From the ashes
By Toni Pressley-Sanon
Haiti Noir, ed. Edwidge Danticat
(Akashic Books, ISBN 9781936070657, 300 pp)
Outside the cemetery in Pétionville, Haiti, 29 January, 2010. Photograph by Georgia Popplewell, posted at Flickr under a Creative Commons license
Edwidge Danticat introduces the fiction anthology Haiti Noir with a caveat many of her readers will be familiar with: there is the time before and the time after. Danticat began editing the volume before the earthquake that rocked the island nation on 12 January, 2010, and finished it after. In between, Haiti’s psychological and physical landscape had changed. But, as Danticat notes, the stories — many of them timeless in their ability to capture an enduring essence of Haiti — are still very relevant, and the themes they address may be even more cogent, as the desperation faced by the vast majority of Haitian people has increased exponentially since that fateful day.
Haiti Noir is a recent addition to the Noir anthology series published by Brooklyn-based Akashic Books, launched in 2004. Every collection, edited by literary leaders from around the globe, is comprised of completely original short fiction set in a distinct neighbourhood or location within the city or country of the book’s title. Series volumes set in the Caribbean include Havana Noir (2007), Trinidad Noir (2008), and the forthcoming Kingston Noir (2012). Noir generally refers to a film genre, or to a category of crime literature that features tough, cynical characters in bleak settings. It inevitably suggests danger or violence. Classic noir film is associated with black and white visuals that further emphasise its dark subject matter. In its uniquely Haitian way, the form of Haiti Noir also emphasises the collection’s dark subject matter. The volume’s cover photo is of cinderblock houses, some with painted façades, but most devoid of colour, stacked on top of one another, and shot in black and white with a bluish green tinge. Though there are signs of life in the tattered clothes hung out to dry, there is not a human being to be seen. The dramatic contrast in colour refers to the classic noir genre, but the photo’s subject (a staple of the Haitian urban landscape) and tint, which add to the otherworldliness of the composition, puts the reader squarely in Haiti.
Danticat rightfully points out that noir also means “black.” As the first black republic in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti is marked by its noir (as in blackness or damnability) for its transgression against the rest of a world that was still actively endorsing the forced migration of African peoples across the Atlantic Ocean to work for the survival and success of white (blanc) masters. Haiti’s revolution was the liberated nation’s fall from grace. For the overwhelming majority of the international community at the time, this nascent black nation represented the abyss from which no light could escape. It was a black hole that had to be contained. The legacy of the founding fathers’ and mothers’ actions, along with the international community’s reactions, lives on. Noir is indeed a fitting title.
Haiti Noir is divided into three parts: “Which Noir?”, “Noir Crossroads”, and “Who Is That Noir?” Even though the middle title is not interrogative, its designation as a “crossroads” points to the uncertainty or questionability of fates, both of Haiti and of the characters that come to life in each of the stories. The reader is further orientated by the name of the town where each story is set, echoing back to a map of Haiti at the front of the book, with place names over drawings that resemble police crime scene outlines. Of the eighteen stories, seven are translations from either French or Kreyòl into English, by Nicole Ball and David Ball.
The novelist Walter Mosley once wrote that science fiction may have special allure for African-Americans. After reading the stories in this collection, I would argue that the noir genre has special allure for Haitians. In a land where the living and the dead are in constant communication, where there is often the sense that Haiti is a world all its own — even as it is physically connected to the Dominican Republic — and where one never knows what the next minute will bring, let alone the next morning, the noir genre, infused with science fiction, or rather speculative fiction, is most appropriate. The genre is not new to Haiti, as Gary Victor and Ibi Aanu Zoboi are both well known for their writings that explore interactions between the living and the dead, and which may be considered noir.
