In their own words: Haiti's rich culture through 8 Haitian novels

Masters of the Dew, Jacques Roumain.

By James Ellsmoor, Forbes, Dec. 19, 2018

Haiti is the birthplace of a rich literary heritage that deserves more attention. Often painted in mainstream media as a country plagued by difficulties, Haitian entrepreneurs, artists and innovators are rewriting that narrative. The struggles that Haiti has faced do not overshadow its rich culture and history or the vibrant spirit of its people. Haitian literature reveals a more complete story of a nation, one that focuses on the beauty and resiliency of the island’s landscape and citizens. Reading the works of Haitian authors opens a window into this Caribbean nation's vibrant culture and tumultuous history.

I asked a  range of experts for their recommendations and selected some of the most powerful and important works by Haitian authors. There are many fantastic novels written about Haiti by non-Haitians, such as Allende’s Island Beneath the Sea and Greene’s The Comedians. The classic book on Toussaint L'Ouverture and the Haitian revolution, Trinidadian C.L.R. James’ The Black Jacobins, is also recognized as a must-read for anyone interested in Haitian history. However, the focus here is not on works written about the country from an outsider's perspective. Instead, it is on books that reveal the nuances of Haitian culture and history through the stories of those shaped by it.

This is not intended to be a comprehensive list of the most significant works produced by Haitian authors. This list represents a diverse sample of the Haitian experience, providing readers with insights into the historical, cultural and literary landscapes of the island nation and its diaspora. Exploring the themes, contexts and perspectives offered in these works gives a glimpse into Haitian culture from the inside, through the eyes and words of those who are an integral part of both experiencing and reshaping Haiti’s prevailing narrative

A growing need to interest in Haitian literature has led to an increasing number of English language translations of classic and contemporary works. All of the titles on this list have been translated into English.


Savage Seasons, Kettly Mars (2010)

Savage Seasons weaves the personal struggles of a family into the collective experience of living under a violent political regime, offering a powerful look at a difficult and pivotal period of Haitian history. With its symbolic relationship between the book’s characters and the dictatorial regime of Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, Mars’ work delves into the intersection of Haitian memory and history. Utilizing a complex narrative structure, Mars’ fictional work explores the cyclical aspects of Haitian history and “clears a path of new ways of writing and reading about Haiti.”

Born in Port-au-Prince and raised in a middle-class family, Mars didn’t begin writing until she reached her mid-30s. Initially writing only on a part-time basis as the other obligations in her life permitted, Mars experienced a call to follow her passion to write full-time after the earthquake of 2010. One of the most active contemporary Haitian writers, Mars’ collective works include collections of poems, short stories and young adult novels.

It is my right not to be reduced to silence by the past … Haiti needs her writers. -Kettly Mars


Love, Anger, Madness: A Haitian Trilogy, Marie Vieux-Chauvet (1968)

Immediately suppressed after its publication, Love, Anger, Madnessrepresents a critical commentary on Haiti’s social and political landscape during the 1960s, particularly that of the Duvalier regime. The trilogy consists of three thematically connected novellas that explore the power of fear as a force of social destruction. While there is no continuity of plot or common characters in the three narratives, they share a tone and theme in examining the reaction to the experience of oppression through the lens of people in different class groups. Fearing reprisal because of its criticism of Duvalier, the trilogy was withdrawn from publication and Vieux-Chauvet’s family acquired all available copies. The book remained suppressed and was considered lost until its re-issue in 2005.

Vieux-Chauvet was born in Port-au-Prince and began writing during childhood, creating plays for her family. The works that she created throughout her life leave her recognized as a seminal Haitian novelist and playwright. Vieux-Chauvet was forced into exile after the publication of Love, Anger, Madness and lived in the United States until her death in 1973.

Freedom is an inmost power. That is why society limits it. -Love, Anger, Madness


Masters of the Dew, Jacques Roumain (1941)

A classic socialist realist novel and cornerstone work in Haitian literature, Masters of the Dew tells the story of a young Haitian man’s determination to awaken a spirit of resistance and rebellion in his impoverished community. Published in 1944, this political fable offers an authentic look at the harsh lives of peasant farmers struggling in a beautiful and unforgiving environment. Emotionally moving and ideologically compelling, Roumain’s work is a timeless story of determination, hope and redemption.

Roumain was a prominent Haitian writer, political activist and advocate of Marxist communism. Born in Port-au-Prince to a wealthy family and traveling abroad in his youth, Roumain returned to Haiti as a young adult and became actively involved in the resistance movement against the U.S. occupation. A founder of the Haitian Communist Party and known for his activism and strong voice in expressing the frustration and rage of an oppressed people, Roumain remains one of the most prominent figures in Haitian literature.

