Wednesday, January 11, 2012

11th Way to Discover Haiti: Literature

"What is wonderful about great literature is that it transforms the man who reads it towards the condition of the man who wrote it." -E.M. Forster

Haitian literature has been closely intertwined with the political life of Haiti. Haitian intellectuals turned successively or simultaneously to France, the UK, the United States, and African traditions. At the same time, Haitian history has always been a rich source of inspiration for literature, with its heroes, its upheavals, its cruelties and its rites.

19th Century
Juste Chanlatte (1766–1828) was a Haitian poet and playwright. He served as secretary to King Henri I of the Kingdom of Haiti. Chanlatte was born in Port-au-Prince and educated in France. He wrote for La Gazette du Cap  and later was the editor of the official government publication during President Jean Pierre Boyer's term, the Télégraphe.
  • Ode à l'Indépendance (1821)
  • Cantate à l'Indépendance (1821)
  • La Triple Palme (1822)
  • Le Naufrage de "l'Alexandre"

20th Century:
Jacques Roumain (June 4, 1907 – August 18, 1944) was a Haitian writer, politician, and advocate of Communism. He is considered one of the most prominent figures in Haitian literature. Although poorly known in the English-speaking world, Roumain has significant following in Europe, and is renowned in the Caribbean and Latin America. The great African-American poet, Langston Hughes, translated some of Roumain's greatest works, including Gouverneurs de la Rosée (Masters of the Dew). Although his life was short, Roumain managed to touch many aspects of Haitian life and culture.

"What are we? Since that's your question, I'm going to answer you. We're this country, and it wouldn't be a thing without us, nothing at all. Who does the planting? Who does the watering? Who does the harvesting? Coffee, cotton, rice, sugar cane, caco, corn, bananas, vegetables, and all the fruits, who's going to grow them if we don't? Yet with all that, we're poor, that's true. We're out of luck, that's true. We're miserable, that's true. But do you know why, brother? Because of our ignorance. We don't know yet what a force we are, what a single force - all the peasants, all the Negroes of the plain and hill, all united. Some day, when we get wise to that, we'll rise up from one end of the country to the other. Then we'll call a General Assembly of the Masters of the Dew, a great big coumbite of farmers and we'll clear out poverty and plant a new life". ("Masters of the Dew", p. 106).

Stanley Péan:
Born in Haiti but raised in Northern Quebec (Jonquière, in the Saguenay region), Stanley Péan is the author of twenty books: short story collections, novels, fiction for kids and a couple of essays about jazz. He is also a screenwriter; a journalist; the editor in chief of Le Libraire (a bimonthly magazine about books in Quebec, distributed freely in independent bookstores); a book reviewer on Vous m'en lirez tant, Radio-Canada's Première Chaîne weekly literary program; the host of a daily jazz program on Espace musique, Radio-Canada's all-music national radio network; and, finally, was the chair of l'UNEQ, the writers and authors union in Québec, from 2004 to 2010.

Did you know?
The Language of Haiti: Creole
Two hypotheses exist on the birth of creole, a language whose history is intimately linked to colonization. One suggests that creole was born from the necessity for different communities to communicate among themselves. Under this theory, Haitian creole developed in the 17th century on Turtle Island, where enslaved Africans, buccaneers, privateers and European settlers lived together. The other theory suggests that creole was born on the Portuguese Atlantic coast of Africa in the fifteenth century and it was then "exported" via the slave trade.

In any event there are more than 200 creole or creole-related languages. Whether based on English, Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch or French, as in Haiti, creole is the language of collective memory, carrying a symbol of resistance. Creole is found in stories, songs, poetry (Saint-John Perse, Aimé Césaire, Derek Walcott), and novels (Patrick Chamoiseau, Raphaël Confiant).

Despite Haiti's independence, French has remained the country's official language. French, a language of great cultural prestige, was spoken by the elite, and creole did not enter the literary field until the second half of the 20th century. The indianists of the 1930s and the Négritude movement (incarnated in Haiti by Jean Price-Marts) emphasized the African origins of Antillean people, giving it an identity lost in deportation and later colonization. But, for them, Creole was still considered an impure language of slavery.

The Créolité movement, which succeeded them, rehabilitated the Creole, which no longer was only the language of slavery, but "that which we made together to survive". A shift was brought about in Haitian literature, from French to Creole, or du français vers le créole, or rather a dialogue between the two languages.

Creole is used frequently in poetry and drama. Frankétienne, for example, writes his plays only in Creole. An oral language, Creole is particularly suited in these genres elevating the voice. (Even if many Haitians speak and understand Creole, not all can read it.) In novels, the two languages are sometimes used together, creating a new and original way of writing.

The choice of language for writing is an important issue in contemporary creative writing, especially for writers residing in Haiti.

Just a thought...

"For beautiful eyes, look for the good in other; for beautiful lips, speak only words of kindness; and for poise, walk with the knowledge that you are never alone."

- Audrey Hepburn

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