10 Books for 2013

A couple of caveats concerning our list of ten notable books for 2013: we’ve listed more than ten books and not all of them were published in 2013. While some of the texts mentioned below come from 2012, others were published as early as the 1930s. We also have a stack of excellent recent titles that didn’t make the list but certainly deserve a mention: Rupert Roopnarine’s The Sky’s Wild Noise: Selected Essays and Russell Maroon Shoatz’ collected essays, Latasha Natasha Digg’s Twerk and Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams, Hakim Adi’s Pan-Africanism and Communism and Jose Miguel Palacios’ 9/11/1973: The Public Life of an Endless Day, Lorna Goodison’s Oracabessa and Claremount Chung’s Walter Rodney: A Promise of Revolution – as well as those titles that already appeared on our 2013 Black Radical Reading list and our late 2012 compilation of recent work on Haiti. Caveats aside, here’s the list. All speak with a particular urgency to the Black present – and to the year ahead.

1. Kamau Brathwaite’s “Dream Haiti” is a poem of cruel elegance that renders the ill-fated passage of Haitian migrants across the Florida straits as a bittersweet tale of the travails of Haiti and the African diaspora. It was first published in the fall 1995 issue of Nathanial Mackey’s Hambone, splayed across more than fifty pages and set in Brathwaite’s experimental, acoustic typography, the Sycorax Video Style. In 2007, New Directions Press reprinted “Dream Haiti” as part of the excellent collection DS (2) – Dreamstories. This past year, Memoire d’encrier published Brathwaite’s long poem in French translation as RêvHaïti. While Brathawite has been chastised for his supposed obsession with “the endless purgatorial experiences” of Black people, with thirty eight Haitians drowning near Punta de Maisí, Guantánamo, Cuba on Christmas Day, 2011, thirty off the Bahamas in November, and another eighteen by Turks and Caicos just yesterday, “Dream Haiti” maintains a terrible poignancy.

2. Edited by Sokari Ekine and Hakima Abbas and published by Fahamu Books and Pambazuka Press, the Queer Africa Reader, emerged out of a defining moment in African history: The 2010 charges for “gross indecency and unnatural acts” pressed against Tiwonge Chimbalanga, a Malawaian transgender woman, and Steven Monjeza, her male partner. The charges served to bring the muted discussions among queer African activists, intellectuals, and artists out into the public while spurring Ekine’s and Abbas’ editorial labors. The result is nothing short of path breaking. Combining forty-two essays, testimonies, statements, and stories by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex contributors from across the continent, the Queer Africa Reader challenges the idea of Africa as the “homophobic context” while providing an urgent, engaging, and eloquent account of both the diversity of African LGBTI experience, and of the polyvalent strategies of African queer survival, resistance, and liberation.

3. In Fear of a Black Nation: Race, Sex, and Security in Sixties Montreal, David Austin recovers the critical role played by Montreal as a nexus for Black Power and Caribbean left activism and takes the Canadian state to task for its attempt to undermine Black politics while marginalizing Black Canadian citizenship. Austin, among the foremost chroniclers of West Indian and pan-African political and intellectual histories, argues that Montreal in the late sixties was defined by a public hysteria generated by white fears of Black sexuality, which were used to justify a repressive state of security. Fear of a Black Nation builds on two previous works by Austin: A View for Freedom, an oral history of the St. Vincents-born, Montreal-based cricketer and organizer Alphonso Theodore “Alfie” Roberts, and You Don’t Play with Revolution, an edited collection of CLR James’ Montreal lectures and talks. Together, Austin’s “Montreal trilogy” is necessary reading for understanding the history of Black Montreal – and the history of the African diaspora writ large.

4. Historian Barbara Ranbsy’s Eslanda: The Large Unconventional Life of Mrs Paul Robeson, retrieves Elsanda Goode Robeson from the shadows of her often-over shadowed husband. Eslanda Robeson was tirelessly committed to women’s liberation, anti-racism, and anti-colonialism. She was also a journalist and an anthropologist who trained with Bronislaw Malinowski and wrote the neglected monograph African Journey in 1941. Rambsy recounts Robeson’s intellectual and political career – including her unflinching testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee – while reconstructing the complex contours of her longstanding and unconventional relationship with Mr. Robeson. It’s an engaging history of Black politics – and of Black love.

5. Difficult, disorienting, and disturbingly brilliant, Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Studies (Minor Compositions) is an elliptical manifesto for radical self-organization against and independent critique of the carceral geographies of neoliberalism and contemporary whitesupremacy. Reclaiming the Black Radical Tradition from Autonomist politics while rewiring Black Studies through critiques of contemporary governance, Moten and Harney attack liberalism’s normative ideas of education, study, debt, and economy in prose that is unsettling, dissonant, and utterly uncompromised.

6. Jared Ball takes more than just his title from I Write What I Like, Steven Biko’s collection of writings from 1969. In I Mix What I Like: A Mixtape Manifesto (AK Press), Ball also borrows Biko’s approach to the analytical connection between Black consciousness and Black decolonization and the importance of alternative forms of media in the struggle for Black freedom. For Biko, journalism provided this alternative venue; for Ball, it is the mixtape and in I Mix What I Like, Ball has written a compelling statement on the potential of the mixtape for the transmission and circulation of the radical aesthetics, ideas, and voices shut out of corporate-controlled colonial media. Drawing on theories of internal colonialism and critical studies of the culture industries – on Fanon and Cabral and Zizek and McLuhan – I Mix What I Like is a smart, rangy, and original book whose very form encodes the possibilities it exhorts.

7. If you’re looking for stories of African primitives, villages, tribes, or witchcraft then Jemima Pierre’s The Predicament of Blackness: Postcolonial Ghana and the Politics of Race (Chicago) isn’t for you. An ethnographic account of contemporary Ghana, The Predicament of Blackness is an innovative and urbane study that rejects the tired vocabularies of imperial anthropology while offering a searing riposte to both those Africanists (the majority of them) who refuse to consider question of race, racism, and whitesupremacy in Africa – and to those African Diaspora Studies scholars who are reluctant to take Africa seriously. If Fanon were trained as an ethnographer, he would write this book. Have the courage to read it.

8. We’ll admit that we knew little about Lucy Parsons until encountering her in the “Communist Women” chapter of Angela Davis’ Women, Race, and Class. Davis highlights Parsons’ lifetime of labor agitation and advocacy, her writing on behalf of the working class, her position as one of the first women to join the International Workers of the World, her militant defense of her husband, Albert Parsons, one of the martyrs of the 1886 Chicago Haymarket massacre, and her membership in the Communist Party (though she neglects the fact that Parsons was a longtime anarchist). Given this history, it comes as a minor shock that Parsons is not a better-known figure within the pantheons of Black radicalism, though perhaps given its phallocentric nature we shouldn’t be surprised. Either way, we should thank Charles H. Kerr for keeping Parsons’ history and memory in circulation through their publication of Lucy Parsons: Freedom Equality & Solidarity: Writings & Speeches, 1878-1937, edited by Gale Ahrens, and the fictionalized history Dynamite and Roses: Lucy and Albert Parsons and the Haymarket Bombing by Robert Benedetti. At the same time Haymarket Books has republished Carolyn Ashbaugh’s 1976 biography Lucy Parsons: An American Revolutionary, from which Angela Davis’ drew heavily.

