Haiti’s Resilience as Seen Through Literature
Comments by President Trump during a meeting with lawmakers this week have placed Haiti in the spotlight. Here are three books by Haitian writers that provide insight into the country’s history of struggle and resistance.
DANCE ON THE VOLCANO
By Marie Vieux-Chauvet
Translated by Kaiama L. Glover
492 pp. Archipelago. (2017)
In this book, Minette, the “colored” daughter of a former slave and her white master, hopes her artistic ambitions will help her escape poverty, allowing her to earn enough money to “buy all the slaves in the country so that I can free them.” But though the art world does insulate her, she doesn’t manage to escape the racial divides that plagued late 18th-century Port-au-Prince altogether, when the country was still colonized by the French. She falls in love with a freedman, but he is a slave owner and perpetuates the same cruel behaviors she despises in white plantation owners. Our reviewer said the book is “best read as a slice of Haiti’s past rather than as a work of fiction.” Vieux-Chauvet, one of Haiti’s pre-eminent women writers, had to go into exile once the Duvalier dictatorship deemed her a threat.
GENERAL SUN, MY BROTHER
By Jacques Stephen Alexis
Translated by Carrol F. Coates
299 pp. University of Virginia Press. (1999)
Set in the 1930s, this story centers on a man named Hilarius Hilarion, who migrates to the Dominican Republic from Haiti with his pregnant wife after a stint in prison for attempted robbery. He gets a job as a sugar cane cutter, working under dismal conditions. When the workers attempt to strike, the dictatorship ruling the Dominican Republic at the time responds with a bloody massacre. This reflects the real life killings of thousands of Haitians in 1937 ordered by President Rafael Trujillo. The Haitian-American novelist Edwidge Danticat has said that “General Sun” inspired her own book about the massacre, “The Farming of Bones.”
BROTHER, I’M DYING
By Edwidge Danticat
272 pages. Alfred A. Knopf. (2007)
Perhaps the best-known writer of Haitian descent in the United States, Danticat brings her lyric prose to this memoir, in which she tells the story of her family through the lives of her father, who migrated to New York when she was a toddler, and his brother, with whom she stayed in Haiti. Though they had disparate ambitions — her uncle, Joseph, hoped never to leave Haiti, while her father wanted to create a new life for himself in the United States — violence in Haiti brought Joseph to Miami at the age of 81. There he was put in a detention center, where he immediately fell ill and had to be taken to a hospital. He died a day later, and he and Danticat’s father, who was also ill in New York, ended up buried next to each other in Queens, New York, never reuniting after 30 years apart. In her review, Michiko Kakutani wrote that, as she does in her fiction, Danticat “embodies the painful legacy of Haiti’s violent history, demonstrating the myriad ways in which the public and the private, the political and the personal, intersect in the lives of that country’s citizens and exiles.”