself was a vibrant one. In 1947, Zobel met Léopold Senghor, one of the main thinkers of Négritude. Zobel was later encouraged to write by Césaire, who described him as the most important novelist of Martinique. Zobel was a keen performer of poetry and conducted readings at numerous literary festivals and events whilst in Paris, including works by key figures of the Harlem Renaissance and other Negritude movements, such as Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Aimé Césaire, Léon-Gontran Damas, Nicolas Guillén and Leopold Senghor.

Zobel’s work consistently emphasises the inequality, hypocrisy, and absurdity at the heart of Martinican and French social hierarchy and colonial regime (his novel Diab’la` upset the French Vichy government so much that they initially forbade its publication in 1942). Yet Zobel found the success he sought as a writer in Paris, particularly after the publication of La Rue Cases-Nègres in 1950. His second novel La Fête à Paris (1953), a semi-autobiographical sequel, describes his early years in Paris. Unlike his Martinican contemporaries Édouard Glissant and Aimé Césaire, Zobel was not an experimental writer and is best described as a social realist. His writing meticulously presents the daily toils of a plethora of everyday characters in Martinique. He creates a social microcosm where the politics of the village or street are depicted in painstaking detail in order to show the disruptive and oppressive influence of outside forces. In Zobel’s work, Martinique is always his point of reference. In the poem, “Ode,” one of three from the collection, Incantation Pour un Retour au Pays Natal [Incantation for a Return to my Native Land], a title which echoes Césaire’s famous Cahier d’un retour au pays natal, Zobel expresses this love for Martinique with an almost religious fervour. Zobel portrays a homeland seeped in Creole folk culture, and Martinican music, folklore and dance pervade his texts along with snippets of Creole songs, riddles and jokes. His narrative voice is firmly located within the Creole community and there are no glossaries included for an outsider audience. 

Zobel continued to write and teach in Paris for eleven years until he accepted a job offer in 1957 to move to Senegal and work as a headmaster and cultural programmer for Radio Senegal. His final move, seventeen years later, was to the Cevennes in the South of France, where he lived until his death in 2006. After leaving Martinique, Zobel never returned to live there but he continued to write poetry and prose. Somewhat of a ‘renaissance man,’ he also turned his hand to metal sculpture, painting flowers with inks and became extremely skilled in the art of Japanese flower arranging, Ikebana. In 2015, the centenary of Zobel’s birth, yearlong celebrations were held across the Francophone world. Zobel’s work has increased in popularity since his death, and La Rue Cases-Nègres was republished in English in 2020 as a literary masterpiece, with a foreword by Martinican author Patrick Chamoiseau.

Emily Zobel Marshall

More about the author

Zobel’s Wikipedia biography highlights his life and career.

Puerto Rican novelist Pedro Juan Soto includes Zobel as an influence in this interview from the 1984 issue of Sargasso.

A 2019 French-language article by scholar Charles W. Scheel considers the evolution of one of Zobel’s many short stories, originally entitled “Pionnier d’une nuit.”

Find a library copy of Zobel scholar Louise Hardwick’s recent monograph, Joseph Zobel : négritude and the novel.

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Joseph Zobel (1915-2006)