As close as their nation is to our shores, and as much as its issues are involved with our politics, most Haitian writers are virtually unknown to most American readers. That situation persists both despite and because of the nature of Haitian linguistic culture, which is incredibly fertile but, at least from the Anglophone point of view, almost completely obscure.
The spoken language of Haiti is Kreyol, a fusion of French vocabulary and African syntax that developed as a means for African slaves and French masters to speak to each other when today’s Haiti was a French colony, Saint Domingue. As a 1940s manual has it, Kreyol is the language one would expect to develop if a lot of Africans had been required to learn to speak French by listening to it, but without being told any of the rules. Today’s Kreyol is still a young language, no more than a couple of centuries old, still in a process of defining itself, in delirious flux, as rich, vital, and unpredictable as was the English of Shakespeare’s time. It is an ideal medium for song and story, and for the orations of Haiti’s priests, prophets, and politicians. For a written Kreyol literature, there is a big catch; at present some 80 percent of those who speak this language are illiterate.
A Kreyol literature does exist, alongside a mildly politicized movement to promote it. A great barrier to increasing literacy in Haiti is that the official language of the nation was French until 1961, when Kreyol was also named an official language, along with French. The language of education, both de jure and de facto, was also French, to the point that schoolchildren were routinely beaten for speaking their native Kreyol in the classroom. The Haitian Revolution, whose success isolated Haiti from the European colonial powers when it ended in 1804, preserved, as if in amber, the French of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment in its most pure, most rigorous, crystalline form —a form quite opposite to the creative anarchy of Kreyol, despite the large overlap of vocabulary. To be educated in the French of Voltaire is certainly an enlightening boon, but never accessible to more than a few.
As a result, most Haitian authors who want to reach a wide audience (for example, Frankétienne, Yanick Lahens, Gary Victor, Evelyne Trouillot, Dany Laferrière, Ephèle Milcé, Kettly Mars, Georges Castera, Rodney Saint-Eloi) produce at least part of their work in French, often the greater part. Though many of these works are extraordinary, bringing them to an American audience is not easy. Cultural exchange flows very powerfully in the other direction, out of our American language and into the others. Texts in translation from French, let alone Kreyol, have a long way to go up a very stiff stream.
Traduire c’est trahir. An English translation of this phrase—“to translate is to betray”—reinforces the idea expressed by abolishing the alliteration, rhyme, and rhythm of the original. For a Haitian writer writing in French, however, translation doesn’t come into consideration. It’s a matter of writing directly in one’s second language.
The exception to that rule is Edwidge Danticat, a Haitian-American writer admired by American and Haitian readers alike, and for very good reason. Danticat, who immigrated to the United States at the age of twelve, writes in English, her third language, after French and Kreyol. Her explanation is exquisitely simple: because of the peculiar bifurcation of the Haitian educational system, English was the first language she learned to speak and write at the same time. Thanks to her choice of language, we can claim Danticat as an American writer—one of the most significant to appear at the turn of the twenty-first century. But she is a Haitian writer too, and in that context, American readers have little idea how to place her.
Haitians carry an enormous burden of history, part of it proud and part atrocious, and both parts often inextricably mingled. The Haitian Revolution, which by 1804 had made, in a ten-year-long spasm of astonishing violence, a population of African slaves into an independent black nation, is a unique historical event, glorious and blood-soaked. More purely atrocious was the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo’s slaughter of Haitian workers along the Dominican–Haitian border in 1937, an event which Edwidge Danticat has evoked in a novel of her own, The Farming of Bones, and which she presents for a second time to American readers in her brief preface to Massacre River, the first novel of René Philoctète to be translated into English. The river got its name from a seventeenth-century battle between the French and the Spanish; since then it has been the scene of other butcheries, “to the point,” as Danticat writes in her preface to Philoctète’s novel, “that the riverbed seemed crimson with blood.” Like the rest of her work, Danticat’s fictionalization of the 1937 massacre is firmly realistic; in Massacre River, Philoctète takes a notably more fanciful approach.
