ⓘ Suzanne Cesaire
Suzanne Cesaire, born in Martinique, an overseas department of France, was a French writer, teacher, scholar, anti-colonial and feminist activist, and Surrealist. She was the wife of poet and politician Aime Cesaire.
1. Early life
Suzanne Cesaire nee Roussi was born on 11 August 1915 in Poterie, Martinique, to Flore Roussi nee William, a school teacher, and Benoït Roussi, a sugar factory worker.
She began her education at her local primary school in Riviere-Salee in Martinique which still had the status of a French colonial territory at that time, before attending a girls boarding-school in the capital, Fort-de-France. Having completed her secondary education, she went to study literature in Toulouse and then in Paris at the prestigious Ecole normale superieure from 1936-1938.
2. University and marriage to Aime Cesaire
During her first year as a student in Paris, Suzanne then still named Roussi meet Leopold Sedar Senghor, who introduced her to Aime Cesaire, a fellow student at the Ecole normale superieure. The following year, on 10 July 1937, the couple married at the town hall of the 14th arrondissement in Paris. During their studies, the Cesaires were both part of the editorial team of the militant journal LEtudiant noir. In 1938 the couple had their first child. The following year they returned to Martinique where they both took up teaching jobs at the Lycee Schoelcher. They went on to have six children together, divorcing in April 1963 after 25 years of marriage.
3. Literary career
Suzanne Cesaire wrote in French and published seven essays during her career as a writer. All seven of these essays were published between 1941 and 1945 in the Martinique cultural journal Tropiques, of which she was a co-founder and editor along with her husband, Aime Cesaire, and Rene Menil, both of whom were notable French poets from Martinique. Her writing explored themes such as Caribbean identity, civilisation, and surrealism.
While her writing remains largely unknown to Anglophone readers, excerpts from her essays "Leo Frobenius and the Problem of Civilisations", "A Civilisation’s Discontent", "1943: Surrealism and Us", and "The Great Camouflage" can be found translated into English in the anthology The Refusal of the Shadow: Surrealism and the Caribbean Verso, 1996, edited by Michael Richardson.
Suzanne Cesaire had a particular affinity with surrealism, which she described as "the tightrope of our hope". In her essay "1943: Surrealism and Us", she called for a Martinican surrealism:
Our surrealism will then deliver it the bread of its depths. Finally those sordid contemporary antinomies of black/white, European/African, civilised/savage will be transcended. The magical power of the mahoulis will be recovered, drawn forth from living sources. Colonial stupidity will be purified in the blue welding flame. Our value as metal, our cutting edge of steel, our amazing communions will be recovered."
Suzanne Cesaire also developed a close relationship with Andre Breton following his visit to Martinique in 1941. She dedicated an essay to him and received a poem dedicated to her in return "For madame Suzanne Cesaire", 1941. This encounter with Andre Breton opened the way for her development of Afro-Surrealism.
Her writing is often overshadowed by that of her husband, who is the better known of the two. However, in addition to her important literary essays, her role as editor of Tropiques can be regarded as an equally significant if often overlooked contribution to Caribbean literature. Tropiques was the most influential francophone Caribbean journal of its time and is widely acknowledged for the foundational role it played in the development of Martiniquan literature. Cesaire played both an intellectual and administrative role in the journals success. She managed the journals relations with the censor - a particularly difficult role given the oppositional stance of Tropiques towards the war-time Vichy government - as well as taking responsibility for the printing. The intellectual impact she had on the journal is underlined by her essay "The Great Camouflage", which was the closing article of the final issue. Despite her substantial written and editorial contribution to the journal, the collected works of Tropiques, published by Jean-Michel Place in 1978, credits Aime Cesaire and Rene Menil as the journals catalysts.
Tropiques published its last issue in September 1945, at the end of World War Two. With the closing of the journal, Suzanne Cesaire stopped writing. The reasons for this are unknown. However, journalist Natalie Levisalles suggests that Suzanne Cesaire would have perhaps made different choices if she had not had the responsibilities of mothering six children, teaching, and being the wife of an important politician and poet, Aime Cesaire. Indeed, her first daughter, Ina Cesaire, remembers her saying regularly: "Yours will be the first generation of women who choose."
Having stopped writing she pursued her career as a teacher, working in Martinique and Haiti. She was also an active feminist and participated in the Union des Femmes Françaises.
4. Reception and influence
Suzanne Cesaire was a pioneer in the search for a distinct Martiniquan literary voice. Though she was attacked by some Caribbean writers, following an early edition of Tropiques, for aping traditional French styles of poetry as well as supposedly promoting "The Happy Antilles" view of the island advanced by French colonialism, her essay of 1941, "Misere dune poesie", condemned what she termed "Litterature de hamac. Litterature de sucre et de vanille. Tourisme litteeraire"Essays published in Tropiques
- "Le Grand camouflage" 1945
- "Alain et lesthetique" July 1941
- "1943: Le surrealisme et nous" October 1943
- "Malaise dune civilization" April 1942
- "Andre Breton, poete" October 1941
- "Misere dune poesie" January 1942
- "Leo Frobenius et le probleme des civilisations" April 1941
- Suzanne Cesaire, Maximin, Daniel 2009. Suzanne Cesaire: le grand camouflage. Ecrits de dissidence 1941-1945, Daniel Maximin ed. Paris: Le Seuil. This book is a collection her seven literary essays.
- "Leo Frobenius and the Problem of Civilizations", "A Civilization’s Discontent", "1943: Surrealism and Us" and "The Great Camouflage", Krzysztof Fijalkowski and Michael Richardson, translators; in Richardson, Michael, ed. 1997. Refusal of the Shadow: Surrealism and the Caribbean. London: Verso. pp. 82–87, 96–100, 123–126, 156–161.
- "Andre Breton, Poet", Guy Ducornet and Franklin Rosemont, translators; "Discontent of a Civilization", Penelope Rosemont, translator; "1943: Surrealism and Us" and "The Domain of the Marvelous" extract from the essay "Alain et l’esthetique", Erin Gibson, translator; in Rosemont, Penelope, ed. 1998. Surrealist Women: An International Anthology. Austin: University of Texas Press. pp. 127–137.
- "The Domain of the Marvelous" extract from the essay "Alain et l’esthetique" in Caws, Mary Ann, ed. 2001. Surrealist Painters and Poets: An Anthology. Translated by Gibson, Erin. Cambridge: MIT Press. p. 157.
- Surrealism and Us" and "The Domain of the Marvelous" extract from the essay "Alain et l’esthetique" in Caws, Mary Ann, ed. 2001. Manifesto: A Century of isms. Translated by Gibson, Erin. Lincoln: U. of Nebraska. pp. 488–492.
- "The Malaise of a Civilization" and "The Great Camouflage" in Sharpley-Whiting, T. Denean 2002. Negritude Women. Translated by Sharpley-Whiting, T. Denean; Van Den Abbeele, Georges. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota. pp. 130–140).