Translation Notes · 01/22/2015

The Magical World of Haitian Literature: A Primer

Our Translation Notes series invites literary translators to describe the process of bringing a recent book into English, or to offer perspectives on global literatures from which they translate. In this installment, Patti M. Marxsen offers an introduction to Haitian literature.

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Once upon a time, the place we know as Haiti was a lush, tropical island called Quesqueya, home to over a million Arawak Indians before the brutal “discovery” of Christopher Columbus in 1492. Spain quickly claimed the territory as Española (Hispaniola, of Spanish Island) and within half a century, Spanish Conquistadors all but obliterated the indigenous population. Among the victims, a courageous Arawak queen, Anacoana, became a legend when she was burned at the stake. In Haiti, Anacaona remains a touchstone, a martyr in the cause of resisting foreign power.

By the late seventeenth century, the Spanish had concentrated their interests on the eastern side of Hispaniola, developing what eventually became the Dominican Republic. The French filled the vacuum on the the westward half of the island, which became the French colony of Saint-Domingue during the reign of Louis XIV (1643–1715). Thanks to a slave-based economy and the European craving for sugar, coffee, and indigo, the French colony flourished. In fact, the unprecedented wealth generated by Saint Domingue quickly created a new, anti-royal “middle class” in eighteenth-century France. But even those in favor of “liberté, égalité, et fraternité” were unprepared for slave revolt when it came, followed by the first black republic established in 1804.

When, in December 1803, an army of renegade slaves in Saint Domingue finally defeated 20,000 French troops sent by First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte, the sudden existence of Ayiti, or “land of high mountains,” came as a shock to the western world. Not only did the new nation call European values into question, its fearless leader (Jean-Jacques Dessalines) terrorized French planters invested in the slave-based economy of Saint Domingue. For many, the sheer audacity of a black revolution justified the social, political, and economic isolation of the Republic of Haiti. Among other things, reparations demanded by France totaled 150 million francs. Although this staggering sum was reduced to 60 million in 1838, the debt was not settled until 1947.

In the process of writing his three-volume historical novel of Haiti’s battle for independence, Madison Smartt Bell described the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804) as “the most under-reported event in modern history.” Indeed, it is still almost impossible to find a footnote citing the conflict in any of the countless biographies of Napoleon I. That said, in the past twenty years a new generation of historians has documented Haitian Independence and its far-flung consequences with a remarkable range of studies as varied as From Dessalines to Duvalier: Race, Color, and National Independence in Haiti by David Nicholls (1996), Mary Renda’s Taking Haiti: Military Occupation and the Culture of U. S. Imperialism 1915–1940 (2001), and Laurent Dubois’s Haiti: The Aftershocks of History (2012).

But the historian’s craft is only one point of entry into Haiti’s complexity. Equally important is the rich tapestry of Haitian literature that extends the human dimension of historical fact with over a century of poetry, stories, and novels that embody truths beyond the grasp of mere history. Furthermore, despite Haiti’s isolation—or, perhaps, because of it—Haitian writers have deployed the art of literature as a vital mirror of Haitian society where other mirrors rarely exist, except for the deeply-felt metaphor of the sea as a mirror. (To die in Haiti is to pass through to “the other side of the mirror.”) Hardly any modern literature has intersected with politics and history as completely and as consistently as that of Haiti. Hardly any modern literature has such a long and harrowing tale to tell.

One measure of Haiti’s literary culture is the fact that most of its literature, especially in recent decades, has been written by writers in exile.1 These writers constitute part of the “brain drain” of the Duvalier era (1957–86) that resulted in a Haitian diaspora of nearly 2 million people, with approximately half of those in the United States. Some, like Edwidge Danticat, write in English, though most modern Haitian literature has been written in French by those with strong ties to Europe, the United States, and Canada.