Little known outside his own country, Philoctète was a seminal figure in Haitian literature in the mid-twentieth century, the author of three novels, four plays, and a dozen collections of poetry, and co-founder (with Frank-étienne and Jean-Claude Fignolé) of the Spiralisme movement, adopted by some of the few Haitian writers who refused to go into exile during the Duvalier regime. The indirect, circling style of the Spiralistes permitted a resistance to dictatorship that avoided a fatally direct confrontation with state power; they represented, as Lyonel Trouillot puts it in his introduction to Massacre River, “the vital language of hope.” Frankétienne further explains Spiralisme as
a method of approach to try to seize a reality which is always in movement…. There is the miracle of art: to try to capture the real without killing it.
In his series “Poésie Urgente,” Philoctète sets himself this goal:
To write as if everything was coming to life all around you out of a vast song, out of a multifaceted fire, as if every object moved of itself, ready to bear you witness of its presence.
This lightly surrealistic approach invests the horrific story of Massacre River (in fact, as many as 20,000 Haitians were cut to pieces by Trujillo’s military and police) with a peculiarly vital animism. Everything throbs with a life of its own, from the cross-border bus which becomes a conscious character under the name of Chicha Calma, to the severed head of the heroine, Adèle, which persistently continues to skip, jump, trot, and fraternize with numerous other disembodied Haitian heads. Even the land itself has personality. Though the translator, Linda Coverdale, has judged Philoctète’s French title, Le Peuple des Terres Mêlées, to be untranslatable, this idea of “mingled earths” is crucial to his version of the story:
The air sneezes, somersaults, breaks its nose, all in a daze. Bewildered insects jiggle their mirrors of spinning colors: from saffron yellow to pure violet, from jet black to the pellucid white of waterfalls. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, these lands! Both of them together. One high, the other low, with their underground sortileges: the Zemis’ gold, the sweat of those wrenched from Africa. The Cacique Caonabo knew Anacoana, the samba. The tenderness of Jaragua was dissolved into the pride of the Cibao Valley.
For Philoctète, such is the essence of life, a constant cross-pollination and commingling of people, culture, and language (his French text is peppered with Spanish)—a movement that spirals across boundaries, constantly reconnecting and building on itself. This vitality defies Trujillo’s ethnic cleansing. Vitality is built into the language, and Coverdale’s translation captures most of the energy of Philoctète’s flexible tone, which ranges from the macabre sprightliness of the killings themselves to an irrepressible joie de vivre.
On the reasons of state behind the slaughter, Philoctète is satirical without being grim. Trujillo desperately wanted his people to be white (“blanco de la tierra” in Philoctète’s phrase) and to obliterate the fact that his own grandmother was Haitian:
He will claim that the Haitian border people have cast some sort of melanin spell on the Dominican people. He will resolve to exterminate the Haitian devils.
The result, ironically expressed: “Ten thousand people gone off their heads.”
Despite the staggering death toll, the massacre came nowhere near accomplishing either the perfect genocide or the complete ethnic cleansing Trujillo had in mind. Survival is an essential Haitian trait and so is intermingling. In very short order the survivors have resumed their swirling motion:
They are of every color, every walk of life, every belief, every character, every kind of memory and beauty, those people who have just landed themselves on Haitian soil. The day after Trujillo’s madness, they came by the tens of thousands from every cranny of the Dominican border….
In Philoctète’s vision, life perpetually overcomes death and division, constantly overflowing boundaries. Life is mixture, blending, a gumbo of ever-shifting ingredients. In linguistic terms, life is creolization.
The response of the Haitian state to the butchery on the border was, to put it mildly, muted. The radio which serves as a chorus in Massacre River interrupts a stateside baseball game to report:
We are pleased, in addition, to inform the Dominican public that Port-au-Prince is not planning any retaliation, aside from a slight show of saber-rattling put on by a small group of soldiers, peasants and poets.
Philoctète imagines a “masked ball” in the Haitian presidential palace, where functionaries come costumed as heroes of the Revolution: Pétion, Dessalines, Toussaint Louverture. Champagne turns to blood in their glasses:
As a Haitian head went flying in Las Matas, the white wine in the glass of His Majesty Henri I of Haiti effervesced with bright red bubbles!
Recently emerged from two decades of military occupation by the United States, Haiti was in no condition to fight back. An indemnity of $750,000 for the massacre victims was negotiated —thirty dollars, or less, per Haitian head. No more than two thirds of this sum was actually paid, and corruption in the Haitian bureaucracy reduced it to the point that survivors received, to add insult to injury, about two cents for each victim. The endpapers of Danticat’s The Farming of Bones reproduce a facsimile of Haitian President Sténio Vincent’s letter to his ambassador to the United States, which shows that he understood the full extent of what had occurred, though his government would not or could not do much about it.
