Literature of Haiti

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Literature of Haiti

Created out of a revolutionary war that drove the French out of colonial St. Domingue in 1804, Haitian literature has been inspired as much by the need to affirm the uniqueness of the Haitian nation as by its redemptive mission in a world dominated by colonialism and slavery. The nationalist impulse in early Haitian verse is enhanced by the Romantic movement's insistence on the poet's national genius as well as the influence of the natural environment over individual sensibility. This need to express a particularly Haitian worldview in literature is elaborated during the twenty-three years of Jean-Pierre Boyer's presidency and given its most articulate expression in the verse of Oswald Durand, whose Rires et Pleurs (Laughter and tears; 1896) is a celebration of Haitian flora and fauna. He is the first writer to successfully experiment with the use of Creole, especially in the poem "Choucoune," which was eventually put to music. This trend also paves the way for the emergence of Haitian prose writing at the turn of the century. Haiti's early novels are either political satires or sympathetic depictions of peasant life. The conventions of realism are apparent in the novels by Frédéric Marcelin, Justin Lhérisson, and Antoine Innocent published at the turn of the century. The end of the nineteenth century also saw a backlash against what was considered an overly parochial approach to literary creativity. The group of poets associated with the journal La ronde (18981902) fiercely criticized narrow nationalism and regionalism in Haitian writing and advocated a more cosmopolitan and eclectic approach to literature.

Early Haitian literature was also postcolonial in the sense that it called into question the racial and cultural values and beliefs on which the colonial system was based. Haitian writers were, therefore, also acutely aware of the dangers of celebrating Haitian exceptionalism, given the degree of international ostracism suffered by the new state. Henry Christophe's secretary, Le Baron de Vastey, published one of the first critiques of European colonization in his essay Le système colonial dévoile (The colonial system unmasked; 1814). A keen awareness of the fetishizing of race and nation in the colonial system led later essayists to abandon the rhetoric of racial and cultural difference for arguments that favor a nonessentializing universalism. The essayist Anténor Firmin's De l'égalité des races humaines (The equality of the human races; 1885) is a two-volume response to the ideas of racial difference and racial perfectibility put forward by Joseph-Arthur de Gobineau in Paris. His Lettres de St. Thomas (1910), published in exile, argued against xenophobia in Haitian politics and the need to create an "Antillean Confederation" in order to ensure national survival.

Chronic instability at the beginning of the twentieth century and the spread of U.S. imperialism in the northern Caribbean led to Haiti being occupied by U.S. Marines from 1915 to 1934. The neocolonial nature of the occupation had the effect of uniting Haitians, who had been divided by class and color, around the ideals of race and nation. A young radical group of writers began to dominate intellectual life from the 1920s. They were much involved in street protests, militant journalism, and the cultural nationalism expressed in the journals La nouvelle ronde (1925), La trouee (1927), and La revue indigene (19271928). The poetry published in these journals ranged from the fashionably bohemian poems of Émile Roumer and Carl Brouard to more socially conscious writing from Jacques Roumain. Roumain introduced and translated the writers of the Harlem Renaissance and contemporary Latin America and founded the Haitian Communist Party in 1934. The ideas of the anthropologist Jean Price-Mars, who spoke of the need to recognize peasant culture and to reform the Haitian elite, was a shaping force at the time.

Roumain's conception of peasant resistance in the context of international proletarian revolt would leave an indelible mark on succeeding generations of writers. His two best-known posthumously published works, Bois d'ébène (Ebony wood; 1945) and Gouverneurs de la rosée (Masters of the dew; 1944) exemplify this insertion of the Haitian peasantry in the context of a global modernity. Roumain, who founded the Bureau d'Ethnologie in 1941, is well known for the successful use of a Creole-inflected French in the latter novel to approximate the authentic voice of the peasantry, but he also introduces into their culture Spanish words that introduce concepts of worker solidarity and labor revolt.

