Born in Trinidad, J. Michael Dash is a professor in the Departments of French and Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University who has written extensively on Haitian and French Caribbean literature. His publications include Culture and Customs of Haiti (2001), The Other America: Caribbean Literature in a New World Context (1998), Haiti and the United States (1997), Literature and Ideology in Haiti: 1915-1961 (1981), and Jacques Stephen Alexis (Black Images, 1975). Dash is also the co-editor of Libète: A Haiti Anthology (1999) and the translator of Edouard Glissant’s Monsieur Toussaint: A Play (2005) and Caribbean Discourse: Selected Essays (1989).
What led you, as a citizen of the English-speaking West Indies, to embark on a life-long study of the literature and culture of the Francophone Caribbean? Can you say something about what you found during your first research trips to Haiti? Additionally, Michel-Rolph Trouillot has written about how leaving Haiti and researching Dominica shaped his understanding of the Caribbean. Did you have a similar experience?
I wish I could say I had a Haitian ancestor or that I was hoping to find my roots in the French speaking Caribbean. Neither is the case, even though my Indo-Trinidadian grandmother did speak some French creole as it was still widely spoken in Trinidad in her youth. My interest in the Francophone Caribbean goes back to my undergraduate education at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica where in the late Sixties some of the most interesting literature I was reading originated in the French West Indies. Cesaire, Fanon, Alexis and Roumain were taught as part of twentieth century literature in French in 1969. When I was awarded a scholarship to do graduate work, I was advised by my supervisor, Beverley Evans (later Ormerod), to go to Port-au-Prince since few scholars were willing to work on Haiti at the time. There were many studies of the negritude poets and Frantz Fanon in the Sixties but little on Haitian writers, except for Jacques Roumain whose work was widely disseminated.
My first trip to Haiti was in April 1970 and I remember the immigration officer in Kingston asking me why I was going there since no one in his experience ever did. This was the case because Haiti was essentially isolated at the time because of Francois Duvalier’s dictatorship and the gruesome stories that circulated about what went on in Haiti. My decision to go had much to do with the atmosphere of the late Sixties in Jamaica. The Mona campus was the place to be in the late sixties. Lloyd Best, Orlando Patterson, Kamau Brathwaite, Rex Nettleford and so on were all on the faculty at Mona. The Wailers played at the Students Union fetes. We had had the Walter Rodney demonstrations in 1968, shut the university down and occupied the Creative Arts Centre. I think the times encouraged risk-taking. Curiously, no one from the University of the West Indies worked on Haiti then except for David Nicholls who was Anglican Chaplin and senior lecturer in Government at the St. Augustine Campus. His advice and encouragement were invaluable and we remained close friends until his death in 1996.
To my great relief I found that Haitians were very ordinary people, not all that different in fundamental ways from other Caribbean peoples. They simply had fewer opportunities for social and educational advancement. Haiti was rigid and almost feudal compared to Jamaica and Trinidad which I knew well. They were certainly curious about what someone else from the Caribbean was studying there. People who did research on Haiti looked foreign. I looked too much like them. Of course I was invariably told that I could never understand Haiti, that Haiti was exceptional in so many ways. This I found amusing since most Caribbean people say this to outsiders insisting on their particular island’s uniqueness. My first stay coincided with an attempted coup staged by the Haitian Coast guard, called L’Affaire Cayard. My second stay in the following year coincided with the death of Francois Duvalier and the installation of Baby Doc, as President for life. The two individuals who were most important to facilitating my research were Serge Garoute who seemed to know all the writers and artists in Haiti and Frère Lucien of St Louis de Gonzague to whom I owe an immense debt of gratitude for making their collections available to me.
