Twelve years ago, at 4:53 p.m. on January 12, 2010, the earth shook Port-au-Prince, Haiti, for less than a minute. The earthquake shattered households, crumbled buildings, and claimed the lives of more than 250,000 people. Ever since that day, Haitian author Kettly Mars has been sifting through the social, natural, and humanitarian effects of the quake in her novels, as well as in commentary and activism. When the earthquake took place, she was about to go on tour to promote her novel Savage Seasons, and by 2015 she had written two new novels––At the Borders of Thirst and I Am Alive (forthcoming in my translation from University of Virginia Press)—directly addressing the impact the earthquake had on Haitians from all walks of life. Like her earlier works, these novels are characterized by the observant eye and trenchant voice that have made Mars a fixture of Haitian literature in the twenty-first century.
A few weeks ahead of the twelfth anniversary of a day many Haitians refer to as douz, the Haitian Creole word for twelve, I spoke with Mars about the passage of time since 2010, her literary life, and her pursuit of the truth through writing.
Nathan H. Dize (NHD): I’d like to go back in time, all the way to January 2010. You were getting ready to go on tour for your latest novel, Savage Seasons, when a powerful earthquake of 7.0 magnitude struck Haiti along the Enriquillo fault line, just north of Port-au-Prince. Can you describe what it was like in Haiti at that moment? And, more recently, did the earthquake on August 14, 2021, cause the memories of January 12 to resurface?
Kettly Mars (KM): My publisher was putting the final touches on my novel Savage Seasons when the January 12, 2010 earthquake hit. It’s the greatest natural disaster that has ever occurred in Haiti. More than a decade later, the country still suffers from its aftershocks. My family was not personally affected, but we had to live in the midst of this chaotic event that claimed the lives of more than 200,000 people, damaged thousands of houses and roads, and made millions of people homeless––that was something every Haitian living in Haiti experienced at the time. It goes without saying that we were shaken by the most recent earthquake in the Southern Peninsula on August 14. To return to Savage Seasons, it was the first Haitian novel published in France after the earthquake.
NHD: Was it hard to be on book tour for a novel set amid the Duvalier dictatorship (1957–86)—a somber period replete with often imperceptible silence and pain—while Haiti was suffering from such a hypervisible wound?
KM: No, it wasn’t difficult. On the contrary, the situation heightened people’s awareness of the novel. Savage Seasons was well received because it’s a powerful novel in which certain literary critics noticed the traces of Greek tragedy. The book provided an opportunity to look closer into Haiti, its recent history, and its particularities. As a result, Savage Seasons was translated into five languages.
NHD: How has your writing—and your career as a writer—changed since the January 12, 2010 earthquake?
KM: For a few years, I dreamed of leaving my day job to dedicate myself to writing full time, but it’s such a hard decision for a writer or an artist to make. The January 12, 2010 earthquake gave me the determination I needed to take the risk by reminding me of the fragility and the precarity of life. I also think the catastrophe enabled me to reach a new level of maturity in my writing.
NHD: For several years, you served as the president of Centre PEN Haiti, which is part of an international network of associations supporting writers’ freedom of expression. Under your leadership, PEN Haiti created the “PEN Haiti Committee of Women Writers,” and has also organized donation drives to collect materials to assist people affected by natural disasters. Can you tell us about PEN Haiti’s mission and the initiatives it supports?
KM: I was the president of PEN Haiti, serving writers and journalists, women and men, for about four years, until October 14, 2021. A permanent feature of PEN Centers across the globe is the defense of freedom of expression through the promotion of literature and exchanges between writers of various backgrounds. The members of PEN Centers also come together to form committees dedicated to themes such as “writers for peace,” “writers in prison,” and “translation and linguistic rights.” I am delighted to have established PEN Haiti’s Committee of Women Writers, which is made up in large part of young women learning how to assert their presence in society through writing.
“The earthquake represents a moment of reckoning for the Haitian people.”
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve magnified PEN Haiti’s presence on social media to stay in contact with our members, particularly with local internet users of all ages who find in literature and the arts a space to learn and enrich their lives in today’s extremely difficult sociopolitical context. Our project “Journal d’un confinement” (Lockdown Journal), to which dozens of poets and writers contributed new pieces of writing inspired by the current situation in Haiti, was a complete hit for many months in 2020. More recently, we also collected funds and a wide range of materials to aid those in the South affected by the August 2021 earthquake.
NHD: You, like other Haitian authors, have written novels—At the Borders of Thirst (Aux frontières de la soif) and I Am Alive (Je suis vivant)—evoking specific episodes in the period known as the “reconstruction of Haiti” in the years following the quake. Your novels feature well-documented moments such as the failed development of Camp Corail, the spectacle of Sean Penn’s interventions into the recovery effort, and the cholera epidemic the United Nations caused by polluting the Artibonite River. Would you say that the earthquake represents a period of change for Haitian literature?
