4 Haitian novels that beautifully blend history, memory and reality


Marlene Daut, University of Virginia

Following the July 7, 2021 assassination of Haiti’s President Jovenel Moïse and after one Haitian official requested that the U.N. and U.S. send troops to help stabilize the nation, many Haitian activists and artists recoiled at the prospect of yet another outside intervention.

The Haitian-American novelist Edwidge Danticat is one artist who has repeatedly railed against past U.S. occupations of Haiti. In her foreword to Jan J. Dominique’s “Memoir of an Amnesiac,” she highlights a tension that exists in Haiti’s collective memory – pride over the revolution for freedom and independence from France in 1804, and frustration over continuous foreign meddling, brought to a new height with a 20-year occupation by the U.S. military starting in 1915.

“Never again will foreigners trample Haitian soil, the founders…declared in 1804,” Danticat writes. “Yet in 1915, the ‘boots’ invaded,” which meant that Haitians like the father of the narrator in Dominique’s tale would “never truly know a fully free and sovereign life, having had not just his country but his imagination invaded and occupied by the Americans.”

A specialist in Haitian literary and historical studies from the University of Virginia, Marlene L. Daut has selected four Haitian-authored novels that sit with this contradiction, along with many others.

By guiding readers through Haiti over the past century, she shows how these contemporary writers magnificently paint the entanglements of memory, history and imagination that make Haitian art, from all times, so enduring and brilliant.

1. Évelyne Trouillot, “Memory at Bay” (2010)

In “Memory at Bay,” Trouillot explores the ruthless juxtaposition that exists between Haitian President-turned-dictator François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, called “the Deceased” in her novel, and Haiti’s subjugated position in the Western world.

Many years after the death of Duvalier and the fall of his successor and son, “Baby Doc,” the Deceased’s bedridden wife tries to cast her husband as both a protector of the Haitian people and a target of the West’s quest for revenge.

“After all, how could the Western countries ever forgive or forget Napoleon’s debacle, the sorry defeat of the French army … and the rout of the French colonizers at the hands of an army of former slaves?” the Deceased’s wife thinks. The widow attempts to paint her husband as having been the only one to stand up to the “former colonialists, the one-time occupying power, and all those who wanted to use the country as a springboard for their ambitions.”

Government officials carry a casket.
After Francois Duvalier, known as ‘Papa Doc,’ died in 1971, his son, Jean-Claude, took power, continuing the family’s brutal reign.
Reporters Associes/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

The attendant caring for her in a nursing home in France has a different memory of the Deceased and his legacy. Coming from a family devastated by the Tonton Makouts – Duvalier’s murderous henchmen responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Haitians – the nurse finds herself disgusted at having to care for an integral culprit in her country’s devastation.

“So many overlooked stories of men and women just guilty of having been alive at the wrong moment, in the wrong place,” she thinks, as she briefly contemplates whether to kill the widow. “My father, my uncle, the resister whose grandchildren will never know him, Madame So-and-So’s husband, the grocer’s cousin, his friend’s godfather, the mother of the little girl who will not be born, the boy who should have been born.”

2. Dany Laferrière, “Down Among the Dead Men” (1996)

Set in 1996, after the fall of the Duvalier regime and during the United Nations’ occupation of Haiti, this partly autobiographical tale tells the story of a never-named protagonist – a stand-in for Laferrière – who decides to come home to Haiti for the first time in 20 years.

Haiti has changed a lot during his exile in Montreal, where he was making his living as a writer. He no longer recognizes the capital, Port-au-Prince, which has seen massive migration from the countryside into the city. The result is overcrowding, famine and generalized misery.

In a chance encounter with a shoeshine man, the narrator is told that these changes mean “All the people you see in the street, walking and talking, most of them died a long time ago and they don’t even know it. This country has turned into the world’s largest cemetery.”

Such commentary encourages the narrator to write a book about “the other world.” He wonders “[i]s it here or elsewhere?” After unwittingly accepting from a powerful Vodou priest “the most terrifying offer anyone could make a writer: to take him to the kingdom of dead,” the narrator meets in succession the Vodou god Papa Legba, master of the crossroads, and Ogou Feraille, the god of war.

Ultimately, the narrator ends up as disappointed with the spirit world as he is with the mortal one. “This was hardly Dante’s inferno,” he remarks. “I’d been expecting…a universe so powerful and rich in symbols, so complex that it would have helped me… Instead, I ended up with a giggling adolescent goddess and the complaints of her father, the supposedly fearsome Ogou Feraille.”