Misfortune is never invited. And it comes and sits at the table without permission and it eats, leaving nothing but bones. - Masters of the Dew


Create Dangerously, The Immigrant Artist at Work, Edwidge Danticat (2010)

Create Dangerously examines what it means to be an immigrant artist from a country of origin that suffers from violence, oppression and poverty. Danticat’s collection of memoirs and essays tells the stories of Haitian diaspora artists and how the tragic circumstances in their homeland inspire and inform their creative drives and efforts. Recognized as being a deeply personal book to the celebrated Haitian-American writer, Create Dangerously reflects on art and exile and explores the implications and consequences of banishment, emigration and return. In the telling of these stories, Danticat “has wound the fabric of Haitian life into her work and made it accessible to a wide audience of Americans and other outsiders.”

Danticat was born in Haiti and immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 12. In her award-winning collection of fiction, non-fiction and young adult books, she references Haitian and Caribbean literary history as she explores themes of power, injustice, poverty and the immigrant experience. Danticat is a prolific author with a full catalog of books that are worth reading. Her works have earned both popular and critical acclaim and led her to be one of the most internationally successful Haitian diaspora authors.

I think it's hard for an outsider to capture the flavor of a community and all its nuances, so ultimately Haitian-Americans need to start sharing intimate accounts of their stories.-Edwidge Danticat


Nan Dòmi: An Initiate's Journey into Haitian Vodou, Mimerose Beaubrun (2013)

A unique and valuable book, Nan Dòmistands as the only account of the private, mystical and interior practices of Haitian Vodou (known commonly as Voodoo) that has been offered to the public. Beaubrun tells the story of her initiation and education in the ancient spirituality of Vodou through a first-person narrative and personal account of her own experiences. While the book is localized in Haiti, it possesses a universal approach in confronting the same questions that arise in every religion, philosophy, science and worldview.

Beaubrun was born in Ouanaminthe, near the border of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. A writer, musician and anthropologist, she received her diploma in social and cultural anthropology from the State University of Haiti. Beaubrun is recognized for promoting Haitian culture and was named a UN Peace and Goodwill Ambassador in 2002 for her efforts.

'Nan dòmi' in ordinary Kreyòl means ‘a state of sleeping,’ but as Mimerose Beaubrun elucidates in her instructive lexicon, it is ‘a second level of attention.’ One enters into a state that permits one to see abstract things unknown until then. A lucid dream state. -Journal of Haitian Studies


General Sun, My Brother, Jacques Stephen Alexis (1999)

Rich with details about the lives and beliefs of Haiti's 19th-century peasant farming culture, General Sun, My Brotherchampions the literary form of "marvelous realism" in its story of a Haitian couple’s journey from the slums of Port-au-Prince to the cane fields of the Dominican Republic. Alexis’ classic work stands as a significant contribution to Haitian literature for its examination of the exploitation of the poor and account of the infamous 1937 Parsley Massacre that forever changed the relationship between Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

A descendant of one of Haiti's founding fathers, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Alexis was born in Gonaïves and grew up exposed to discussions about social and political issues, shaping the development of his Marxist views. He worked with other active communist writers and published works that spoke out about repressive regimes in his homeland. After years of exile, Alexis was captured, tortured and killed upon his return to Haiti in 1961.

Alexis remains one of Haiti’s towering figures, as his work and struggle for equality influenced his peers and future generations of writers and activists. –Haitian Times


American Street, Ibi Zoboi (2017)

Drawing from her own experiences, Zoboi explores the immigrant experience and the pursuit of “the American dream” in American Street. This compelling young adult novel addresses a rich array of topics that are relevant to the contemporary world, touching upon race, loyalty, religion, public education, domestic abuse and police brutality with the framework of the immigrant experience. Zoboi’s intricately woven and moving story of love and loss is infused with the magical realism of Haitian culture and offers a poignant reminder of the hope and perseverance that all immigrants possess when they leave their homelands in search of a better life.

Zoboi was born in Haiti and immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 4. Her works include young adult novels and a variety of short stories and essays. Zoboi embraces themes that encourage young people to push against the destructive policies and ideas that affect their lives and to become part of the larger dialogue about issues that people of color face all around the world.

History has a way of healing itself, only if we see it that way and allow it. -Ibi Zoboi


Massacre River, René Philoctète (1989)

Rich in emotionally powerful lyricism and imagery, Massacre River explores the 1937 program of ethnic cleansing of Haitians ordered by Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo. This poetic work does not offer a historical account of the Parsley Massacre, but examines the events through the eyes and souls of an intermarried Haitian and Dominican couple. Philoctète’s haunting and beautifully written work offers a commentary on dictatorship, politics, love and community and it calls for harmony between two nations that have been divided since the atrocities committed by the Trujillo regime.

Revered Haitian poet, novelist and playwright, Philoctète was the founder of the Literary Haiti group and cofounder of the Haitian poetry movement of spiralism. Philoctète’s work is grounded in Haitian realism and infused with political urgency, speaking against dictatorship, violence and hatred between people due to “an accident of history.”

They have so many things in common, share so many similar wounds and joys that trying to distinguish between the two peoples violates their tacit understanding to live as one. -Massacre River

All of these literary works give an insight into the experiences, perspectives and concerns of Haiti and its diaspora. These authors are among a wider group of individuals who are using their ideas, talents and voices to deconstruct outside narratives of the Haitian experience and rewrite it in their own words.


Posted Dec. 22, 2018