The Wound and the Dream
In Haiti, a militant, prophetic literature thrives alongside political disaster.
October 1, 2000
Oct 1, 2000
27 Min read time
Translated from the French by Neil Gordon
There are memories of Haiti I’d like to keep forever. Alcibiade Pommayrac, nestled in the carefully kept tropical garden of the school in Jacmel, a charming town in the south. In one of the classrooms a banner hangs wishing “Welcome to Dany Laferrière,” even though the Haitian writer—he prefers to call himself a “traveling” Haitian rather than a member of the Haitian diaspora—has already returned to Miami. Schoolchildren, laughing together as they tell a visitor about their unschooled parents: “The grownups have too many superstitions!” The road to Jacmel: a peasant riding a mule to market, pipe in his mouth, poultry slung over his mount, a picture of a gouverneur de la rosé, paysannes du petit matin right out of Jacques Roumain, the best known Haitian writer, whose books paint an idyllic picture of the Haitian countryside, its natural beauty, the simplicity of its peasantry.
But even if Roumain’s literary prestige—and that of Haiti’s other masters—survives, the times do not lend themselves to their militant, prophetic literature, which paints a beautiful picture of the mountainous countryside and its inhabitants and heralds bright tomorrows. The present reality in Haiti is disastrous, and that disaster covers the country in a veil of uncertainty. For three years, the Haitian government was paralyzed. In 1990, Jean Bertrand Aristide, then a radical Roman Catholic priest, was democratically elected President. The following year he was forced into exile by the Haitian army. After three years of brutal military repression, North American occupying forces negotiated his return to power. Aristide, who gave up the priesthood this same year, 1994, later named his own successor, René Préval. (“Titid,” as Aristide is known, remains a ubiquitous and unpredictable figure on the political scene. Everyone expected him to run in the presidential elections planned for November 2000. But in Haiti, every plan, date, and deadline is provisional.)
Since the parliamentary elections of 1997, when the opposition party, the Organization of People in Struggle (Organisation du Peuple en Lutte) accused the governments of Aristide and Préval of fraud and began a filibuster, the governmental institutions of this country have been virtually shut down. No laws are passed, no budgets can be submitted. Some $500 million in loans have been frozen by the Interamerican Development Bank, the World Bank, and others. The financial infrastructure and legal system are at a halt. The middle and lower classes have reverted to a precarious black market economy; often it is only money returning from Haiti’s many emigrants that keeps family budgets afloat. On the coasts of the island, smuggling—including massive transshipments of Colombian cocaine—compensates for the free-fall economy, even as it undermines that economy even further. The principal Haitian export is its people: with a population of 7.3 million, the Haitian diaspora was estimated in 1996 as 1.5 million.
In the midst of this political collapse, social hemorrhage, and galloping anomie, the one source of fresh air and hope comes from a very surprising place indeed: art, and, in particular, literature. In Haiti, literature, painting, and “culture” in the largest sense—voodoo, proverbs, tales, oral traditions—weave a coherent fabric from a fractured society from the scraps of a failed polity and ragged remains of broken promises.
Why this creative abundance, no one really knows. Perhaps the explanation is to be found in ancient literary traditions: the epics of historical upheaval, occupation, independence, the transplantation of half a million African slaves by French colonists. Perhaps the origin is in the rich imagery and the oral traditions of voodoo. My guidebook, for example, gives a factual description of spot close by Cap-Haitien:
at about thirty meters to the right, the ruins of a colonial building shelter a pool where lives a ghost called Lovana, who takes the form of a fish. His faithful come to pray to him on Tuesday and Friday. There is a major festival that takes place here, the day before the pilgrimage to Sea of Lemonade in honor of Sainte Philomène.
Whatever its roots, Haiti’s extraordinary literature provides an occasion for this sad country to transcend its own instability, and discern possibilities beyond its current disasters. To tread a razor’s edge between poetry and disaster.
