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Gerty Dambury A French intellectual in Miami

Gerty Dambury, a French author, poet, playwright and theatre director, was invited by the French Embassy’s Cultural Services on a tour in the United States to present her recently translated novel The Restless (« Les Rétifs »).

The novel starts with an introduction remembering a police shooting happening in May 1967 in Guadeloupe, France. When arriving in the USA, the author is immediately confronted with another tragic context: Gerty Dambury was supposed to start her American tour at Pepperdine University in California, but the shootings in Thousand Oaks, California, on November 6 involving students of Pepperdine and other universities, changed everything. Her intervention was cancelled.

After meeting with students, academics and readers in Los Angeles and New York, Gerty Dambury arrived in Miami on November 15th. She met with students of the University of Miami and of the International Studies Charter High School, before giving public talks at Books&Books on Saturday, November 17 at 7pm, and at the « Read Caribbean » Panel of the Miami Book Fair International on Sunday, November 18 at 1.30pm.

Come meet Gerty Dambury to understand her experience and political combat through arts and literature. We prepared the ground for you with this article, based on an intimate conversation with the author.

Remembering May 1967
One year before May 1968, the civil uprising initiated by students in France that socially and politically transformed the country, another violent riot occurred, far away from Paris and forgotten by the media. On May 24, 1967, in Point-à-Pître, in Guadeloupe, riots start after failed negotiations between unions and trustees, leading the police to intervene and fire. The official death polls are still questioned by unofficial figures: Gerty Damby mentions 87 dead in The Restless.

During the event, Gerty Dambury is only 10 years old. Similar to the little girl Emilienne, the main character of The Restless. Is Emilienne Gerty? Is this book an autobiography? Several similarities with the author’s own childhood are striking: their age and school life in Guadeloupe when the May 67 event happened; the big family with several older sisters and brothers; the tailor father and the concerned parents by their children’s education; the courtyard where Emilienne is waiting for her father to come back, which is in the author’s imagination the same courtyard where she grew up and used to play.

But contrary to Emilienne who is involuntarily involved in the May 67 events, little Gerty didn’t totally grasp the meaning of the social agitation at that time. She preferred playing basket ball in the courtyard or exchanging stories with her girlfriends. She remembers hearing detonations while she was at school, but without understanding they were actually shootings. Nothing else happened in her memory then. She however recalls how she was unconsciously permeated with social change through her at least 18 years elder sisters and brothers, who were very excited about attending the first movie shown in Guadeloupe by a French director with only black actors, Black Orpheus, by Marcel Camus.

The unconscious memory of the May 67 events was only unearthed when Gerty was an adult - first, through a later conversation with her older musician brother in 1999, when working on a joint show dedicated to their father, he started describing what he had experienced and seen: the social claims, the violence, the dead bodies, second, through the events in Guadeloupe in 2009 that motivated Gerty Dambury to come back to her native island (she had left in 1998) and to write The Restless. “Before the 240 claims by the Guadeloupean could be addressed through a major conference, the then French Secretary of State for Overseas was called back by the French government”, Dambury deplores. She could feel « a general atmosphere of fear of a new massacre such as in 1967”. It finally didn’t degenerate into such violence, but « on a social or political level, few things have changed from 1967 to 2009 » says Dambury.

Decolonizing Arts
During the social negotiations in Guadeloupe in 2009, Gerty Dambury deplores another a disturbing fact: “Once the Secretary of State was called back, as well as all other services and Directors representing the French State administration, only Black people were left ». This stroke the author as reflecting a global absence of Black professionals (with few exceptions) in French State administration, in committees deciding about cultural grants, or national cultural centers. To address this problem, she decided to participate in writing the manifesto « Decolonisons les arts ! » (“Decolonise art!”) launched in September 2018 at La Colonie, the cultural space co-founded by the French artist Kader Attia.

For Gerty Dambury, this underrepresentation is due, on the one hand, to an unconscious racist collective, and on the other hand, to self-censorship. It would not be linked, contrary to what is thought, to a lack of training or education in the cultural fields. For Gerty Damburty, French Caribbean citizens have the same opportunities to attend all kinds of art schools.