9. Part academic treatise, part personal memoir, Carol Boyce Davies’ genre-breaking and boundary-bending Caribbean Spaces: Escapes from the Twilight Zone is theoretically grounded in the foundational geography and geomorphology of the Antilles. Yet if the archipelagic impulse towards flux, fragmentation, and fluidity has oftentimes led to a silly, apolitical academicism, Davis knows exactly where she comes from – and exactly where she’s at. Recounting a lifetime of migrations from Trinidad to Ibadan and Brooklyn to Brazil, Caribbean Spaces heralds a commitment to Black freedom – both at home and abroad – with insurgent style and righteous grace.

10. Dr. Jean Price-Mars’s two volume master work the La Republique d’Haiti et la Republic dominicaine, is arguably the best source for understanding the historical origins of anti-Haitian racism in the Dominican Republic and the ideological origins of the recent denationalization ruling of the Dominican constitutional court. Unfortunately, it isn’t available in English and both the Spanish and French translations are out of print. You can, however download both volumes of the French here. Or you can look at three other texts that illuminate the fraught legacies of Haitian-Dominican relations. Historian Pedro L. San Miguel’s The Imagined Island: History, Identity, and Utopia in Hispaniola (University of North Carolina) has an excellent chapter outlining Price-Mars’ arguments – and recounting the responses to it. Silvio Torres Saillaint’s Introduction to Dominican Blackness [pdf], published by CUNY’s Dominican Studies Institute, provides what is perhaps the best account of the problem of whiteness and the fact of Blackness within Dominican society and history. Finally, last summer, Petionville, Haiti publishers C3 Editions issued Identité dominicaine et racisme anti-haïtien, an unpublished monograph by the late Dominican historian Franklin Franco Pichardo. All three monographs provide a necessary intellectual ballast in support of Dominicans of Haitian descent facing the uncertain waters of the coming year.

The Public Archive’s prior readings lists: Radical Black Reading: 2011. 2012. 2013. Reading Haiti: 2011. 2012. Radical Black Cities: 2012.

Image: Librairie africaine à Yaoundé, Cameroun (1950/1970): Source: La bibliothèque du Défap-Service protestant de mission

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A Negro of Santo Domingo.
Eres Haitiano
eres haitiano por ser negro
eres negro
eso te hace haitiano
no por nacimiento
Por ser negro
Eres negro
Eres haitianoo por ser negro
Negro es lo malo
Malo es lo haitiano
Negro es feo
Feo es haitiano
Eres haitiano
Por ser negro eres haitiano.
You are Haitian
you are Haitian by being Black
you are Black
that makes you Haitian
not by birth
By being black
You are Black
Black is bad
Bad is Haitian
Black is ugly
Ugly is Haitian
You are Haitian
By being Black you are Haitian

Blas R. Jimenez, “Haitiano,” (1980). h/t: tifanmkreyol

Blas  R. Jiménez (1939 – 13 November 2009) Broadcaster, educator, essayist, and Dominican poet of Negritude and Black consciousness.

Further Reading

“Negritud andina,” Hoy (2003)
“Diálogo, memoria y emancipacion,” Hoy (2004)

“En la esclavitud,” Hoy (March 2004)


Exigencias de un cimarrón (en sueños) (Santo Domingo, República Dominicana: Taller, 1987).

El nativo: (versos en cuentos para espantar zombies) (Santo Domingo, R.D.: Editora Búho, 1996).

Aquí …: otro Español. (Santo Domingo, R.D.: Editora Manati, 2000).

Caribe africano en despertar (Santo Domingo: Centro de Información Afroamericano, 2006).

Afrodominicano por elección, negro por nacimiento: seudoensayos (Santa Domingo, República Dominicana: Editora Manatí, 2008).

Image: Sir Harry H. Johnston, “A Negro of Santo Domingo,” The Negro in the New World (1910). Source: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture / General Research and Reference Division / NYPL Digital Collection

Posted in Haiti | Tagged , , , | 7 Responses

“You lied to defame Dominican, Republic! Stop or you’ll taste our medicine!”: A letter to the Editor

The Public Archive is always happy to receive letters to the editor like the one below which, we think, provides a stark example of how history has been twisted to the cause of anti-Haitianism while providing an unadorned, even brutal, representation of the ideological context of the recent ruling of the Dominican Republic’s Constitutional Tribunal regarding its citizens of Haitian descent. Please send death threats and love letters to editor@thepublicarchive.com or post your comments below.

You said:

“This antihaitianismo sees the presence of people of Haitian descent – and of people of African descent more generally – as a threat to Dominican identity.”

Since 1522, Santo Domingo (today DR) has had mulatto and negro! The 1799 census said: 11 thousands slaves, 16 thousands Spaniards decedents, and 83 thousands mulatto!!!!

DR (Santo Domingo) has had a strong African descendants population since it’s inception in 1508!!! DR has had a black President (Ulysses Hereaux from 1882 to 1899). Blacks had been, and currently are, in charge of the armed forces, own several small businesses, and they practically  exercise all the sports, music, entertainment, news, and communications in DR!!!!!!

There is NO AGAINST BLACK sentiment in DR.  DR is multiple times more diverse and tolerant than the US and their cousins in Europe combine!

With regards to the Haitian.  Historically,  Haiti militarily invaded DR (Santo Domingo) in 1801, 1805, 1844, 1845, 1849, and 1855 with the purpose of asphyxiating and extinguishing Santo Domingo and DR.  During the 22 years of Haitian occupation, Boyer allowed the immigration of more than 18,000 African ex-slaves to Santo Domingo in 1822 (James Monroe was determined to kick the slave out of the US) with total disregard of the opinions of the local inhabitants.

Then, after DR defeated the Haitian in 1859,  Haiti decided to switch tactics to annex DR by peaceful means that included high birthing rate, open border, and illegally sending thousands of them to DR.

This plan was catalyzed by the  US when the US invaded both Haiti (1914) and DR (1915).  The US relocated thousands of Haitian youth to the sugar fields in DR so a to minimize rebellions in Haiti and to enable the DR pay the its debt to its creditors (Europe/US).

While the US ran DR, the Haitian illegally occupied all the Dominican border provinces with the intention of “Haitianized” them!  Thanks to Trujillo, Dajabon was rescued from the Haitian occupation in 1937.

The 1919 Dominican Constitution clearly stated that the children born to people in transit should register with the consulate/embassy of the countries where their parents are from!  The Haitian Constitution clearly states (since 1809) that children of any Haitian parent is Haitian regardless where they are born!!

So both constitutionally and historically, the Haitian are illegally in DR.  Now, there are 10.7 million people in Haiti (Haiti occupies 1/3 of the island) and 10 million people in DR (including the 1.3 millions Haitian in DR).  The whole island has 21 million people which is far more than the 12 million people in Cuba (Cuba is twice the size of DR).  Haiti has failed as a society and as a State but they continue to birth 193 thousand people every year and no one not even the UN has told them to curb their birthing since the island is finite, the resources are finite, and there is no room for their garbage!  But instead YOU PUSH FOR DR TO FAIL JUST AS EQUALLY AS HAITI! DR is poor and it does not attend to its poor.  Now you want DR to adopt the responsibilities of Haiti!  Even Turk & Caicos (4 thousand Haitian), Bahamas (17 thousands Haitian), Jamaica (11 thousands Haitian), and Cuba (34 thousands Haitian) do not admit them!!!!  They are blessed that a Sea barricades them from Haiti!

Do not misrepresent or pretend to come across as an expert to a problem that France dumped on Hispaniola back in 1697 and that has magnified since the US closed its doors to the Haitian in 1984 and Duvalier was toppled in 1986.