To come to Haiti in search of its literature is to fall in love with the place—even if, sometimes, this passion is followed by a great deal of pain.
• • •
I have come to Haiti to give speech at an Alliance Française, invited as a French writer of Somalo-Djiboutien origin. My mother is from Djibouti, my father is French, I live in New York: my speech will evoke the nomadic discourse that, in a world swallowed whole by globalization, is mine.
Djibouti and Haiti are two little countries of more or less the same size. Both are French-speaking. But whereas Djibouti is a desert inhabited by nomadic populations who are deeply rooted in Islamic countryside traditions, Haiti is an overcrowded island, populated by a peasantry that is profoundly inspired by Christian faith and voodoo rites.
The two represent cultural poles. Djibouti has few writers in the Western sense of the term, but numerous traditional poets. It is best known, in literary terms, for having hosted the saga of the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, who had been attracted to Djibouti by the Secrets of the Red Sea, Henri de Monfreid’s classic adventure book of the Indian Ocean and its environs.
Haiti, on the other hand, is a country of literatures—note the plural—both oral and published under the auspices of the biggest Parisian publishing houses. I had always admired Jacques Roumain and Jacques Stephen Alexis, the martyred writer, murdered by Papa Doc’s sbires, as well as the incandescent Marie Chauvet. Djibouti to Haiti via New York is for me a voyage rich with literary myths.
Jérémie, my first stop, seems very far from Port au Prince—far from the chaos and the interminable traffic jams of the capital.
A taxi driver had warned me: “Jérémie isn’t really Haiti any more.”
Seen from the airplane, it’s love at first sight: “the crown of its bay stretching up the verdant moss of the hills. Along the golden curve of the beach houses in dentelles de bois; the masters’ rooms of the rich shopkeepers turning their back to the sumptuous sea,” as Lilas Desquiron describes Jérémie in her novel The Roads of Loco Miroir. But before that the Jeremian novelist had said, “She is there, horrible, infected, swollen with envy and with bile,” to describe the sleeping beauty at the bottom of the hills. For me, fortunately, the local polemics are too deep to explore: I have only the time to enjoy this place at the end of the world, where the airport is decorated by a large and flattering flag just across from the entrance of the arrival hall:
“Welcome to the City of Poets.”
A short time later, a few miles from the little airport, in a countryside that is empty apart from a few peasants on muleback, Jérémie exhibits its proper little open-air market, and then regales the visitor with hot croissants at Chez Patou, a French cafe and bakery not far from the recently repainted, majestic cathedral. The local clergy are prosperous.
Eric Parra, the French director of the local Alliance Française, a semi-private, semi-public institution supported by the French Foreign Ministry, is there to meet me. Together, we go to meet the Haitian President of the Local Alliance, Almaye Dorestan.
We find him sitting at one of the rickety tables at a cafeteria next to the Alliance Francaise on the rue Sténio-Vincent. What is he doing, this Saturday, at the end of the world and the end of the millennium? He is working on a notebook full of his short stories, with the ardent attention of an editor.
Can literature, here, really have something to say, given the economic ruin, the political destruction of the country?
“Literature is my passion,” he explains to me. “I’ll submit these stories to Editions Mémoire ou Regain or other local publishers.” And when this second job leaves him a little free time, Dorestan spends it “inventing verses.”
Dorestan is representative of this generation of lettered Haitians who make their island and their culture a Caribbean paradox. Everywhere else in the world modern media—or at least newly introduced media—trump the printed word. Not here. Another writer born in Jérémie, Syto Cavé, reminds me anew of the paradox. “French educators have remarked on a growing disinterest on the part of the young of Martinique and Guadeloupe, whereas here the book remains a major window on the world, on life, on culture, on wisdom, on knowledge.”
Dorestan confirms it. Haiti is the third largest producer of books in the French-speaking world, after France and Quebec. Counting books by diaspora authors, some three hundred to four hundred titles are published each year in all the genres, with a tendency toward poetry. In a country with such a high level of illiteracy, these numbers are astounding.
