For many English-speaking readers of Haitian literature, one author usually comes to mind: Edwidge Danticat. Though there are many more Haitian and Haitian diasporic writers working in English—including Roxane Gay, Dimitry Elias Léger, Francesca Momplaisir, Ibi Zoboi, and sister coauthors Maika and Maritza Moulite—Danticat's gorgeous, evocative prose is ubiquitous. There is little doubt that her writing has shaped and expanded the scope of what Haitian stories and narratives look and sound like to English readers.
As a reader, translator, and editor, however, Danticat would be the first to admit that there is much more to Haitian literature in English translation. Literary translation is an integral part of Haiti’s literary ecosystem with its own unique history. In the 1920s and ‘30s, translators like Jessie Redmon Fauset, Langston Hughes, and Mercer Cook translated works by the likes of Massillon Coicou and Jacques Roumain. During that same time, Edna Worthley Underwood compiled the first anthology of Haitian poetry in English translation, called The Poets of Haiti, 1782–1934, published by the Mosher Press with woodcuts by the Haitian artist Pétion Savain. Though Underwood's anthology has since gone out of print, the Cook and Hughes translation of Roumain’s Masters of the Dew has been reissued numerous times after first appearing in 1947, and Fauset's translation of "Oblivion" by Massillon Coicou has been reprinted in anthologies of African American literature edited by James Weldon Johnson, by Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps, and just last year by Kevin Young in African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle and Song.
Haitian literature in English translation has not only a storied past but a flourishing present sustained by a cadre of translators and translator-scholars who have managed to curate a panorama of texts from various genres—fiction, poetry, and memoir—as well as different historical eras. In the following list, I endeavored to select texts that complicate Anglophone readers’ understanding of Haitian literature; books that challenge the idea of the novel as the predominant literary genre; and books that demonstrate the linguistic and cultural diversity of those who have translated Haitian letters.
1. Island Heart by Ida Faubert, translated from French by Danielle Legros Georges | Sub Press
The final stanza of Ida Faubert's poem "The Empty House" reads:
The day is radiant, it's the hot season
But over there everything's dark, and the doors are shut.
A sadness is in me. I've left the home where dear memories
Wandered among the things.
In poems gracefully translated by Danielle Legros Georges, the second person ever to serve as the poet laureate of Boston, Ida Faubert's life spent between Haiti and France, as well as at the center and the periphery of Haitian literary movements, comes into full view. It is quite rare to see a complete collection of Haitian poetry appear in English, let alone presented bilingually. And so with Island Heart readers gain access not only to Faubert's original poems but also to Danielle Legros Georges's translational memorial project as she brings a "Haitian literary foremother" from French into English. These formally rich poems speak of nostalgia, love, and longing addressed to lovers whose genders are not specified, allowing readers to experience an unfettered and daring sensuousness.
2. General Sun, My Brother by Jacques Stephen Alexis, translated from French by Carrol F. Coates | CARAF Books, University of Virginia Press
Jacques Stephen Alexis's General Sun, My Brother begins like a fairy tale—"The night was breathing heavily. Nothing stirred in the courtyard. Not even a cat"—and develops into an epic story that many consider to be the first social realist Haitian novel. General Sun, My Brother is set in the 1920s and ‘30s, at a moment when Haiti was in a period of political transition. The shift from the US occupation (1915–34) to autonomous governance brought with it a series of upheavals: the arrival of US corporations, the advent of a neoliberal economy, and the continued entrenchment of class conflict. In addition to these struggles, Haiti's neighbor, the Dominican Republic, incubated its own social ills in the wake of US occupation, culminating in the beginning of a thirty-one-year dictatorship under General Raphael Léonidas Trujillo. Set against this backdrop of unrest, the novel follows Hilarius Hilarion and his wife, Claire-Heureuse, through the streets of twentieth-century Port-au-Prince, the peyi andeyò (the provinces outside of the city), and the borderlands separating Haiti and the Dominican Republic as they look for life in a hostile world. To bring these distinct geographies to life, Alexis weaves Haitian Creole, French, Spanish, and English together for a book that echoes the historical reality of the time as well as that of so many Haitians today.
Marie Vieux-Chauvet's Love, Anger, Madness is one of Haiti's most discussed books of the twentieth century, which is remarkable on multiple counts, especially because it is neither a novel nor a volume of poetry (Haiti's literary genre of predilection), but a triptych of searing novellas. When it was published in French in 1968, Chauvet’s collection caused a stir, and it has continued to generate discussion in the decades since. In the three novellas, titled Love, Anger, and Madness, respectively, the characters face violence, repression, and humiliation at the hands of a tyrannical government and its partisans. Families are torn apart from within, friends are separated from one another, and everyone walks around cautiously, looking over their shoulders to see who might be in pursuit. Though each of the novellas is told from a different perspective and features, at times, experimental narrative styles, together they form a proper triptych, putting the realities of life under tyranny in stark relief.
