I love the comic book section of the university library, because there are many books that deal with the knowledge of our Caribbean territories. That’s where I discovered Diab’-là, an adaptation of Joseph Zobel’s novel, or La légion Saint-Georges, a story about the famous Chevalier, by Roland Monpierre, the adventures of the mythical sailing ship Belem by Jean-Yves Delitte, the scientific research missions on plants in the Guyanese forest in Le chant du Paypayo by Julie Blanchi… In particular, I loved L’encyclomerveille d’ un tueur – L’orphelin de cocoyer grands-bois de Chamoiseau et Ségur, wonderful for both the drawing and the story (and very frustrating, because the sequel was not produced!).), and I was very much touched by Les esclaves oubliés de Tromelin of Savoia, a tale mixing the tragic story of slaves abandoned for 15 years on an islet off the Pacific coast, the experience of the cartoonist Savoia, who accompanied a scientific mission to the site, and the work of the archaeologists.
In short, the comic section is a small pleasure to access the culture, history and knowledge of our Caribbean spaces. That’s precisely why, today, I’m talking to you about comics and another French nugget: Péyi an nou, which tells the story of Bumidom and the movement of thousands of French Caribbean people to hexagonal France between 1963 and 1982..
The encounter that changes everything
To tell you the truth, some time ago, I came across the book as I was browsing through the comic book stores. The cover had seduced me, but when I quickly leafed through the book, I didn’t get hooked on the graphics, which is an important criterion for comics that I borrowed at random from the stores… so I put it back. It could have been a short meeting, a short story!
Fortunately for me, a few weeks ago, the library offered a conference entitled Thinking about comic book documentary creation. I am still wondering about the means of mediating scientific research to make it accessible to the greatest number of people. I like reading comic books. I think it’s a great medium for the sharing of historical knowledge. So I’m going to the conference with the idea of learning a little bit about an environment that I know little about, but whose potential I imagine for spreading my own research.
During this meeting, Jessica Oublié, screenwriter, Nicola Gobbi, cartoonist, Vinciane Lebrun, photographer, tells us about their work in progress: Tropiques toxiques, a comic book documentary on chlordecone that should be released in a few months. Jessica is fascinating to listen to. Her project, her approach, the meaning of her actions…, it resonates with things that are important to me. The meeting takes place around Toxic Tropics, but of course, we also talk about her previous creation Péyi an nou. I come out of there with a strong desire to read the comic book. I’ ll ignore the graphics, I want to see the content and its treatment; I want to immerse myself in his work!
Péyi an nou, Story of Bumidom
In Péyi an nou, Jessica Oublié questions her family history, that of her grandfather who lived part of his life in France. This is how she finds herself investigating Bumidom for two years.
Created in 1963, the Bureau for the Development of Migration in the Overseas Departments, Bumidom, was a population management tool, in operation until 1981. The agency was responsible for accompanying the movement of inhabitants from Guadeloupe, Martinique and Reunion to France [*]. Thousands of young men and women thus came to cover workforce needs in jobs that were not very popular in France.
For me, the strength of the comic book lies in the fact that the narrative incorporates both meetings with researchers specializing in this history, interviews with women and men affected by this situation, and extracts from sources in a few double pages scattered throughout the book.
Throughout the pages, the reader discovers the context that led to the creation of Bumidom, the characteristics of its functioning, its consequences, but also the whole political, economic and social context that surrounds it. For example, I was astonished by the recruitment procedures (especially the existence of social surveys!) for the people who applied to leave. I was interested in the boards mentioning the training institutes in France that I didn’t know about. I appreciated the developments on the militant movements of the time whether they were active in the islands or in France (Ojam, Gong, student unions…), as they give an overview of the political climate and social tensions in play.
While being historically documented, the comic strip gives pride of place to the variety of feelings, experiences and journeys of the people who left during this period: hopes, disillusions, opportunities seized, tears… I found it precious that the comic also evokes the feelings of those who stayed behind, the relations between those who left and those who stayed, the repercussions for these men and women, for the following generations born « over there » …
In 1961, the population of the three islands was 917,889 (349,282 in Reunion, 276,545 in Guadeloupe, 292,062 in Martinique[**]); with some 160,000 people displaced from the overseas departments in less than 20 years (the lowest estimate, to which must be added the equally high spontaneous migrations that are taking place at the same time!), it would be difficult to come from an Antillean family that would not have been closely or remotely concerned by this history.
As a historian, I’m not a specialist in contemporary history, so I learned a lot and found the comic book very enlightening in many ways. Not only do I now look at my family history with a fresh eye, but I also feel that I have a better understanding of the current consequences of this history for the Caribbean community, whether its members are settled in the Caribbean or in France.
You figure it out, like in The Sea Maroons of Georges B. Mauvois or Kindred by Octavia Butler, Péyi an nou is one of those accessible books which I recommend reading to discover the major moments of our history. And you, have you read this graphic narrative? Do you know the history of Bumidom? Is it part of your family history?
[*] French Guiana was not affected by the population explosion with only 33 505 inhabitants and was therefore not subject to intensive promotion at the outset.
**] Data taken from the censuses mentioned in the Wikipedia pages of each territory.
Jessica Oublié, Marie-Ange Rousseau, Péyi an nou, Steinkis, 2017.
On Manioc, conference Des circonstances aux conséquences, autour de l’exposition « MEMWA » et du roman graphique « Peyi an nou »., 2018.