While three of the stories here — Patrick Sylvain’s “Odette”, Zoboi’s “The Harem”, and Rodney Saint-Éloi’s “The Blue Hill” — are about the earthquake of 2010, they also speak about a Haiti that existed before those thirty-five seconds, and a Haiti that still exists. It is a Haiti where the extreme and unrelenting stress of trying to put one’s life (back) together without any means of reliable support can push one to the brink of what is seen as insanity, and beyond. At the same time, others who face their own brand of hell look to hold someone accountable for their suffering. Their profound disenfranchisement and sense of helplessness mean that the weakest of the weak are often made scapegoats. It is a Haiti where young men, using their good looks and charm, juggle multiple women, each appreciated for their unique attributes. (In “The Harem”, for example, at the moment of losing everything else, Zoboi’s protagonist gathers all that he has left — his human trophies — in one location, even as that threatens to cave in. The reader can only imagine the desperation behind such an act, as his world crumbles around him.) Finally, it is a Haiti where the blue helmets have occupied and held court since 2004, never without conflict. “The Blue Hill” can easily be read as a story about those who are “responsible for this open gash in the earth that poisons everything.” It is especially poignant as it follows on the heels of a cholera outbreak, something that Haiti “until now had escaped”, as one observer put it, traced to a contamination of the Artibonite River by UN forces.
While it may be tempting to read stories like Sylvain’s “Odette” or Evelyn Trouillot’s “Which One?” anthropologically — in other words, as “this-is-life-in-Haiti” — it would be a mistake to do so. The pieces are homage and testament to the power of story, the power to reflect and comment on, to testify, to weave language in such a way that the reader is swept up, not just in the message, but in the form it takes. This fact is brought home in Danticat’s own contribution, “Claire of the Sea Light”, which takes the reader back one year as the story progresses to finally abruptly drop him or her at the moment the story began. It has the effect of providing a roadmap to a desperate father’s state of mind when he makes his difficult decision. In the end, Claire, who has been voiceless throughout most of the story, makes herself heard; not through words, which would have gone unheeded in such dire circumstances, but through a last desperate act.
This is also true of Josaphat-Robert Large’s “Rosanna”, where the author shows that profound class differences in Haiti make it inevitable that those whom the elite trust with their very lives will also be their undoing, piece by horrifying piece. Not even the most innocent will be spared. The story stands as a kind of cautionary tale whose time is long overdue. The world that Aunt Solange and her niece Rosanna inhabit, as members of the bourgeois class, is one of opulence, where everyone knows their place, where the daily work is set in motion without incident, and where a restavek (child labourer) like Davernis (Da) can only hope to grow up to become a chauffeur and message boy:
He was twenty-one years old, like Rosanna, and in another type of house, they might have been raised like brother and sister. Instead, she was the princess of the house, as the servants liked to refer to her, and he was the driver.
The resentment that builds in the young man who grows up without access to wealth and education while in the midst of it gives rise to his cruelty at the end of the story, as he feels no sympathy for the family he has destroyed after he orchestrates Rosanna’s ill-fated kidnapping. Rather, it fuels a callousness that leaves him only regretting that his collaborator “had lost him such an important payday simply by lusting over the privileged flesh of some young bourgeois girl.” While Aunt Solange can see the filth in which the majority of the population exists every day only when it touches her family, Da’s hunger for wealth so consumes him that he feels he has no choice but to try another kidnapping.
The profound class stratification of Haiti is again the source of conflict in Gary Victor’s story “The Finger”, which — like Saint-Éloi’s “The Blue Hill”, Madison Smartt Bell’s “Twenty Dollars”, and Mark Kurlansky’s “The Leopard of Ti Morne” — also poignantly explores the international community’s complex relationship with Haiti. “The Finger” begins with a break-in at a wealthy businessman’s home in the middle of the night. A tone of darkness and danger is immediately set, even by the author naming the protagonist Dread Lanfè (Hell). And while Dread Lanfè’s actions are brutal — he poisons the guard dogs, and he and his partner beat his victims to death — Victor also conveys the brutality of the systems both within and outside the country that gave birth to men such as he. “If he had become a full-time thief it was because the bourgeoisie and the expat intellectuals had ganged up with the Americans and the French to kidnap the leader.” With eight children to put through school, one wife and three mistresses, one of whom is an Italian aid worker, he feels he has no choice. The irony of Dread Lanfè’s family situation is not lost on Victor, and this line is also a comment on the common Haitian male practice of having multiple partners.