But regardless of the writer’s address, the Haitian imaginary has been preserved with a disturbingly truthful “fiction” that lies almost in defiance of familiar western trends and categories like “Romanticism” and “Realism.” In a sense, such labels oversimplify with a westernized subjective/objective dichotomy and fail to capture the collective spirit of Haitian literature. More often than not, “Haitian Lit” is centered on family ties that transcend generations and inhabit the extended family communities of the lakou, those close arrangements of living spaces, cooking pavilions, and communal life so common in rural Haiti. Romanticism vs. Realism debates also tend to omit another distinctly Haitian “family,” the ever-present pantheon of Vaudou spirits, the lwa, who appear as characters in nearly all works of Haitian literature as mentors, archetypes, protectors, and/or demons.

For those who need the orientation that literary terms provide, as early as 1943, Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier credited Haiti with inspiring the Latin American literary movement known as “Magical Realism” (also called “Marvelous Realism”).2 And when the Haitian novelist Jacques Stephan Alexis delivered a talk in Paris in 1956, at the first International Congress of Black Writers and Artists, his title was “Of the Marvelous Realism of the Haitians.” In this talk, Alexis returned to the connections Carpentier had drawn at the uniquely Haitian intersection of pre-Columbian Indian culture, African influences, and the reality of Europe and the United States in shaping Haitian history and culture.

“Haitian art, in effect, presents the real, with its accompaniment of the strange and fantastic, of dreams and half-light, of the mysterious and the marvelous…” said Alexis.3 The mention of dream imagery in this statement hints at connections between Haiti’s “Magical Realism” and French “Surrealism,” which was also in the minds of Alexis’s generation, especially after André Breton’s 1945 visit to Haiti. But Alexis’s lecture went beyond the world of dreams into the day-to-day “magic” embedded in the “realism” of Haiti life where the psycho-spiritual presence of “the strange and the fantastic” is entwined with the complex, quasi-human personalities of Vaudou spirits.

As we know from his novels, Alexis understood the reality of these spirits to Haitian peasants who feel the presence of the lwa as powerful forces real enough to come down to earth and participate in the human struggle of emotions, needs, and desires. He also understood that “magical realism” in the Haitian context encompassed the improbable facts of Haitian history that have, nonetheless, marked “real life” for generations: colonization, slavery, black revolution, social exclusion, prolonged American occupation (1915–34), corruption with impunity, and the brutal Duvalier dictatorship that Alexis would die trying to overthrow in 1961.

This litany explains why it is important to approach familiar literary terms and western assumptions with caution in the Haitian context. On this battered and beautiful island, literature has functioned as one of the few methods by which collective memory has been preserved in the midst of natural disaster and man-made destruction. Indeed, the power of “Haitian Lit” is its ability to transform objective reality into something enduring through the “magic” of story-telling that acknowledges external and internal states of being. The result is both documentary and spiritual, believable and strange, especially in the universe of the novel where the writer has time to develop the necessary layers, multiple voices, political undercurrents, and historical sources essential to Haitian culture.

Haitian literature confronts a complex past, and challenging present, every time a story is told. Despite all that has happened since the Arawak Indians first spotted ships on the horizon, including the devastating earthquake of 2010, Haitian literature offers the world a proud and indestructible legacy. The literature of Haiti is a vast and fascinating world emanating from a small place and its exiled voices; a tragic world where people awaken every morning to the shared knowledge that what appears to exist is full of mystery and could change or vanish at any moment. In the hands of skilled and sensitive writers, such as those listed below, modern Haitian literature speaks of love, time, violence, and almost unbearable beauty. It summons the arts of “magic” and demands to be heard in a world of disbelief.

1 The 2010 U.S. Census identified 975,000 Haitian-Americans.
2 After Carpentier’s visit to Haiti in 1943, he spoke publicly of Haiti as the source of this Latin American literary phenomenon.
3 This lecture has been published by the French journal, Présence Africaine. The quote selected is cited in the Introduction to the Carrol F. Coates translation of Alexis’s best-known novel, General Son, My Brother.

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PATTI MARXSEN’S DESERVING DOZEN – 12 HAITIAN NOVELS AVAILABLE IN ENGLISH

1. JACQUES STEPHEN ALEXIS (1922-1961)
Compère Général Soleil. Paris: Gallimard, 1955. English Translation: General Sun, My Brother. Trans. Carroll F. Coates. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1999.

