Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 564
Patrick Chamoiseau (shah-mwah-zoh) has established himself as one of the most important novelists and critical theorists of the Caribbean. He was born the son of George Chamoiseau, a postal worker, and his wife, Emile, a cook, in Fort de France, capital of the island of Martinique in the French West Indies.
Almost forty years later, Chamoiseau would describe the experiences of his childhood in his two memoirs, Childhood and School Days. Referring to himself as “le negrillon” (little black boy), he tells of his life at home, on streets filled with traders, shopkeepers and loiterers engaged in political discussions and in a school he found oppressive.
One of Chamoiseau’s most influential childhood experiences was the conflict between the official French, spoken at school, and the Creole used at his home, a mixed language incorporating elements of African languages spoken by slaves brought to the Caribbean island. For Chamoiseau, language becomes political. Creole brings with it the comfort of home. He views it as the linguistic expression of his mixed ethnic identity. French, on the other hand, is seen as the language of the authorities and the former colonial masters, whose culture is admired and copied by the upper classes of Martinique.
While Chamoiseau describes suffering at school, he nevertheless graduated with such good results that he was invited to study in France. At the age of twenty-two, he married his wife, Ghslaine, on December 19, 1975. The couple had one son, whom they named Yoam, to reflect their Creole heritage. Patrick and Ghslaine made their home on Martinique.
In France, Chamoiseau graduated from the Université de Scearx, where he trained as a lawyer. After returning to Martinique, he became a full-time probation officer. He works with youthful offenders, trying to reintegrate them into island society. Chamoiseau began writing in the early 1980’s, and his first two novels earned him a certain fame. He also ventured into literary criticism. In 1989, together with two friends, he attacked Martinique’s grand old man of letters, Aimé Césaire. In their radical work, Eloge de la créolité, the friends argued for a new definition of being Creole.
Chamoiseau’s 1992 novel, Texaco, finally brought him international fame. The hefty, politically and linguistically ambitious, historical tale earned him the most prestigious literary prize of France, the Prix Goncourt, that year. Turning to his memories, Chamoiseau published his two-volume autobiography. In 1993, he won the Prix Garbet de la Caraibe for the first volume, Childhood. Chamoiseau’s literary prizes led to translations of his works into English; his novels, memoirs, and short fiction became popular among English-speaking readers in the 1990’s. His literary criticism is closely linked to the work of critic Edouard Glissant, whose thoughts on postcolonial literature are widely studied in American universities.
Continuing to work in Martinique’s legal justice system, Chamoiseau dedicates most of his free time to his diverse writing. By 2003 he had branched out into Martinican folktales and had written to accompany photos and paintings by other artists. The intense intellectuality and linguistic wordplay, which seeks to create a new language out of existing French and colloquial Creole spoken on Martinique, has presented special challenges to his English translators. Some of Chamoiseau’s novels, and his literary criticism, await translation into English. Patrick Chamoiseau’s politics are controversial on Martinique, but his work always meets with immediate interest on his island and in the French-speaking world.
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