I think those early visits were crucial in two important ways. They were key to my understanding of the Caribbean region. Another Trinidadian, CLR James, once perceptively said something to the effect that it was in Haiti that West Indians first thought of themselves as a people. I too felt that Haiti was the start of that whole West Indian experiment in post-plantation society. Like Trouillot I felt you needed detour and distance fully grasp what you thought you had already understood at home. I lamented then, as I do now, the fragmented and insular state of Caribbean Studies as scholars invariably still tend to study the places they came from. Secondly I felt a great admiration for Haitian writers who continued to work despite extremely difficult or even dangerous circumstance. All the books that Frank Etienne gave me were self-published. I met Jacques Stephen Alexis’ widow who still had his unfinished manuscripts with her at the time. I thought that their courage was exemplary and their art had a certain urgency. Consequently, as a critic, I have been tough on writing that did not aspire to daring and independence.
Your first book Jacques Stephen Alexis was published by the Toronto-based journal Black Images. What led to that collaboration and what was the significance of the journal for you as a venue for Caribbean and Black World literary criticism?
Rudolph Murray’s journal Black Images took a strong interest in Francophone Caribbean Literature in the Seventies. It may be the influence of Frederick Case who was teaching at the University of Toronto at the time. Murray also seemed to know Vere Knight who was a Senior lecturer in French at the UWI. Black Images was also open to criticism of the negritude movement and the introduction of critical material on younger Caribbean writers. This was like a godsend to someone who was desperately looking for outlets for articles. There were few journals that were interested in the francophone Caribbean. Prior to my association with Black Images I had one essay on Haiti in Savacou and one essay in Caribbean Studies on Alexis and Wilson Harris. Murray who always moved in mysterious ways, felt Black Images should turn to publishing monographs on Caribbean writers. He did the first under the pseudonym RM Lacovia and asked me to do the second on Jacques Stephen Alexis, which I wrote in Kano, Nigeria where I was lecturer in French. The Alexis monograph appeared in 1975, the year in which the journal ceased publication. It was never revived. I met Murray for the first time long after in Kingston and joked that if had not done the Alexis monograph his journal might still be alive.
You’ve recently published on Antenor Firmin, especially on his Letters from St. Thomas. What led you to him and what do is his significance?
Even though my research was on post-Occupation Haiti, I took a great interest in Haiti in the nineteenth century because of this sense among Haitian intellectuals that Haiti was a unique and new experience. In the 1830s for instance Emile Nau felt that Haiti’s great advantage over the United States was that, while the latter was a continuation of Europe, Haiti was an unprecedented experiment in cultural and ethnic hybridity. Haiti was the true American frontier. This was also my approach to Antenor Firmin. Too often Firmin is seen as a black nationalist, a precursor to the negritude movement. Nothing could be further from the truth. I wanted to reiterate the point made by Nicholls in From Dessalines to Duvalier that Firmin did not privilege race. I also wanted to show Firmin’s interest in the Americas and the extent to which he was aware of thinkers like Dubois and Marti. The Letters from St. Thomas, written in exile on the island of St. Thomas, are brilliantly perceptive and gives a sense of how he positioned himself in the space of the Americas. Very much in the tradition of Emile Nau and other Haitian intellectuals of that century, he seems to want to destabilize narrow ideas of national identity thereby anticipating the kind of relational thought of an Edouard Glissant or the deterritorialized imagination of a Dany Laferriere.
You’ve spoken of the transition of Haiti from a “predatory state” after the first US Occupation to a “neocolonial state” after the Duvaliers. How would you characterize the nature of the Haitian state now, two years after the earthquake
Since the fall of the Duvalier dynasty in 1986, the only real gain for Haitians is the emergence of civil society that had first appeared with the anti-Duvalier opposition. However, in recent years the emphasis on economic privatization and foreign investment has shifted the emphasis from the citizen action groups for social change to the private sector. This cannot be achieved in the absence of a strong Haitian state. Look at the other Caribbean islands and the importance of the state to their proper functioning. For instance, cholera is now endemic in Haiti. Do you see signs of panic in Jamaica or the Bahamas. No because their water supply cannot be easily compromised as it is in Haiti where there is little proper sanitation and potable water. That is where proper government comes in.