Danticat’s novel treats the story of the massacre with the lapidary realism that has become her hallmark—a measured, unflinching gaze on the unbearable. Like Philoctète, she puts the blighting of a young romance at the center of the narrative, but where Philoctète describes the Haitian Adèle married to the Dominican Pedro, Danticat’s Amabelle and Sebastien are both Haitians working in the Dominican Republic, he a cane-cutter and she a housemaid. In the absence of a doctor, Amabelle delivers her Dominican mistress’s twins, one of them darker than the other. The new mother’s reaction announces the fatal motif: “‘Amabelle do you think my daughter will always be the color she is now?’ Señora Valencia asked. ‘My poor love, what if she’s mistaken for one of your people?'” At the end of the novel, well after the massacre, Amabelle hears a Haitian priest, deranged by torture in a Dominican prison, parroting the rhetoric of ethnic cleansing he has heard from Dominicans:
Those of us who love our country are taking measures to keep it our own…. If not, in less than three generations, we will all be Haitians. In three generations, our children and grandchildren will have their blood completely tainted unless we defend ourselves now, do you understand?
In Danticat’s realistic rendering, the idea of “mingled earths” is both passionate and fearful. Webs cast across the chasm of racial and cultural difference are constantly severed, sometimes with knives. The narrative follows Amabelle on a long post-traumatic pilgrimage toward reconciliation. The Dominican massacre costs her not only her lover but also her ability to love.
The Dominican death squads identified Haitians by forcing them to say the Spanish word for parsley, perejil. In fairness, it should said that the technique was used a century earlier by Dessalines, the Haitian revolutionary general who picked out Frenchmen for slaughter by making them try to sing a nursery rhyme in Kreyol. For an epigraph, Danticat finds a still more venerable example, from Judges 12: 4–6, in which the Gileadites, who have defeated the Ephraimites in battle, force the disguised and fleeing refugees to say the word “Shibboleth”; the Ephraimites, who pronounce it “Sibboleth,” are thereby identified and killed.
Amabelle and her companions in flight are force-fed clumps of parsley by the Dominican patrols who demand that they pronounce the Spanish word for it. Later, as they try to cross the river, Amabelle unintentionally drowns another woman of their party in an effort to keep her quiet. The last word of the dying woman is the Kreyol word for parsley: Pèsi.
Though Danticat uses very few Kreyol words in her text, her beautifully modulated English is actually closer to Kreyol, in grammar and rhythm, than French would be, and there are moments when one hears Kreyol, her first language, flowing deep beneath her third. This single, unremarkable word pèsi acquires extraordinary gravity. There is something in the original tongue that simply refuses to yield.
Traduire c’est trahir. The adage is brought back to mind by Linda Coverdale’s valiant struggle with the novels of Lyonel Trouillot, a writer who, like Philoctète, has persistently refused exile, maintaining a socially critical position inside Haiti, sometimes at considerable risk. His Rue des Pas-Perdus comes out Street of Lost Footsteps, a phrase which (inevitably) sacrifices the meter and rhyme of the original. Like Philoctète, Trouillot is a poet first, and his prose has the complex shifting rhythm of waves in a tide rising on the beach, inexorably wearing down the subject. This lyricism does not translate easily, but the effort is well worthwhile, since Trouillot, for both his artistry and his engagement, is one of the most significant living writers in our hemisphere. From her cross-cultural position, Edwidge Danticat has made the Haitian experience accessible to the American audience with scarcely any adulteration; Trouillot, writing from the country’s bloody heart, presents that experience in its most intransigent form.
Trouillot has an extraordinary faculty for transmuting historical events into high art while they are happening, without benefit of the buffering effects of time. Danticat has done something similar, in Krik? Krak!, The Dew Breaker, and most searingly in her recent work of nonfiction, Brother, I’m Dying. Still, there is nothing in contemporary fiction quite like Trouillot’s not-yet-translated Bicentenaire, which depicts the most recent shattering of the Haitian state at the very moment of its two hundredth anniversary.
