African Writer Profile: Antoine Abel
Antoine Abel was born on November 27th 1934 in Anse Boileau on Mahe Island, the principal island of the Seychelles Archipelago. He came from a family of peasants, descendents of African slaves brought from the mainland. He had the opportunity to study in Switzerland and England and worked as an educator, eventually taking up a position at the Seychelles Teacher Training College which he held until he retired in 1986.
He is considered to be the Father of Seychelles Literature, having written novels, short stories, poetry, plays and folklore in French, English and Seychelles Creole. He was the first playwright to bring his country’s culture and Creole language to the world stage with his collection of poems Paille en queue (1969). In Paille en queue, Abel recounts his memories of childhood.
According to the Culture Department of Seychelles:
Mr. Abel was one of the most well-known and accomplished poets and writers that the country has ever produced. He was one of the pillars in the promotion of the Seychellois culture. He had a profound understanding and insight into the way of life of our people. One of the most prolific and versatile Seychellois writers and researchers working in all our national languages, he produced novels, numerous poems, plays, articles and contributed in various cultural and educational fora at both national and international level. Mr Abel was especially insightful in the use of the Seychellois cultural context in teaching, particularly the French language, being the French advisor in the Ministry of Education before joining the Ministry of Culture.
Many of Abel’s short stories feature the half-human, half-monkey Soungoula, a trickster figure popular in Seychellois folktales. He learned these folktales from the elders of his community, peasants and fishermen whose hardships he describes in his work. In 1977, Antoine became the first Seychellois writer to have works published in Europe when France’s P.J. Oswald/L’Harmattan published the novel Coco sec, Une tortue se rappelle and Contes et poèmes des Seychelles. Abel described himself as “un petit poète sans importance vivant sur une île de poésie” (English translation: A little poet without importance living on an island of poetry).
Abel’s efforts helped to inspire other Seychellois Writers by showing that their daily lives were worthy of literature. As Seychellois writer Pat Matyot writes:
I lived among lagati and cinnamon trees, but I read about oak and willow trees. I saw mynahs, tenrecs and rhinoceros beetles, but my books were about robins, squirrels and red admiral butterflies. There were no books that said anything about the Seychellois natural environment. Then came Antoine’s Paille en queue, with its forty pages of quaint little poems in French and English, many of them about fruit bats, corals, octopus, tortoises, cicadas and the southeast monsoon. Looking back at those often awkward first poems, touching in their naivety, it is not easy to explain their impact on me. But reading Antoine’s work was a milestone in my intellectual development in that it validated, so to speak, my real-life experiences. Fruit bats, octopus and sardine fishing were talked about in a book. One could write about such things. And, moreover: Seychellois, too, could write books!
After Seychelles won Independance in 1976, Creole was recognized as the national language and Abel edited over 60 titles in the language, particularly literature for children. He wrote the first novel Montann en leokri and first play Restan kamira published in Seychellois Creole.
Abel was awarded France’s Prix Mascareignes in 1979.
Antoine Abel died in 2004 after a long illness. He was buried in Anse Boileau.
Since 2007, the Festival Kreol des Seychelles yearly awards the Prix Antoine Abel in his honour.
Unfortunately, as English has taken over as the language of education and culture in Seychelles, Abel’s works in French and Creole are read less and less.
Seychelles loses Antoine Abel, poet and nature-lover by Pat Matyot (article available online)
Culture department mourns death of poet, writer Antoine Abel (article available online)
Plaidoyer pour une réhabilitation d’Antoine Abel aux Seychelles by Christophe Cassiau-Haurie (article in French available online)
Une littérature seychelloise? (article in French available online)
Antoine Abel Profile in Creole available online