Victor also brings up another critical reality of contemporary life in Haiti, rarely openly discussed: sexual relationships between aid workers (and, based on news reports, UN troops) and Haitians, and their complicated nature. After he is unsuccessful in his robbery attempt, Dread Lanfè goes to his Italian mistress’s place:
She worked for an NGO and was always proud to show him off — him, Dread Lanfè, like a trophy you fought hard to win. He was fond of Paola even though he knew she didn’t care too much about the dire poverty of the people in the city where she’d come to work. Her apparent commitment was hiding something else. Some deeper discontent. A loneliness her culture had planted in her. Poverty, death ever-present, black bodies gleaming with sweat. All those niggers wanted was to gobble up white women and that made her panties wet — she who had been frigid before.
But while Paola — as representative of the thousands of foreign men and women who work in Haiti, recently dubbed “the Republic of NGOs” — has her own reasons for being in the country and with Dread Lanfè, he has his own desires:
And Dread Lanfè told himself that Paola was his safety net in this fucked-up country. Perhaps some day she would take off with him and they’d go live in other skies. That’s why he felt he had to concentrate on her, always keep himself in condition to satisfy her well.
In these few lines, Victor lays bare the unequal power relations that shape these most intimate relationships, and the political implications of that disequilibrium.
The Haitian diaspora is also shown to be very much part and parcel of Haiti’s past, present, and future in haunting tales like Trouillot’s “Which One?”, Louis-Philippe Dalembert’s “Dangerous Crossroads”, Kurlansky’s “Leopard of Ti Morne”, Nadine Pinede’s “Departure Lounge”, and Katia D. Ulysse’s “The Last Department”. This latter story refers to Haiti’s “tenth department”, comprised of the Haitian diaspora, those lòt bo dlo (across the water). Ulysse explores the tensions that arise between those who leave and those who stay behind. The story focuses on two sisters, Foufoune and Miriam, whose mother, Gwo Manman, has died in Brooklyn after the former took the old woman to live with her against her wishes, while Miriam stayed behind in Puits Blain, their childhood home. As far as Miriam is concerned, her mother died of a broken heart:
Every time Gwo Manman looked out the apartment window, all she saw was sky and shapeless air — sheer torture to a woman who preferred her feet on a dirt-packed floor to fancy tiles, or even Foufoune’s pretty rug. As far as Miriam was concerned, Foufoune might as well have put a bullet in the old woman’s heart.
“The Last Department” begins with the hatred that the two sisters harbour for each other, but by the middle of the story they seem to have reconciled, when Foufoune brings their mother’s body back to Haiti to be buried. However, Ulysse has skilfully woven two other characters into the narrative: the latrine and the latrine cleaner. By the last page and a half, these seemingly minor characters take centre stage, and the reader is haunted by the events that unfold suddenly and violently, and by the narrator’s last words, long after he or she has finished reading: “She was tired, but took comfort in knowing that her mother and sister had both returned to her in Puits Blain. This time to stay.”
The brilliant original pieces in this collection can be appreciated on multiple fronts. Each haunting, eloquently rendered tale makes an important contribution to Haiti’s rich literary patrimony. (And a portion of the profits go to the Lambi Fund, a non-profit organisation that works towards economic justice, democracy, and alternative sustainable development in Haiti.) Released at a critical time in the country’s history, Haiti Noir does stand as a “kind of preservation corner,” as Danticat suggests, but it is also a testament to the power of the imagination that has sustained Haiti historically, and will continue to do so as the country, its inhabitants, and its diaspora rise from the ashes.
Toni Pressley-Sanon is an assistant professor in the Department of Transnational Studies and the Programme in African and African American Studies at the University at Buffalo.