Jeremian poets faithfully attend their literary Saturdays at the Alliance. It’s a club where the audience is quick to share what it calls its “cultural gateau.” They climb up to the stage, recite poetry in a French filled with the particular literalness of Creole, a peasant language that is deeply rooted in the soil of their islands. They play guitar and sing the sentimental airs of Francis Cabrel or Bartoldi, then rejoin the audience. Nothing here speaks of Haiti’s dangerous and violent reality, of the country’s current political vacuum. They have an infinite confidence in literature, in culture. And yet Jérémie has no electricity or running water.
No taxis, either. In order to see the dramatic view of the Grand Anse River and its steel frame bridge, which is worthy of the nineteenth-century French engineers who built the Eiffel Tower and Grand Palais, we have to take a “moto-stop,” a motorcycle taxi. Our drivers have no intention of wasting our time, and plunge down rocky trails at high speeds. As soon as the last little town—where a truck had fallen into the open sewer—passes, nature becomes generous, providential. The breadfruit and palm trees burst out on the banks of the Grande Anse, where washerwomen scrub laundry while their children play on bamboo rafts, then climb up the sides of the hills. From the summit of the hills, the town and its surroundings are out of the famous primitive local paintings: a timeless tropical paradise.
Obviously, the paintings failed to capture some of the wounds of underdevelopment—among others, the typhoid fever that is endemic to the region of the Grande Anse. Nor do they portray the struggles of political enemies who, from time to time, enflame the poor neighborhoods near the road we’ve just traveled. With the narcotraffic has come a new form of violence, political in effect if not in intention, for it steadily destroys local social structures.
Can literature, here, really have something to say, given the economic ruin, the political destruction of the country? Something constructive, and not simply distracting?
The audience at the Jérémie Alliance Francaise responds with a resounding yes. Like his younger colleagues, the poet Syto Cavé, author of some fifteen plays in Creole and French, remains hopeful:
The time of the dictatorship destroyed everything. It left us needing to reestablish continuity with our own past, to cast a light on the present in view of all we have experienced. We need to help the young to know their past, that which we need to preserve from it, say about it, in order to better go forward.
This is a familiar theme in Djibouti. There, too, the public demands of popular theater and fiction that they be a literature of memory, that they tap into the sources of local history.
“We are in the middle of a long transition toward democracy,” continues Cavé, “but at the same time there is a reestablishment of memory taking place slowly, gradually.”
• • •
From 1968 to 1972, Cavé left the country. At that time, the Duvalier dynasty had cast its dictatorial cloud over the country. Although originally elected, Francois Duvalier—Papa Doc—declared himself president for life in 1964 and installed a sinister paramilitary, the Tontons Macoutes, to enforce his rule. Jean Claude Duvalier—Baby Doc—succeeded his father after his death in 1971 and ruled until he was forced into exile in France in 1986. In New York, Cavé and Hervé Denis founded a theater company.
“So, for us, the time of repression gave birth to a literary movement, Haiti Littéraire, but we were all forced to leave. Among the Jeremians, only René Philoctète stayed.”
Syto Cavé paused, looking at the lush tropical gardens outside the windows.
For those of us in New York, the problem we faced was what literary form to choose, how to escape from the old molds. For us, New York was a political and cultural intersection, as well as a meeting place with the massive Haitian community living there. The theater was a way to open peoples’ eyes about what was going on in Haiti, but it was also for us a chance to come back to Haitian culture. We needed to find a new theatrical form, we needed to think about how to express a text in a new way, how to stage an actor differently. And so we took as our point of departure the cockfights, where people gather in a circle around the ring to watch, and to place their bets. This was also reminiscent, for us, of folktales told on an evening in a circle.
