Memory At Bay by Evelyne Trouillot, tr. Paul Curtis Daw

Title:  Memory At Bay
Author:  Evelyne Trouillot
Translator:  Paul Curtis Daw
Publisher: University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville & London (2015)
ISBN:  978 0 8139 3809 7

Trouillot_Memory_Select.inddExtensive reading is not necessary to understand that Haiti has a complicated and troubling history.  The brutal sugar plantations of Saint-Domingue, a nation formed out of the world’s first successful slave revolt, decades of precarious and corrupt governments, a devastating earthquake in 2010…time and again this country has had major obstacles thrown in its path.  And yet, despite multiple barriers, its impact and population have extended far beyond the borders of what is a relatively small, still developing, island nation.  By its tenacity alone Haiti is a place that inflames the imagination.

Alain Mabanckou wrote in Black Bazaar what is perhaps one of my favorite quotes about the Haitian people:  “…These Haitian writers are like hunted birds.  They’ve had more than thirty-two coups d’état back home and not a country in the world has equalled this record yet.  With each coup d’état, flocks of writers have emigrated.  They left everything behind, setting out with nothing apart from their manuscripts and their driving licence.  I wish I’d been born Haitian so I could be a writer in exile who understands the song of the migrating bird, but I don’t have any manuscripts, or a driving licence to become, in the worst-case scenario, a taxi driver in the streets of Paris …”

Evelyne Trouillot is a writer who didn’t leave home.  She is, for all intents, Haitian literary royalty.  The daughter of a Haitian intellectual &  lawyer, the niece of a historian, sister to a writer, an anthropologist and professor – Trouillot resides in Port-Au-Prince and is herself a teacher, novelist, and playwright. With her daughter and brother she co-founded Pré-texte, an institution which holds literacy and writing workshops.  Memory At Bay is her second book to be translated into English.  

Her main characters – two living, one dead – are members of the vast Haitian diaspora Mabanckou describes.  Rather than art they instead grapple with their roles as mothers, daughters and wives – the less glamorous, traditional roles of women.  Marie-Ange, the younger of the book’s two narrators, is employed as a caregiver in a facility in Martinique.  She is in mourning for her mother, whose voice we hear only through Marie-Ange’s memories. Together they left Haiti when she was a very small child. Now she is an orphan and her relationship to her childhood home is entirely colored by the memories her mother shared of surviving a corrupt and brutal dictatorship.

While still very young, I became an expert at choosing inoffensive subjects, ones that wouldn’t provoke a long diatribe from you against the Doréval dictatorships or those rare silences that were the precursors of your days of utter prostration. But today I wonder whether my ploy accomplished much at all. Whether you, Maman, didn’t carry an inexpressible sadness with you to your grave. And whether I who vicariously experienced the despotic regime won’t always have it under my skin. I’ve heard so much about those people since my childhood – not only the Doréval family, but also the notorious henchmen with their revealing or deceptive nicknames, still evocative of terrible anecdotes long after their time: Ti Baba, Captain Henry Tobias, Evaris Maître, Chief Lanfè, Lucien Désir, Colonel Britton Claudius. They’ve become elements of my universe, so powerful a part of my mental space and of my memories that it seems to me I’ll never be able to escape them and will always remain captive to their ghosts.

As she works through her grief Marie-Ange finds herself caring for a Haitian woman of roughly her mother’s age. Odile’s identity is not discussed at the facility (we are told this is for her own protection), but Marie-Ange soon realizes exactly who she is caring for.  Odile is the widow of one and the mother of another Haitian dictator – closely modeled after Papa & Baby Doc Duvalier. Hers is the book’s second narrative voice.

These two women – Marie-Ange & Odile – provide alternating, individual soliloquies on the Doréval/Duvalier regime. Marie -Ange addresses her mother, Odile her past. Over the course of the book a dialogue between them begins to take shape without their ever engaging each other in direct conversation. Trouillot writes about  a particularly complicated time in a country with a peculiarly complicated history.  Marie-Ange’s memories are second-hand, the collective experiences and stories bequeathed to her by her mother.  Outside of her duties in the care facility she shares very little of her life. As she expresses in the passage above, she is held captive by ghosts.