KM: I’d say more so that the earthquake represents a moment of reckoning for the Haitian people in general. There are the novels, yes, but there was also the production of films like the documentary Fatal Assistance by the Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck, and we must not forget the controversial book Haiti: International Dilemmas and Failures by the Brazilian diplomat Ricardo Seitenfus, which opened the world’s eyes to the neoliberal politicians who governed Haiti in the chaos of underdevelopment after the quake. It’s clear that writers have taken up these themes in their creations, but I’d say it’s more that the earthquake opened new sociopolitical avenues to be addressed in literary fiction without necessarily causing a period of change within the literature itself.
NHD: Speaking of At the Borders of Thirst, the story at the heart of the novel can be quite difficult to digest. You tell the stories of characters living in Internally Displaced People Camps, including the gendered violence like forced prostitution and the rape of ti fi, virgin Haitian girls, perpetrated in these locales after the quake. What caused you to write this novel? What can literature do that perhaps another medium cannot when faced with these types of atrocities?
KM: Literature is nourished by everything, beauty as well as atrocities. What would literature become if it only portrayed what comforts us or what makes us feel pleasure? Literature is the mirror for society, it’s the reflection of the human soul. And even though we’re aware of the frivolity of writing novels, we’re buoyed by the feeling of having contributed something to the transmission and comprehension of certain realities. And, who knows, perhaps we’ve reached some hearts and minds.
NHD: In 2013, Words Without Borders published an excerpt from At the Borders of Thirst translated by Nicole and David Ball, and Ingeborg Schmutte’s German translation appeared three months later. As a translator and critic, I’m wondering if there are plans for a complete English translation of the novel?
KM: You’re involved in literary translation, and you know how difficult it is to find translators and publishers for Francophone novels. It’s mostly French novels from France that are published, and in general, they’re novels that have had great commercial success. The quality of a work is not reason enough to have something translated. Unfortunately, I haven’t had any offers for At the Borders of Thirst to be translated into English.
NHD: I would like to talk a little about your 2015 novel I Am Alive. From the very first lines, the reader is aware of the time in which the novel is set: the earth is shaking and the psychiatric institution where Alexandre has lived for years is plunged into chaos. Why did you choose to write a second novel about the earthquake? How are these two novels different?
KM: Good question. I was in two different states of mind when I wrote these two novels. At the Borders of Thirst was an expression of revolt, a refusal to accept the frequently inhumane treatment of those affected by the earthquake at a time when millions of aid dollars flooded the country. An expression of revolt decrying the irresponsibility and inaction of certain people who reaped the rewards in the political as well as the social sphere. The novel is also a reflection on literature and its potential (or not) for redemption.
“We learn to write our truths and our desires the same way we learn to speak in public, by overcoming the things that make us nervous.”
I Am Alive hits closer to home because the story that inspired me to write it is true, and it relates to a situation that developed in my family because of the earthquake. In this regard, it’s an intimate, human story about a family, and the context of the earthquake was merely incidental. The story could have taken place at another moment in time, but I must admit that the earthquake reinforces the dramatic nature of the plot.
NHD: The English translation of I Am Alive will be released with the University of Virginia Press in 2022. In your new prologue, you write, “It’s quite difficult to write a story inspired by true events, especially when those events impact us closely. There’s the potential for parents or friends to feel betrayed, for them to feel dispossessed of their personal lives and their intimacy. You must find the right moment to explain to your family and friends your intention to write a novel inspired by a situation that concerns them directly or indirectly.” What have you learned about yourself by writing this novel? What do we learn about ourselves through literature?
KM: Literature causes us to encounter the unexpected strength we hold within ourselves. It takes a lot of courage to harness this strength. When I started to imagine writing I Am Alive, I was afraid. Afraid of offending the people I’m closest to, the people I love. The novel tells the story of a family member living with a mental illness; it can be a touchy subject. While I knew writing the novel could cause some of the tension everyone felt to dissipate, I was hesitant. And then I decided to go for it. But I also hesitated when writing Savage Seasons because certain plot points in the novel were inspired by true events people had told me about, and certain protagonists were still alive. In a tight-knit society like Haiti, everyone knows everyone, and animosities can be tenacious. But literature cannot be silenced by these anxieties. We learn to write our truths and our desires the same way we learn to speak in public, by overcoming the things that make us nervous. Literature teaches us to how to challenge ourselves, and it pushes us to overcome these barriers. Literature gives us the key to better understand our lives and the lives of others. And this is also true when we write pure fiction. Truth must be our compass. And to make a story and characters feel real, we cannot pay attention to the opinions of others or future critiques. We must avoid the urge to please; instead, we must remain true to ourselves.
Kettly Mars was born in 1958 in Port-au-Prince, Haïti, where she lives. She has received the Jacques Stephen Alexis Prize (1996), the Senghor Prize (2006), a Barbancourt grant (2011), and the Prince Claus Prize for Culture and Development (2011). She is the former president of Centre PEN Haiti, a member of the jury of the literary prize Prix Henri Deschamps, and a member of the jury for awards of the Prince Claus Fund. Her novels and short stories have been translated into Danish, German, Dutch, Italian, Japanese, and English.