So we decided to do a theater in the round, to return to Voodoo in a new way, avoiding any whiff of folklorism, concentrating rather on Voodoo’s ritual aspect, its mixture of song and dance. This allowed us to find new directions, to engage a Haitian diction, to combine equally Creole and French onstage without letting either become ascendant, to create a theatre of the body. And it allowed us to avoid falling into old models, imitating our classical predecessors.
This time in America enriched me enormously. In 1980 Hervé Denis returned. Two years later it was my turn to come back, and together we decided to pursue our theatrical ambitions. During our absence, despite the repression, the National Theater of François Latour continued to put on major pieces. Two of them had an enormous influence on the public: Boukiman Paradis, written by Franck Fouchier, a playwright residing in Canada who was inspired by the folk tales of Bouc and Malice, and Pèlin Tèt, by Frankétienne. These two works, so different from the old patriotic plays, brought a new public to the theater.
Here in Jérémie, Syto Cavé’s comments sound encouraging. But faced with the nearly complete halt of the state’s machinery, most people seem to find refuge first in the traditional protection of the church, and only then in other means of expression.
The first day in Jérémie the processionals of young people seem to take up the entire village. The next day it is black-clad groups in Sunday dress, Protestants who wake me at dawn by softly chanting hymns on their way down the rue Bordes. The visitor can’t help but notice, in the morning, the preponderance of churches. And yet the street in front of my hotel, made of smooth stones that ring musically under the hooves of mules, lends itself to a more pagan recollection. Each time I walk down its steep slope I find myself before the turquoise waves of the sea, bathed in the ancient Caribbean wind that was so dear to the venerable Jacques Stephen Alexis, whose body has never been recovered.
“This is a country in search of itself,” continues Cavé.
People are becoming more and more aware, and a more selective taste for literature, born of the dreams that were put down by the Duvaliers, is also developing. Obviously, there’s a lot of mess, also, because habits die hard. But undeniably, you feel here a culture’s steps forward. In the provincial villages there is a thirst for books that is only growing.
Leaving Jérémie, once again before the sign wishing “Welcome to the City of Poets,” another author, Joseph-Marie St. Natus, asks my professional opinion of the title of his latest manuscript, which translates as The Enigma of the Village of the Golden Dawn. The title strikes me as a pretty homage to Jérémie, but beyond that I have no suggestions to offer. Perhaps I have understood something of the local situation, but, of course, everything eludes me in the question of commercialism. For, as Cavé says, “poetry is not for sale. It’s for reciting. It’s the high ground of language, its attic, where one tries to renew language, to find a voice, to break the hatis of a speech all ready to purchase . . . and it is the place of your silence.”
Some degree of confusion, it would seem, is the only possible response to the local situation.
• • •
The plane flies over Les Abricots, a lieu-dit dear to Jean Claude Fignolé, whom I had met once in Paris on the occasion of our respective novels’ publication by the same publisher. Born in Jérémie in 1941, the same year as Syto Cavé, Fingolé studied law and agriculture, all the while writing major critical essays.
With René Philoctète and Frankétienne, he founded the important literary movement called Spiraliste and at the same time organized agricultural development projects with peasants from the Abricot region. In an essay, “Travel vows and literary intentions” (1978), Fingolé declared that “The first entrance to self consciousness is neither word, memory, or hope. It is ACTION.” I found the quote in an issue of the well known French literary review, Notre Librarie: Haitien Literature from 1960 to Today. It’s a good summation of this important author’s pragmatism in successfully resisting the socioeconomic disasters not only by literary techniques, but also by agricultural ones.
‘Literature is one of those rare places where, in the bosom of chaos, one can still feel safe.’
Erosion, both of arable land and forests, is ravaging the mountainous island, whose Indian name, “Ayitie,” means “the high Island.” A little further the bay of Pestel is famous in Haiti for its Easter-time Festival of the Ocean. But the colors of the Caribbean sea don’t bring many foreign tourists to this part of Haiti, or any other. Political and economic instability discourages investment. Since my visit, political violence has escalated. The popular journalist Jean Dominique was murdered in front of his wife, and elections have brought more turmoil than peace. And while a Royal Caribbean cruise does put in at the enchanting Labadee beach in the north, close by Cap Haitien, the tour’s brochure doesn’t even mention Haiti.