Image take from espacinsular.org

Posted in Haiti | 9 Responses

Haiti, Antihaitianismo, and the Dominican Republic


On September 23, 2013, the Constitutional Court of the Dominican Republic ruled that the children of “irregular” migrants born in the Dominican Republic after June 21st, 1929 would be stripped of their Dominican citizenship. The ruling – which could render 250,000 Dominicans of Haitian descent stateless – came as a result of a challenge by Juliana Deguis Pierre against the Dominican Electoral Board. The Electoral Board refused to issue Pierre an identification card. They argued that although she was born in the “national territory,” because she was the daughter of migrants in transit she did not have the right to Dominican citizenship. They based their ruling on article 11.1 of the Dominican Constitution of November 29, 1966 which held sway when Pierre was born.

While Ms. Pierre was the subject of the Constitutional Court’s ruling, it also targets all Dominicans of Haitian descent. The decision also formalizes a process of exclusion, racism, and harassment that had already construed Dominicans of Haitian descent as second-class citizens in their own country while marginalizing Haitian immigrants. Indeed, even before the ruling, Haitian immigrants had been subject to demeaning raids and dragnets by the Dominican security forces while in the past thirteen months, since August 16, 2012, almost 47,700 undocumented Haitians were expelled from the country – more than twice the figure of 20,541 expelled during the previous year.

The actions of the Dominican Constitutional Court also have their origins in the current of antihaitianismo – of anti-Haitianism – dating from the nineteenth century. This antihaitianismo sees the presence of people of Haitian descent – and of people of African descent more generally – as a threat to Dominican identity. It relies on both an identification with Spanish roots and the valorization of an aboriginal or indio past through the national cult of Quisqueya. It contrasts the Dominican Republic’s whiteness with Haiti’s Blackness; as one scholar memorably put it, “in the Dominican Republic the cause is the consequence: you are Black because you are Haitian, you are Haitian because you are Black.”

Yet while Blackness is rejected from Dominican identity, it is necessary for the Dominican economy. The four generations of Dominicans of Haitian descent that would be denationalized by the ruling are the children of Haitian cane-cutters who toiled in Dominican sugar plantations under conditions reminiscent of slavery. Thee importance of the Haitian market to Dominican commerce should also be noted.  The trade imbalance between the two countries is stark. In 2012, the Dominican Republic exported more than $1.7 billion worth of goods through formal and informal channels. Haiti sent back just $50 million in goods.

The most notorious result of anti-Haitianism came in the form of the so-called Parsley Massacre in 1937, overseen by Dominican President Rafael Trujillo with the complicity of Haitian president Elie Lescot. Between 2 October 1937 and 8 October 1937, between 14,000 and 40,000 Haitians were slaughtered by Dominican troops. The current ruling by the Dominican Constitutional Courts triggers the potential denationalization and displacement of tens of thousands of Dominicans while providing the ideological grounds for the recurrence of such dehumanizing violence against Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent. The massacre could happen again.

In response to the ruling, there have been protests by enlightened Dominicans in Washington Heights and San Juan, Puerto Rico while Haitian and Dominican civil society organizations have issued statements condemning the decision. One can only hope these protests spread. The late Dominican-Haitian activist Sonia Pierre once stated, “My community, the community of Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent, is the poorest and most vulnerable, subject to the cruelest denial of their rights.” Until the law is repealed, until Dominicans of Haitian descent have a secure and meaningful path to citizenship, and until their human rights are recognized and protected, they will remain the most vulnerable, victimized and preyed upon by a racist Dominican state.

What follows is a brief dossier of articles on Haitian-Dominican relations and the history of antihaitianismo:

Edwidge Danticat interviewed by David Barsamian, The Progressive (October 2003)

Alicia Anabel Santos,Today I’m Embarrassed to Be Dominican,” Latina (October 4, 2013)

Jemima Pierre, “The Dominican Republic Hates Black People,” Black Agenda Report (December 14, 2011)

Rachelle Charlier Doucet, Haïti-Rép. Dominicaine : La sentence de la Cour constitutionnelle dominicaine, un devoir de solidarité,” AlterPress (October 5, 2013)

Jean Ledan fils, “L’après-1929 avec “AMIGO”, Le Nouvelliste (October 3, 2013)

Amín Pérez, “La (des)illusion de la dominicanidad,” Hoy (October 5, 2013)

Ernesto Sagás, A Case of Mistaken Identity: Antihaitianismo in Dominican Culture, [Sagás’ full dissertation is here]

LaToya Tavernier, “The Stigma of Blackness: Anti-Haitianism in the Dominican Republic,” Socialism and Democracy (May 7, 2011)

Bernardo Vega, “El antihaitianismo como instrument,” El Caribe (September 19, 2005)

Frank Moya Pons, “Antihaitianismo histórico y antihaitianismo de Estado,” Diario Libre (December 5, 2009)

Humberto García Muñiz and Jorge L. Giovannetti, Garveysmo y racismo en el Caribe: El caso de la población cocola en la República Dominicana,” Caribbean Studies (2003) [click here for PDF via Cielonaranja]

Tribunal Constitucional Republica Dominicana. Sentencia TC/0168/13. Referencia: Expediente núm. TC-05-2012-0077, relativo al recurso de revisión constitucional en materia de amparo incoado por la señora Juliana Dequis (o Deguis) Pierre, contra la Sentencia núm. 473/2012 dictada por la Cámara Civil, Comercial y de Trabajo del Juzgado de Primera Instancia del Distrito Judicial de Monte Plata, en fecha diez (10) de julio de dos mil doce (2012).

Image: Antonio Ocaña, Fantasmas del cañaveral, (2004)

Posted in Haiti | 19 Responses

Dread and Dispossession: An interview with Colin Dayan


Colin Dayan, the Robert Penn Warren Professor in the Humanities at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, has written on the literature and literary histories of the United States, Haiti, and Jamaica; on law, ritual, and anthropology; on prisons, torture, and the nature of the person. Her first book was an introduction to and translation of René Depestre’s long poem Un arc-en-ciel pour l’occident chretiena Rainbow for the Christian West (1977). She followed it with an innovative and counter-intuitive examination of Edgar Allen Poe, Fables of Mind: An inquiry into Poe’s Fiction (1987) and what is perhaps her best known work, Haiti, History, and the Gods (1998), a path-breaking study of Haiti’s ritual memories, literary histories, and subterranean archives. Recently, Dayan has published The Story of Cruel and Unusual (2007), an account of the Eighth Amendment and the rationalizations for “acceptable” torture, and The Law is a White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons (2011), on legal discourse and the life and death of the person. A frequent contributor to the Boston Review and other journals, Dayan was recently elected to the American Academy of Arts and Science. Dayan tweets at @mehdidog.


What first led you to René Depestre’s A Rainbow for the Christian West? And can you say something about the task of translating it into English?

I spent the second semester of my junior year at Wesleyan University.  It was a time when ‘girls’ at the so-called ‘seven sisters’ – I was at Smith – had a chance to go to colleges that up until then had been ‘for men only.’  It was a kind of trial before the idea of co-education became a reality.  At Wesleyan, besides discovering a way to make my politics real, I discovered ‘negritude’ poetry in an extraordinary seminar with Professor Norman Shapiro.  It was there that I first read Depestre’s Journal d’un animal marin (Journal of a sea animal).  Shapiro loaned me Un arc-en-ciel pour l’occident chrétien (A Rainbow for the Christian West).  I had never read anything like it.  It changed my life.

