Easily the most hyped Haiti-related book to come out in the past year was Purpose: An Immigrant Story (It Books), the memoir of rapper-turned-presidential-candidate Wyclef Jean. They say Purpose is actually not that bad, especially if you’re interested in either Clef’s take on the dissolution of the Fugees or his embittered account of his agonized history with Lauryn Hill. But it offers little on his controversial charity efforts or on his political aspirations, though perhaps these issues will be addressed in one of the proposed seven tomes Wyclef plans on writing. Regardless, the books that interested us in 2012 were not over-marketed and vapid celebrity tell-alls but politically and intellectually engaged tracts – often published by smaller, lesser-known presses, and often overlooked by the mainstream.
One such book, Terre de femmes: 150 ans de poésie féminine en Haïti (Bruno Doucey) we’ve written of before (and it was actually published in 2010). But we were so taken by this strikingly designed volume that we feel compelled to mention it again. Terre de femmes contains poetry from thirty-five Haitian women writers, from early twentieth-century figures Ida Flaubert and Emmeline Carriès Lemaire to contemporary writers Kettly Mars and Elvire Maurouard, many of whom we were introduced to for the first time. The anthology boasts a spectrum of tone, perspective, and style: romantic verse sits alongside odes to Simon Bolivar and invocations of Toussaint Louverture. Terre de femmes is a welcome revelation, as were the contents of two other excellent collections compiling writing by and about Caribbean women. Breaking Ground: Anthology of Puerto Rican Women Writers in New York 1980-2010 (Editorial Campaña), edited by Myrna E. Nieves-Colón, is a bilingual compendium that grew out of the Boricua College Winter Poetry Series, while Ifeona Fulani’s pioneering Archipelagos of Sound: Transnational Caribbeanities, Women, and Music (University of the West Indies Press) gathers essays on Rhianna, Celia Cruz, Grace Jones, Louise Bennett, and, as it turns out, the incomparable Lauryn Hill.
Problems of distribution and translation (or, less generously, questions of disinterest and Anglophone insularity and provincialism), have kept English-language readers in the dark concerning many of the writers published in Terre de femmes. Similar problems plague our knowledge of books by publishers based in Haiti despite their deep and growing lists. Since May 2011, the Petionville consultancy firm C3 Group has had an admirable output of monographs published under the imprint Editions C3Group. Their first title, 100% Préval, is a wide-ranging assessment of the presidency of Rene Préval that brings together a cross section of Haitian politicians and intellectuals. They have published seven books since including Les 100 premiers jours de Martelly on “Martellisme” and the early days of the Martelly presidency as well as a number of regional studies of Haitian economy and politics. Radical? Probably not. But they are, nonetheless, important interventions and their latest monograph attacks the question of color and racism in Haitian society. Titled La vie et ses couleurs and edited by Lionnel Trouillot it contains contributions in Kreyol and French by writers including Jean-Euphèle Milcé, Emelie Prophète, Evelyne Trouillot, Gary Victor, and Rodney St-Éloi, the latter also the publisher of the fantastic Montreal-based press Mémoire d’encrier.
Having already published the late geographer Georges Anglade’s Le secret du dynamisme littéraire haïtien and Jean Casimir’s Haïti et ses élites. L’interminable dialogue de sourds, among other academic texts, Editions de l’Université d’Etat d’Haïti have over the past year issued Robenson Belunet’s important addition to studies of the first US Occupation, La France face à l’occupation américaine d’Haïti (1915-1934), as well as Marie Redon’s ambitious comparative study of frontiers and islands, Des îles en partage: Haïti, République dominicaine, Saint-Martin, Timor Editions, published in collaboration with Presses Universitaires du Mirail. Also published collaboratively, this time with Editions de la Maison des sciences de l’homme, is the collection Haïti, réinventer l’avenir. Edited by Jean-Daniel Rainhorn, Haïti, réinventer l’avenir grew out of a conference in Geneva in January 2011 on Haiti’s reconstruction and is billed as a “trialogue” between more than two-dozen contributors drawn from Haitian civil society, the Haitian diaspora, and the international community. Haïti, réinventer l’avenir should be read alongside a similar volume, Tectonic Shifts: Haiti Since the Quake (Stylus/Kumarian), edited by anthropologist Mark Schuller and NACLA editor Pablo Morales.
