Antonia Wimbush (University of Birmingham) explores literature, gender and migration in the French postcolonial context. Here, she discusses the research she carried out in the Martinique, and in particular the Bibliothèque Schœlcher.
My doctoral thesis offers a re-conceptualisation of exile in the Francophone postcolonial context. It analyses autobiographical narratives published by four women writers from Algeria, Guadeloupe, Côte d’Ivoire, and Vietnam, paying attention to the particularities which arise from the intersection of gender and migration. It questions how the authors articulate their exile, which they experience as a geographic, sexual, gendered, racial, and linguistic otherness, through the genre of autofiction.
While researching for my thesis chapter on the multiple impacts of war on migration in Guadeloupean author Gisèle Pineau’s autofictional narrative L’Exil selon Julia (1996), I undertook fieldwork in April 2015 in Martinique with my supervisor, Dr Louise Hardwick. This trip was funded by the AHRC Midlands3Cities Doctoral Training Partnership. I was based at the beautiful Bibliothèque Schœlcher in Fort-de-France. This iconic building is located in the centre of the Martinican capital, close to other places of interest including the Cathédrale Saint-Louis and the Musée Départmental d’Archéologie et de Préhistoire de la Martinique. Named after the 19th century French abolitionist Victor Schœlcher and built on his initiative to house his private library, the building was actually constructed in Paris for the 1889 World Expo before being dismantled and shipped over to Fort-de-France to be rebuilt. Inside the ornate and colourful library, the names of important French abolitionists can be found just below the ceiling, as a reminder of their long and bitter struggle for the cause of black slaves in the Caribbean.
The Bibliothèque Schœlcher offers a wide range of fiction, non-fiction, reference books, and multimedia resources for adults and children. It also offers study space for approximately 100 visitors, free of charge. The collection is all indexed and searchable in the library catalogue available on the website. Unfortunately, the Wi-Fi in the building is not always very reliable, although several computers are available throughout the library for public use.
The library specialises in written, audio, and visual documentation about the Caribbean. This section, called the ‘fonds antillais’, can be found on the top floor of the library, in a spacious and cool room equipped with air con (a necessity in Martinique at all times of the year!). I spent much of my time in Martinique in this room, discovering little-known treasures about the French Caribbean. I gathered lots of information for my thesis chapter about the BUMIDOM, the state-controlled mass immigration scheme which was established in 1963. Antillean workers were encouraged to migrate to mainland France as a solution to the islands’ growing unemployment and rising birth rates, and as a means to bolster France’s workforce following World War II and rebuild damaged infrastructure. The scheme was presented as a form of ‘social promotion’ for Antilleans, particularly for women. However, on arrival in metropolitan France, many of the 160 000 Antilleans who had crossed the Atlantic soon found that this was not the case. The dates, statistics, and personal stories that I found in journals, books, and newspaper articles in the ‘fonds antillais’ have proved to be invaluable background information for my analysis of the Bumidom in Pineau’s text. I was also able to read Masters’ dissertations and doctoral theses on migration from the French Antilles to the metropole. This material is simply not available elsewhere, not even in mainland France.
I would definitely recommend a trip to the Bibliothèque Schœlcher to anyone visiting Martinique. This impressive building is steeped in history and offers an excellent insight into Antillean culture. Poetry readings, art exhibitions, and book signings are held regularly, and children are also encouraged to participate in activities which focus on reading and writing. The study space is calm and quiet and the librarians are happy to help locate any resources you wish to consult. Il faut s’en profiter!
Location: The Bibliothèque Schœlcher is situated on Rue Victor Sévère, just off from La Savane central park. It is a five-minute walk from the Cathédrale Saint-Louis and a ten-minute walk from the cruise terminal.
Opening hours: The Bibliothèque Schœlcher is open all day Tuesday to Thursday, from 8.30am to 5.30 pm. On Fridays, it is open until 5.00pm. It is open on Saturday mornings, from 8.30am to 12.00pm, and Monday afternoons, from 1.00pm to 5.30pm.
Food and drink: Food and drink are not permitted inside the library and there are no cafés or restaurants on the premises, although there are plenty of eating places surrounding the library. The restaurant at the famous Hôtel L’Impératrice is excellent, if a little pricey.
Resources: All books, multimedia resources, and documents can be consulted on site for free. Adults can borrow up to ten documents for free but you need to register with the library. This can be done on site- just bring identification and proof of address with you.
Antonia Wimbush is a doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham, funded by the AHRC Midlands3Cities Doctoral Training Partnership. To see more about her work click here and follow her on Twitter at @wimbush_antonia.