Her writings very often highlight this issue in French society.

From Notebooks to Books
Writing quickly became a habit for Gerty Dambury. She has been writing stories and poems since she was a little girl. She always had a small notebook with her, ready to share her writings either with her friends with whom she had founded a writing Club, or to her proud parents who asked her to recite her work to them or their friends. « I was an object of proud and admiration for my parents », she says.

But her father was also very strict and concerned by his daughters’ education. Girls were not allowed to play in the streets. Instead, her father ordered them to « Sit down and take a book ». After being a tailor and experiencing several other jobs, Pierre Dambury indeed found his passion and vocation by opening a bookstore. « I grew up in a library », Gerty says, « but I didn’t understand most books as I was reading the books my elder sisters read », she adds laughing.

In The Restless, a school notebook (which is a means to communicate between the teachers and the parents in French schools) is Emilienne’s main concern after the disappearing of her teacher and of her father. It becomes an obsession to hide it from her mother to avoid sanctions for a bad mark. It is a way to focus her attention on something else, a piece of paper, to avoid thinking about the tragedy she is sensing. The notebook is a way to dedramatize reality. For Gerty Dambury today, writing is on the contrary a way to highlight reality and denounce all forms of violence, from shootings to social and racial violence.

From Books to the Stage
Gerty Dambury wrote her first theatre play collectively in 1980. It was a collaboration with other authors and intellectuals of the « Coordination of black women » movement, founded in 1976 by French Caribbean and African women to denounce gender inequality alongside racism and neo-imperialism. The theatre play was presented by women living in an immigration host center. It was shown at the Bataclan, the Parisian theatre where the terrorist shootings took place thirty-nine years later. It was three years ago, on November 13, 2015. While on tour in the USA, Gerty Dambury keeps remembering and resisting and remains strong.

Her second theatre play was written alone in 1981 when coming back from an inspiring trip to the « Carifesta » festival in Barbados. She wants to write about the difficult relations in the Caribbean.

Seven years later, she is Avignon, France, for the famous Avignon Theatre Festival to present a poetical recital about Aimé Césaire, the French poet, author and politician from Martinique. The poetical recital was published again with the title « Effervescence ».

Today, as a theatre director, she seems as demanding as her father used to be with her. She requests that the actors « sit down and read » all related books to the play, so as to have the same level of knowledge and understanding of the theme as the playwright herself. What a challenge! To help the actors (and the public) get more familiar with Caribbean literature, Gerty Dambury launched a dramatic series called « The Senat »: 8-10 actors are playing a Caribbean literary text in an informal and intimate space like cafés for instance, interacting directly with the public that is invited to participate and engage with the actors.

Once on stage, what finally matters for Dambury when everyone has digested the many books related to each character, is music. Her theatre play « La radio des bonnes nouvelles » (« The radio station for good news ») for instance, presented in 2017, seems to sum up her work: a musical show about 5 women who were committed in various countries to fight for their rights.

It is hard to believe so many forms of literature – novels, poems and drama – and so many combats – gender equality, anti-racism, solidarity – are united in only one author, Gerty Dambury. Don’t miss the opportunity to meet her during her last days in the USA, this weekend in Miami.

Interview by Vanessa Selk, Cultural Attaché in Miami


Saturday, November 17 - Presentation at Books & Books Coral Gables
Open to the public
Click here for more information
Where: Books & Books Coral Gables, 265 Aragon Ave, Coral Gables, FL 33134
When: 7:00pm -  8:30pm

Sunday, November 18 - Read Caribbean Panel at the Miami Book Fair International (MBFI)
Open to the public

Click here for more information
Where: Miami Dade College, Wolfson Campus, Room 8301 (Building 8, 3rd Floor)
When: 1:30pm – 3:00pm

An event organized with the support of the Miami Book Fair International, Book&Books, French Ars Associates and Alliance Française Miami Metro.