For Haitian Writers, Identity is Wrapped up in History and Hope
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My friend, the late poet Paul Laraque, once told me, “Dictators do not like good writers because they are skilled masons; the builders of myths and destroyers of myths.”
Nowhere was this more relevant than in Haiti when I was growing up. Not only was reading certain books dangerous, but writers were commonly known to be the agitators of dissent, those who — with the spark of a word — might ignite an upheaval in the minds and hearts of the masses. This is presumably why, in the book “Create Dangerously,” Edwidge Danticat states: “Writing, knowing in part that no matter how trivial your words may seem, someday, somewhere, someone may risk his or her life to read them.”
Books were written and writers were imprisoned and killed. Despite the risks involved however, people continued to write. And read. I am reminded of Gerard Etienne who was tortured under the Duvalier regime. He continued to write with even more gusto in _Le Negre Crucifier_ (or The Crucified Negro). Jacques-Stephen Alexis, a master of literary magical realism, was captured and killed in 1961, as he vowed to silence the guns of dictatorships.
Under the Duvaliers, certain books were kept in boxes underneath beds or were packed in attics in order not to be found during unexpected visits by the military or the Macoute corps, who were instructed to arrest anyone caught with little red books (red books were extremely problematic in Haiti, just as they were in the United States under McCarthyism).
Literary production suffered under the Duvaliers; not only were writers creatively restricted, but many were forced into exile.
But away from the grip of totalitarianism, they were able to “create dangerously” and unveil Haiti to the world.
Before one can position Haitian literature in the contemporary milieu, one must first locate it in a historical context and understand its evolution through its process of forming an identity. In the beginning, Haitian written literature espoused an identity that was linked to the Franco-literary tradition.
But that approach proved alien to the Haitian reality. The development of a literary identity that was authentically Haitian was born out of the deeds of several Haitian writers who were engaged in a constant struggle to define, redefine, position and reposition themselves and the country as they responded to socio-political events and conditions. Even literature that seems to be apolitical is often the result of a volatile political situation that caused some form of uprooting or migration and a resultant identity shift.
Writers and poets such as Oswald Durand, the father of folk romanticism, were integral to the development of a distinct national identity that took pride in the peasantry, hence, blackness. His poem “Choucoune,” written in Haitian Creole in 1870s (uncommon for that time), became a national trendsetter — an unparalleled folk song that glorified the countryside and marabou women. To this day it is sung with great pride.
Despite the efforts of Oswald Durand — and later Georges Sylvain — to situate a portion of Haitian literature in an authentically Creole-based tradition, most Haitian writing continues to be written in French with a Haitian-nationalistic sensibility.
Social events during the end of the 19th and early 20th-centuries produced two influential voices in Haitian prose that used political events as backgrounds for literary works.
Frederic Marcelin and Antoine Innocent contributed to early narrative depictions of Haitian life, and in their writings, were able to critique the Haitian social and political predicament with objectivity and realism. This penchant for reflection and criticism gave birth to the _La Ronde_ literary movement, which left readers questioning the merits of the works of their predecessors.
The _La Ronde_ movement was short lived, and subsequently replaced by the Indigenisme movement, an attitude that touted nationalism during the United States’ brutal military occupation of Haiti.
Jacques Roumain, a key member of the _Indigenisme_ and _Griots_ movements, was an ardent Marxist who used intellectual and literary wit to advance the Haitian cause. His vision was for the transcendence of the masses, urging the peasantry to form a more egalitarian society. Emmanuel, a character her created in his work _Master of the Dew_, was the vehicle through which he was able to diffuse his ideas and visions.
The _Griots_ movement was ideologically involved with _Noirisme_, a theme that sparked countless debates in France among black intellectuals. They wanted to challenge imperialism with its precepts of institutionalized racism, and sought to formulate their own ideas of collective identity, independent of whites. Negritude became the ideology for nationhood that aimed for creating a literary tradition that was distinct from France and culturally unique.
In Haiti, writers like Francois Duvalier, Jean Brierre, Jacques Roumain, Jacques Stephen-Alexis, and others, became the pillars of this movement. They wanted to create accessible literature that was reflective of the material condition of Haitians while embracing the countryside as a platform for national unity and identity. As remarked by many writers and critics, the 1940s was Haiti’s most intellectually productive decade. And Jacques Roumain left an ineffaceable mark on Haitian writers with his sophisticated writing that championed the peasantry.
In recent years, there have been new “Masters of the Dew” that have brought refreshing literary works to Haiti’s despairing landscape. In 2009, all Haitians, even non-readers, were electric with pride when four Haitian writers (Frank Etienne, Lyonel Trouillot, Dany Laferriere and Edwidge Danticat) were respectively recognized with some of the world’s most prestigious literary prizes.
I’ve been moved by words in ways that are unimaginable. Haitian writers often rattle my universe, ushering my dream-like entry into material space through their deftly created textual tapestries. Emile Ollivier, Yanick Lahens, Jacques-Stephen Alexis, Dany Laferriere, Gary Victor, Jacques Roumain, Marie Vieux-Chauvet, Lyonel Trouillot, Stanley Pean, Edwidge Danticat, Paul Laraque and Anthony Phelps have frequently guided my steps down beautiful roads with their exquisitely crafted works.
Despite Haiti’s numerous hardships, its writers continue to be a beacon of shining light, elucidating social and political truths and cosmic questions so that generations of readers and future writers can continue to savor words on roads paved by giants.