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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