Never a very good friend to the Haitian people, the Haitian state disintegrated in the late 1980s, following the end of the Duvalier regime. Trouillot’s Street of Lost Footsteps tells a version of that story, somewhat in the manner of Alejo Carpentier’s The Kingdom of This World—which covers the key points of the Haitian Revolution with a striking efficiency. Trouillot’s compression is still more radical, fitting the events of a decade into a twenty-four-hour period and scarcely more than a hundred pages of densely fibrillating text. As Carpentier transforms the Haitian revolutionary leaders into quasi-allegorical figures, Trouillot presents one archetype, “The Prophet,” who resembles Jean-Bertrand Aristide in the period of his first rise to power, and another, “the great dictator Deceased Forever-Immortal,” who resembles the Duvaliers in decline. But where Carpentier’s archetypal characters are protagonists, Trouillot’s always remain offstage, keeping an Olympian distance from the novel’s three narrators: a young postal worker, a taxi driver, and the madam of a Port-au-Prince brothel.
These are the sorts of ordinary lives that Edwidge Danticat also makes central to her plots. In Trouillot’s novel, language pours through their heads like a waterfall. The taxi driver:
When I told this story to one of my customers, a teacher, he explained to me, it’s another guy who studied too much, they come from poor families, work night and day, pass their exams brilliantly, win scholarships, then when they go abroad they starve, wander around Paris, everything they’ve learned gets scrambled in their brains, I’m telling you my friend, only the rich do well with scholarships, giving them to the poor is sheer waste, demagogy. Demagogy or not, the guy seemed so sure of himself: Let me out at the entrance, I know the way, but don’t follow me with your eyes, I live on the Rue des Pas-Perdus, the Street of Lost Footsteps, zone of utter oblivion, where they burn dreams, memories, where automatons of sorrowful flesh begin the last stretch of their journeys all over again, the perpetual motion of our dead ends, it’s the street of one-two-three-you’re-out, the shrine of the frozen word, where conjuring corpses play the game of severed heads.
The great heavy vessel of the Haitian past, bearing its glory and shame, appears in Trouillot’s work as crushing. The debris of history becomes dead weight. At the end of Street of Lost Footsteps, the taxi driver pictures his mad passenger diving into a refuse-filled ravine that runs through Port-au-Prince like a sewer:
Waving his arms around, brandishing a bit of filthy canvas. Singing, My fluh-fluh-flag, my lovely little flag…. It’s Dessalines who made it…. Below, all the way at the bottom, images of dictators, prophets, commandants. Murderers, palaverers.
Trouillot’s next novel, Thérèse en mille morceaux, is devoted to the idea that the Haitian present is suffocated, more than nourished, by the Haitian past. This work is set in Cap Haïtien, the principal city of the north of Haiti, a region over which Henri Christophe’s Citadel looms from the peak of Morne La Ferrière. Wondrous and improbable as a battleship perched on a mountaintop, Christophe’s post-revolutionary fortress can also be seen for a long way across the Dominican border. In Massacre River, Philoctète depicts Trujillo as obsessed with “that tremendous-thing-near-the-sky.” His coveting of the fantastic fortress blends into a jealous hatred of Haiti and Haitians: “Haiti became, a priori, an adversary. And the Citadel, his phantasm.”
Children of Heroes, Trouillot’s latest work to be translated into English, does not overtly concern itself with epic historical events. It is a smaller-scale story of a crime, a flight, and a capture, told by a single first-person narrator, Colin Pamphile, the younger of two children who have just killed their abusive father. Bolting from their neighborhood, Bas-Peu-de-Chose, they take to the streets of Port-au-Prince and manage to remain at large for three days.
The ironically labeled Bas-Peu-de-Chose is far from being the worst slum of the Haitian capital, though miserable enough by American standards. Here the Pamphile children try to cling to the edges of respectability, dependent on the ingenuity of their mother, Joséphine, and the remittances that their grandmother, Mam Yvonne, sends from the United States. The father is ostensibly an auto mechanic but spends most of his time drinking, squandering the remittance money, and reminiscing about a brief, long-ago boxing career in the Dominican Republic—whence came his sobriquet, Corazón. He has built a larger-than-life image for himself, which impresses few outside his household, except for the postman who pauses to drink with him when money has come from Mam Yvonne. In reality, he uses his fists only on his family.
