Why you should care
Contrary to popular belief, a novel about Haiti can be funny — or scary, sad or absurd. These new Haitian-American novelists are showing us how.
Pooja Bhatia is an OZY editor and writer. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Economist, and was once the mango-eating champion of Port-au-Prince.
No one said publishing a novel was easy. But those who write English-language fiction about Haiti carry special burdens. Here, for instance, is Haitian-born writer Dimitry Léger, on the types of rejections his manuscript garnered:
“‘It’s funny! And … you know, it’s too funny for me. A Haiti book is not supposed to be funny. And an earthquake book is not supposed to be funny. And we already have Edwidge [Danticat], and oh, I didn’t like Junot Diaz, so I definitely won’t like this.’”
This veritable boomlet underscores the literary coming of age of the Haitian diaspora.
Léger’s road to publication sounds as rutted and muddy as a Haitian highway — Diaz isn’t even Haitian, you know? — but Léger made it. A HarperCollins imprint, Amistad, is slated to publish his God Loves Haiti in January, timed to coincide with the five-year commemoration of the country’s devastating 2010 earthquake.
Then God Loves Haiti will join the ranks of a growing subgenre of American lit: fiction of the Haitian diaspora. It’s a veritable boomlet. Arriving as it does at a time when publishing houses feel more like bust, it underscores the literary coming of age of the Haitian diaspora. “Let this be the year of Roxane Gay ,” a reviewer for Time magazine proclaimed this week, on the release of Gay’s debut novel, An Untamed State (Grove Atlantic, $16), set mostly in Haiti. Gay has a collection of essays coming out in August, too.
Foreigners have published English-language literature about Haiti for decades. Think Graham Greene, Amy Wilentz, Madison Smartt Bell. And the immigrant experience has long been fertile ground for American stories. Haiti itself is home to a vibrant storytelling culture and standout fiction writers, too. They include Lyonel Trouillot and Frankétienne, whose name often comes up when Nobel season comes around. And for such a tiny country — Haiti’s population is only about 10 million — its diaspora is huge. In the U.S. alone, the Census Bureau counted 830,000 Americans of Haitian descent in 2010; the number has likely grown since then.
Despite all that, most Haitian-American novelists haven’t had much luck getting published — until now.
Though all the books in this crop of debut fiction deal with Haiti, they vary widely in tone, theme and concern. Gay’s novel concerns the kidnapping and torture of a Haitian-American woman in Port-au-Prince and the aftermath. It is apparently so measured, convincing and frightening that it robs readers of speech. Léger’s is a domestic drama centered around a woman who has decided to leave Haiti — as well as her lover — when an earthquake strikes. It is dark, but compared with Gay’s, it’s a romp. Léger stresses its humor.
The protagonist of Elsie Augustave’s The Roving Tree (Akashic Books, $11.96) is a grown-up Haitian adoptee trying to reconcile her personal history and present. She does so from the grave. Katia Ulysse, meanwhile, describes her debut, Drifting (Akashic Books, June 2014), as less a novel and more a set of interwoven stories. Two of the stories take place in the context of post-quake Haiti.
The books do have something in common, aside from their Haitian roots…
The books do have something in common, aside from their Haitian roots: Their authors cite the support of Edwidge Danticat, a Haitian-American who is among the most prominent writers of her generation. “She’s the most generous person, the most generous writer, I’ve ever known,” says Ulysse. “I really love her.” The debut writers credit Danticat for reading their manuscripts and promoting their work.
“Please don’t make me sound like a godmother or anything,” Danticat wrote by email.
Too late. Danticat is chuffed about the wave of dyaspora fiction, noting it gets beyond culture clash or culture mesh, and sometimes even Haiti: “It’s freeing and exhilarating, and I’m so excited to see what lies ahead,” she says.
Another motor of Haitian literature in the United States is Akashic Books, a Brooklyn-based publisher with a penchant for “African diaspora” literature, including books from Caribbean writers, and a mission to “reverse gentrify” the literary world. (It struck gold with the, ahem, “children’s” book Go the Fuck to Sleep, which debuted at number one on the New York Times best-seller list.) In addition to publishing Augustave’s and Ulysse’s debuts, Akashic has showcased emerging Haitian and Haitian-diaspora writers in its “Noir” series. NB: Danticat edited both Haiti Noir volumes. The world of Haiti is huge and tiny.
It truly comes from a deeper part of me, not the cerebral part…
Though Danticat is the most prominent Haitian-American writer, the grand-pere of Haitian diaspora lit is Dany Laferrière, the Haitian-Canadian novelist whose first novel, How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired , was published in 1985. Laferrière also wrote Heading South , before it made its lusty film debut, and, most recently, a memoir about the earthquake. His 2009 book, L’Enigme du Retour , won the Prix Médicis, the French equivalent of the Pulitzer, and in December, he was elected to the Academie Française — the world’s most prestigious Francophone literary assocation.
But few of Laferriere’s works are available in English, which points up another challenge Haitian-American novelists face: a language barrier. Haiti’s two official languages are French and Haitian Kreyol. Most Haitians grow up speaking Kreyol at home and French at school. English is not much on the agenda.
Ulysse hears her stories in Kreyol. “It truly comes from a deeper part of me, not the cerebral part,” she says. It’s the language of the stories her great-grandmother used to tell her, she says. Though Ulysse publishes some stories in Kreyol, she translated her novel into English.
There’s another difficulty that comes with writing about Haiti as a member of the diaspora: the peril of representing a poor country your family left behind. At an event in New York on Tuesday, Gay said she felt nervous about how the novel might be received by Haitians: with all the blood and trauma, it’s not exactly a banner for tourism to the island.
But who would say literature should be promotional? Léger, whose novel takes up the complicated sense of home many Haitians have — they want to escape, but they don’t want to leave — has some counsel. “Haitians’ patriotism seems like an oxymoron,” says Léger, “but it’s true. It exists.”