All of this happens parallel to searing political commentary about the punitive and insulting measures forced upon Haiti by the world powers after the 1991 military coup that unseated President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. For example, along with U.N. “peacekeepers,” a comical cast of foreign investigators arrive to study why the people of the northwestern town of Bombardopolis do not need to eat for months at a time. The foreigners conclude that it is because they are all plants, and not human beings.

The irony of course is that foreign meddlers are the ones who have caused the starvation. “Hunger remains the most effective weapon,” one character wryly remarks.

Sometimes the sardonic humor stings a little too much: “When everyone starts joking in a country, you know that all hope is gone,” the narrator’s friend Manu complains. “Humor is the weapon of desperate people.”

3. Edwidge Danticat, “The Farming of Bones” (1999)

In this work of historical fiction, Danticat transports readers to the Dominican Republic, to the border town of Alegría. There, Haitian workers are living “a cane life” – engaged in the brutal work of planting and cutting sugar cane, “travay tè pou zo, the farming of bones.”

Hewing closely to the historical record, Danticat captures the horrors of Dominican dictator General Rafael Trujillo’s massacre in 1937 of tens of thousands of Haitians living and working along the border. The more fictional sections follow the escape of Amabelle Désir, who had many years before witnessed the death by drowning of her parents, both migrant herbal healers, as they tried to cross the Dajabón River separating Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Amabelle will eventually lose her lover, Sebastien Onius, to the troops of the “Generalissimo,” after Trujillo gives orders “to have all Haitians killed.”

A man stoops over next to a cart.
A Haitian migrant worker cuts sugar cane in the Dominican Republic.
Julio Etchart/ullstein bild via Getty Images

As Haitian characters are tortured or executed because they cannot trill their Rs to pronounce “perejil,” the Spanish word for parsley, Haiti’s glorious revolutionary past seems to fade into the background of the torturous present.

“When Dessalines, Toussaint, Henry, when those men walked the earth, we were a strong nation,” one man who escaped the massacre states. “Those men would go to war to defend our blood. In all this, our so-called president says nothing…nothing at all to this affront to the children of Dessalines, the children of Toussaint, the children of Henry; he shouts nothing across this river of our blood.”

4. René Depestre, “Hadriana in All My Dreams” (1988)

Near the end of “The Farming of Bones,” a guide taking visitors to King Henry’s famous Citadelle says, “Famous men never truly die…It is only those nameless and faceless who vanish like smoke into the early morning air.”

Beginning in 1938, just one year after Trujillo’s massacre, Depestre’s “Hadriana” trails the life, death and reemergence of a white French woman born in Haiti named Hadriana Siloé, who appears to mysteriously die while saying her wedding vows. She is then suspected of having been transformed into a zombie when her body goes missing from its grave.

During her funeral-turned-carnival, historical figures from different eras join the masked wake, as “historical memory” has gotten “mixed up to the point of ridiculousness.”

And so readers are treated to scenes of the Haitian emperor Jacques the First, who ruled Haiti from 1804 to 1806, playing table tennis with his partner, Joseph Stalin, while Venezuelan freedom fighter Simón Bolívar dances alongside King Henry Christophe, who became king of northern Haiti in 1811.

“This masked occasion had convoked three centuries of human history to [Hadriana’s] wake,” her childhood friend Patrick says. They “had come together to dance, sing, drink rum, and refuse death, kicking up the dust on my village square, which, in the midst of this general masquerade, took itself for the cosmic stage of the universe.”

In the end, it is not just history but all of life that appears to be one large carnival as the contours of death come alive on the streets of the living.

This tale has a happy ending, though. Decades later, Hadriana is revealed to be alive after all and describes how she miraculously escaped from the botched attempt to turn her into a zombie. She even gets married, not to her original fiancé but to Patrick, who has chronicled all that took place in her absence.

The true romance here may be that unlike so many of those who have disappeared in yesterday’s and today’s Haiti, Hadriana and Patrick live to tell their story.

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Marlene Daut, Professor of African Diaspora Studies, University of Virginia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Coal mining in Wales: the 1930s writers who depicted the environmental calamity caused by the pits



Llwynypia, South Wales, a colliery village built up around a coal mine.
Shutterstock

Seth Armstrong Twigg, Cardiff University

I come from a family of miners. The last person to work down the pit was my paternal grandfather, who dug coal from the subterranean tunnels hidden deep below the Welsh Marches, which lie along the English border. In comparison to the innumerable collieries that made south Wales at one point the biggest coal-exporting region in the world, ours was the forgotten coalfield.

My grandfather was a proud miner, but he was adamant that none of his children would follow in his footsteps. Thatcher’s obliteration of mining communities was conducted in an appalling manner, but reinstating the industry was not the answer. However, when I moved to south Wales to study, I was conscious of a different attitude towards our national heritage.