As an honors student in English, I was preparing to write a thesis on Eliot and Pound.  I returned to Smith my senior year with a new project: to translate Depestre’s “vodou mystery poem” and to write an introduction placing his poetry in the larger context of Haitian politics, religious practice and history.  It was a tall order and at first the French department wasn’t quite ready to take it on, nor was English.  Shapiro came to the rescue.  He put me in touch with Professor Thomas Cassirer at the University of Massachusetts.  I brought my proposal to him, he invited me to take his graduate course on Francophone poetry and poetics, and he agreed to advise the senior thesis.  The administration at Smith then made me what they called a ‘Smith Scholar,’ gave me the year off to write and work with Cassirer as director, and Professors George Fayen in English and Jean Lambert in French. It was Lambert who wrote in the final report on my translation and introduction that I gave too much emphasis to the political and then added words I have never forgotten:  “I believe that poetry can justify revolutions but revolutions cannot justify poetry.” It was an exciting time, of course: Jean Genet on the New Haven Green speaking in defense of Bobby Seale and the Chicago Seven, Vietnam, and SDS. Depestre was still in Cuba, so Roberto Márquez, the editor of Caliban: A Journal of New World Thought and Writing, at Hampshire College took letters back and forth between Depestre and me.  I did not meet him until he moved to Paris in 1978. I went to his office at UNESCO with my book A Rainbow for the Christian West in hand.

You ask about the translation of his poetry.  I traveled to Haiti for the first time as I worked on the book, met Aubelin Jolicoeur in the lobby of the Oloffson, discovered vodou and nothing was ever the same again.  My experience of translating the “Epiphanies of the Vodou Gods” was especially thrilling.  I grew up in the South during the worst excesses of white terror in the sixties—and Depestre’s epic poem really spoke to me: It told the story of the lwa—through their voices as “epiphanies” coming down—or up—to visit a judge’s parlor in Alabama. It was then that I discovered the force of the gods and the life of the spirit, and then that I knew that vodou was not just a discipline of faith, but an epistemology that joined thought to political action. It was nothing less than a practice of enlightenment through flesh and spirit.  In my introduction, I attempted to reconsider Haitian poetics in light of the political and religious history that infused it, especially after the Haitian Revolution, the first successful revolution of slaves in the New World—what Aimé Césaire called “the first epic of the New World.”

I understand that Haiti, History, and the Gods actually began, in some respects, in Jamaica. What is the story behind the origins of the book? And can you describe some of the processes and queries that led to your innovative approach to research, to archives – and to your shaping of its narrative structure? What sorts of archives did you use?

Ah, Jamaica: I arrived in ‘Papa Eddie’ Seaga’s Kingston on an NEH in 1986.  I had planned to spend the year writing a book called “History and Poetic Language in the Caribbean,” concentrating on the long poem and its revitalization by Carl Brouard, Aimé Césaire, René Depestre, Édouard Glissant, Kamau Brathwaite and Derek Walcott through the popular history and religious rituals that infused their poetic practice.  My first stop was Kingston where I lived on Carnation Way, right down from the University of the West Indies, Mona, thanks to the help of Val Carnegie and Sidney Mintz.  I went there to meet Kamau Brathwaite whose poetry had thrilled me when I taught the first course on the Caribbean at Yale the year before.  I never left Kingston.  Not until Baby Doc Duvalier got that phone call from Seaga telling him to ‘step down,’ as a friend put it. Baby Doc was escorted out on a US Air Force C-141 Cargo plane to a five-star hotel in the French Alps. Then I returned to Port-au-Prince to cover the heady days of dechoukaj, though even then I had grave doubts about the provisional government, the Duvalier loyalists who remained, the ongoing attacks on vodou, and the initial assaults on the peasants by the combined forces of US AID and the Haitian military.  But that’s another story.

Those months led to the writing of what would become Haiti, History, and the Gods. It was then that I became very interested in stories about Dessalines that I heard during the exciting days after Baby Doc’s departure.  Two months after the Duvaliers fled, the statue of Christopher Columbus, a kneeling bronze statue long prominent on Harry S. Truman Boulevard in Port-au-Prince, was thrown into the sea.  “A bas colon!” people shouted and there was talk of replacing it with Charlemagne Péralte or Jean-Jacques Dessalines.  Dessalines was my muse, the impetus for my work: the fondateur so reviled by the West that no historian wrote about him except to denigrate him.  I began work excavating what was written about Dessalines in the library of the Institut Saint-Louis de Gonzague in Port-au-Prince, with the amazing help of Frere Ernest.  But my real work was on and through vodou, as always. It was there in the field that Ogou Desalin came to life for me and with him, a new way of apprehending Haitian history.  In order to write the book as I envisioned it I had to destroy chronology.  I wanted readers to come to the understanding of what we assume to be ‘historical’ in a new way. I felt that only then could the enormous achievement of Haitians in preserving their history be told. I wanted somehow to introduce history-making as something akin to and inseparable from ritual, its repetitions over time, its attention to details that wreck any totalizing view or smug assurance. Of course, I also wanted to question generic divisions such as fact and fiction; so I introduced Marie Chauvet’s little known masterpiece Fonds des nègres as a way of doing what I called “literary fieldwork.”

Haiti, History, and the Gods almost single-handedly brought the scholarship on vodou out of an anthropological ghetto and into a wider literary and historical context. Do you have any thoughts on the literature and approaches to vodou – and to Haiti more generally – that have appeared in its wake? Are there any recent monographs on Haiti that stand out?

After Haiti, History, and the Gods, many books appeared that have continued the kind of history so necessary in these days of continued dispossession and dread.  Most exciting to me are, to name just a few that are always on my desk: Stephan Palmié’s Wizards and Scientists: Explorations in Afro-Cuban Modernity and Tradition; Doris Garraway, The Libertine Colony; Sibylle Fischer, Modernity Disavowed: Haiti and the Cultures of Slavery in the Age of Revolution; Matthew J. Smith, Red & Black in Haiti: Radicalism, Conflict, and Political Change 1934-1957; and, most recently, Kate Ramsey, The Spirits and the Law and Malick W. Ghachem’s The Old Regime and the Haitian Revolution. You ask about approaches to vodou and Haitian history. Sometimes it seems that academic discourse – to paraphrase the anthropologist Pierre Clastres—conceptually ‘defangs thought.’ And nowhere is that defanging which is also a de-politicization so present as in the discipline of history.  For me, there is no such thing as an a-political natural history. The institutions of slavery and vodou (the ritual practice born of its terrors) shaped the way in which the earth—its landscape, its flora and fauna, its animals—was imagined historically, on the ground, by those whose voices get lost sometimes in the production of history.

In the introduction to Haiti, History, and the Gods, you write: “Let me admit at the outset that I am obsessed by Haiti, for reasons that have much to do with my own vexed and haunted childhood, the uncertainty of my family origins, and my confrontation with an always blocked, silenced, or unspeakable history.” Your mother, who left Haiti in 1936, appears as a powerful, but furtive, presence in your writing: she is “hanging over the railing of a Hilton somewhere in Caribbean,” or standing on a terrace near Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn. What was Haiti and the Caribbean for her and how has she shaped your own engagements with Haiti?

I cannot easily answer the question about my mother and Haiti: what it meant to her. But I’m trying to approach an answer in a memoir called Between the Devil and the Deep Sea. It is about her, but also about Haiti in the 1930s. If she shaped my approach at all it was through her reticence, her silences, the mystery of a past that somehow could not be told.

The Law is a White Dog evokes the “sorcery of the law” and the law’s “investing the juridical order with the power to redefine persons.” I’m wondering if there is a way of applying this analysis to the international legal orders enabling the continuing presence of the United Nations and MINUSTAH in Haiti. In particular, I’m thinking about the UN’s response to claims for compensation from the victims of cholera and the UN’s assertion that the claims were “non-receivable” under the UN charter. It seems to me that this suggests both a re-definition of Haitian citizenship – and of Haitian sovereignty.

