A CELEBRATION OF MAJOR AFRO-CARIBBEAN POET AIMÉ CÉSAIRE (1913-2008) TO BE HELD AT UALBANY
NYS Writers Institute, October 6, 2011
Members of the UAlbany community will celebrate Césaire’s poetry and mark the publication of the first complete and unexpurgated edition in English of his 1948 collection, Soleil cou coupé [Solar Throat Slashed, July 2011], translated and edited by A. James Arnold and Clayton Eshleman. Arnold will lead a discussion on Césaire’s work that will feature readings by UAlbany faculty including Eloise Briére (Associate Professor, French Studies), Glyne Griffith (Associate Professor, Latin American and Caribbean Studies), and Pierre Joris (Professor, English Department). Poet and theorist Jerome Rothenberg called the new translation, “a reconstituted masterwork of the twentieth century and ample grist for the century to come.” A Professor Emeritus of French at the University of Virginia, A. James Arnold is the lead editor of Césaire’s complete literary works (forthcoming), and of Modernism and Negritude: The Poetry and Poetics of Aimé Césaire.
Raised in poverty, the son of a sugar plantation manager and a seamstress, Césaire received a scholarship at the age of 18 to attend schools in France, including the Sorbonne, where he studied Greek, Latin and French literature. At the age of 26, he completed Cahier d'un retour au pays natal (published in English as Return to My Native Land), a collection of poetry and prose in which he first articulates the principles that would define “Négritude,” a movement that sought to unite the Black diaspora and to affirm the value of African heritage and culture. During the Second World War, Césaire formed a close friendship with surrealist poet André Breton, and was inspired to use surrealism as a weapon to undermine French colonial culture. His poetry collections of the period include Les armes miraculeuses (1946), Soleil cou-coupé (1948) and Corps perdu (1950).
In 1945, Césaire was elected mayor of Martinique’s largest city, Fort-de-France, as a member of the Communist Party (from which he resigned in 1956 to protest the Soviet invasion of Hungary), and served as a deputy from Martinique in the French National Assembly. In 1958 he founded the Martinican Progressive Party. He served as President of one house of Martinique’s bicameral legislature, the Regional Council, 1983-88.
Primarily a poet until 1955, Césaire began to devote his energies to prose and theatrical works critical of the French colonial empire in the years that followed. His essay collection, Discours sur le colonialisme (1955), exerted a tremendous influence on the revolutionary thinker Frantz Fanon, a former student of Césaire. In 1960, he published the biography, Toussaint L’Overture.
Césaire’s death in 2008 sparked an unexpected storm of controversy in the French-speaking world, raising the question of whether a man whose work had drawn comparisons between the French colonial authorities and the Nazi Party could be buried in the Panthéon, the French national shrine and mausoleum, alongside leading heroes of the Republic, including Émile Zola, Marie Curie, and Voltaire. Though buried in Martinique at a service attended by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Césaire was ultimately honored with a memorial plaque in the Panthéon in April of 2011.
For additional information, contact the Writers Institute at 518-442-5620 or online at http://www.albany.edu/writers-inst.