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A Hidden Haitian World

Massacre River

by René Philoctète, translated from the French by Linda Coverdale, with a preface by Edwidge Danticat and an introduction by Lyonel Trouillot
New Directions, 238 pp., $22.95; $13.95 (paper)

Street of Lost Footsteps

by Lyonel Trouillot, translated from the French and with an introduction by Linda Coverdale
University of Nebraska Press, 115 pp., $45.00; $16.95 (paper)

Children of Heroes

by Lyonel Trouillot, translated from the French by Linda Coverdale
University of Nebraska Press, 161 pp., $40.00; $20.00 (paper)

Anthologie secrète

by Carl Brouard
Montréal: Mémoire d’encrier, 131 pp., CAN$20.00

The Kingdom of This World

by Alejo Carpentier, translated from the French by Harriet de Onìs
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 180 pp., $13.00 (paper)

Krik? Krak!

by Edwidge Danticat
Vintage, 224 pp., $12.95 (paper)


by Lyonel Trouillot
Paris: Actes Sud, 150 pp., Π13.90 (paper)

Thérèse en mille morceaux

by Lyonel Trouillot
Paris: Actes Sud, 110 pp., Π13.57 (paper)

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:

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