Between Squalor and Splendor: Haitian Literature and National Crisis

by    /  August 9, 2010  / No comments

On January 12, 2010, a massive earthquake rocked the nation of Haiti. The country’s writers—both at home and abroad—responded with poems, articles, and interviews. However for more than a hundred years, Haitian writers have been writing from and for a nation marked by both natural and manmade catastrophe. During the country’s history, hundreds of thousands of Haitians have fled or been exiled, creating a sizable and culturally productive diaspora.

In Marie Vieux-Chauvet’s 1968 novella Madness, three poets crouch in a barricaded shack as what they call “devils” crawl through the streets of Port-au-Prince shooting everything that moves. On the verge of starvation, one poet calls out in agony, “Do you remember…they amused themselves by slapping us and making us crawl naked on all fours like dogs. No doubt about it, they persecute poets here.”

During the brutal dictatorship of François Duvalier and subsequently his son Jean-Claude (1957–1986) the government not only persecuted poets; they armed a militia of the desperate poor and set them loose on the country to reduce the population and paralyze opposition through fear of torture. Government persecution of artists and intellectuals for subversion led to their mass exodus.

Writers of the Haitian diaspora have produced a rich body of literature. These writers include Edwidge Danticat, Stanley Péan, and René Depestre, who, in addition to producing their own work, promote and nurture other Haitian writers. There is also a vibrant literary community within Haiti that has survived occupation and dictatorship. Writers such as Frankétienne, Lyonel Trouillot, and Gary Victor have produced a body of work marked by artistic daring.

These writers and others promote literature through public readings, theater productions, and publications in a country where almost half of the nearly 10 million inhabitants are illiterate and nearly 80 percent live in abject poverty. The few publishing houses on the island mostly produce educational material and reprints of Haitian classics, so writers in Haiti rely on French, Canadian, and American publishers. Because there are only a few bookstores on the island, writers often distribute their work privately

How much of the fragile publishing industry in Haiti survived the January 12 earthquake remains to be seen. What is clear—in the outpouring of letters, essays, poems, and speeches—is that Haitian literature remains undaunted by the disaster and that writers are ready to respond in the best way they know how—in words.

Speaking to UNESCO about the role of artists after the earthquake, Frankétienne said, “Our painters, craftspeople, musicians, and dancers are our wealth, a wealth that is sacrosanct, as it exists in the imagination, in this cathedral of the human skull.”

For generations Haitian writers protected this wealth in clandestine meetings, smuggled books, and remembered poems. In Chauvet’s Madness, the poets crouch in a squalid shack overcome with the stench of their chamber pot and a body rotting outside. However, they write feverishly, even in the dark. “I write with my hand and my heart,” one poet says. “Not with my eyes.”

In many ways, Chauvet’s life and work is emblematic of the history of Haitian literature. She was born in 1916, during the American occupation of the island. Haiti is the world’s first independent black republic. When America occupied Haiti, African-Americans were still fighting for the right to vote. This may explain the hallucinatory quality of the American occupation in Chauvet’s writing.

Chauvet depicts the occupation’s brutality and exploitation in her novella Love. Claire, the protagonist, discovers her voice by writing secretly in a journal. She describes how she spends nights listening to the screams of prisoners and days listening to the trees crashing to the ground as American companies systematically deforest the island. Her talent makes her “like a fruit fallen before ripening, rotting under the tree unnoticed.”

Despite the stultifying atmosphere of surveillance by her neighbors eager to ingratiate themselves to the occupiers, Claire stubbornly continues writing and, as writing awakens her consciousness, she begins to resist through physical means. Eventually, she commits an act of rebellion that the men around her are incapable of and stands up to the commandant, who regularly abducts women to rape and torture them.

