Demanding to Be Heard Haitian women are emerging in their own as writers and political voices.
Haitian literature, like the country's politics, was once so dominated by men that outside observers might have believe that it women harbored no philosophical ideals, political ambitions or love for the written word. With just a few exceptions, Haitian women writers--both in Carribean and stateside--were rarely heard outside the traditional boundaries of wife, mother, or homemaker.
The few who did write wrote mainly in French. The late Marie Chauvet, a Haitian write and playwright, was among these few who broke the bounds. Her novel Amour, calore et folie was one of the first fictional accounts of the Duvalier regime, and its criticisms of the government led to the book's banning and Chauvet's exile to France. (The book was published in Paris by Gallimard, in 1986, but is no longer in print.) Chauvet eventually settled in New York City where she continued writing until her, death in 1973.
Much has changed among women of Haitian descent in the past 30 years, especially in the United States. In the 1990s, Haitian American women began appearing on the literary and political scene. Today, they view their emergence from the shadows of men as their literary renaissance, and are chronicling their experiences--in fiction and nonfiction, autobiographies, novels and poetry--to satisfy their need to speak and write for themselves.
In doing so, these women are lending a decidedly female voice to the once male-dominated lexicon of the Haitian American experience. They say the timing could not be better or more exciting as their tiny, impoverished homeland, which won its independence from France in 1804, prepares to mark its 200th anniversary as the first modern free black nation.
Freedom in Exile
The contributions of women to the Haitian Revolution 200 years ago were not documented until recently, says Joanne Hyppolite, an Haitian American author who teaches African Studies and English literature at the University of Miami. "They were more than half of the population, but it was like they weren't around. Now Haitian women are taking back their voices, and no one can say that the Haitian woman's voice and reality, and her contributions and her presence within the culture, aren't being documented."
As attention turns toward Haiti and bicentennial celebrations planned wherever Haitians live around the world, so, too, is interest growing in this new generation of writers who--in big ways and small--are helping to put the confounding and complicated story that is Haiti into context.
Myriam J.A. Chancy, a Haitian sholar and writer, took stock of this emerging breed of writers in her book Framing Silence: Revolutionary Novels by Haitian Women (Rutgers University Press, April 1997). The work is described by the publisher as the first book-length study in English devoted exclusively to Haitian women's literature. The book's summary states: "Raped and colonized, coerced and silenced-this has been the position of Haitian women within their own society, as well as how they have seen by foreign occupiers. Romanticized symbols of nationhood, they have served, however unwillingly, as a politicized site of contestation between opposing forces."
Fortuitous perhaps, but Ms. Chancy, who was born in Haiti and raised in Canada, is a descendant of Toussaint L'Ouverture, the revered liberator of Haiti, who led the slaved rebellion against French slave owners.
Emerging Writers Band Together
Nowhere is the emergence of literature by Haitian women more evident than in South Florida, home to an estimated 150,000 Haitian immigrants and cultural heart of all things Haitian. There, an organization called Women Writers of Haitian Descent (WWOH has become a support group for emerging women writers. Founded in 2000 by three Haitian women ranging in age from 34 to 65, WWOHD serves as a literary forum for new and established writers, be they closeted essayists, budding novelists, gifted storytellers, or inspiring poets. The organization gives them validation alongside a platform for their work.
Ms. Hypolite, 34, a doctoral candidate in literature and a founding member of the organization, is the author of Seth and Samona ((Delacorte Press, May 1995), a children's book about the friendship between an Haitian American boy and an African American girl who learn about each other's culture as they share adventures. She also penned Ola Shakes It Up (Delacorte Press, February 1998), a story about an African American family that moves from Boston's predominately black Roxbury neighborhood to a mostly white fictional town in Massachusetts. The story revolves around young Ola's adjustment to her new surroundings and intertwines her experiences with those of her Haitian caretaker who is adjusting to a new life in America.
The idea to create WWOHD came after Hyppolite and other Haitian women writers kept bumping into each other at literary and cultural events and learned that they had much in common and that there were others like them out there.
We realized there was something to this idea of pooling our resources to help other Haitian women writers," she says. "We did a couple of events, started a newsletter, and it took on a life on of its own. "Now the nonprofit organization brings in writers from around the country for readings, sponsors literary salons, holds an annual "Butterfly Writing" contest sponsored by other Haitian women writers, and programs on social and political issues.
About 30 women are affliated with the organization, among them are those laboring in obscurity, as well as those who've had modest success--all eager add their voices to the literary cacophony that is becoming the new Haitian American voice.
The Example of Edwidge Danticat
No discussion of Haitian American women writers is complete without mentioning Edwidge Danticat, the most widely known and successful of these writers. At the tender age of 34 , she's already considered the Toni Morrison of her generation and her cohorts are excitedly predicting that she too will one day be awarded a Pulitzer Prize or Noble Prize for literature. She has won critical and commercial success with such books as Breath, Eyes, Memory (Soho Press, May 1998); Krik? Krak! (Soho Press, April 1995); The Farming of Bones (Bt Bound, September 1999).
"Given our literacy rate in Haiti, which is not yet fifty percent, it is amazing how rich and varied and just voluminous a literature we have both inside and outside of Haiti," Danticat says. "I think this has to do with our tradition of storytelling. I don't think I'm overstating when I say that Haitians just love a good story. We also like good literature.
"As a matter of fact, " she continues, "one of our first Haitian poets suggested that we write our independence act using a white man's skin as parchment, his blood as ink and his skull as an inkwell. It was a kind of poem, but loaded with literal meaning as well.