2. MADISON SMARTT BELL, b. 1957
Three-Volume Trilogy of the Haitian Revolution:
All Souls’ Rising. New York: Pantheon Books, 1995.
Master of the Crossroads. New York: Pantheon Books, 2000.
The Stone That the Builder Refused. New York: Pantheon Books, 2004.

3. MARIE VIEUX-CHAUVET (1916-1973)
Amour, colère et folie. Paris: Gallimard, 1968; Paris: Maisonneuve & Larose / Emina Soleil, 2005. English Translation: Love, Anger, Madness: A Haitian Trilogy. Trans. Rose-Myriam Rejouis and Val Vinokur. New York: Modern Library, 2009.

4 & 5. EDWIDGE DANTICAT, b. 1969
The Farming of Bones. New York: Soho Press, 1998.
The Dew Breaker. New York: Knopf, 2004.

6. RENE DEPESTRE, b. 1926
Hadriana dans tous mes rêves. Paris: Gallimard, 1988. English translations: Hadriana in All My Dreams. Trans. Carrol F. Coates. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1992.

7. DANY LAFERRIERE, b. 1953 Le goût des jeunes filles. Montréal: Éditions VLB, 1992. Nouvelle éditions, Montréal: VLB, 2004; Paris: Grasset, 2005. English translation: Dining with the Dictator. Trans. David Homel. Toronto: Coach House Press, 1994.

8. YANICK LAHENS, b. 1953.
La Couleur de l’aube. Paris: Sabine Wespieser, 2008; Port-au-Prince: Presses Nationales d’Haïti, 2008. English Translation: The Color of Dawn. Trans. by Alison Layland. Brigend, Wales: Seren Books, 2013.

9. JEAN METELLUS, b. 1937
La Famille Vortex. Paris: Gallimard, 1982. English Translation: The Vortex Family, 3 vols., Trans. by Michael Richardson. London: Peter Owen Ltd, 1996.

10. PAULETTE POUJOL-ORIOL (1926–2011)
Vale of Tears, a Novel from Haiti. Trans. Dolores A. Schaefer. Washington, DC: Ibex Publishers, 2006.

11. JACQUES ROUMAIN (1907–44)
Gouverneurs de la rosée. Port-au-Prince: L’Imprimerie de l’Etat, 1944. First English Translation: Masters of the Dew, Trans. by Langston Hughes and Mercer Cook, New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1947. Most recent republication of this “classic” is available online from Caribbean Studies Press, a division of Educa Vision Inc.: www.caribbeanstudiespress.com

12. LYONEL TROUILLOT, b. 1956
Les Enfants des héros. Arles: Actes Sud, 2002. English translation: Children of Heroes. Trans. Linda Coverdale. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008.

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PLUS A FEW HAITIAN NOVELS NOT YET TRANSLATED INTO ENGLISH:

Jacques Stephen Alexis, Les arbres musiciens. Paris: Gallimard, 1957, 1984.

Yanick Lahens. Bain de lune. Paris: Sabine Wespeiser, 2014. [Winner of the 2014 Prix Femina]

Jacques Roumain, La montagne ensorcelée. Preface by Jean Price-Mars. Imprimerie E. Chassaing, 1931; Paris: Éditeurs français réunis, 1972; Port-au-Prince: Fardin, 1976; Montréal: Mémoire d’encrier, 2005.

Lyonel Trouillot. La Belle Amour humaine. Paris: Actes Sud, 2013.

Vieux-Chauvet, Marie. Fille d’Haïti. Paris: Fasquelle, 1954. [Prix de l’Alliance Française]

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Writer and translator Patti M. Marxsen is the author of Helene Schweitzer: A Life of Her Own (Syracuse Univ. Press, April 2015), Island Journeys (Alondra Press, 2008) and Tales from the Heart of Haiti (Educa-Vision, 2010). Her work has appeared in over 40 journals and magazines, including Ekphrasis, Fourth Genre, The International Herald Tribune, Prairie Schooner, Women’s Review of Books, and The Writer.