Like her character Claire, Chauvet persisted as a writer despite living under the near-constant surveillance of a brutal dictatorship of Duvalier. She hosted meetings of the Les Araignées du Soir (Evening Spiders), a group of poets and writers of whom she was the only woman. She sent a trilogy of novellas to France to be published as a single book titled Love, Anger, Madness. Though the novellas are set during the American occupation, references to the Duvaliers are unmistakable. When Haiti’s ambassador to France saw an advanced copy, he became concerned that it might offend the government and they would retaliate by jailing or even killing Chauvet. He asked the French publishing house to halt the distribution of the book long enough for him to arrange for the author to leave the island.

Chauvet hoped the book would cause such a scandal that it would attract international attention to the conditions in Haiti, but it quickly disappeared. After its limited release in Haiti, Chauvet’s husband bought as many copies of the book as he could find and destroyed them in order to protect their family members still on the island. Pirated copies and private editions surreptitiously circulated, but the book wasn’t distributed internationally. In 1973, Chauvet, then 57, died of brain cancer while in exile in Queens, New York.

By that time, the dictatorship had passed from “Papa Doc” Duvalier to his son, “Baby Doc.” Foreign investments had established an exploitative sweatshop system, and the Haitian government had started shipping its own citizens to work in sugar plantations in the Dominican Republic like slaves, as Edwidge Danticat writes in her introduction to Love, Anger, Madness. Writers and intellectuals left the country en masse.

“Exile is certainly one of the dimensions which … gives Haitian culture its coherence,” wrote author Yanick Lahens in a 2003 essay for Callaloo magazine. Today nearly half a million people born in Haiti reside in the United States, and some 80 thousand live in Canada. This means places such as Montreal and New York are sites of Haitian cultural production as significant as Port-au-Prince.

There is a tradition in Haitian diasporic literature of the exiled intellectual as vagabond. It can be traced back to the influential novelist Jacques Roumain, who was exiled during the 1930s
because of his support of Communism. During his exile, he met many other writers, including Langston Hughes, and worked in the ethnography department of Columbia University.

Reflecting on the idea of the exiled Haitian intellectual as a citizen of the world, poet Depestre said, “As I have been Brazilian in São Paulo, Czech in Prague, French in Paris, Italian in Milan, Cuban in Havana, Haitian at every human crossroads of tenderness and freedom, each succeeding self will have created my identity at this time of global cultural interrelationship.”

Exile also creates a sense of distance from one’s home country and culture, one which Chauvet was perhaps trying to close in her final work, Les Enfants D’Ogoun (Children of Ogoun); Ogoun is the Haitian god of war. In Haitian tradition, gods cannot cross water, but perhaps Chauvet still considered herself a child of that faraway god. She completed only a few pages of the novel before her death.

For other Haitian writers, exile imprints itself on the level of language. The poet Anthony Phelps, one of Chauvet’s fellow Evening Spiders who now lives in Montreal, wrote, “In the algebra of exile/I can only play/with words which cannot form sentences.”

Language is contested terrain for Haitian writers. The vast majority of the population on the island speaks Haitian Kreyól, a polyglot idiom with influences from French, Arabic, indigenous Caribbean languages, various African languages, and—more recently—English. In 1969, it joined French as the official language of Haiti. Most Haitian literature is in French, while Kreyól is the language of public life, oral tradition, and theater.

Published in 1859, Stella is considered to be the first Haitian novel. It was written in French by Emeric Bergeaud, while he was in exile for participating in an unsuccessful coup against President Faustin-Élie Soulouque. Like much work of that time period, the novel is heavily influenced by European romanticism and symbolism.

Jean Jonassaint, professor of Francophone and Caribbean literature at Syracuse University and native of Haiti, argues that immediately following independence and through the American occupation Haitian writers felt a pressure to write in and master French as a way to “prove to the world that blacks weren’t barbarians.” He added: “If you are a black man or a black woman you don’t want to act like a slave, but you don’t want to be a master. Instead you want to take things from the master because they are useful.”

During the American Occupation, a group of intellectuals and writers started pushing back against the primacy of French. They argued that Kreyól should be the language of literary expression. This movement was lead by writers including Suzanne Comhaire-Slyvain, the daughter of Georges Sylvain, whose 1901 Cric?Crac! is the first book entirely in Kreyól. The renaissance of Kreyól literature was part of a movement called Indiginisme, which advocated a return to African roots. Given this history, a writer’s choice of language carries significant political freight.

