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from the January 2017 issue

“Dance on the Volcano” by Marie Vieux-Chauvet

Reviewed by Juliet Grames

The backdrop of the story of Minette’s meteoric rise to opera stardom is the “volcano” of the title: the escalating tensions of the brutal racial war that is about to explode.

In 1770s Haiti, a mixed-race girl named Minette is discovered on the streets of Port-au-Prince by a white music teacher. Minette’s voice is exquisite, and after several years of clandestine lessons, Minette and her mentor take a risky gamble and trick the director of Port-au-Prince’s Comedie Theater into starring her in a production, despite social laws against people of color performing on stage. Minette, only fourteen, is a sensation, and as her power grows with her popularity, she begins to challenge racial conventions and knock down the doors of white society. Her path is not easy: she is continually exploited and not paid for her performances; she is banned from the post-opera celebratory balls by the same white patrons who just gave her standing ovations. She must fight tooth and nail for everything she desires and deserves.

The backdrop of the story of Minette’s meteoric rise to opera stardom is the “volcano” of the title: the escalating tensions of the brutal racial war that is about to explode. Just before Minette makes her debut, her mother, Jasmine, reveals the lash scars on her back and the brand burnt on her breast—the hallmarks of her past slavery, which she has kept hidden from her daughters. Minette is profoundly affected to learn the truth about her mother’s abuse and rape, and her own slave origins. She has been awoken to the injustice of the system she has taken for granted. She experiences a “painful” internal “revolt against so much absurdity,” and begins to involve herself with anti-slavery cells, risking her life to help her freedom-fighting friends. “The struggle was merciless,” Minette realizes.

At some point it was necessary to ignore one’s heart and one’s honor, to seize life with two hands and squeeze one’s fingers around it, like around the neck of an enemy one has vanquished. 

Every page, every plot circumstance, every character interaction seethes with righteous anger at the institution of slavery, at formalized racial hierarchies, at the injustices visited upon people of color for generations. It also depicts the widespread malaise and futility of systemic oppression, and the grim desperation of revolutionary spirit of the maroons—escaped slaves—and their allies: desperation, futility, and rage which “reduc[es] her to a mere machine in the service of destiny.” Change requires violence and sacrifice; it is a cause that must be worth dying for.

The novel was inspired by a historical anecdote about two young women of color, Minette and Lise, who crossed racial boundaries and performed at the Theatre Saint-Domingue in the years just before the Haitian revolution. In 1955, two years before Vieux-Chauvet published La Danse sur le Volcan, Haitian historian Jean Fouchard published a history of the Theatre Saint-Domingue in which he included their story; Vieux-Chauvet’s novelized version fleshes out Fouchard’s historical framework.

Dance on the Volcano, which was first published in France in 1957, was Marie Vieux-Chauvet’s second novel. The author is perhaps most famous for her 1968 novel trilogy, Love, Anger, Madness, a work whose uncompromising portrayal of Duvalier’s dictatorship led to her living under constant surveillance and made her fear for her life. In wake of its publication, she moved to New York City, where she died five years later at age 57. The revival of interest in her work is richly deserved, although the preservation of her legacy has been fraught. Archipelago Books performs a valuable service to English-language literature by publishing Kaiama L. Glover’s highly readable translation (a previous translation by Salvator Attanasio, now unavailable, was published by William Sloane in 1959).

The title is taken from the French idiom danser sur un volcan, an expression meaning to be blind to imminent danger. The novel is charged with invective against the system—a comment on the era about which it is written, pre-revolutionary Haiti, but also a product of the social and political climate of the author’s own era, on the eve of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s reign of terror. It is also a fascinating addition to the feminist literary canon, a novel about powerful, complex, and troubled female characters. It examines female sexual agency and speaks frankly of the realities of survival for women in a white patriarchy.

Most troublesome and troubling, of course, is the sexual point of contact between masters and slaves, the intrinsic and nearly universal sexual exploitation of the owned. It is slave rape that has created the mix-raced population and the entire color-based caste system of Haiti. From the book’s opening paragraphs, Vieux-Chauvet forcefully presents a culture in which sexual exploitation is a constant and ever-present fact of life, where pretenses at civilized high culture are undermined by an unfettered white patriarchy where the woman of color’s body as an object of extreme sexual desire or fixation for white men. The murky social laws surrounding slavery are another key concern of the plot. For example, Minette falls helplessly in love with a black slave-owner, despite her own political convictions. She cannot bear to see him abuse his slaves, although he insists to her it is right to do so, his manner of keeping control over the wealth she enjoys.

Dance on the Volcano is not a perfect novel, if such a thing exists; it suffers from some overwriting and its pacing is uneven, especially in the last third of the book, which races through critical moments of the burgeoning revolution. But Glover’s careful translation leaves the text feeling authentic and the mood is in keeping with the historical era that inspired it. It is a passionate, emphatic book that feels necessary and timely, despite the fact that it was written sixty years ago and depicts a historical epoch more than two centuries removed. It is worth celebrating that this important work of Haitian literature is now available for wider canonization. May this edition be a point of discovery of Vieux-Chauvet and her works for many readers.

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