by Celia Britton
Edouard Glissant at the Saint Malo book fair in 2009. Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images Europe Edouard Glissant, who has died aged 82, was one of the most important writers of the French Caribbean. His novels, with their combination of textual complexity and emotional intensity, first brought him to public attention. More recently, he had become better known for collections of essays such as Poétique de la Relation (Poetics of Relation, 1990), Traité du Tout-Monde (Treatise On the Whole World, 1996) and Philosophie de la Relation (Philosophy of Relation, 2009). Glissant's body of work, comprising eight novels, nine volumes of poetry, one play and 15 collections of essays, constitutes not only a profound reflection on colonialism, slavery and racism, but also a powerful vision of a world where cultural diversity flourishes. He was shortlisted for the Nobel prize for literature in 1992.
Born on the island of Martinique, Glissant was shaped by his experience as a colonised subject whose African ancestors had been transported to the Caribbean and whose lives as slaves were largely unrecorded. This loss of history and the marginalisation some Martinicans feel, as inhabitants of a tiny island on the fringes of the French-speaking world, weighed heavily on his early writing. Martinique's accession to the status of French overseas department in the late 1940s merely, in his eyes, reinforced this sense of alienation.
As a young man he campaigned for Martinique's independence within a federation of Caribbean states. But in the 1980s he abandoned this project as unrealisable and broadened his focus to what he called the "tout-monde": a view of the whole world as a network of interacting communities whose contacts result in constantly changing cultural formations. The concept of "relation", earlier presented as a goal to which the isolated society of Martinique aspired, now became a worldwide reality: we are all in relation with each other and we all have a chance of making our voices heard.
Glissant attended the Lycée Victor Schoelcher in the capital, Fort-de-France, where his fellow students included Frantz Fanon, whose analyses of colonial psychology would later be a significant influence, and where the poet Aimé Césaire taught. When Césaire stood as a communist candidate for the French parliament in the 1945 election, Glissant, despite being too young to vote, helped organise his campaign. These events are reflected in Glissant's first novel, La Lézarde (The Ripening, 1958).
The following year he went to study philosophy at the Sorbonne, and then ethnology at the Musée de l'Homme. During these years in Paris, Glissant moved in avant-garde literary circles, writing reviews for Les Lettres Nouvelles and publishing his first volume of poetry, Un Champ d'Iles (A Field of Islands, 1953), and his first collection of essays, Soleil de la Conscience (The Sun of Consciousness, 1956), which expressed his ambiguous feeling of both belonging and not belonging to France.
Towards the end of the 1950s he became involved in anti-colonial political movements. He supported the Front de Libération Nationale during the Algerian war; and with his friend Paul Niger, founded the Front Antillo-Guyanais in 1959 to campaign for independence for the French overseas departments – from which he was therefore banned by the French president, Charles de Gaulle, until 1965.
Returning that year to Martinique, he set up the Institut Martiniquais d'Etudes and the journal Acoma in order to counteract the overwhelmingly French emphasis in the island's educational and cultural life. Here he wrote two forcefully despairing novels set in Martinique, Malemort (Violent Death, 1975), which tracks three penniless odd-jobmen through the 1930s and 40s against a background of political corruption and a murky political assassination, and La Case du Commandeur (The Overseer's Hut, 1981) which within a broad historical sweep focuses mainly on his principal and recurring female character Mycéa and her eventual descent into madness. He also wrote the articles on Caribbean society that were published as Le Discours Antillais (Caribbean Discourse, 1981).
In 1980 he went to Paris again to work as editor of Unesco's multilingual magazine. He met Sylvie Sémavoine, a student, and they married in 1987. In 1989 he accepted a post as distinguished professor at Louisiana State University: intellectually this was a productive move, in so far as the American south rekindled his longstanding interest in William Faulkner and allowed him to explore further his sense that all ex-plantation societies, whether in the US or the Caribbean, share a common culture. As a mixed-race family the Glissants found life difficult in Louisiana, and it was with relief that in 1995 he left for the City University of New York where, despite eventually settling in Paris, he gave graduate classes almost up to the time of his death.
Glissant was always politically involved – whether in ecological campaigns in Martinique; the International Writers' Parliament, which he and Wole Soyinka created in the 1990s; and his high-profile opposition to Nicolas Sarkozy's immigration policies. He is survived by Sylvie and their son, Mathieu, and by his children from two previous marriages, Pascal, Jérôme, Barbara and Olivier.
• Edouard Glissant, writer, born 21 September 1928; died 3 February 2011