Conversation: Haitian Literature Is a Living Art

BY Jeffrey Brown  January 14, 2011 at 4:13 PM EDT

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Who are the major literary voices in Haitian literature? American readers may be familiar with the work of ex-pat Edwidge Danticat, but who are the voices we miss? And what is the role of literature and poetry in the life of the average Haitian citizen?

Thomas Spear is a scholar of Halitian literature and a professor of French at City University of New York. I spoke with him by phone in New York earlier this week:

 

[A full transcript is after the jump]

Editor’s Note: For more on Haitian literature, read a guest blog from poet Patrick Silvain on the history of Haitian writers. And watch a 2009 NewsHour interview with Edwidge Danticat.

JEFFREY BROWN: Welcome once again to Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown. Talking to me today on the phone from New York is Thomas Spear. He’s a professor at the City University of New York, longtime observer, scholar and reader of Haitian literature. Welcome to you.

THOMAS SPEAR: Thank you very much, Jeffrey. It’s an honor to be on your program.

JEFFREY BROWN: For those who only know of Haiti through its problems, and that is certainly most Americans, we see it when we see disasters, most recently the earthquake, what should we know in general terms about its literature?

THOMAS SPEAR: Well, that it’s a very strong literature, it’s vibrant literature and it has a very long tradition. It’s been a couple hundred years since the birth of the nation in 1804. A long traditional especially in French language and especially in the last maybe 20-30 years in Creole, as well, but it’s a very vibrant, exciting literature.

JEFFREY BROWN: This is a country with high illiteracy and little access to books for so many, so what role does literature play? Is it more for a small minority or does it reaches into the larger population?

THOMAS SPEAR: That sort of depends on how you define literature. Of course, there is very much an oral literature and there’s many types of literature written, for example for the radio, radio plays. There’s theater, there is performance, there’s often oral poetry, as I said, as people know poetry, out loud. But the idea of illiteracy is often given into, these horrible stereotypes, and much progress has been made. It’s closer to a figure of perhaps 50 percent illiteracy in the country, compared to what people give. I think great progress has been made there, but you also have public libraries, such as a series of libraries of the FOKAL or the national library thought the ministry of culture. Libraries exist and people do read and read voraciously when they can get their hands on books and they are very much shared, so it’s not an illiterate culture, but it is also very much an oral, living literature.

JEFFREY BROWN: I had a chance to visit one of those libraries, which you told me about, before I left. It was quite a remarkable scene to watch people come on a Saturday afternoon and talk about writing and a lot or reciting and reading of their own poetry and that of others. How would you describe the contemporary writing scene today? Who writes, for example? Who are the people writing?

THOMAS SPEAR: It sort of depends on what generations you are looking at. I would start with one of the most popular writers whose name is Gary Victor, who has written for maybe 30 years now, but he’s still quite much a young writer who writes a very popular fiction, fantastic kind of fiction. I guess that’s a popular prose writer, but there’s a lot of contemporary poets that are very much well-known by people who say poetry in oral settings and group get togethers, such as Georges Castera, who is one of the most respected contemporary poets. And there’s many other poets, such as Bonel Auguste or Syto Cave or James Noel, that you hear their poetry read just as you hear people who read their own poetry, and there is very much a proliferation of poetry in French and in Creole.

JEFFREY BROWN: When you say French and Creole, language is important there, right? What you write in, language as sort of power, has class issues?

THOMAS SPEAR: Yes and no. I mean, it’s only since the constitution, I believe in 1987, that the country is officially bilingual. And you hear Creole much more often in the so-called bourgeois class, and it’s used more in government, and I think there is much less of a complex of whether one writes in French or Creole. I think it depends on needs, it depends on passion, it depends on — you know, do you play a piano or do you play a violin. Sometimes people write in both, and it depends on the rhythm or it depends on the idea that inspired the original thought.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about the relationship to the diasporas writing, because so many Haitians have left the country and are living elsewhere. Americans who would know the best known writer, it would be Edwidge Danticat, who writes in English, right?

THOMAS SPEAR: Yes, and there are other writers who write in English and there’s even one I know in Spanish. There is a large diaspora, there is something like half-a-million in the New York City area and that many in Southern Florida, and you have Montreal, Paris, there is many in Dakar in West Africa. But I guess there is a language question, there is a circulation question. In the last years there has been many of the publications in Montreal and in Paris that have been republished by the national press in Haiti so that those so-called diaspora publications, usually in French, are available at relatively inexpensive prices in Haiti. I think Dany Laferriere is an interesting example. He lives in Montreal, he used to live in Miami, but you could call him a diaspora, but he got a couple very big prizes last year, and I think he’s an example of one so-called diaspora who is very much liked in France, in Canada and in Haiti. I think even that could be something becoming less of an issue, of whether one lives in the diaspora or not. Of course there is a question of access by language, and writers such as Edwidge Danticat write in English, and I guess you could easily say a majority of the literature is written in French and Creole, but the outside-inside is perhaps you know a very much part of the identity of Haitian literature. But I think there is much more of an exchange than there used to be.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is there any more literature written in French or Creole that is now being translated into English? Are there are any good examples that you can give to people?

THOMAS SPEAR: Oh yes. Much. I think there has unquestionably been a boom. And since about 2000, works from even the 19th century, such as Antenor Firmin’s “The Equality of the Human Races,” which is a study of racism that’s, you know, just over a hundred years later, it just came out in English. But more recently, writers such as Jacques Stephen Alexis, who is one of the greatest 20th century writers, his work has only come out in the last 10 years. One of my favorites, “In the Flicker of an Eyelid,” that he published and another novel, “General Sun, My Brother,” by Alexis about the 1937 massacre of Haitians in the Dominican Republic that’s generated other fiction, such as that by Edwidge Danticat and a writer Rene Philoctete, whose novel “Massacre River” also focuses on that. And also very recently Marie Vieux-Chauvet’s wonderful trilogy “Love Anger Madness” has been translated into English and is now available in paperback, and it’s a beautifully written account. It explains very much what life was like under the dictatorship of Duvalier. So there has been much in the last 10 years that’s been translated.

JEFFREY BROWN: And finally, let me just ask you about post earthquake. Have you seen much of a response through writing and poetry?

THOMAS SPEAR: Quite a bit. Quite a bit. I’ve read five, what they say, recits, testimony, Yanick Lahens, Rodney Saint-Eloi, I think Dany Laferriere. I think it’s a little early for it to be generating fiction. I think it’s much more testimony and kind of an urgency, which is certainly important. I think it will take time for this to create as much in literature as one has already seen in painting, for example. There will be many things coming of this. Certainly the geography of Port-au-Prince and of the country will be different and the memories of what it was will be more fictionalized, perhaps, but there is much coming, certainly.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Thomas Spear is a professor at City University of New York. Thank you very much.

THOMAS SPEAR: Thank you very much.

JEFFREY BROWN: And thank you all for joining us. I’m Jeffrey Brown for Art Beat.