"For a long time though, women were excluded from that literature," she says. "But then at some point, women began writing more and more. And of course most of our first Haitian women writers were, like everywhere else, women who had gone to school and had the leisure of being able to sit and write. But more and more, we are seeing a kind of democratization of writing. In Haiti, these days, in the United States and elsewhere, Haitian women who grew up poor, like I did, are writing in Creole, French and English, even though in Haiti itself, it's still very difficult to be published, unless you invest your own money, and publish and distribute the book yourself."
Independent Presses Arise
Some Haitian writers here, unwilling to wait for someone else to deem their work worthy of publication, are doing just that. Maude Heurtelou, 51, another founding member of WWOHD, started her own publishing company 12 years ago. Heurtelou has written 23 children's book's and two novels--all in her native Haitian Creole, including Lafami Bonplezi (1994, out of print), a story of an Haitian family of eight children and their parents who leave Haiti in search of better life in the United States, France and Canada. The books are all published under her Educa Vision imprint, a publishing house she runs with her husband in South Florida.
Her first book written in English is due out in 2004. Fiesta Haiti (Grolier, an imprint of Scholastic) will introduce children to Haiti's geography, lifestyle, holiday, foods, arts and cultural traditions. A nutritionist by training, Heurtelou came to the U.S. at age 34, after living in Guatemala and Canada, where she earned her bachelor's and master's degrees. Because she came to the U.S. as an adult, she initially worried that she wouldn't connect with other Haitian writers who grew up here and were more comfortable speaking and writing in English. Her worries were unfounded. The other women writers embraced her, she says, and made her realize that, "I have a voice and that voice has room in the literature of the Haitian Diasporsa."
Heurtelou's voice was among those captured in The Butterfly's Way: Voices From the Haitian Dyaspora in the United States (Soho Press, February 2001), which was edited by Danticat.
"Edwidge was very supportive of me," Heurtelou says. "She recognized my talent and encouraged me to get involve."
Some writers, such as Guitele Rahill, have self-published with limited commercial success but to great personal satisfaction.
"Edwidge Danticat is a wonderful writer, but there are so many others who have so much to say," adds Rahill, 44, author of Violated, (1st Books Library, May 2001). Her novel tells of a young Haitian girl who leaves her grandmother's house to live with her mother and her mother's pedophile boyfriend.
"We still can't get mainstream publishers interested. They say, 'We have Edwidge and that's enough'. If I was a publisher, I would be seeking more of them and saying, Hey, are there any more like her out there? Come on, bring them on."
Hyppolite says Danticat and others are writing to their own generation, and at the same time reclaiming and redifining the image of Haiti.
"We are definitely moving into a new reality for Haitian women writers, the opportunity that Haitian women have here is an opportunity they never would have had in Haiti where women's issues still need some work and are still being dictated by our mother's rules for growing up and getting married. I just feel that Haitian women have no limits here."
Celebrating Haiti in 2004
Cruising Into History: Haiti 2004 Bicentennial Celebration
International Black Arts and Cultural Festival, 2239 Bayou Road, New Orleans, LA 70119 Haiti Appreciation Days in New Orleans, February 16-18, 2004. This event is being hosted by the Haiti Support Project, Southern University Center for African and African American Studies, the Lyceum Committee and the Association Haitienne de Developpement Humain, Inc. (A.H.D.H.)
The celebration is presented in honor of Black History Month and the Bicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase, examining the impact of the Haitian Revolution on the Louisiana Purchase and Louisiana culture. The sale of Louisiana was in part due to the failure of Napoleon's army to defeat the enslaved Africans, Events include a convocation and photo exhibit.
Pilgrimage to Haiti
The pilgrimage, scheduled for August 14-21, 2004, will involve a VIP emise aboard a Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.'s ocean liner from the Port of Miami to Haiti. Participants will then attend the Haiti 2004 Bicentennial Celebration recognizing the 1804 revolution by former African slaves against Napoleon Bonaparte, which resulted in the establishment of the first Black Republic in this Hemisphere.
Approximately 3,100 passengers will travel on the cruise ship which will offer educational forums, political discussions and first-class entertainment in an international black arts and cultural festival by sea and land. Expected to attend will be notable national/ international leaders from the United States and parts of the African world, including scholars, artists, poets, playwrights, musicians, and dance troupes. For information about the conference and the cruise: contact: Badi Murphy Haiti Support Project at 504-945-4925.
1804-2004: Celebrating Haiti History and Bicentennial
Independence Through Art Historical painting series of Ulrick Jean-Pierre, one of the leading contemporary Haitian historical painters. His work has been featured in art history books and journals.
The historical painting series will be exhibited at the Musee du Pantheon National in Port-au-Prince, Haiti from November 2003 until March 2004 and will be published in a book with essays by leading scholars. For more information regarding this project, please contact: Dr. Cecile Accilien at firstname.lastname@example.org or Portland State University Department of Foreign Languages & Literatures Post Office Box 751 Portland, Oregon 97207-0751 (503) 725-8784 (telephone) (503) 725-5276 (fax)
Hiatian Independence Bicentenary Conference
Re-interpreting the Haitian Revolution and its Cultural Aftershocks: 1804-2004 June 15-18, 2004 The University of the West Indies, Faculty of Humanities and Education, Department of Liberal Arts St. Augustine. Trinidad & Tobago Several speakers have been confirmed, and Derek Walcott will direct a theatre presentation, drawing on Aime Cesaire's La Tragedie du roi Christophe and his own trilogy of Haitian plays. Conference Web site: http//www.uwi.tt/fhe/ haiti2004
Marjorie Valbrun, a Haitian-American reporter, writes extensively about Haitian immigration to the United States.
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|Publication:||Black Issues Book Review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2004|
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