Jean Joseph Rabearivelo
Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo (March 4, 1901 – June 23, 1937) is widely considered to be Africa's first modern poet. Born Joseph-Casimir, in Tananarive (now Antananarivo), the capital of Madagascar, just five years after the island nation had become a French colony, he was the only child of an unwed mother whose family wealth had been lost. At the age of 13, he was expelled from the College Saint-Michel for refusing to join the religious order; after briefly attending public school, he abandoned formal education and began working at various petty jobs which colonial society offered.
In 1924 he began work as a proofreader at the Imprimerie de l'Imerina, and though he was employed without pay for the first two years, he kept this low paying job for the rest of his life. To its credit, the printing house published several of Rabearivelo's books in limited editions, which was probably reason enough for him to stay there. In 1926, Rabearivelo married Mary Razafitrimo, an African photographer's daughter, together they had five children.
In debt throughout his life, and even jailed for it, his financial woes were an admixture of low wages, gambling, a love for acquiring books, and a sweet tooth for opium. A voracious reader, and primarily self-taught, he edited anthologies of Malagasy poetry and was involved in two literary periodicals, 18° Latitude Sud and Capricorne. Of about 20 literary works accounted for, including poetry, plays, fiction, and literary criticism, it appears that only half of his works were published at the time of his death. On the afternoon of June 23, 1937, after having dispatched letters of farewell, Rabearivelo took his own life with cyanide, faithfully recording his final moments in his Calepins Bleu (Blue Notebooks), a personal journal of some 1,800 pages.Criticism
Rabearivelo has l
ng been considered the key poet of modernity in the history of Madagascar, and has been the subject of a significant number of books and conferences. He has especially been depicted as a martyr-figure as a result of his suicide following the refusal of French authorities to grant him permission to go to France. Nonetheless, he was included in the seminal volume of poetry of the Negritude movement, Leopold Senghor’s Anthologie de la nouvelle poesie negre et malgache [Anthology of New Black and Malagasy Poetry].
However, recent scholarship has questioned Rabearivelo’s elevation as a colonial martyr, arguing that the poet was by and large an assimilationist who did not even think of himself as black, chief among them Richard Serrano in Against the Postcolonial. It is notable, however, that these studies of Rabearivelo do not take his writings in Malagasy into account, which potentially limits the scope of their arguments.
His work shows an affinity with both the Symbolist and Surrealist poets, while remaining strongly grounded in the geography and folkloric life of Madagascar. He absorbed French colonialist aspirations of being a Frenchman as well as a Malagasy, but was denied the opportunity to live and write in Paris. Rabearivelo despaired after that refusal and committed suicide in 1937. Complete works are:
La coupe de cendres (1924)
Enfants d'Orphee (1931)
Traduit de la Nuit (1935)
Chants pour Abeone (1936).
The first complete English translation of his masterpiece Translated from the Night, translated by Robert Ziller, was published by Lascaux Editions - www.LascauxEditions.com in 2007. Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., American Book Award recipient, has written, "These translations read beautifully."