Literature of Exile: Haiti’s Jean Métellus and René Depestre

“I am a Haitian exile who has never left Haiti, and Haiti has never left me. For many years, my imagination has linked me to my native land. Poems, novels, theater–these have always been the media allowing me to recreate an intimate relationship with the Haitian land. Imagination and lyricism cannot be silent during the brutal historical times of our country; they must participate in the investigation of the present and in the interrogation of the future.”
Jean Métellus

The dictatorship of Haiti’s Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier engendered a massive exodus of writers and intellectuals in the late 50s and 60s. Among them were two brilliant, but very different writers: Jean Métellus and René Depestre. Although they were most prolific in the mid 20th century, each has had a major work translated into English in the past decade.

Métellus was a fairly unassuming teacher in the town of Jacmel when Duvalier came to power, and though he had not been especially political, he left for France at age 22, where he spent the rest of his life. Yet he grieved deeply for Haiti, and much of his writing reflects that grief. One of his few translated works, The Vortex Family (translated by Michael Richardson) is a historical novel recounting the political turmoil of the 1949-50 coup, and its effect on an upper class Haitian family. Told partly in creole, the Vortex family saga reflects its author’s bittersweet memories of his own lost family. As darkness and tragedy close in, the family cling to their annual Christmas gathering, affirming their connection to the ancestors, and looking forward to a brighter, hoped for future.

Métellus (who died in 2014) is best remembered for his poetry, and in 2019 Northwestern University produced a new English edition (translated by Haun Sassy) of his greatest work, “When the Pipirite Sings”. A dramatic poem, a hymn and an incantation, Metellus evokes the voice of Haiti through the pipirite, the first bird to sing in the morning. The poem embraces all of Haiti: the beauty of the land, the blood soaked history of colonialism. the mysticism and resilience of its people.

When the Pipirite Sings: Selected Poems

Land

I am the one shore in the memory of the Antilles

And the delectable cheek which radiates and welcomes fragrance

I am the generous lips of childhood

Haiti, Quisqueya, Bohio,

Land both welcoming and cool

I wanted to clamp you living in my arms,

Build you a monument of organs and flutes,

People you with incense and celebrations,

Revive your off seasons,

Adorn your houses’ trim

Eldest daughter of the Antilles,

You’ve seen your children die

You’ve drunk the blood of hurricanes

As paper drinks the ink from my pen

As the land drinks its mother’s sweat

As the trespasser drinks your milk’s essence

As fire drinks a season’s gold

As a sharp-edged blade drinks a life’s story

Do you know the names of the locusts that have stripped your orchards?

And the source of the scum that floats like the toad’s drool

Across your withered body slashed from head to toe

No longer can I see those piercing eyes of yours which used to trap fragrance, happiness

And subdue the snake

Yet still do you eat cinnamon whole, calyx, seedpod and all

Drink raw eggs with gusto

Eat whole cloves of garlic

For the great pleasure of your entrails and the protection of your beauty

And what do you do with wormwood which casts out evil spirits’ spells?

René Depestre has made a career of exile, having been kicked out of more countries than most people have visited. A leader of the revolutionary student movements in Haiti in the 1940s, he helped overthrow a president, and was imprisoned and then exiled by the military. Emigrating to France, he became a leader in the decolonization movement, and was then exiled to Prague, which expelled him in 1952. He next went to Cuba, where he ran afoul of the Batista regime; and on to Austria, Chile, Argentina and Brazil; back to France, and then returned to Haiti, where he was arrested and expelled for opposing the Duvalier regime; then to Cuba, where he eventually broke with Castro. He has lived in France (more or less) for the past forty years.

With such a peripatetic background, it’s hard to imagine what Depestre’s concept of “home” could mean. Yet his newly translated novel Hadriana in All My Dreams (translation by Kaiama Glover) is steeped in Haitian culture and folklore, from the pulsating kaleidoscope of Carnival rhythms to the dark power of voudou and zombie legend. Originally published in 1988, it is a fever dream of a tale, recounting the untimely death and afterlife of Hadriana, a beautiful young bride who succumbs to poison at her own wedding, is buried, but then rises at the command of a sorcerer to haunt the town. Told first by her would-be lover, then again by Hadriana herself, the story is Depestre’s love letter to a country, a culture and a town; (much like Joyce’s Dublin, Depestre’s childhood village of Jacmel is as much a character as a setting).

Written fairly late in Depestre’s life, Hadriana seems a bit of a departure for a writer steeped in leftist politics, and the aesthetics of negritude, (although it is certainly of a piece with his interest in surrealism). Yet although he describes himself as a “geo-libertin” rather than an exile, it is clear that he has never lost his pride in his homeland. Hadriana may be a fantasy, but it is a specifically Haitian fantasy, with sly digs at racism, sexism, and colonial hypocrisy. In the words of scholar translator Kaiama Glover, “Embedded in this ribald tale is a subtle meditation on the limitations and the possibilities of postcolonial freedom. The reader comes away convinced by Depestre’s lusty claim that all beings––even the undead ones––have a right to liberty, happiness, and true love.”

For more on the authors:

Transcendence and Exhortation in the Haitian Poetry of Jean Metellus

In All My Dreams Book Club, Barnard Digital Humanities Center

Lesley Williams is a 25+ year librarian and a reviewer for Booklist magazine where she specializes in African American, Muslim, and LGBTQ authored literature. As a public librarian she created public programs emphasizing the literature of colonized peoples, leading year long discussion programs on Latin American history, Muslim cultures, and the plays of August Wilson. She currently tutors English reading and writing to first generation students at City Colleges of Chicago.

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