In The Law is a White Dog I intend the “sorcery of law” to be quite literal.  Again, as with Haiti, History, and the Gods, vodou somewhat ‘possessed’ the original project: the book called Held in the Body of the State became more than an account of prisons, punishment, and the law. It was transformed when I began to write an essay called “The Rules of the Haitian lwa” – which became a chapter in Colonial Saints, edited by Alan Greer—where I elaborated on vodou as a new way of knowing, the law incarnated in the lwa.  In Creole the term for law is lwa or lalwa, pronounced like loi or law in French.  I began to wonder how we might take the loi d’etat out of its usual contexts and understand it more fully through what some condemn as ‘supernatural’ or ‘irrational.’  In turning to spiritual concerns, the beliefs of those most oppressed and most resistant, I hoped to give flesh and blood to the law. I wanted to demonstrate that personal identity as elaborated in vodou, along with its materialist bent, could teach us something about legal practice.  I wanted to tell a story of bondage and subjection more deeply corporealized, but also more irrational than the abstract precepts of law so revered by the State and its legal practitioners.  The stuff of spiritual life becomes the raw material of legal authority. Possession, zombification and magicality are part and parcel of the law.

You’ve recently written on the strike begun by inmates in California’s Pelican Bay State Prison in July 2011. They were joined by close to 30,000 other inmates at other state facilities. Why is the strike important for those of us in the “free world,” outside of the prison’s wall? And what is the significance of their call to end “solitary confinement”?

You ask about the importance of the latest hunger strike (the third in three years) at Pelican Bay and throughout the California prison system to us in the circle of privilege, to us in the ‘free world.’  There is no ‘free world’ now.  All we have to do is read the papers, where we read about unarmed black men shot dead by police all over the United States, where we read about the dogs of the rural and urban poor shot dead by police.  It is difficult not to sound the alarm. In a country wracked by economic collapse, racial hatred, and political paralysis, it is not easy to know how to speak about the exclusion of large, easily definable groups. Our much-touted freedom has always depended on enclosing and excluding persons assumed placed outside that dispensation.   The militarization of the police bodes ill for all of us, no matter our gates, no matter our so-called ‘security’ from ‘terror.’ All we have to do is read again The Patriot Act or The Military Commissions Act to know that labels like ‘terrorist’ can be arbitrarily applied and will be.  We are on a slippery slope.  Fear is a vice that takes root.

Can you say something about the origins and contours of your current book projects?

I am completing two books right now: 1) The forthcoming Like a dog: animal law, human cruelty, and the ethics of care (Columbia University Press) takes on canine profiling, police power, and current rituals of extermination for the powerless, the poor, and the racially suspect. In emphasizing juridical subjection, I mean to yoke our consciousness to what Reinhold Niebuhr called “the easy conscience of modern man.” Reasonable and civil consensus, these words engage me—haunted as I am by the prospect of divisions (in terms of genre, not just of subject) that allow the continued dispossession of those creatures – human and non-human – outside the circle of grace, those delivered to subjection without recourse; 2) Melville’s Creatures on his late fiction. I offer a new reading of his work as an alternative history and ethnography of the Americas: strained in places as it is, his prose holds the key to his purpose, which is nothing less than to redefine the meaning of the ‘literary.’ And I am continuing to write the memoir about my mother and me, Haiti and Atlanta, called Between the Devil and the Deep Sea.

Image: Georges Liautaud (1889-1990), Dessalines.

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Five essays on the UN’s cholera

On July 5th the United Nations refused, again, to countenance the claims of 5,000 cholera-affected Haitians against it. The Haitians contend that grossly inadequate sanitation at a UN peacekeeping base introduced and spread the disease through the country’s waterways. The great weight of scientific evidence is on their side. The claimants seek millions of dollars in damages, installation of a sanitation network, and an apology.

Pooja Batia, “The UN Strain,” The Economist (July 15th, 2013)

After years of investigation and controversial suspicions, a new Yale study is holding the United Nations accountable for what was the first cholera outbreak in Haiti in over 100 year, and what has become the largest in the epidemic world.

Rebecca Lee Sanchez, “United Nations deemed responsible for Haiti cholera outbreak,” Global Post (August 12, 2013)

It is now all but certain that Haiti’s cholera epidemic, which has killed more than 8,000 people and sickened more than 600,000, is directly traceable to a battalion of U.N. peacekeeperswho arrived in the country after the 2010 earthquake. The United Nations and its peacekeepers have done immeasurable good in Haiti and elsewhere, but in this instance they bear responsibility for unleashing one of the world’s most devastating recent epidemics.

Editorial Board, “The United Nations’ duty in Haiti’s cholera outbreak,The Washington Post (August 11, 2013)

Despite much evidence to the contrary, for nearly three years, the United Nations has categorically denied that it introduced cholera into Haiti after the country suffered a devastating earthquake in 2010. Since then, cholera has killed more than 8,000 people and infected more than 600,000, creating an ongoing epidemic. As new cases continue to emerge, and the UN’s legitimacy continues to erode, it is time for the organization to apologize and take responsibility for the consequences of its actions and its inaction.

Celso Perez and Muneer I. Ahmad, “Why the UN Should Take Responsibility for Haiti’s Cholera Outbreak,” The Atlantic (August 16, 2013)

To date, and despite the mounting evidence and calls for restitution, the UN has not taken responsibility for its deadly actions in Haiti – actions that have led to the death of three times more people than the attacks on the US on September 11, 2011. And now it is using the cholera outbreak that it brought to Haiti as one of the main reasons for its continued presence in Haiti.

Jemima Pierre, “Blame the Illegal Military Occupation for the Cholera Outbreak in Haiti,” Black Agenda Report (August 20, 2013)

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Radical Black Reading: Summer 2013


The New York Times’ dismissive, error-strewn obituary of Una G. Mulzac, the late proprietor of Harlem’s now-closed Liberation Books, cast her as a cantankerous crank-pot holding anachronistic political beliefs. Yet for many people, folk like Mulzac were historians, vernacular archivists, and living repositories of pan-African memory. Places like Liberation Books – alongside San Francisco’s endangered Marcus Books, Toronto’s long-shuttered Third World Books & Crafts, and a host of other stores – doubled as public libraries, informal classrooms, and sites of pilgrimage. The daughter of Hugh Mulzac, author of A Star to Steer By and a shipmate on Marcus Garvey’s Black Star Line, Mulzac was an activist in her own right and through Liberation Books, she staked a claim for bookselling as a political act. Unfortunately, it’s a claim that is losing ground as fast as independent Black bookstores have been closing. While the era of Amazon and AbeBooks has provided us with greater access to Black literature than at any time in history, one-click purchases and algorithmically-determined recommendations can never replace the intimate and independent Black public spheres created by booksellers like Mulzac and bookstores like Liberation Books. No wonder the Times’ contempt.