Everyone laments, with good reason, the excessive presence of NGOs in Haiti but no one wants to rebuild the Haitian state which would render the NGOs unnecessary. The distrust of the Haitian state goes back to the Duvalier kleptocracy. The legacy of Duvalierism is the complete dismantling of the Haitian state. The challenge of post Duvalierist Haiti or true dechoukaj is to create a non-authoritarian Haitian state. The radical restructuring of Haitian society can be helped by external forces, of course, but only if they are committed to long-term nation building. Haiti cannot be saved by those on the outside if only for the simple reason that a modern democratic society can neither be imposed by the well-armed nor inserted by the well-meaning. Haitians, like other Caribbean peoples, will have to find the capacity for patience and compromise and these efforts can succeed only through a truly representative and competent state. My hope is that one day Haiti will be under the radar like Barbados or St Lucia, that it will not be the destination of choice either for thrill seekers or bleeding hearts.
You were a close friend and translator of the late Edouard Glissant. What is his enduring legacy – as a person and as an artist?
I remember reading recently that prophets are often defined by what they are not. I am not saying that Edouard Glissant was a prophet but he does represent an intellectual watershed in the Caribbean intellectual landscape. For the time being though, there is a tendency to regret what he was not. There has been a rash of criticism aimed at what critics call “the late Glissant” who is seen as blindly following Deleuzean nomadology in his apolitical celebration of global creolization. Even his defenders have tried to construct him as a “warrior of the imaginary” or pointed to the various political pamphlets written with Chamoiseau before his death. I think in both cases, critics are still haunted by the example of Frantz Fanon as a model for Caribbean writing. Glissant had never felt that literature should be put in the service of political causes – certainly not in a narrow, utilitarian way. He began writing at a time when a decolonized world heralded by politically committed writing was coming into being. These new nation states were flawed and there but there was no way of imagining alternatives. This was where literature as a new mode of cognition came in. As I have written elsewhere, Glissant, from the outset, proposed that writers and thinkers should be approached and frequented like towns. He said this about Faulkner and later about the figure of Toussaint Louverture. I think his thought should be approached in this way – an urban space of diversity, open to all and facilitating various intellectual itineraries. Perhaps, in accordance with the creole saying quoted in one of the epigraphs of Caribbean Discourse, “An neg se an siec” ( a black man is a century), the Glissantian century has only just begun
In your essay “Edouard Glissant: The Poetics of Risk,” you’ve written that Glissant “was never inclined to write about himself” and that “the absent self, the missing author seems to run counter to the autobiographical impulse and the desire for self-affirmation that are deeply rooted in the literary imagination of the Caribbean.” It also seems that the self is absent in your own writing. Why is that? And have you ever had an autobiographical urge and, if so, how would you shape it?
The short answer is that I would resist the autobiographical impulse. Of course, having said this I think that literary criticism is always implicitly autobiographical. It is about grappling with often very personal issues through readings of literary texts. In any case, I see myself as an intermediary, a kind of broker, between writers and readers. I was also taught very early to avoid the explicitly personal in critical essays. That reflex remains until this day.
Which writers, from the Francophone Caribbean and elsewhere, do you want to see more writing on?
At present, there is too much emphasis on fiction from the Caribbean. Indeed, I wonder whether there should not be a moratorium on essays on certain novels like Chamoiseau’s Texaco and Chauvet’s Amour. How is it that so much scholarly writing on Franketienne, Maximin, Glissant or even Cesaire can ignore their poetry. The only work by the poet Rene Philoctete that has been translated is a rather weak novel Massacre River. A major poet such as Magloire St Aude has disappeared completely. Poetry is completely overshadowed by prose. I am not sure why this is so except that there is a tendency to read literature allegorically and prose lends itself to this approach.
So I think it is time there was more critical attention directed to poets as a whole. Antillean poets such as the prolific Henri Corbin in works such as Lieux d’ombre (1991) and Plongee au gré des deuils (1999) and the densely experimental Monchoachi in L’espere-geste (2003) deserve serious attention. Similarly, the short-lived movement Haiti-Littéraire which produced Rene Philoctete, Anthony Phelps and Davertige among others who saw the early surrealist Magloire St Aude as their literary forebear. In more recent times, the densely elliptical George Castera, who writes in Creole and French, keeps this experimental tradition in Haitian poetry alive in his prize-winning collection Le trou du souffleur.