Afro-European Women writers
Three women writing Caribbean and European stories
Three women writing Caribbean and European stories
Beryl Gilroy, Simone Schwarz-Bart and Ellen Ombre are three authors who explore the themes of migration, representation, identity and the complex relationship with home in their literary works. Each of these women discuss their relationships with the Caribbean and their lives in Europe through their stories connecting them to womanhood, Black and Caribbean experiences and history.
Beryl Agatha Gilroy was a Guyanese educator, novelist, poet and ethno-physiotherapist. She grew up in the care of her maternal grandparents. Her grandfather taught her to read and her herbalist grandmother would tell her folkloric tales and proverbs. She trained to be a teacher in Georgetown, earning her diploma in 1945. As part of the Windrush generation, she emigrated to London in 1951 and gained a diploma in child development from the University of London.
Finding a teaching job in London was difficult due to racist stereotyping of Black and Caribbean people by employers. To support herself, she worked as a maid in a mail order factory and as a dishwasher in a café. She became the first Black female teacher in London when she was eventually employed by the Inner London Education Authority in 1951. In 1969, she was the first Black person to be a head teacher at a London school.
Her early works analyse the impact of life in Britain on families from the West Indies, while her later writing explores issues of African and Caribbean diaspora and slavery. While at home with her children between 1956 and 1968, she began writing the first children's series on Black British presence in London. Her book New People at Twenty-Four discussed interracial marriage and was a first for a children’s book by an author of any race.
Though completed in 1959, her first novel In Praise of Love and Children was published over 30 years later in 1994. Publishers claimed that they found it strange, difficult to categorise, psychological and too colonial. However, her male counterparts such as Caribbean writers Sam Selvon and George William Lamming thrived. She was supported by writer Andrew Salkey who would often offer assistance and encouragement to women writers.
In her 1976 memoir Black Teacher, she wrote about her experience as a Black female teacher in an effort to also give a woman’s perspective alongside books like To Sir, With Love by E. R. Braithwaite. She was accused of exaggerating the prejudice she experienced and of boasting, while Braithwaite’s account of his success was more accepted.
By the 1980s, publishing opportunities were more easily accessible for women, which helped Gilroy's works to be read and acknowledged. In 1986, Gilroy gave a talk at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London on the topic of childhood, identity and old age discussed in her novel Frangipani House.
Scholars in the 21st century now consider Beryl Gilroy to have written at ‘the wrong time’ and of the ‘wrong gender’, a victim of the racism and sexism of the times when she was active.
Simone Schwarz-Bart is a Guadeloupean French novelist and playwright. While studying in Paris, aged 18, she met French Jewish novelist André Schwarz-Bart who would later become her husband. He encouraged her to pursue writing. At various times in their lives, they lived in Paris, Senegal, Switzerland and Guadeloupe.
Together with her husband in 1967, she wrote Un plat de porc aux bananes vertes which explores the similarities in Caribbean and Jewish exile. They also wrote La Mulâtresse Solitude in 1972 inspired by the life of historical Guadeloupean heroine figure Solitude.
Simone Schwarz Bart and Jacques Kerchache, National Audiovisual Institute France, In Copyright
In Praise of Black Women was published in 1989, a six-volume encyclopaedia honouring Black women from the ancient past to the present who were absent in the official historiography.
In 1972, she wrote Pluie et vent sur Télumée Miracle, one of the masterpieces of Caribbean literature. It is an important novel for the representation of Guadeloupean women in French literature.
Critics have often attributed full authorship to her husband despite her being mentioned as a collaborator in their works. However, in the English translation of La Mulâtresse Solitude, she is acknowledged as an author.
Ellen Louise Ombre is a Dutch writer of Surinamese descent who came to the Netherlands in 1961 with her parents. She first worked as a medical social worker and, by 1992, made her literary debut. Maalstroom consists of short stories about Surinamese people and their experiences living abroad.
Two years later she published Vrouwvreemd ('Woman Strange') which also consists of short stories about displacement.
Similar themes can be found in her 1996 work Wie Goed Bedoelt ('With the best intentions') which is an autobiographical travel report and an observation on Benin and Dutch Development Aid.
In her 2000 book False Desires, she explores the historical gold trade routes, enslaved people and arms in the Netherlands, West Africa and the Caribbean. Through the series of short stories, she highlights its contemporary legacy leaving disillusionment and unattainable desires and the Surinamese, Dutch and African search for money, love and happiness.
Since then she has written books exploring Caribbean and Jewish mixed identities, and continues to write about identity, heritage and Dutch modern or historical issues.