The Tropical Airways flight flew over Petit-Goâve, where Danny Laferrière comes from, and begins its descent to Port au Prince, birthplace of so many authors and a breeding ground for Haitian literature in general. And here I am met by the novelist Yanick Lahens.
Lahens is one of the more than a dozen Francophone Hatian women who have acquired literary reknown; others include Lilas Desquiron, Jan J. Dominique, Margaret Papillon, Kettly Mars, Evelyne Trouillot, and Yanick Jean. In the less common English-speaking diaspora, there is Edwidge Danticat, and among Spanish-speaking emigres, Micheline Dusseck. All have taken their cue from Marie Chauvet. Author of the novel Love, Anger, and Madness, Chauvet was the center of the “Haiti Littéraire” movement. This vitality of women’s writing is a major phenomenon in Haitian literature.
“Literature is one of those rare places where, in the bosom of chaos, one can still feel safe,” wrote Lahens in Notre Libraire.
The first remark one can make about these women novelists is that they have abandoned the globalizing constructions of Marxism and inigenisme in favor of the microcosms of family and private life. They go straight for the territory of childhood, and describe a literary space deeply marked by femininity, a space of the household and the family.
We talk while climbing at high speed in her car toward the heights of Pétionville, the residence of the privileged classes. Yanick Lahens has just published, with Editions mémoire, her short story collection, The Little Corruption, and taken her latest novel, In the Father’s House, which was published in France by Le Serpent à Plumes, to the French book fair in Paris.
Everything happens quickly with this writer at the center of it all. We speed toward the heights of Boule 10, on the mountain that leads to Kenscoff.
In the heart of disaster, literature can function as an questioning of its own forms. It can dream, imagine, even play; indeed, it’s the only space that’s left for us to play in. Even if we’re in a situation where there are few readers, few people who even can read, where political chaos is everywhere . . . yes, certainly literature is a way out.
We’re in a period of enormous change, political and social. The young understand their Francophonic heritage, but they see themselves much more as American. This is a fact we can’t ignore. The other change is that the Creole speakers are coming into their own. French is no longer mastered, English not yet, we’re caught in between.
We arrived at a villa dominating the city. Here, the reality of Port-au-Prince—“a vile town, ravished by hateful sewage and mess,” as Frankétienne described it in Haiti Babel, Haitie Babel, Land of Schizophrenia—is little more than a memory, diluted in the healthy mountain air and the spectacle of nearly alpine tropical flora.
“Of course, American hegemony is undeniable, but we can’t surrender ourselves bound hand and foot,” Lahens tells me.
Art requires openness, but at the same time it needs the transmission of the most intimate cultural identity. We live in what has been until very recently a closed country, a society turned back on itself, which has provided it with a powerful cultural coherence. Today, many of our problems have their origins in our management of that change—that is, in this sudden opening toward the international. Haitian culture already had a somewhat contentious relationship with modernity. It’s this contentiousness—including the new forms of communication—that has to be managed today by politicians, economists, and writers.
• • •
This evening in Port-au-Prince Frankétienne’s mythical play, Pélin Tèt, is being reprised. The park around the theatre is filled with cars: the new production of this classic play is once again a major event. The capital is rediscovering its poet-writer-singer-playwright, as subversive as ever, at 63 years old—the great Frankétienne.
Max Dominique—a Catholic Priest, professor at L’Ecole Normale Supérieure, and director of Saint Martial College—accounts for Frankétienne’s immense importance in his recent book, “Critical Sketches”:
Frankétienne’s massive oeuvre remains key to Haiti. That it’s possible to be irritated by his long flights of fantasy, immediately recognizable from one work to the other, is an immediate testament to the impact on the collective imagination of this man and his internal lacerations, this son of an American father and a peasant mother, born of a rape in the harsh landscapes of Artibonite, and brought up in the heart of a slum, Bel Air in Port-au-Prince. One can criticize his gigantisme or his indulgence in the obscene. But the defense will always come back to his first career as a bayakou, a toilet cleaner: this bayakou, in his writing, is trying to flush out the entire universe.