Odile’s memories are, by contrast, entirely singular and skewed.  Her position as wife of the president was unique. Her life privileged and sheltered. She was, in a sense, the monster’s darling.  Now at the end of her life, Odile finds a need to  justify her actions or, at the very least, the actions of others through which she benefitted.  Odile’s version of events, growing more and more desperate and defensive as the novel progresses, is ultimately meant for Marie-Ange. Or, more specifically, what Marie-Ange has come to represent: absolution. In a sense, both women are relaying false memories. It is only when taken together that their words form a story that more completely resembles the truth.

On bad days, Fabien would tirelessly repeat the names of all those he needed to eliminate. As if to dare his listeners to instigate a plot of some kind. The names rolled on, with no need to evoke at much length the circumstances attached to each: they all pertained to former friendships. A wife with whom she had discussed hairstyles and fashion, youngsters who had played with the Doréval children. Sometimes they would learn that the father of a  child to whom they had just given a birthday present had taken refuge in a Latin American embassy. Had received a fusillade in the back while trying to escape arrest. Had perished along with his entire family during an abortive uprising in the course of which the VSN had again proved worthy of the president’s confidence. Over the years she had learned not to recall the sweet little faces, to close her mind’s eye so as not to visualize the expression of terror on a known face. She had put on the impenetrable mask of the photos and official ceremonies. Over the years it had become so easy. AS usual, she wanted to banish all nagging qualms and retain only the thoughts that would facilitate her journey back in time, but she could only manage to take the whole bundle of memories with her into an unquiet sleep.

As Marie-Ange comes to terms with her grief and Odile with her past, Memory At Bay attempts to come to terms with the Haitian diaspora. Or, at the very least, explore what it means to be far from a home which has become more to do with an abstract idea than a geographic place. Troillot thoughtfully deals with the question of how, when a third of a country’s population lives outside its borders, do Haitians define and maintain their relationship to Haiti?  Paul Curtis Daw has thoughtfully translated two distinct, feminine voices – one old and the other young – which complement one another while retaining their individuality.  Memory At Bay is a small masterpiece:  a sensitive, skillfully written novel with nuanced and sympathetic characters which satisfies on multiple levels.

 

Alphabet of the Night by Jean-Euphèle Milcé (translated from the original French by Christopher Moncrieff)

Alphabet of the NightThere’s a passage in Alain Mabanckou’s Black Bazaar where he compares expatriate Haitian writers to “hunted birds”.

I wondered why Haitians are either brilliant writers or taxi drivers for life in New York and Miami.  And when they’re writers they are in exile.  Do writers always have to live in another country, and preferably be forced to live there so that they’ve got things to write about and other people can analyse the influence of exile on their writing?…

…These Haitian writers are like hunted birds.  They’ve had more than thirty-two coups d’état back home and not a country in the world has equalled this record yet.  With each coup d’état, flocks of writers have emigrated.  They left everything behind, setting out with nothing apart from their manuscripts and their driving licence.  I wish I’d been born Haitian so I could be a writer in exile who understands the song of the migrating bird, but I don’t have any manuscripts, or a driving licence to become, in the worst-case scenario, a taxi driver in the streets of Paris …

Jean-Euphèle Milcé is one of those “hunted birds” Mabanckou refers to.  Born in Haiti, he both attended and taught school there.  Currently he  lives in “voluntary exile” (Milcé’s words) in Switzerland with his wife and children.  His novella (published by Pushkin Press) deals with loss; grief; displacement; and what it means to abandon one’s country.  Alphabet of the Night contains many beautiful moments which form a fractured portrait of a man and his country.

The man, the book’s protagonist, is Jeremy Assaël – a gay, Jewish shopkeeper whose lover is murdered in the street in front of Jeremy’s shop. It is his breaking point.  Engulfed by grief Jeremy leaves Port-au-Prince and travels back to his childhood home.  He is searching for his friend Fresnal, who disappeared suddenly and mysteriously several years ago.  Jeremy wishes to learn, definitively, whether Fresnal is alive or dead.  His quest for the truth about his friend becomes a spiritual journey which forces him to confront the truth about his place in the country he considers home.