Shortly after beginning my master’s degree at Cardiff, I attended an event with a panel of ex-colliers. During the Q&A session, one audience member expressed a desire that mining should return to the area, which was met with approval from others. I was aware that this reflected the reality that large parts of south Wales have never fully recovered from the abrupt removal of industry, but also conscious that, on that occasion, there was hardly anyone arguing the contrary.

The price of coal

Admittedly, the coal industry brought employment, community and a strong sense of identity to parts of Wales. However, this came at the cost of widespread ecological destruction, and, despite the current coronavirus pandemic, the most significant threat to our survival remains climate change. As people, we have a natural tendency to look at the past fondly, but in order to avoid regressing, it is important to remember the negative aspects of history.

Literature about Welsh coal mining has attracted a healthy degree of critical attention over the years. Yet, little consideration has been paid towards the way writers depict the environmental impact of the industry.

Black and white photograph of coal Miner sculpture in Cardiff Bay.
Coal Miner sculpture in Cardiff Bay.
Steve F/Wikimedia, CC BY

Over the past three years, I have examined a series of texts published in the 1930s, a decade that saw an increased demand – beyond Wales – for literature about the harsh realities of life in mining communities. This Welsh industrial writing, as it became known, is usually viewed as a social document of that era. In my view, we should reclassify these writings as early articulations of the man-made changes that have created today’s climate emergency.

Writing environmental catastrophe

Wales was devastated during the 1930s by the Great Depression. The coal industry was in decline and by 1932, nearly half of all men were unemployed. This economic desolation is mirrored by literary depictions of environmental degradation in Welsh industrial writing, which was going through a boom at the time.

Collieries used local rivers to wash coal, whilst also treating water sources as a deposit for waste. As a result, river ecology suffered for generations. Jack Jones’s Black Parade (1935) communicates the deadly reality of this river pollution in Victorian Merthyr Tydfil, south Wales. Throughout Jones’s novel, the presence of the contaminated local river haunts the characters. Human and industrial waste combine to create intolerable living conditions where rats rule supreme.

Portrait of writer Jack Jones.
Jack Jones.
Wikimedia

Throughout the period of industrialisation, large areas of Welsh forest were cleared to produce the wooden props that were used to create underground tunnels for coal mining. In Idris Davies’s extended poem, Gwalia Deserta (1938), the poet draws parallels between the loss of Welsh trees to industry and the deprivation of the local population during the Depression. Davies’s poem serves as a stark warning of what a place becomes when it loses its trees.

Widespread air pollution was a major consequence of Welsh coal mining. BL Coombes’s autobiographical text, These Poor Hands (1939), describes how collieries created innumerable quantities of dust that blackened the natural landscape and nearby communities, whilst below ground, miners were subjected to abject working conditions that caused fatal respiratory diseases.

During the mining of Welsh coal, large amounts of waste material were also removed from the earth and placed on the surface. This resulted in enormous heaps of black dirt, known as spoil tips, which littered the Welsh landscape.

Richard Llewellyn’s How Green Was My Valley (1939) is criticised for its inaccurate portrayal of mining communities, but as the most widely read account of life in the Welsh coalfield, it deserves attention. The novel focuses throughout on the menacing spoil tip that looms above the protagonist’s house. Published almost 30 years before the Aberfan disaster, in which a spoil tip collapsed onto the Welsh village of Aberfan, killing 116 children and 28 adults, Llewellyn’s text is unsettlingly prophetic.

Given the urgency of reversing the global climate catastrophe, it is important that we end our reliance on fossil fuels. In Wales, we can be proud of our industrial heritage whilst acknowledging its ecologically destructive realities. Literature, in its ability to engage people, can help us remember the negative aspects of our past, so we avoid taking regressive steps in the future.The Conversation

Seth Armstrong Twigg, Doctoral Researcher in Welsh industrial literature, Cardiff University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

2020 is a year for the history books, but not without digital archives



Canada lags behind some countries with preserving public digital records.
(Flickr/BiblioArchives / LibraryArchives Canada), CC BY-NC

Ian Milligan, University of Waterloo

A seasonal change is in the air. With a minimal amount of nostalgia about the dwindling days of this unique summer, let’s turn to how we can make the most of the rest of 2020 — clearly a year for the history books.

As a historian, what concerns me is: What will our history of this unprecedented year look like in a quarter century? As the world is reshaped by COVID-19, as well as ongoing protests on a nearly unprecedented scale against racism and police brutality in the United States, Canada and around the world, it’s clear that this will be a year for future historians to make sense of.

A child today will be a historian of 2020 in the future. What sources will they turn to? How will they verify scattered memories? How will people tell the story of the tumultuous times that we’re living in today? 2020 may be a year for the history “books” but of course, the record we leave behind will be digital in manner.