Given the history of Mulzac and Liberation Books, it’s appropriate that Kenyan playwright, novelist, and critic Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o peers out from behind her in the above photograph. Ngũgĩ’s classic Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (James Currey) demonstrates an acute understanding of the political economy of knowledge in the colonial context while arguing that alternative languages, genres, and venues were necessary for the project of post-colonial freedom. At one point abandoning the English language to write only in Gikuyu, Ngũgĩ has returned from his self-imposed linguistic exile with a productive flourish. In 2007 he published the masterful absurdist political satire The Wizard of the Crow. He has followed it with three volumes of criticism and two installments of a memoir. The criticism revisits the terrain of Decolonizing the Mind while confirming the continued importance of its interventions in the contemporary historical context. With its title borrowed from poet Kamau Brathwaite’s Islands, Ngũgĩ’s Something Torn and New: An African Renaissance (Basic Civitas), is a wide-ranging but compact exploration of African independence, freedom, and what George Lamming has called the “sovereignty of the imagination.” Globalectics: Theory and the Politics of Knowing (Columbia) approaches questions of national identity, internationalism, and literary and cultural production within the landscape of neocolonialism and neoliberal globalization. In the Name of the Mother: Reflections on Writers and Empire (James Currey) consists of critical essays on a range of writers, from Ousmane Sembene to Tsitsi Dangarembga. In his memoirs, Dreams in a Time of War: A Childhood Memoir (Random House) and In the House of the Interpreter: A Memoir (Random House), Ngũgĩ provides readers with a personal account of the experiences and transformations that led to the critical turns of his intellectual and political development.

The publication of Ngũgĩ’s memoirs has been complemented by the recent release (and in one case, re-release) of a number of biographies of major figures of anti-colonial struggle within the African diaspora. In the exceptional Eslanda: The Large Unconventional Life of Mrs Paul Robeson (Yale), historian Barbara Ranbsy has brought Elsanda Goode Robeson out from the shadows of her often-over shadowed husband. Eslanda Robeson was tirelessly committed to women’s liberation, anti-racism, and anti-colonialism. She was also a journalist and an anthropologist who trained with Bronislaw Malinowski and wrote the neglected monograph African Journey in 1941. Rambsy recounts Robeson’s intellectual and political career – including her unflinching testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee – while reconstructing the complex contours of her longstanding and unconventional relationship with Mr. Robeson. It’s an engaging history of Black politics – and of Black love. The late David Macey’s comprehensive, unsurpassed, and unsentimental Frantz Fanon: A Biography, first published in 2000, has been updated and re-issued by Verso. Macey, who remembers buying his first copies of Fanon at Francois Maspero’s La Joie de lire bookstore in Paris (which he describes as “as much a library as a bookshop”) recovers Fanon from those who dismiss him as an angry apostle of anti-colonial violence – or embrace him simply as a silly postcolonial theorist. He also claims the contemporary relevance of Fanon in Algeria, France, and the départements of Gaudeloupe and Martininque. In S is for Samora: A Lexical Biography of Samora Machel and the Mozambican Dream (Columbia/Hurst), Sarah LeFanu breaks with biographical tradition and orders the narrative of Mozambique’s independence struggle and the history of its assassinated leader around a series of charged keywords. The results make for smart, compelling reading. Claremount Chung has edited the transcriptions of his interviews with Walter Rodney’s friends, colleagues, and acquaintances for the documentary W.A.R. Stories: Walter Anthony Rodney, and collected them as Walter Rodney: A Promise of Revolution (Monthly Review). Inspired and moving, Chung’s compilation contains evocations of Rodney’s life and testimonials of his legacy from the likes of Robert Hill, Amiri Baraka, Leith Mullings, Issa G. Shivji, Clive Y. Thomas, and Rupert Roopnaraine.

Poet, editor, essayist and publisher Miguel D. Mena has been a force in independent publishing in the Dominican Republic since the mid-1980s. He is currently editor of Cielo Naranja, a fantastic website that serves as a portal to a rich archive of editorials, essays, and commentary on Dominican intellectual history, the place of the Dominican Republic in the context of the wider Caribbean, and of Dominican architectural and urban studies. Mena has also launched the imprint Ediciones Cielonaranja as an outlet for inexpensive though smartly-packaged re-issues of out-of-print classics of Dominican history, criticism and poetry. Thus far, Ediciones Cielonaranja has published a series of titles by Rene del Risco Bermudez, Juan Sanchez Lamouth, and Fabio Fiallo, and others under the banner Biblioteca de literature Dominicana; a number of historical compilations through its Coleccion archivos, and, via La Biblioteca Pedro Henríquez Ureña, the collected work of the early twentieth century Dominican humanist, philologist, critic and editor. The output of Mena (he has just published a remarkable three volume study of the poetry and poetics of Dominican urbanism) and Ediciones Cielonaranja has been nothing short of astonishing.

Also coming from the Spanish-speaking Caribbean are a trio of monographs that are both path-breaking and genre-busting. Alexandra T. Vazquez’s Listening in Detail: Performances of Cuban Music is a shot across the bow of the fetishistic collecting of Cuban cultural production by imperial ethnographers as well as an exploration of performance, circulation, and interpretation that is both muscular in analysis and nattily elegant in style. Bárbaro Martínez-Ruiz’s Kongo Graphic Writing and Other Narratives of the Sign is a learned, lucid and pioneering exploration of indigenous Central African writing systems and their emergence in the greater Caribbean. Exhaustively researched and full of trenchant interpretation, Jossiano Arroyo’s Writing Secrecy in Caribbean Freemasonry (Palgrave MacMillan) recovers the presence of Masonic signs, systems, and rituals in the dissident, anti-colonial writing of nineteenth-century Caribbean intellectuals Andrés Cassard, Ramón E. Betances, José Martí, Arturo Schomburg, and Rafael Serra.

Finally, Kingston, Jamaica’s Ian Randle Publishers has just released three readers dedicated to Caribbean thought. The first two, Caribbean Political Thought: The Colonial State to Caribbean Internationalisms and Caribbean Political Thought: Theories of the Post-Colonial State were edited by political philosopher Aaron Kamugisha of the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill. The Colonial State to Caribbean Internationalisms offers a simply astounding compilation of five-hundred-years worth of manifestos, constitutional excerpts, and speeches – from Jean-Jacques Dessalines famous “Liberty or Death” proclamation to the interventions of Sylvia Wynter, with contributions from Aime and Suzanne Cesaire, Antenor Firmin, George Padmore, Marcus Garvey, Frantz Fanon and others along the way. It includes the 1912 program of Cuba’s Partido Independiente de Color and Dantes Bellegarde’s 1930 appeal to the League of Nations on the threat of the United States to world peace. Theories of the Post-Colonial State comes as a continuation of the first volume and focuses on the post-World War II examination of Caribbean political life after independence and decolonization. Kamugisha assembles a jaw-dropping collection of theorists and intellectuals including Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Norman Girvan, Eudine Barriteau, Patricia Mohammed, Stuart Hall, and Edouard Glissant, to name but a representative few. The third volume, Caribbean Cultural Thought, was co-edited with Yanique Hume, a critic and dance who also teaches at UWI Cave Hill, and contains the formative interventions on Caribbean aesthetics, sexuality and gender, cultural identity, nationalism, and social change, and religion and spirituality. Dedicated to the peoples of Haiti, Jamaica, and Trinidad – and to the region’s thinkers and theorists – together, these readers are indispensible guides to the intellectual history of the region. On their publication, Kamugisha gave thanks “to the ancestors for Caribbean thought in pursuit of freedom.” We’re sure it’s a sentiment Una Mulzac would have approved.

Enjoy the summer.

The Public Archive <editor@thepublicarchive.com>

Image: Una G. Mulzac (April 19, 1923 – January 21, 2012) in Liberation Books, Harlem, USA. Source: Harlem World Magazine.

Radical Black Reading: 2011. 2012. Reading Haiti: 2011. 2012. Radical Black Cities: 2012.

