Writer and translator Patti Marxsen on Haitian literature on the 7th anniversary of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.
The contemporary literary scene in Haiti
Haiti has had a strong, literary tradition for over a century that evolved in the wake of Haitian independence from France in 1804. It was then that Haiti became Haiti (Ayiti, in Haitian Kreyòl), thanks to a major revolution led by slaves. Prior to 1804, Haiti was an extraordinarily rich French colony called Saint-Domingue. This history of revolution, of fighting to end slavery and become the first black republic in the world, is far from irrelevant to the ‘contemporary literary scene’. Haitian Lit is deeply connected to Haitian history, politics, and the struggle for social justice. It embodies a ‘revolutionary spirit’. That said, there have been enormous challenges for Haitian writers and readers, from dictators and brain drain to poverty and illiteracy and what we tend to think of as ‘natural disasters’.
All of this affects the ecosystem of reading-writing-publishing, which is connected to the Haitian diaspora of over a million people in North America alone. Another key issue has to do with ‘language politics’ in Haiti, which are traditionally related to class consciousness in Haitian society. Until quite recently, French was the language of instruction, the language of government, and the language of Haitian Lit. But French is, actually, a minority language in Haiti. The vast majority of Haitians speak, think, and live in Haitian Kreyòl, which only became an ‘official language’ in 1987, even though it had, effectively, been the national language of Haiti for over two centuries. Many of those fluent in Kreyol do not understand French. Furthermore, this rural majority is often illiterate and/or too poor to purchase books. So even with increased understanding and respect for of Kreyòl, the question of its place in Haitian Lit remains in flux, even if a few innovators like Frankétienne have used it for year; the late Paulette Poujol Oriol also used it quite a bit in Le Creuset. One could, after all, argue that a truly Haitian literature must be written in Haitian Kreyòl since that is the lingua franca of the nation’s people. In my opinion, that goes too far because French is also part of Haitian culture. In truth, Haitian Lit needs both languages to thrive.
In any case, things are changing regarding language usage in Haiti. First of all, and thanks in large part to the work of MIT linguist Michel de Graff, Haitian Kreyol has been legitimized as more than a mere ‘patois’ and is finally becoming the language of instruction in the early years of primary school. Also, a Kreyòl Academy was also established in 2015 to support and expand the use of Kreyòl throughout Haitian life. Michel de Graff is a founding member. Another is Féquière Vilsaint, publisher of the Miami-based Educa Vision Inc.
Another member, Clotaire Saint-Natus, is the translator of a classic novel of twentieth-century Haitian literature, Gouverneurs de la rosée by Jacques Roumain. It is telling to realize that this 1944 novel read by generations of Haitians in school—and translated into nearly 20 languages since—ONLY became available in Haitian Kreyòl in 2007, the centennial year of Roumain’s birth. It is also worth noting that Roumain was one of the first twentieth-century Haitian writers to incorporate Haitian Kreyòl into his fiction. This was quite an innovation in his first novel La Montagne ensorcélée (1931) where he literally used footnotes to explain Kreyòl words and phrases to his readers, elite people of mixed race, very likely educated in Europe.
So this evolution of Haitian Kreyòl in Haitian life and literature is one thing that has changed the scene in recent years. It means higher rates of literacy and also figures into the success of a major book fair, Livres en Folie, that just celebrated its 22nd year. I should also mention that Haitian writers are very active at international book fairs in the USA, Canada, France, and Switzerland, to say nothing of winning prestigious prizes. And, of course, a major barrier was broken in 2013 when Dany Laferrière was elected to the Académie française, a bastion of French culture.
Must-read classics from Haiti available in English
The last one on this list was just recently completed and deserves to be read as a wonderful 90th birthday gift to René Depestre.
Jacques Roumain’s Gouverneurs de la rosée. (1944) Translated by Langston Hughes as Masters of the Dew.
Jacques Stephane Alexis’s Compère général soleil. (1955) Translated by Carroll Coates as General Son, My Brother.
Marie Vieux-Chauver’s Amour, Colère, Folie. (1968) Translated by Rose-Myriam Réjouis and Val Vinokur as Love, Anger, Madness: A Haitian Trilogy.
René Depestre’s Hadriana dans tous mes rêves. (1988) Translated by Kaiama L. Glover as Hadriana in All My Dreams. *Winner of Prix Renaudot in France, 1988.
Best new books from Haiti available in English
Yanick Lahens is a wonderful writer who won the Prix Fémina in France in 2014 for a beautiful rural novel, Bain de lune. I’m so pleased to see that an English translation is coming out in the first half of 2017 from a small publisher, Deep Vellum Press. The translator is Emily Gogolak and the title will be Moonbath. I hear that Lahens’s reflection on the 2010 earthquake, Failles, will also be available in translation next year. I expect the title will be Faultlines, but this is, naturally, up to the translator.
Claire of the Sea Light also came out in 2014. Danticat writes in English so she is one of the fortunate few who does not have to get over the enormous hurdle of translation, which has always been an obstacle for Haitian literature becoming better known.
Publishing houses that publish contemporary fiction
The best publishers of contemporary fiction in Haiti are not in Haiti. Better to check out Actes Sud, in Southern France, who publishes Lyonel Trouillot, for example. Or Mémoire d’encrier in Montréal, led by Rodney St.-Éloi. Or Sabine Weispeiser in Paris, who publishes Yanick Lahens. These houses publish in French, of course. The best small, exciting publisher of Haitian Lit in English is Educa Vision Inc. And I’m not just saying that because they are the publishers of my own short story collection, Tales from the Heart of Haiti!
Literary magazines for contemporary fiction
To my knowledge, there simply isn’t a culture of literary journals in Haiti today, such as there was in the first half of the twentieth-century. There is, however, the Caribbean Writer published in the Virgin Islands. There are also important journals ABOUT Haitian literature and culture published in the USA: the Journal of Haitian Studies and Callaloo, for example. These should not be overlooked by people interested in Haitian Lit.
And finally, new books or authors from Austria that absolutely have to be translated into English
As soon as Yanick Lahens’s Failles exists in English, I would consider it urgent that her elegant novel Guillaume et Nathalie (2013) also be translated because there are important inter-textual links between these two books. So, I really hope his will happen. I also feel strongly that Louis-Phillipe Dalembert’s Ballade d’un amour inachevé (2013) deserves to be widely read. It’s a brilliant reflection on childhood and loss, as well as on the impact of natural disasters.
The Francophone literary world is vast, but English opens doors and windows for writers, especially to writers from small nations like Haiti. They need this connection, and we need them too in order to understand the world. Nothing would make me happier than to see more Haitian Lit in translation, in bookstores, in libraries, and in classrooms as well. The ‘canon’ has to change to include a global perspective if we are ever going to co-exist on this planet with compassion and respect.
Patti Marxsen is a writer and translator with a long-standing focus on the Francphone world. She has translated Albert Schweitzer’s Lambarene: A Legacy of Humanity for Our World Today by Jo and Walter Munz and Riversong of the Rhone/Chant de notre Rhône by Swiss writer C. F. Ramuz. Her books include Tales from the Heart of Haiti, Island Journeys: Exploring the Legacy of France, and Helene Schweitzer: A Life of Her Own. Marxsen served eight years as secretary of the North American Alumni Association of Hôpital Albert Schweitzer in Deschapelles, Haiti, (1998–2006) and is a former board member of the Haitian Studies Association Based at UMASS-Boston. She is currently working on a critical biography of Haitian writer/activist/ethnologist Jacques Roumain (1907-1944). A number of her articles on Haitian literature are available online at www.pattimarxsen.net.