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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  1. Posted June 4, 2013 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    Insularity & Internationalism: An Interview with Kaiama L. Glover on Haiti’s Spiralists: #haiti

  2. Posted June 5, 2013 at 8:31 am | Permalink

    Kaiama L. Glover discusses Haitian writers Frankétienne, Jean-Claude Fignolé, and René Philoctète: #haiti

  3. Posted June 5, 2013 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    Insularity & Internationalism: An Interview with Kaiama L. Glover #Haiti #Lit

  4. Posted June 5, 2013 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    Barnard professor Glover discusses Haitian literary movement, Spiralism, its comparisons to Danticat ~@public_archive

  5. Nadine
    Posted June 6, 2013 at 7:29 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for such a wonderful interview! Much food for thought. I’ll be sharing this one far and wide.

  6. Posted June 7, 2013 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    7 June 2013 Haiti: Insularity & Internationalism: An Interview with Kaiama L. Glover

  7. Posted June 8, 2013 at 8:47 pm | Permalink

    This is an insightful presentation of a development in Haitian and in Caribbean literature and philosophical thought. Spiralism deserves more attention than it has so far received.

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