This situation is shared by thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of families in Port-au-Prince, and Trouillot gives it the kind of realistic rendering also found in the works of Edwidge Danticat. All the textures of daily life, with its struggles, its dogged desperation, its fleeting moments of happy inspiration, are meticulously evoked. In Trouillot’s novel there is also another dimension, suggested by the generalized meaning of his title, Children of Heroes. In one sense Colin and his older sister Mariéla are particular, unique characters. In another, they represent a whole people overshadowed by a patrimony of fading legend endlessly embroidered, and by a patriarch who, in the present, offers only a bullying violence.
The illusion of Corazón’s past glory is punctured when Mariéla and Colin happen by his garage and discover that instead of the skilled mechanic he claims to be, he’s only “a pair of arms,” “used more like an automobile jack,” and completely craven before the boss. “Mariéla says to me, He’ll never hit you again.” Corazón’s menace and majesty are deflated; the next time he knocks down their mother, Colin trips him up and Mariéla caves his head in with one of his own wrenches (a tool he never really knew how to use):
Violence attracts more violence, and Mariéla lifted up that wrench as if she had become a kind of robot hand-picked by horror, or Providence. The teacher had explained to us that despite what historians say (they only ever know the outside of events), it wasn’t the lunatic Défilée who gathered up the remains of Emperor Dessalines the evening of his assassination, but a brave spirit passing across the bridge who took over the old madwoman’s body. History, she told us, hides a wealth of mysteries and as many surprises. No one knows beforehand who among us will become a hero or a monster.
Some become both. Or perhaps, for Trouillot, there is something monstrous built into the heroic image from the start. In the three days of their flight, the children tour Port-au-Prince to the point of exhaustion. Mostly they see the sights from the grimy ground level of their sudden homelessness. But they also see the panoramic view, normally reserved for tourists, from Boutilliers on the mountain above. Their fugitive period begins with the two of them sitting, clothes stained with their father’s blood, on a bench in the Champ de Mars, the central square where the statues of the revolutionary heroes pose before the presidential palace. Trouillot’s tour-de-force ending occurs on the same location, when Mariéla is recognized and finally run down as she rides a rented bike around and around the square, beneath the statues of heroic fathers, in what is now plainly a vicious circle—an endless flight to nowhere.
The novel’s first sentence is also its last. But earlier in their cycle through town, the children pause in the Place Carl Brouard, a wretched square near the penitentiary, where “parched dirt, broken benches, cracked flower pots” surround a bust of the poet Carl Brouard. “A little nothing of a square,” Colin calls it. “I think poets can go to hell.”
To American readers Brouard must be even more obscure than Philoctète; his place in the Haitian literature of his time is significant, if somewhat less central. Born in 1902 to a bourgeois, mixed-race family in Port-au-Prince, Brouard was educated (like Lyonel Trouillot) in the academy run by the Pères Spiritins at the center of the capital. Like many of his concitoyens, he felt galled and humiliated by the US occupation, which began when he was in his teens and lasted until 1934. At twenty, Brouard broke with his family and took to a bohemian life. Influenced by the nationalism of Jean Price-Mars, the Haitian writer who advocated négritude, Brouard adopted the religion of Vodou. In the 1930s, rejecting the Marxism which had captivated other Haitian writers, such as Jacques Romain, he became a leader of Les Griots, a noirist cultural and political movement devoted to the empowerment of the Haitian black majority, which included among its founders the future President-for-Life François Duvalier. At Brouard’s funeral, Duvalier called him “the most Haitian of all the poets.” Acutely alcoholic, Carl Brouard died on the streets of Port-au-Prince in 1965, having published a single volume of poetry during his lifetime: Écrit sur du Ruban rose. In 2004 some of his work was republished in Anthologie Secrète, including the poem “Nous”:
Who don’t bring any kind of peace
But the sad dagger
Of our pen
And the red ink of our heart!
It’s no accident that Trouillot brings his child fugitives to pause (unknowing as they are) before Brouard’s dilapidated monument. The writer makes a different kind of hero, one whose weight is not so crushing to his heirs. Once upon a time, the Haitian revolutionary heroes were able to redress great wrongs by force of arms, but that time is long gone; when Trujillo’s death squads began harvesting heads along the Massacre River, that time had already passed. What Haitians have to help them now is the great force of their spirit, the extraordinary power of their words.