The book is told primarily from Jeremy’s point of view.  Each chapter begins with the date and time, like journal entries.  And almost every chapter ends with a radio bulletin, written in italics, describing the deteriorating state of the country.  These bulletins are the best bits of the book.  They contain a frenetic urgency and gallows humor which rings true.  They also form a welcome crack in the fugue state of Jeremy’s thoughts. We spend the first two-thirds of the book trapped inside Jeremy’s head attempting to follow his densely written, stream-of-conscious style narrative.  It’s after the final third that the story (and landscape) opens up and there is forward movement in the plot.

Haiti often reminds me of a train station, or airport terminal, or any other node that men pass through on their way to or from someplace else.  It’s population is constantly in flux. Prior to independence French planters and African slaves poured into the French colony Saint-Domingue by the hundreds of thousands.  When revolution came the mulatto and remaining French planters fled in droves, seeking refuge in places as unlikely as Philadelphia (bringing Yellow Fever with them).   And in the 20th century the frequent and violent changes in government, natural disasters and a 77% poverty rate has sparked an influx of aid workers and a diaspora of Haitians who seek new homes in cities around the globe.

During WWII Haiti became a safe haven for many Jews fleeing Nazi Germany.  This is perhaps how Jeremy’s family came to the island.  The Haitian government  offered Visas to Jewish refugees at a time when other countries refused.  Some stayed on (though today the Jewish population has dwindled into the double digits).  Milcé uses this concept of “being a Jew” to explore a larger theme.  There’s an elegant parallel between the “wandering Jew” and the Haitian diaspora.  Jeremy first leaves his shop, then his city, and ultimately must decide whether or not to leave his country.  He returns to the same touchstones  – he is a Jew; his family has been in Haiti for three generations; he comes from a line of shopkeepers – without finding solace.  Jeremy’s thoughts loop back on themselves.  They become repetitive, though never to the point of becoming contrived.

Morning found me down at the harbour, by a sea that was pursuing an old, everyday wave. It caught me with my head in hands that were still warm with desire.  Its rhythm stood bolt upright in my path.  I have a horror of the sea. It is too closely linked to my family history. How many Jews have made a destiny for themselves out of fantasies about the ocean swell?  I have no right to leave. The sea reminds me to much of running away, of stories told to one horizon after another.  My family tradition is a bottle thrown by a chain of events, trailing behind it a steam of discriminations crammed together in every harbour in the world.

Instinctively I step back from the sea.  How can a whole race make an entry in their diary which might involve being tossed about by floods? To my way of thinking, exile is that profound self-perception that comes after every journey into the events and places nearest me.

Jeremy is a man four-times displaced.  In addition to being Jewish: he is white in a predominantly black country; a wealthy man selling to the poor; and a homosexual.  He is reminded repeatedly of his outsider status.  Yet the idea of leaving tears him apart.  There is no sense of him being uncomfortable or at a loss as he travels around the island.  Haiti is the only home he’s ever known, but it becomes clear that the only true ties he has to it are his memories.

I believe Alphabet of the Night is Milcé’s first novel.   He took part in a panel at the PEN World Voices Festival on the Critic’s Global Voice this past Summer and was charming, funny, intelligent and (despite having to speak through a translator) incredibly eloquent.  Which led me to buy his book after the event.  Alphabet of the Night delivered on my expectations in that you can open it to any page and find lovely, lyrical prose. But as a whole this small novella never quite came together for me.  The sentences are disjointed, particularly in the early pages.  Too much of the plot is spent treading water.  And I have some serious concerns about the quality of the translation (which at times reads awkwardly and is too self-conscious).

Despite these flaws I recommend reading Alphabet of the Night.  Milcé has written an original story, with an unusual character and often lovely prose.  And, equally important, read it because novels set in contemporary Haiti are difficult to find. Haiti is country that weaves drunkenly back & forth between extremes:  violence and idealism, hope and cynicism, incredible beauty and incredible depravity.  It  is also a place of great hope and courage.  With that in mind, anything about this small island’s – half an island, really – rich history is worth reading.