In the literary landscape of Haiti, Frankétienne is a kind of volcanic conscience in perpetual eruption. An earthquake. Each of his plays is received with passion. As Frankétienne himself explains in his essay on the Spiraliste literary movement he founded with Fingolé and Philoctère:
The Spiral embraces chaos, but remains open: open to live, to the future, to the infinite. . . . I’ve always been fascinated by the multidimensionality of humans. I was a professor of physics and mathematics. Before becoming interested in literature, I was a voracious reader of theoretical physics, notably Einstein.
I became aware of the importance of the phenomena of chaos in all aspects of life; that chaos was a constant, not an exception; that it was the glimpses of rationality that were in fact exceptional. It’s this observation, and this discovery, reinforced by my scientific readings, that allowed me to follow the path toward this literary form of the spiral. At that time I also frequented a lot of voodoo ceremonies, which allowed me to reconnect with my origins, my family traditions, because my grandmother was a mambo—a voodoo Priestess—in St. Marc. My mother was also a mambo; she was often ridden by spirits in my presence. And at the same time as I began to learn about voodoo, I became interested in the major mystical texts, as well as discovering Taoism and Zen.
There are voodoo practitioners who claim to travel to the bottom of the sea or across galaxies and there to discover richer landscapes than those that I’ve seen in all the capitals of the world. I’ve traveled everywhere, because in Haiti we are systematically penned in. I felt a kind of bulimia, a hunger to possess everything that exists on the planet, to introject it, to gobble it up.
In Haiti, Frankétienne is a myth. As he says himself: “It’s either garbage or transcendent: there is no objective appraisal of my work in Haiti. At least I don’t leave anyone cold.”
In France he is less famous than his friend Patrick Chamoiseau, who has won the Goncourt prize and become the spokesman of Creolization. But no living writer better incarnates the almost incredible vitality of the dialogue in contemporary literature between French and Creole than Frankétienne.
‘Creole should become a written language, one that can be slammed down on a table when one is abroad to say: Here is my language!’
Frankétienne writes about an incident in which, in the street, he meets a woman whose face is glistening with sweat, sitting next to a little cart. When she sees him she recites a line from Pèlin Tèt, then adds in Creole: “So, Frank, when are you giving us something else?”
“I found myself in my car, stupefied and filled with joy. Here is an illiterate peasant who recognizes me. It’s the most wonderful thing that could possibly happen to me.”
Faced with the economic, social, and political disaster of the island, under all the different dictatorships, in each historic period, his work has served at the same time as conscience, relief, and reflection. With its enormous freedom, its polyvalent richness, the way it indefatigably interrogates the universe with all the resources of his multiple culture, Frankétienne’s work reaches every level of this society.
And writing about the revival of Pelin Tèt, Franz Lerebours in Nouvelliste, the oldest Haitian daily, concludes by thanking him in the form of an admonishment:
Thank you, Franck. May the voices you inspire continue to go forth and conjure up the evil spells and old demons of underdevelopment, that we can give birth to a more just society, a more honest, sincere, and prosperous one.
Lyonel Trouillot could be one of these new voices inspired by Frankétienne. He writes tirelessly, always interrogating notions of reality. His newest book is out from Editions du Serpent a Plumes in Paris.
We meet at the Institut Français. He is a round man in his forties with an intense glance and an erudite language. A brilliant early evening light floods the room. Through the blinds, a white bird floats over the nearby mangrove. I ask him whether books can change the reality of Haiti.