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Insularity & Internationalism: An Interview with Kaiama L. Glover

Kaiama L. Glover is an associate professor of French at Barnard College and the author of Haiti Unbound: A Spiralist Challenge to the Postcolonial Canon. Published by Liverpool University Press in 2010, Haiti Unbound is the first full-length critical study of the Spiralists: an extraordinary Haitian and Caribbean literary movement whose principle players are writers Frankétienne, Jean-Claude Fignolé, and René Philoctète. Spiralism emerged during the dictatorship of Francois Duvalier but the literary output of Frankétienne, Fignolé, and Philoctète has remained undiminished in its wake. Glover offers serious consideration to the aesthetics and stylistics of Spiralism while considering the movement within the broader context of the canon formation of francophone Caribbean literature. In addition to her research on the Spiralists, Glover is a founder of the Transnational and Transcolonial Caribbean Studies Research Group, a regular contributor to the New York Times Book Review, and the editor of Order, Disorder, and Freedom: an Homage to Maryse Condé, a special double issue of the Romanic Review and a co-editor of New Narratives of Haiti, a special issue of Transition Magazine.

Who are The Spiralists and how did you come to writing about them?

In the mid-1960s, Haitian writers Frankétienne, Jean-Claude Fignolé, and René Philoctète, began crafting an aesthetic philosophy based on the spiral as literary metaphor and creative tool. Distinct from the many literary-cum-socio-political projects that dominated the early to mid-century Haitian cultural landscape – from the Africa-centered Indigenist movement of the late-1920s through 1940s to the social realist aesthetic that marks so many of the century’s most canonical texts – Spiralism adamantly privileges form over politics, refusing any kind of explicit ideological agenda.

For the three authors, the spiral functioned on several levels. As the geometric form structuring the most basic elements of existence – from the double helix of the human genetic sequence to the hurricanes that regularly devastate the Americas to the swirl of the Milky Way galaxy – the spiral provided a primal point of relation to a world beyond the claustrophobia and creative asphyxiation of François Duvalier’s totalitarian state. It also operated for the three writers with some measure of cultural specificity: its form evokes that of the conch shell, symbolic artifact of the Haitian Revolution, and decorates the full vertical length of the poto-mitan, the wooden post positioned at the center of every Haitian Vodou temple and around which all ceremonies revolve. On a formal, literary level, the spiral’s perfectly balanced maintenance of the centrifugal and centripetal offers a neat allegory of the tension between insular boundedness and global intention that marks their work.

I began writing about the Spiralists more than a decade ago, having first encountered Frankétienne in a Columbia University graduate course taught by Maryse Condé. We’d spent several early class sessions looking at the work of the great Martinican writer-intellectual Edouard Glissant, both his prose fiction and his theoretical writings. Later on in the semester, we briefly discussed an excerpt from Frankétienne’s Les Affres d’un défi. I remember being struck by what appeared to be clear parallels in the intellectual perspectives of the two authors and, therefore, very surprised by the fact that they had not ever been placed in sustained dialogue with one another. As I began trying to sort out the underlying determinants of Glissant and Frankétienne’s distinctly unequal critical fates, I became enthralled by Spiralism’s expansiveness and specificity as a literary, philosophical, and cultural offering.

What relationship do The Spiralists have to their better-known Indigenist forebears? How does their approach to Haitian folklore – and the “primitive” — compare?

I have always understood Spiralism as a sort of humanist prolongation of Haitian Indigenism. Like Indigenism, Spiralism emerged from a deeply felt desire to contest existing cultural and aesthetic epistemologies; and like Indigenism, Spiralism very much relies on the popular and the folk as fertile sources of poetic inspiration. Unlike Indigenist intellectuals and writers, however, the Spiralists relate more metaphorically than literally to traditional culture and do not privilege in any explicit way the specifically “black” or African dimensions of that culture. An arguably nativist spirit certainly infuses their work at both the level of form and content, but their aesthetic perspective cannot be articulated along ethno-racial lines. Having seen firsthand how Duvalier’s brutal philosophy of black empowerment, noirisme, had emerged from Indigenist calls for Afro-pride, the Spiralists were always hyper-vigilant to the potential dangers of any racially or culturally essentialist worldview.

In both their stylistic and thematic deployments of traditional elements of Haitian culture, then, all three authors highlight the universal value, dynamism, and de facto modernity of the folk. Privileging the spiral – as form, as idea – above politicized notions of blackness or Haitianness, Frankétienne, Fignolé, and Philoctète all very pointedly refuse anything that might smack of a fetishization of the folkloric or the so-called primitive in their writing. Yet they borrow heavily from Haiti’s rich storytelling tradition. Their narratives are, without exception, alinear and arrythmic, dialogic and polyphonic; their texts are rooted in the oral and, as such, are incredibly demanding – both in that they pose a real intellectual challenge to the reader and that they ask real questions of their presumed interlocutors.

One of the few works by The Spiralists translated into English is René Philoctète’s Massacre River, about the 1937 massacre of Haitians at the Haiti-Dominican border during the Trujillo-Vincent years. How does Philoctète’s account differ from Edwidge Danticat’s The Farming of Bones? What is the significance of Philoctète’s style in terms of remembering and memorializing the massacre?

I suppose I would argue that form follows function in both novels, and that it is in this relationship between stylistics and content that the differences between the two authors’ accounts of this moment in Hispaniola’s history emerge. Both Danticat and Philoctète tell big History via small stories, focusing on individuals who would not be considered heroes in any traditional sense. Both of their narratives individuate known statistics and very deliberately complexify binarist notions of good guys and villains.

Yet where Danticat relates the experiences and relationships of one sympathetic character, telling in a linear fashion the before-during-after of the massacre, Philoctète offers no such structural coherence. There is a woman and the man she loves at the ostensible center of his tale as well, but his narrative moves in and out of her experience to tell its story from multiple perspectives and in multiple voices. The narration is unreliable – verb tenses move from past to present and even to future anterior, there is no clear beginning, middle, or end to the story in a chronological sense – and, as a result, the massacre simply will not be fixed in the past. By maintaining this fundamental narrative instability, Philoctète mimetically produces the uncertainties of the event itself. Why did it happen? Why then? Who and how many were killers? Who and how many were killed? I would argue that his intention is perhaps not (only) to remember and memorialize the massacre, but to collapse the history that ostensibly separates the atrocities of 1937 from the socio-political realities of present-day Hispaniola.

While the Spiralists are little known outside of Haiti, they have a large and popular following within the country. Could you say something about why that is and how their work circulates within Haiti?

It is true that the Spiralist authors have been largely marginalized with respect to the geo-cultural space of the wider Americas. Their tangible physical internment in Duvalier’s Haiti meant very limited international circulation of their works until the latter years of the twentieth century. Given this, as far as the literary institution (publishers, translators, academics) is concerned, these authors have had to play quite a bit of “catch-up” vis-à-vis their contemporaries from other parts of the Caribbean.