Publisher:  Pushkin Press, London (2007)
ISBN:  978 1 90128 5 765

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Learning about Haiti – The Black Jacobins by C. L. R. James

Years ago, reading Edwidge Danticat’s The Farming of Bones left me wanting to learn more about the history of Haiti.  An island nation with so dramatic and bloody a story – you’d think there would be more books devoted to it.  Not so.  I finally discovered The Black Jacobins:  Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution by C.L.R. James thanks to my local indie bookstore owner. Originally published in 1938, the language and politics are somewhat dated.  (The use of the word “negro” as a descriptor startled me every time I encountered it.  James also had definite Communist leanings, exemplified by the Appendix he added in 1963: From Toussaint L’Ouverture to Fidel Castro).  Yet this book is still one of the most comprehensive histories available on the island nation.

The Black Jacobins:  Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution is a wonderfully written and in-depth examination of the Haitian Revolution, spanning 1791-1803.  Haiti began as the French colony of  San Domingo,  at that time the richest colony in the world.  The money came from sugar, coffee and indigo plantations worked by African slaves.  They labored under the most brutal conditions imaginable (by some accounts up to 1/3 of the slave population died in their first year on the island).  Reproduction rates were low and infant mortality high.  And so the San Domingo slave trade functioned as a revolving door.  New slaves were imported into the colony at the rate of 40,000 a year and by 1789, two years before the uprising, that population had risen to 500,000.  2/3 of whom had been born and captured in Africa.  Haiti became a nation as the result of a slave revolt, perhaps the only successful slave uprising in history.  The fact that so many of the men and women who took part in the uprising had not been born into slavery and had lived free prior to enslavement is an important element of this story.

That is the kind of detail James highlights and which make his story so absorbing.  The Black Jacobins examines the Haitian Revolution from every angle.  The treatment of the slaves and the disposition of the owners is discussed.  Events taking place in San Domingo are looked at in conjunction with those happening in France.  The roles played by England, Spain and America, and the colony’s place on the world stage are all factored in.  James does an excellent job at laying out the convoluted path history often takes.   Haitian independence was not a result of a linear string of events, but rather a demonstration of how multiple events – sometimes seemingly unrelated – converged to create a historic moment, a perfect storm.

I don’t want to give the impression that The Black Jacobins is primarily a dry and academic work.  Far from it.  James emphasizes the human component of his story,  providing anecdotes and first hand reports which are obviously the result of exhaustive research.  The most engaging accounts are those of the slaves who stepped up to lead:  Toussaint L’Ouverture,  Christophe and Dessalines.   Three very different men, all with right intentions, but who made critical mistakes – mistakes which laid the foundation for the state of Haiti today.  Speaking of Toussaint, James wrote:

The man who so deliberately decided to join the revolution was 45 years of age, an advanced age for those times, grey already, and known to everyone as Old Toussaint.   Out of chaos in San Domingo that existed for years to follow, he would lay the foundations of a Negro state that lasts to this day.  From the moment he joined the revolution he was a leader, and moved without serious rivalry to the first rank.  We have clearly stated the vast impersonal forces at work in the crisis of San Domingo.  But men make history, and Toussaint made the history he made because he was the man he was.

Throughout its 426 pages James manages to keep the feeling of an oral history.  Mixed in with the academic minutia are stories, accounts and letters.  Small segues are made.  And he has an eye for the dramatic scene.

Rochambeau hated the Mulattoes more than the blacks.  One night at Port-Républicaine he gave a great ball to which he invited several Mulatto women.  It was a magnificent fête.  At midnight Rochambeau stops the dancing and begs them to enter a neighboring apartment.  This room, lit by a single lamp, is hung with black draperies in which white material figures as skulls; in the four corners are coffins. In the middle of the horrified silence the Mulatto women hear funeral chants sung by invisible singers.  Dumb with terror they stood rooted to the spot, while Rochambeau told them: “You have just assisted at the funeral ceremonies of your husbands and brothers.”

Haitian history, like most colonial histories, is not particularly cheerful.  But it can be fascinating.  The Black Jacobins had me riveted from the first page until the last.  With Haiti in the news, it never hurts to have more information than what comes through our televisions.  This book is a good starting point.

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