Neverending Story: Haiti’s Vibrant Literary Sphere Endures

Almost three years ago in Haiti, Port-au-Prince and surrounding cities were nearly destroyed by a catastrophic earthquake. All aspects of Haitian life were greatly affected by the January 12, 2010, disaster. Yet, even as the people suffered and grieved, Haitians also struggled to reassert themselves almost immediately after the quake, including the literary community. Haitian authors participated in festivals and fairs, both locally and abroad. Libraries and bookstores were repaired, rebuilt, reopened. Books continued to be published, and more importantly, to be bought, borrowed, and read.

Books published by Haitian authors in 2010 included Saisons Sauvages by Kettly Mars, Tout bouge autour de moi by Dany Laferrière, Failles by Yanick Lahens, and the collaborative volume Haïti parmi les vivants. There was also Évelyne Trouillot’s La Mémoire aux abois, Mark Endy Simon’s Je ne pardonne pas au malheur; Haïti: une traversée littéraire, a critical work co-authored by Lyonel Trouillot and Louis-Philippe Dalembert, and Refonder Haïti?, a collection of essays. Since then, many more books have been published by Haitian authors, both within and outside of the country, in all genres. There has been a lot of poetry published, but also short story collections and novels as well as several books for children and young readers. Book signings are a frequent occurrence around the capital.

While authors continue to explore the same themes they did before the earthquake—love, loss, death, political intrigue, sexuality, spirituality, family life and societal tensions—the temblor of January 10, 2010, has become part of Haiti’s literary landscape.  In Marvin Victor’s first novel Corps Mêlés, the protagonist’s daughter has died in the 2010 earthquake. Makenzy Orcel explores what life is like for the city’s prostitutes after the quake has ravaged Port-au-Prince in Les Immortelles. In Soro, the latest book in his Dieuswalwe Azémar series, Gary Victor uses the January 10 catastrophe as a catalyst for a police investigation. These novels are in addition to the pieces of short fiction and poetry referencing the earthquake that have also been published.

If Haitian authors have continued to write and publish in the post-quake era, their readers have continued to clamor for their works.  The first annual Livres en Folie book fair, held after the earthquake on June 3, 2010, was an astounding success, with forty-nine authors signing their works and several thousand visitors in attendance. Since then, two more fairs have been held with even bigger turnouts, prompting the organizers to consider ways in which to better manage the crowds. In addition to the one-day book fair, the organizers have also founded La Quinzaine du livre, two weeks of literary and cultural activities including conferences, roundtables, concerts and film screenings  held in different venues around the city.

With Livres en Folie primarily anchored in the capital, Clément Benoit launched Livres en Liberté in 2002. This traveling book fair periodically takes place in cities and small towns around the country. Several have been held since the 2010 earthquake in Gonaïves, Hinche, Dessalines, and Jacmel, among other places.

For over a decade, the Fête du Livre Jeunesse has also been part of the Haitian literary landscape. A book fair dedicated to young readers, it is popular among schoolchildren, their parents and schools. It was held in both 2011 and 2012, with impressive turnouts and several activities to entertain the children. The venue had to be changed from the pre-earthquake site, but the organizers were determined to continue the tradition of encouraging youngsters to read. And the Direction Nationale du Livre also organizes a holiday mini-book fair before Christmas.

Literary activities in post-earthquake Haiti are not limited to book fairs, of course. New libraries and cultural centers have been opened. Construction is currently underway on Delmas’ first public library. It should be open in early 2013. La Pléiade bookstore in Port-au-Prince is being rebuilt after being destroyed in the earthquake. The Centre Culturel Anne-Marie Morisset in Delmas was officially inaugurated on August 9, 2011. Among other activities, the Center houses a neighborhood library and hosts the weekly Vendredi Littéraire, a literary and cultural gathering that used to be housed at Université Caraïbe, one of the many institutions of higher learning flattened on January 12, 2010.  The Centre Culturel de la COSAFH organizes a monthly poetic cocktail and the Ministry of Culture has recently instituted Pikliz, a weekly cultural show.

Earlier this year, the Direction Nationale du Livre started a mardi du livre series in which they invite different authors to present and sign their works for their readers. Also, the DNL hosts a monthly kafelodyans, which has included discussions of the book business and presentations of papers on particular authors.  

The second Festival Etonnants Voyageurs Haiti, slated to start on January 14, 2010, finally got underway in February 2012. The 2012 Festival offered four days of readings, debates, book signings, and performances by Haitian and foreign authors and artists, and was a huge success.

Since 2003, the Festival Quatre Chemins, a Haitian and Belgian co-production, has been instrumental in revitalizing the country’s theater sector. The first two years postquake, the festival focused on capacity-building rather than staging actual productions. However, in 2012, the festival reestablished itself, offering a selection of about a dozen plays and readings and other dramatic interventions with both professional and amateur troupes and actors.

A Haitian chapter of the PEN Club was founded in 2008. Its president, Georges Anglade, died in the 2010 earthquake. In spite of the tragedy, the chapter has endured, hosting various activities, including the three-day international festival Libérez la Parole in April 2012. The following summer, the members inaugurated the Writers’ House, the Georges Anglade Residence which serves as a retreat for young and established authors.

In 2011, poet James Noël and visual artist Pascale Monnin launched an artistic residence program, with the idea that Haiti was not only a place to be helped, but one with much to offer. Guests of the program, Passagers du vent, included not only Haitian poets and songwriters, but also an Italian photographer, a Congolese novelist, and a Franco-Danish writer.

A magazine, IntranQu’îllités, was born of the Passagers du Vent experience, in which some of the writings produced during the residence are published; other writers from around the world are also invited to contribute. Demanbre, a Haitian journal of literature, criticism, and social theory, recently launched as well. The first issue contains texts paying tribute to and analyzing the works of Felix Morisseau Leroy and Michel-Rolph Trouillot. It also includes interviews and poetry.

An international conference on Caribbean and Haitian poetry, with a special focus on Georges Castera is planned for May 2013. Also in the spring of 2013, the first Rencontres Québécoises will be held in Haiti, with the objective of promoting Quebecois books and literature and establishing links between Haitian and Quebecois readers and writers.

Most of the activities I’ve described are based in Delmas and the greater Port-au-Prince area. But there are similar happenings throughout the country, especially in the larger cities. There are neighborhood libraries that host a number of small book clubs and other literary gatherings. New publishing houses have been established. Since the 2010 earthquake, the country has faced devastating tropical storms, the outbreak of a cholera epidemic, and political upheavals. In spite of these events, in spite of a readership with an ever diminishing buying power, the Haitian literary sphere continues to thrive. If January 12, 2010 forever changed Haiti, it did not obliterate it. There is no doubt that the consequences of the earthquake have forever altered the country’s literary landscape. Yet, Haitian literature, like the country, endures.