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Haitian literature has been closely intertwined with the political life of Haiti. Haitian intellectuals turned successively or simultaneously to France, the UK, the United States, and African traditions. At the same time, Haitian history has always been a rich source of inspiration for literature, with its heroes, its upheavals, its cruelties and its rites.
The nineteenth century
In the eighteenth century, settlers published descriptive and political works in France. Haitian literature has its origins in the country's independence.
In 1804, Fligneau's play The Haitian expatriate made its debut. But the ruling classes and the intellectual elites in the emerging Haitian state remain imbued with French culture. There was a patriotic vein that recounted the deeds of convulsive independence. It adopted, over the 19th century, the successive literary currents coming from France: classicism, romanticism, Parnassianism, and symbolism. Major authors of this period include Antoine Dupré (1782–1816), Juste Chanlatte (1766–1828), François Romain Lhérisson (1798–1859) and Jules Solime Milscent (1778–1842), who founded the journal L'Abeille haïtienne in 1829.
In this period of intense literary turmoils, newspapers like Le Républicain and later L'Union opened their pages to the first romantics. L'Observateur, created in 1819, published romantic poetry. In 1836 the group of the Cénacle was formed, with the romantic poets Ignace Nau (1808–1845) and Coriolan Ardouin (1812–1838). Later Oswald Durand (1840–1906) and Massillon Coicou (1867–1908) represented this movement.
Theatrical production was equally rich and important, parallel to the emergence of melodrama in France. All genres were represented: prose drama, tragedy, comedy, and works reflecting current and changing mores.
At the end of the 19th century, Haitian literature was imbued with the prestige of the French language and almost exclusively oriented towards Paris. Touching only the literate francophone minority, it ignored Haitians' daily lives, despite a strong patriotic dimension.
The twentieth century
The twentieth century opened with the creation of the magazine La Ronde by Pétion Gérome in 1895. The poets in this intimate and delicate school (Etzer Vilaire, Georges Sylvain) continued to use France as a point of reference. This vein continued during the first part of the 20th century with poets such as Dantès Bellegarde and Ida Faubert.
The American occupation, starting 1915, was a shock. The génération de la gifle (slap generation) created successive militant literary magazines: La Revue de la ligue de la jeunesse haïtienne (1916), La Nouvelle Ronde (1925), and above all La Revue indigène (1927). The Indigeniste movement, through its founder Jean Price-Mars invited writers to start creating rather than imitating, that is to draw from the African roots of the Haitian people. The resistance was also expressed in the oral culture, stories, traditions and legends.
At the same time, social realism in literature was advanced by Jacques Roumain (Gouverneurs de la rosée, 1944) and René Depestre. The novel depicted the darkness of peasant life in the country. Stephen Alexis, René Depestre, and Gérald Bloncourt founded the magazine La Ruche in 1945.
In 1946, André Breton was appointed by the Director of Cultural Affairs in Paris to establish relations with Haitian intellectuals.
In the midst of a student strike opposing the Lescot government, their speeches resonated with the insurgents, led in particular by René Depestre. However, the surrealist influence on Haitian literature remained small, though real. It is, for example, openly claimed by Clément Magloire-Saint-Aude, collaborator of Griots.
The réalisme merveilleux of René Depestre and Jacques Stephen Alexis in the 1950s would be much more fruitful. Contemporary Haitian literature is part of the Francophone literature as well as the Latin American culture.
The Duvalier regime saw the exodus of many Haitian intellectuals. The so-called writers of the diaspora engaged in a militant literature, treating Haiti in terms of memory, suffering, and guilt of being far from one's land. Books such as Jean Métellus's Louis Vortex (1992, réédition 2005) depict the daily life of Haitian exiles in their host countries. It can be difficult to define what constitutes a Haitian writer when many Haitians no longer live in Haiti and do not necessarily write about their home country.
Living in Haiti:
Living in the US or Canada:
- Anthony Phelps (1928 -)
- Émile Ollivier (1940–2002)
- Gary Klang (1940 -)
- Josaphat-Robert Large (1942 -)
- Joel Des Rosiers (1951 -)
- Dany Laferrière (1953 -)
- Marie-Célie Agnant
- Stanley Péan (1966 -)
- Edwidge Danticat (1969 -)
Living in France:
- René Depestre (1926 -)
- Jean Métellus (1937 -)
- Jean-Claude Charles (1949 - 2008)
- Louis-Philippe Dalembert (1962-)
The language issue
There are many hypotheses on the origins of Haitian Creole. Linguist John Singler suggests that it most likely emerged under French control in colonial years when shifted its economy focused heavily on sugar production. This resulted in a much larger population of enslaved Africans, whose interaction with the French created the circumstances for the dialect to evolve from a pidgin to a Creole. His research and the research of Claire Lefebvre of the Université du Québec à Montréal suggests that Creole, despite drawing 90% of its lexicon from French, is the syntactic cousin of Fon, a Gbe language of the Niger-Congo family spoken in Benin. At the time of the emergence of Haitian Creole, 50% of the enslaved Africans in Haiti were Gbe speakers.
In any event there are more than 200 creole or creole-related languages. Whether based on English, Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch or French, as in Haiti, creole is the language of collective memory, carrying a symbol of resistance. Creole is found in stories, songs, poetry (Saint-John Perse, Aimé Césaire, Derek Walcott), and novels (Patrick Chamoiseau, Raphaël Confiant).
Despite Haiti's independence, French has remained the country's official language. French, a language of great cultural prestige, was spoken by the elite, and creole did not enter the literary field until the second half of the 20th century. The indianists of the 1930s and the Négritude movement (incarnated in Haiti by Jean Price-Mars) emphasized the African origins of Antillean people, giving it an identity lost in deportation and later colonization. But, for them, Creole was still considered an impure language of slavery.
The Créolité movement, which succeeded them, rehabilitated the Creole, which no longer was only the language of slavery, but "that which we made together to survive". A shift was brought about in Haitian literature, from French to Creole, or du français vers le créole, or rather a dialogue between the two languages.
Creole is used frequently in poetry and drama. Frankétienne, for example, writes his plays only in Creole. An oral language, Creole is particularly suited in these genres elevating the voice. (Even if many Haitians speak and understand Creole, not all can read it.) In novels, the two languages are sometimes used together, creating a new and original way of writing.
The choice of language for writing is an important issue in contemporary creative writing, especially for writers residing in Haiti.
Notes and references
- "celle qu'on a fabriquée ensemble pour survivre"