This being said, if the Spiralists were relatively neglected in the international literary arena – and this has certainly been changing in the last decade or so thanks to the work of people like Philippe Bernard, Yves Chemla, Rachel Douglas, and Jean Jonassaint – within the island it has been a different story altogether. Frankétienne, the most well-known of the three writers, is something of a phenomenon in Haiti. Having written and staged several of his plays in Kreyòl and produced audio recordings of many of his prose writings, he has long been very well known in the country. Not just a writer, but also a painter, singer, actor, and math teacher, Frankétienne has worn multiple hats and circulated in multiple insular spaces. As a result, he has always been profoundly connected to the Haitian people and, even well prior to his post-January 2010 extra-insular celebrity, has been valued as something of a national treasure. And while the Euro-North American academy has arguably been slow to recognize his contribution, widely celebrated diasporic Haitian writers like Edwidge Danticat, Dany Laferrière, and René Depestre consistently point to Frankétienne as one of Haiti’s most important literary voices. Fignolé, a journalist and teacher as well as a creative writer, has been a political presence in rural Haiti beginning in the 1980s. He served as progressive mayor of the municipality of Les Abricots, in the westernmost department of Haiti, overseeing reforestation endeavors, health and education initiatives, and infrastructural projects for the community that ultimately became the focal point of his early fiction. Like Frankétienne, Fignolé organically collapsed the traditional distance separating the elite writer and the popular “masses” that are the subject of much Haitian fiction. Philoctète (the only one of the three Spiralists to travel outside of Haiti during the Duvalier regimes – for a six-month stay in Montreal) is known first and foremost as a poet by most Haitians. Prior to his co-founding of Spiralism, he participated in the notorious “Haïti Littéraire” group, an informal collective of politically-minded poets creating dangerously (here borrowing Danticat’s elegant formulation) in the 1960s under Duvalier. One of the five founding members of this group, Philoctète had an established reputation in Haiti for formal innovation and political commitment. It has been largely thanks to a younger generation of Haitian writers in Haiti and in the diaspora – people like Lyonel Trouillot and Rodney Saint-Eloi – that Philoctète’s voice has continued resonating long after his death in 1995.

You’ve written of a “Martinican hegemony in the scholarship of French-speaking Caribbean literature.” What do you mean by this and how has it impacted our knowledge of Haitian letters?

This actually links very much to the preceding question. It seems to me that the relative isolation of the three Spiralist writers not only has to do with their physical anchoring in the space of Haiti, but also is a function of the deliberate theoretical imprecision they have cultivated as writers. Unlike Martinique where, as I argue in the introduction of my book,  many of the most celebrated writers “not only write books, but write books about the books they write,” the Spiralists have steadily refused to propose any predetermined message that would define or otherwise codify their aesthetic philosophy. Unlike the founders of Negritude, antillanité (Caribbeanness), or créolité (Creoleness), the Spiralists offer little by way of paratextual support for their creative praxis. This refusal of theory, in combination with their refusal of exile, has meant that in the past they have not participated – were not invited to participate – in spaces and conversations that largely kept “movement-affiliated” Aimé Césaire, Edouard Glissant, and Creolists Patrick Chamoiseau and Raphaël Confiant at their center. Although Frankétienne, Fignolé, and Philoctète have all self-identified as “Spiralists,” the fact of the matter is that they have mobilized the spiral – as formal tool, as metaphor – in divergent ways. Part of the joy (at least for me) in reading these three writers alongside one another was the creative responsibility they implicitly allocate to the reader-theorist, encouraging their interlocutors to tease out and make something of the points of intersection and dialogue between the various texts.

On a broader scale – beyond the international reception of the Spiralists, that is – I think that the critical attention paid to the “big voices” from Martinique, during the 1990s and into the early 2000s in particular, has to an extent been of a piece with the phenomenon of Haiti’s relegation to the realm of the exceptional and the extreme. Yes, of course, there is no denying the singular elements of Haiti’s history and present-day reality. Yet there is also no question but that Haiti’s past, Haiti’s contemporary fate, and Haiti’s possible futures are very much imbricated in regional and global networks. In the dialectic of alterity and exemplarity that marks Haiti’s position in the current world order there has been a tendency to emphasize the former relational state over the latter – a tendency to insist on Haiti’s difference that ultimately disavows the myriad ways in which both the long view and the immediate circumstances of its nationhood look just like so many other postcolonial spaces.

This ends up meaning that Haitian literature most often gets read within the frame of its own national tradition and primarily as a literature of pessimism, exile, and violence. And sure, a Haitian literary tradition exists and should be theorized as such; and sure, there’s a strong dystopian current that runs through that tradition. But something is lost when “Haitian literature” remains unintegrated into regional (Afro-)Caribbean traditions; and something is lost when presumptions about Haiti’s political failings are the primary focus in readings of its cultural production.

The aesthetic of The Spiralists emerged in response to the Duvalier’s totalitarian state. Can you comment on the nature of Haitian writing after Duvalier?

At the risk of giving too “spiralic” a response, I would like first to push back against the notion of decisive break that is implicit in the phrase “after Duvalier.” The Duvalier regime cast a very long shadow over Haiti. The atmosphere of distrust it fostered – of the government, of law enforcement, of one’s neighbor – remains pervasive and in many ways paralyzing. Insofar as the republic has not entirely come to terms with the dictatorship – not only with Duvalier but with the conditions that made Duvalier possible – Haiti’s writers continue to excavate and narrate the social, political, and cultural phenomena that produced this historical horror-show and that this dysfunctional history left in its wake. Writers like Lyonel Trouillot, Dany Laferrière, Gary Victor, Kettly Mars, and Edwidge Danticat, among others relentlessly probe the more-and-less obvious remnants of this devastating period in Haiti’s past. Although current events seem to suggest that there has been a certain level of political forgetting with respect to the Duvalier regimes, Haiti’s writers are unwilling to just move on.

This being said, there are clearly certain freedoms, albeit elite freedoms, that mark the post-1986 literary sphere: freedom to stay and write in Haiti and freedom to move back and forth across its borders, freedom to name names and to tell stories without allegory – freedom to say “this is what was done to me, and this is who did it.” Realist depictions of trauma and/as testimony are prevalent.

Can you tell us about your current projects?

I’m at work on a number of projects at the moment. Probably too many. Some are independent, some are collaborative, and all are directly or tangentially preoccupied with the question of Caribbean community and the challenges of true transnational exchange within the region and beyond – questions of tensions maintained between the insular and the individual, on the one hand and the regional, global, and communal, on the other. I’ve just completed two co-edited special journal issues: one with Laurent Dubois for Transition magazine titled “New Narratives for Haiti,” and the other with Martin Munro for Small Axe titled “Translating the Caribbean, “ which will actually comprise two issues of the journal – one this fall and the other in fall 2014.

In the next months I’ll be moving forward on two other collaborative projects. The first is a Haiti Reader for Duke UP, which I’m co-editing with Laurent Dubois, Nadève Ménard, Millery Polyné, and Chantalle Verna. Part of Duke’s country series, the reader will offer translated extracts from numerous and varied texts that have emerged out of seminal moments in Haiti’s history – from the revolution to the present day. The second project is a special issue of Yale French Studies I’m co-editing with Alessandra Benedicty. Its tentative title is Revisiting Marie Chauvet: Paradoxes of the Postcolonial Feminine. I’m very excited about this project because we’ve brought together scholars from outside the proverbial box to try to think Chauvet both in and beyond Haiti and the literary. We’ve solicited contributions from people in Queer Studies, Ecocriticism, Postcolonial Studies, Sociology, Religious Studies and elsewhere to consider Chauvet’s œuvre in less obvious critical contexts.

I’m also at work on a slow-burning manuscript titled “Disorderly Women,” in which I consider the ethical possibilities of narcissism in the context of coercive community. I look at prose fiction works from various parts of the Caribbean in which “disorderly,” self-narrating central female characters challenge gendered expectations regarding maternity, self-sacrifice, sexual respectability and other expressions of loyalty to communities that do not necessarily have their best interests at heart. I’ve been leaning on theorists from Freud to Fanon to Foucault and Butler in an effort to rebuild – or at least to think more capaciously – about representations of narcissism as justifiably protective self-interest in a region that in many ways understands itself as anti-individualist and resolutely communal.

And then, finally, I’ve taken on a real passion project: I’m blissfully translating Frankétienne’s first novel-spiral, Mûr a crever, for Archipelago Books.

Image: Frankétienne, from L’Oiseau schizophone (Éditions des Antilles, 1993). Source: Christophe Wall-Romana, “Cinégraphie, ou la marge á dérouler,” Textimage.

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