b. about 1901, Antananarive, Madagascar; d. 1937, Madagascar
writer, poet, playwright
Marginalized from even before his birth, the great Madagascan Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo was born out of wedlock to an impoverished young woman belonging to a noble family of the Hova people in Antananarive in either 1901, 1903 or 1904-he himself variously used the different dates. He was baptized Joseph-Casimir but later changed his name to Jean-Joseph so that he had the same initials as the "great French writer" (Jean-Jacques Rousseau). Rabearivelo was taken in by a maternal uncle; his formal schooling was cut short when he was expelled from school. From 1915 to 1919 he worked as secretary and interpreter for a Madagascan nobleman before being employed in 1923 as a proof-reader for the Imprimerie de l'Imerina (Imerina Press), a position that he held until his death by suicide in 1937. In 1926 he married Mary Razafitrima, with whom he had five children, one of whom, his beloved daughter Voahangy, died in 1933, aged only 2. Rabearivelo never recovered from her death and when another daughter was born shortly after, he named her Velomboahangy, Voahangy reincarnated.
Throughout his life, Rabearivelo had to contend with material difficulties, frequent illnesses, and a morbid personality. He sought escape from these conditions through the use of alcohol, opium, gambling, and promiscuity. These abuses were the result of his personal, interior exile which stemmed from his desire to be, at the same time, both Madagascan and French. Colonial society barred him from administrative posts for which he applied but did admit him as an associate member of the Académie Malgache (Madagascan Academy) in 1931. However, they refused to include him in the delegation which they sent to the prestigious Paris Exhibition of 1937 (judging basket weavers to be more representative of Madagascar) despite the fact that a local newspaper had already proclaimed the fact that his play Imaitsoanala, fille d'oiseau (Imaitsoanala, the Bird's Daughter) would be performed.
From early on, Rabearivelo was involved in literature, collaborating in and contributing to two literary journals, 18° latitude sud (18° Latitude South) (1923-7) and Capricorne (Capricorn) (1930-1). He is the first major Madagascan poet to write in French. Through his art, he aimed at creating a literature in French that would somehow escape being classified as French literature. His work, when not written directly in French, is translated into the language of the colonizer in an attempt to appease his dual affiliation and to reconcile the racial, ethnic, and cultural differences which exist between his Madagascan and French selves. He wrote specifically so that he would be acknowledged as a writer, and his deep-rooted existential dichotomy is illustrated in his reason for writing "dans cette langue que j'ai choisie/pour préserver mon nom de l'oubli (the language I have chosen/to keep my name from oblivion)" ("Lamba" in Presque-songes, 1990: Paris).
Unlike many black writers of the early 1920s, such as Aimé Césaire and Léopold Senghor