But right now, Canada, unlike many other countries such as the United Kingdom, France, Denmark and others, doesn’t mandate its national library to capture a comprehensive digital record of Canadian life. This needs to change so we can ensure historians of the future have all the sources possible to write a rich, equitable and robust historical record.

Social movements, virus

From the role of video and social media in sparking and documenting protests to companies and educational institutions that moved online en masse in a matter of days this past March, 2020 will be a year that will be understood through digital media.

With coronavirus isolation, digital media has been enormously important for our interactions with colleagues, friends and loved ones.

Some trends: Zoom’s daily meeting participants went from 10 million in December to 300 million in April and we “doomscroll” through social media feeds before bed. As The New York Times explained: “The virus changed the way we internet.”

Corner outside of a tall glass building.
Today, archival work means considering digital records. Here, Library and Archives Canada’s Preservation Centre in Gatineau, Que., seen in May 2012.
(David Knox. Library and Archives Canada, IMG_1982 /Flickr), CC BY-NC

Minute-by-minute information

Because in part the British Library is empowered to collect millions of their web pages every year through the use of “legal deposit” power, a historian in the U.K. will have a rich record to explore.

For example, what did Britons think of senior adviser Dominic Cummings’ 418-kilometre trip from London to Durham while his wife was unwell? A researcher will be able to visit the British Library (in most cases, an in-person visit is required due to legal reasons) to consult not only social media feeds of everyday researchers, but news websites, U.K. blogs and beyond.

They will be able to draw on nearly everything published on the U.K. web in 2020. Right now a researcher can already view thousands of pages — and, most importantly, these are stewarded by the British Library for future preservation.

Legal deposit

This information will be accessible to our future researcher thanks to the power of legal deposit. Legal deposit is defined by the International Federation of Library Associations as a “statutory obligation [that] requires publishers, distributors and, in some countries, printers, to freely provide copies of their publications to the national collection,” and is a power that builds the collections of national libraries including Library and Archives Canada (LAC).

What this has meant in practice is that when a book or publication is published, there has been a legal requirement to deposit the book with a national library.

What happens when a publication moves online? What about blogs? Should they have a similar responsibility to deposit their material? And, critically, does a national library have a duty to preserve this information at scale?

The British Library has, since April 2013, been “entitled to copy U.K.-published material from the internet for archiving under legal deposit.” In practice, this means that it annually archives websites of the U.K.; it also supplements this archive through curated collections such as the earlier mentioned one around global pandemics. Those tweets, blogs, health websites and so on all form part of the historical record — and once archived, there is no legal ability to retroactively delete them.

Crucially, sweeping collections of material under legal deposit means that material is being amassed that does not seem important today — but could be invaluable to a historian in years to come.

Canada should aggressively follow

The remarkably forward thinking Library and Archives of Canada Act of 2004 gives Library and Archives Canada similar powers. One section of the act, for example, gives the institution the power to take a “representative sample of the documentary material of interest to Canada that is accessible to the public without restriction through the internet or any similar medium.”

These laws, however, aren’t used to their fullest. Canada’s national library doesn’t carry out a comprehensive snapshot of the entire Canadian web domain, meaning that countless voices will be lost for future historians.

A finger pushing a digital button with documents behind it.
The notion of legal deposit could be expanded in Canada to cover a comprehensive snapshot of the entire Canadian web domain.
(Shutterstock)

This is not to paint too dire a picture. Library and Archives Canada does a great job of capturing material of interest. During COVID-19, it has selectively captured some 38 million digital assets related to COVID-19 by July 2020, which add to their robust web archives including the Government of Canada web archive, which collects and maintains a comprehensive record of federal government’s websites.

Increasingly, it’s making collections, such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s collection, available online. In doing so, Library and Archives Canada is explicitly noting its collecting powers under the 2004 act, suggesting an increasing willingness to share these materials.

We should laud this great work, and use it as a launchpad for the comprehensive collection of all Canadian material.

Patchwork collecting: not enough

While Library and Archives Canada has been collecting material for COVID-19, including social media hashtags as well as media and non-media related websites, even 900 websites being regularly collected is patchwork compared to the sheer amount of information published by Canadians online every day.

To do justice to what’s happening around us, and to make sure that historians of the future can understand this moment, the institution and policy-makers need to move quickly.

We need to aim to collect the entire Canadian web domain on an ongoing basis, both during and after COVID, to enable future researchers to understand our country. This will require additional funds to Library and Archives Canada. But, at what better time?The Conversation

Ian Milligan, Associate Professor of History, University of Waterloo

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.