Reading Haiti: Ten Books for 2014

Our annual round-up of notable books from 2014 features novels and journals, translations and epistles, ethnographies and histories – all on Haiti.

1. Published by the Haitian Studies Association and edited by USCB Black Studies scholar Claudine Michel, the Journal of Haitian Studies is among the most important and influential venues for the interdisciplinary study of Haitian politics, history, and culture. The Journal’s recent special issue on the life and work of the late anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot counts among their best. With contributions from Nadève Ménard, J. Michael Dash, Patrick Bellegarde-Smith, Jemima Pierre, Carolle Charles, and others, the issue is always insightful – and oft-times moving – and serves as a critical testament to Truillot’s life and intellectual imprint.

2. We have much to be thankful for to Kaiama L. Glover and Archipelago Books for their translation of Frankétienne Ready to Burst, given how rare it is to find English versions of the work of the poet, playwright, singer, comedian, painter, and grand force behind Haiti’s “Spiralist” movement. Written in his inimical, electric style and first published in 1968, Ready to Burst is at once a smoldering account of life under the Duvalier dictatorship and a searing demonstration of the rendering of language in the cause of liberation. “I speak the madness of the sea in heat,” Frankétienne writes.  “Dialect of hurricanes. Patois of rains. Language of storms. Unfolding of life in a spiral.” Nuff said.

3. Also by Frankétienne, Chaophonie begins with a request from poet and editor Rodney St. Eloi for a short monograph for Montreal-based publisher Mémoire d’encrier’s Cadastres series. It ends as an epic, visionary, freewheeling eighty-eight page epistolary exploration of time and memory, the practice of writing and textualization, and the nature of cities from Port-au-Prince to Montreal. Another wonderful book from the remarkable Mémoire d’encrier.

4. Also from Mémoire d’encrier: a French-Kreyol edition of Edouard Glissant’s play, Monsieur Toussaint. Set in Fort de Joux, the French fortress where the imprisoned Toussaint L’Ouverture died in 1803, Monsieur Tousaint unfolds through a series of visitations, meditations, and historical flashbacks. Glissant gives us a stark, haunting reconstruction of Toussaint’s journey from enslaved African to Black revolutionary.

5. Historian Ada Ferrer’s Freedom’s Mirror: Cuba and Haiti in the Age of Revolution is a critical addition to a growing body of scholarship examining the impact and repercussions of the Haitian Revolution on the Caribbean and the Atlantic World. Meticulously researched and elegantly written, Freedom’s Mirror demonstrates how the end of slavery in Saint-Domingue prompted slavery’s retrenchment in Cuba, as Cuban planters scrambled to bolster production of sugar for world markets. But Ferrer also shows how the Haitian Revolution sparked a response in Cuba that is, arguably, still felt in the Americas today: the fear of “another Haiti.”

6. In Liberty, Fraternity, Exile: Haiti and Jamaica after Emancipation, Matthew J. Smith’s traces the movements of exiles and abolitionists, laborers and merchants as they crossed the waters between Haiti and Jamaica over the nineteenth century. In the process, Smith has written a brilliant, path-breaking micro-history of political-economic and social exchange that enhances our understanding of intra-Caribbean migration in the formation of the modern Caribbean while making a critical intervention into studies of the African Diaspora.

7. While the vexed state of Dominicans of Haitian descent is well known, elsewhere in the Caribbean, Haitian-descended migrants and citizens are also catching hell. The Bahamas, where Haitian migrants are regularly imprisoned, deported, and humiliated, is a case in point. In this context, anthropologist Bertin Louis’ My Soul is in Haiti: Protestantism in the Haitian Diaspora of the Bahamas, is especially timely. My Soul is in Haiti draws on fieldwork in the Bahamas, Haiti, and the United States to create a valuable analysis of citizenship, state formation, diaspora, and, importantly, religion.

8. Inspired by the monumental historical work of the late George Corvington, geographer Georges Eddy Lucien’s Une modernisation manquée: Port au Prince, 1915-1956 offers a necessary addition to the literature on Haiti’s capital. Richly documented, Lucien draws on archives in Haiti, France, and the United States, in addition to novels, historical works, and economic studies to tell the ambivalent story of Port-au-Prince’s development and modernization since the onset of the United States occupation of Haiti in 1915. The first published of two volumes, we eagerly await the second.

9. Law professor Fran Quigley’s How Human Rights Can Build Haiti: Activists, Lawyers, and the Grassroots Campaign is an inspiring account of the work of the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux and the Institute of Justice and Democracy in Haiti. From the 1994 Raboteau Massacre to the botched recovery efforts following the 2010 earthquake, Quigley documents the work of both organizations in legal battles surrounding everything from the 1994 Raboteau Massacre, to the prosecution of Duvalier, to the botched recovery efforts following the 2010 earthquake while showing the connection between poverty and human rights – and the critical role of grassroots organizations to social change.

10. As 2015 marks the centenary of the United States military intervention into and subsequent nineteen-year occupation of Haiti (1915-1934), we thought we’d close this list with reference to some of the classic studies on the Occupation.  Roger Gaillard, Suzy Castor, Kethly Millet, and Francois Blancpain are among the stand-out French language historians of the Occupation. In English, Rayford W. Logan, Hans Schmidt and Brenda Gayle Plummer have written critical diplomatic histories while both J. Michael Dash and Mary Renda have offered seminal readings of the Occupation’s literary and cultural discourses. Haitian historian Leon D. Pamphile Contrary Destinies: A Century of America’s Occupation, Deoccupation, and Reoccupation of Haiti will be published in July while the aforementioned Journal of Haitian Studies has out a call for papers for a special issue titled L’Occupation 1915-1934: Perspectives on Haiti and the US at the Centennial. We can only hope to see more.

Best wishes for 2015.

The Public Archive’s prior readings lists: Radical Black Reading: 2011. 2012. 2013. 2014. Reading Haiti: 2011. 2012. Radical Black Cities: 2012.

Image: John Relly Beard, “Toussaint Reading the Abbe Raynal’s Work,” “The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, the Negro Patriot of Hayti: Comprising an Account of the Struggle for Liberty in the Island, and a Sketch of Its History to the Present Period.” London: Ingram, Cooke, and Co., 1853. Source:  Documenting the American South. 2004. University Library, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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