4. Massacre River by René Philoctète, translated from French by Linda Coverdale | New Directions
Despite its foreboding title, Massacre River by René Philoctète is the perfect book to share in translation. When Linda Coverdale was loaned a cherished copy of the novel by a friend, she was immediately convinced that she needed to translate "this dreamworld of heartless nightmare, illuminated by the most tender and courageous light of love." Written in the form of a spiral, a style that Philoctète perfected along with his friends and fellow artists Frankétienne and Jean-Claude Fignolé, Massacre River bears witness to the 1937 genocide of Haitian guest workers in the Dominican Republic with fantastical imagery and a profound sense of humanity.
5. Hadriana in All My Dreams by René Depestre, translated from French by Kaiama L. Glover | Akashic Books
Originally published in 1988 in French, René Depestre's Hadriana in All My Dreams was such a literary success that it was almost immediately translated into Danish, German, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, and Polish. Translator Kaiama L. Glover supposes in her translator's note that this was due to Depestre's "shameless eroticism." Hadriana is an erotic tale, but it is also, as Glover points out, a novel in which the implications of race, gender, and religion bubble over, culminating in an irresistible work of social satire in which the bride transforms into a zombie just as she reaches the altar.
Though Yanick Lahens won France's prestigious Prix Fémina for her novel Bain de lune (Moonbath, translated by Emily Gogolak, Deep Vellum), she was first known as one of Haiti's foremost short story writers of the late twentieth century. Aunt Résia and the Spirits, and Other Stories is a generous collection of stories drawn from three of Lahens's collections—Aunt Résia and the Spirits, Petty Corruption, and The Madness Came with the Rain—all published between 1994 and 2006. These compact tales, translated by the revered translator of Caribbean fiction Elizabeth "Betty" Wilson, transport the reader from Port-au-Prince to the countryside and beyond.
Set in the middle of the eighteenth century, during the colonial era of Haitian history, The Infamous Rosalie tells the story of Lisette, a girl born into slavery to an African-born mother who carries with her the trauma and stories of the Middle Passage. Évelyne Trouillot explains that this book is the product of a story she wrote about an Arada midwife who wore a rope necklace with some seventy knots, each one representing a child she intentionally killed at birth. Though Trouillot did not intend to write a historical novel, she sought, above all, to acknowledge her characters’ humanity in an era bent on their dehumanization.
8. Wandering Memory by Jan J. Dominique, translated from French by Emma Donovan Page | CARAF Books, University of Virginia Press
Three words echo in the opening passage of Jan J. Dominique's memoir Wandering Memory: "Tomorrow, I leave." The book is the result of years of built-up writer's block following the murder of the author's father (the journalist and agronomist Jean Léopold Dominique), which sent her into exile and a life away from her native Haiti. Her memoir is an exploration of becoming a writer and journalist, as well as the story of losing the man with whom she shared so much, including her name.
For years, Louis-Philippe Dalembert has searched the margins of history for stories of courage and fearless humanity in the face of persecution. In his 2017 novel Avant que les ombres s'effacent (Before the shadows dissipate), he imagined the story of a Jewish boy who manages to flee Buchenwald for Haiti with the aid of Ida Faubert (the author of Island Heart) and others. With The Mediterranean Wall, translated by Marjolijn de Jager, Dalembert recounts the journey of three African women, Shoshana, Semhar, and Dima, as they attempt to reach European shores by crossing the Mediterranean Sea. Hailing from Nigeria, Somalia, and Ethiopia, respectively, the women face religious and gender persecution at home, which sends them on their quest for distant horizons.
10. The Immortals by Makenzy Orcel, translated from French by Nathan H. Dize | SUNY Press
I became a reader of Haitian literature in the days that followed the 2010 earthquake, an event that many Haitians personify as goudougoudou, an onomatopoeia that evokes the sound of the shaking earth. From this event came an outpouring of Haitian literary production that sought to mourn everything that had just been lost and, often, to simply make sense of what had happened. Out of this fray, Makenzy Orcel emerged with The Immortals. It is a brief novel about an anonymous sex worker who refuses to forget the lives of her friends and nocturnal colleagues, so she makes a deal with a writer to record their stories for posterity. The novel itself is a patchwork series of vignettes—a mother searching for her daughter, a young runaway who chooses sex work as a way of finding freedom, a woman who never saw herself as a maternal figure discovering her own capacity for care. The Immortals was one of the first novels about the earthquake published by a Haitian writer in French, and it remains the only one that has been translated.
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Published May 18, 2021 Copyright 2021 Nathan H. Dize