Novels and poems are not going to feed the hungry . . . nor is it with novels or poems that we’re going to establish a fair political order that’s not based on cheating, lying, corruption, and violence. But, on the other hand, I can say that literature is my contribution to the community: I feel profoundly responsible for this reality.
To this same question Frankétienne answers: “If literature gives no one anything to eat, it nonetheless allows one to learn to plant a field of wheat. Bread will come after.”
Trouillot has no scientific answer to the question, but he chooses his words with precision.
Modestly, I would say that I give some weight to the little bit of writing in me—knowing that it doesn’t amount to much. Literature is more than ever futile when it’s blind, and I think that we Haitian writers—not all agree with me—are obliged to be clear-sighted. But we’re threatened by the big international market that requires a sort of denationalization of literature—a sort of narcissism, a sort of inwardness. I’m afraid that we’ll be struck with blindness, we Haitian writers. And so, I’d say that finding our eyes is the reality for me.
Is reading threatened, in Haiti, by the new media?
I don’t think so. Sadly, in Haiti there is still an exclusivity about reading . . . reading is nearly a class privilege, and the social classes that enjoy this privilege are less and less interested in it. On the other hand, thanks to education, the less fortunate classes in Haiti are able to appropriate the book, and learning, as weapons. Many young people of modest origins are writing in Creole. This is a new phenomenon, and this finds its inspiration very much in the reality of Haiti. Elsewhere, those belonging to the same generation have quite a feeble aesthetic, have in some way experienced a loss of clarity, a loss of source, of identity, of origin—in fact, a total loss.
When one lives in a country that is as torn up as ours, so filled with social contradictions, it’s to be expected that literature will also be the place where these contradictions play themselves out. In fact, Haitian literature is alive precisely because it incarnates these contradictions. Personally, I place myself in the tradition of René Philoctète. To me, he is the Haitian writer par excellence, resolutely modern, resolutely anchored in the reality of Haiti. Or, I follow Mahmoud Darwich, the Palestinian poet. Literature needs to be at the same time the wound and the dream.
To guarantee the viability, the longevity of the Haitian literary heritage, we must make the French language more democratic, and we need to focus on Creole. Both. Creole should become a written language, one that can be slammed down on a table when one is abroad to say: Here is my language!
In the American airplane that carries me back to the United States from Port au Prince, announcements are made in Creole—a realization of Lyonel Trouillot’s hopes for his language.
• • •
The last stage of my journey took me to the coasts of Jacmel, a little town between sea and mountain that resounds still with the absence of the two great writers it gave to the diaspora, René Depestre and Jean Métellus. The first, since his retirement to France, finds the primary material of his work is a dream of a lost time, a nostalgia for the Jacmel of his childhood. It would not survive a confrontation with the present reality.
Jean Metellus, meanwhile, is a neurologist in France. His first book, Evening in Jacmel, evoked decadence by chronicling the history of his country as a tale of dereliction and decline.
In the airplane above Florida, I turn to the last chapter of Danny Laferrière’s Country without a Hat. Laferrière describes himself as a “primitive writer,” fated to be exiled; he now lives in Miami after many years in Montreal.
Laferrière had been in Jacmel before me, and his words provide a perfect conclusion:
This man lived next to me. I spent whole days with him. He didn’t know how to read or write. He knew only how to paint. Majestic countrysides. Enormous fruits. A fecund nature. Straight-backed women, solemn and ceremonial, descending from the hills carrying enormous baskets of fruit on their heads. He painted also animals from the equatorial jungle. Everything was always green, abundant, joyous. And his canvases never had the time even to dry: rich folk, learned folk, bought them right away.
One day, a New York Times reporter came.
“Baptiste,” he asked, “why are you always painting these pictures of green, rich countrysides, these trees crumpling under the weight of their ripe fruit, these smiling people, when all around you there is misery and desolation?”
After a moment of silence, Baptiste answered: “I paint what I dream of.”
“And the real Haiti?”
“For the real Haiti, Monsieur, I don’t have to dream.”
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October 01, 2000
27 Min read time