Editions de l’Université d’Etat d’Haïti also published a path-breaking collection of Caribbean economic history, Histoire économique de la Caraibe (1880 – 1950), edited by scholars Guy Pierre, Gustie Gaillard-Pourchet, and Nathalie Lamaute-Brisson. Focusing largely on the changing fortunes of the sugar industry and the role of banking, debt, and monetary policy in the region’s economic organization and development, Histoire économique de la Caraibe contains contributions from a fantastic set of Caribbean historians including César Ayalá, Alain Buffon, Roberto Cassá, Rebeca Gómez Betancourt, Leslie F. Manigat, Rita Pemberton, Inés Roldan de Montaud, and Oscar Zanetti. Other works of a historical bent published in the past year include Malick W. Gechem’s study of self-fashioning and negotiation within the colonial laws of Saint-Domingue, The Old Regime and the Haitian Revolution (Cambridge), and a special issue of the Radical History Review, titled Haitian Lives/Global Perspective and edited by historians Amy Chazkel, Melina Pappademos, and Karen Sotiropoulos. The issue includes a micro-history of plantation life in Saint-Domingue, an analysis of Toussaint’s L’Ouverture’s 1801 constitution, an account of the National City Bank in Haiti, and histories of both Guantanamo and Miami’s Krome Detention Center. Unfortunately, the Radical History Review is only available to paid subscribers. Sara E. Johnson’s Fear of French Negroes: Transcolonial Collaboration in the Revolutionary Americas (California) takes an interdisciplinary approach to the study of how African people within the greater Caribbean responded to the Haitian Revolution while in Beyond the Slave Narrative: Politics, Sex, and Manuscripts in the Haitian Revolution (Chicago), Deborah Jenson examines the texts written by Haitians themselves. Jenson examines the political tracts penned by revolutionary leaders Toussaint Louverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines as well as Saint-Domingue’s popular, anonymously written Creole poetry.
The most famous account of the Haitian Revolution is, of course, CLR James’s 1938 history The Black Jacobins. But before he composed his dramatic history of revolution, James rendered the revolution as historical drama. His play was written in 1934, staged in 1936 at London’s Westminister Theatre – with Paul Robeson starring – and lost until a draft was rediscovered in 2005 by historian Christian Høgsbjerg, who unearthed it during his doctoral research. Toussaint Louverture: The Story of the Only Successful Slave Revolt in History; A Play in Three Acts has been edited by Høgsbjerg and published by Duke. It comes as the first publication of a new series, The CLR James Archives, edited by Robert A. Hill, a scholar best known for his work on the Marcus Garvey and Universal Improvement Association Papers Project. The aim of the series is to recover and reproduce James’s work, and work on James, for a contemporary audience. In another act of recovery, James’s analysis of the economic and political nature of the mid-century Soviet state have been compiled by Scott McLemee as The Dialectics of State Capitalism: Writings on Marxist Theory, 1940-1956 and is due out from Haymarket Press.
The state is at the center of a number of recent monographs that have examined questions of democracy, dictatorship and neo-colonialism in contemporary Haiti. Justin Podur’s Haiti’s New Dictatorship: The Coup, The Earthquake and the UN Occupation (Pluto) scrutinizes the ways in which the international community has choked Haiti’s sovereignty since the 2004 coup while promoting a supposedly benign international occupation of the country. Jeb Sprague’s thoroughly-researched Paramilitarism and the Assault on Democracy in Haiti (Monthly Review) examines the growth of right-wing paramilitaries and their role, supported by money and political muscle from the United States and the Dominican Republic, in subverting Haitian grassroots democratic movements. In the 2005 book Canada in Haiti: Waging War on the Poor Majority (Fernwood), Yves Engler and Anthony Fenton, shed light on Great White North’s role in the overthrow of democracy in the Black Republic; a section of Yves Engler’s latest, The Ugly Canadian: Stephen Harper’s Foreign Policy (Fernwood) pillories Canada’s post-earthquake callousness.
Finally, Revue Noire, the Paris-based journal of Black art, has published The Room of Mario Benjamin, the first monograph on the Port-au-Prince based abstract painter. And if you aren’t able to travel to Los Angeles to see the well regarded exhibit In Extremis: Death and Life in 21st-Century Haitian Art at UCLA’s Fowler Museum its catalogue, edited by Donald Cosentino, will be published by the University of Washington Press. The exhibit displayed works by artists from Jean-Michel Basquiat to the famous found-object sculptors of Port-au-Prince’s Grand Rue; the catalogue contains essays from Patrick Bellegarde-Smith, Edwidge Danticat, Leah Gordon, Claudine Michel, Jean Claude Saintilus, and others.
All told, there’s a depth and richness to these publications that is still missing from Haiti’s coverage and representation in the mainstream press. Support these endeavors. Buy the books.
All best for the new year.
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Image: Cédric Audebert, Le marquage architectural et culturel de Little Haiti et la Librairie Mapou. Source: Cédric Audebert, « Les stratégies spatiales de la population haïtienne à Miami », EchoGéo (2007).