At the end of World War II Haiti experienced a period of intellectual effervescence with the visits of Aimé Césaire, Nicolás Guillén, Alejo Carpentier, and André Breton. The outburst of literary and political radicalism at this rivaled that of the American occupation. The pro-American mulatto president at the time was overthrown in protests led by student activists of the journal La ruche. Jacques Stephen Alexis and René Depestre, two of the leading student activists, were influenced by Roumain's Marxism as well as surrealist ideas. Alexis came to prominence in the 1956 Congress of Black and African Writers in Paris when he challenged the monolithic racial theories of Négritude with his essay on "marvellous realism," which promoted a more hemispheric definition of Haitian culture. Depestre challenged Aimé Césaire by advocating the ideas of Louis Aragon in defining a national poetics in Haiti. Both writers would run foul of the regime of noiriste intellectual François Duvalier, who came to power in 1957.

Alexis's novels, produced between 1955 and his death in 1961 at the hands of Duvalier's Macoutes, used a combination of socialist realism and fantasy to depict the lives of the Haitian working class. His sweeping, largely historically based fiction tried to cover all of Haiti's changing society. The question of regional identity is raised in Alexis's last novel, L'espace d'un cillement (The flicker of an eyelid; 1959), in which the protagonists are Cuban and the action takes place in a brothel on the outskirts of Port au Prince that is frequented by American marines. Alexis's oeuvre marks fiction created during the Duvalier years. The novelist, dramatist, and painter Franck Étienne's best-known work is the Creole novel Dezafi (1975), which describes the horrors of a zombified Haiti under Duvalier. His novels borrow Alexis's use of fantasy and advocate experimentation with form, which Étienne called a spiraliste poetics. Pierre Clitandre's Cathédrale du mois d'août (Cathedral of the August heat; 1982) is also a successful depiction of the urban poor's world of magic, misery, and desperate optimism.

Duvalierism also created an exodus of Haitian intellectuals, and beginning in the 1970s there has been an increasing Haitian diaspora in cities such as Montreal, Miami, and New York. Explicit anti-Duvalierist protest writing flourished in exile in a way it could not among writers who remained in Haiti. One of the major anti-Duvalier texts was actually written in Haiti, but it led to the exile of its author. Marie Chauvet's Amour colère folie (Love anger madness; 1968) brilliantly evoked not only the nightmare of state brutality but the complacency of the elite as well as the impotence of writers and intellectuals under Duvalier. Strident protest fiction was produced by Depestre, Étienne, and Anthony Phelps. The Duvalier dynasty proved to be very resistant to change, and Haitian writing in the diaspora became less centered on political protest and more focused on the experience of cultural displacement and the redefinition of Haitian identity. Even though there were attempts in the novels of Jean Métellus, Depestre, and the Creole poetry of Félix Morisseau-Leroy to return nostalgically to the native land, a younger generation of writers explored the freedoms and influences of being Haitian writers in the United States and Canada.

Two 1985 novels by Jean-Claude Charles and Dany Laferrière were the first to evoke Haiti's new transnational preoccupations. Manhattan Blues and Comment faire l'amour avec un nègre sans se fatiguer (How to make love to a Negro without getting tired) ushered in a new kind literature that is as much autobiographical fiction as travel writing. In Canada the novels Passages (1991) and Les urnes scelles (The sealed urns; 1995) by the late Émile Ollivier treat the difficulty of return and the hybridized space of the Haitian diaspora. This diaspora has also produced a number of major writers in English, many of whom are women. The most outstanding of these is Edwidge Danticat, whose successful first novel, Breath Eyes Memory (1994), deals with a young Haitian woman's personal experience of the clash of modernity and tradition. Her later works took on larger political themes. The Farming of Bones (1998) deals with the massacre of Haitian cane cutters in the Dominican Republic in 1937, The Dew Breaker (2004) with the difficulty of facing the ghosts of the Duvalierist past for those Haitians who have grown up outside of Haiti.

See also Canadian Writers in French; Caribbean/North American Writers (Contemporary); Creole Languages of the Americas; Danticat, Edwidge; Négritude; Women Writers of the Caribbean


Dash, Michael. Literature and Ideology in Haiti: 19151961. New York: Macmillan, 1981.

Dash, Michael. Culture and Customs of Haiti. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 2001.

Garret, Naomi. The Renaissance of Haitian Poetry. Paris: Presence Africaine, 1963.

Hoffmann, Leon. Histoire de la littérature d'Haïti. Paris: EDICEF, 1995.

"Haiti: The Literature and Culture." Callaloo 15, nos. 2 and 3 (1992).

j. michael dash (2005)