“Our story is very complex, and you can’t tell it in just one language,” Jonassaint said. “You have to map Haiti in more than one language.” While critics argue about the political ramifications of language, writers make choices based on aesthetic considerations. Many writers contend with Haiti’s complex tradition by stitching together French, Kreyól, English, and Spanish in formally innovative works that reflect the fracturing of Haitian culture. Chauvet’s work, though largely in French, is peppered with Kreyól phrases. It is saturated in both Haitian oral culture and classic French literature, with references to voodoo sitting comfortably next to quotes from Balzac and Dumas.

In his more than thirty works including poetry, novels, and plays, Frankétienne constantly shifts idioms in a way that makes his work difficult to categorize. Jonassaint, who has studied the artist extensively, places him in the company of experimental writers such as James Joyce and John Dos Passos. “The first concern of a writer isn’t social or political,” Jonassaint said. “It is the specific use of words and how one form relates to another form. People ignore that. They want to put Haitian writers in a political box.”

Jonassaint argues that the freedom of exile comes with the shackles of political expectation. He said that “some Haitian artists feel they could lose support or audience if they don’t write about Haitian politics or the ‘Haiti Problem.’ They also face pressure to be spokespeople for their country rather than artists dealing with issues of poetics.”

“Why would you call a writer to ask about the Haitian economy,” Jonassaint asked. “Ask an economist! People forget that Haitian writers are trying to be part of a larger literary tradition. It’s a racist position that Haitian writers must be political.”

Jonassaint also encounters an expectation that Haitian literature should be simple “after all, we are a simple people, right?” Jonassaint pushes against overtly political and simplistic readings of Haitian literature in his scholarship, which treats Haitian literature with the same rigor as Greek tragedy.

The fall of the Duvaliers in 1986 opened up freedoms for Haitian writers, though the country remained politically unstable and desperately poor. In recent years, there has been a growing audience for Haitian writing.

Contemporary works by young Haitian writers are rich in complexity and diverse in terms of form and craft. These include Danielle Legros Georges’ 2001 poetry collection Maroon in which she creates intricate metaphors and Lahens’ novels in which she filters scenes of daily life through virtuosic narrative experiments. Lehens’ Aunt Résia & the Spirits was published earlier this year by the University of Virginia Press.

In America, interest in Haitian literature has been growing since 1998 when Oprah chose Edwidge Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory for her book club. In 2007 Danticat received a National Book Critics’ Circle award for her memoir Brother, I’m Dying and a MacArther “Genius” Fellowship in 2009. She has used her fame to promote Haitian writers, penning introductions to countless works, editing anthologies, and ferrying others through publication.

In 2009 the Modern Library published Chauvet’s “lost book,” Love, Anger, Madness in its first English translation. In her preface, translator Rose-Myriam Réjouis writes that Danticat was instrumental in the book’s translation. Réjouis added that the work “offers a literary means of articulating the challenges Haiti’s history poses to its citizens and to the rest of the world, an articulation that is possible only because her protagonists are complex thinking subjects and not simply romantic heroes.”

The January earthquake poses a new challenge for the citizens of Haiti and, indeed, the rest of the world. Haitian writers appear poised to accept the challenge. Lehens has been keeping a diary since the day of the quake. “This event, no matter how trying it has been, did not succeed in extinguishing the writer in me,” she wrote. At the time of the quake, Frankétienne was in the midst of rehearsals for his new play, Melovivi or Le Piège. Eerily prophetic, the work takes place after an earthquake as survivors crouch in the rubble. The play was performed in Paris at the UNESCO-sponsored forum, “Rebuilding the Social, Cultural, and Intellectual Fabric of Haiti.”

In Michel-Ange Hyppolite’s poem “Speech,” he writes about a student who has lost his voice, but the final words of the poem could also describe the writers and artists of Haiti and its diaspora: “His voice is/ the artillery of words loaded/ to uncoil our strength.”




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