“A Safe Place”

A Conversation with Kettly Mars

• February 2015

Kettly Mars, living and writing in Haiti, has gained acclaim as one of Haiti’s most-well-read writers, with her novels delving into often extremely controversial topics, issues which are nonetheless central to either Haiti’s past or its present. Her work has been translated into Danish, Dutch, Italian, German, and Japanese, and her novel Saisons sauvages (Mercure de France, 2010) will soon appear in English as Savage Seasons (translated by Jeanine Herman; Bison Books, forthcoming 2015). In a country that has suffered multiple collective traumatisms, obvious ones, such as an extremely violent long-term dictatorship or the 2010 earthquake, and more sustained geopolitical upsets, such as extreme poverty and environmental degradation, Mars’s novels offer a space in which the mostly Haitian protagonists, as well as the readers, may reckon themselves with troubling experiences, both past and present. As Mars herself has acknowledged, after the François and Jean-Claude Duvalier and Raoul Cédras dictatorships, as well as the multiple Jean-Bertrand Aristide presidencies, there has never been a formal apparatus set up for transitional justice. She sees her work, in a sense, as offering up a forum—albeit fictional, and rather private—through which Haitians may work through an unofficial and intimate sort of truth commission.

Kettly MARS photo  (1)

As Mars indicates in the following exchanges, the very notion of “gender” is itself complex because it finds itself at the intersection of sexuality and language, where English, Kreyòl, and French each provide varying layers to its meaning. In this sense, it is hard to determine if gender is a useful term for a contemporary Haitian zeitgeist. However, what is clear is that as uncomfortable as it may seem, gender is often also beset with another unsaid term: violence. Mars’s work serves as a sort of ethnography “in the fictional mode” of how persons survive, live, and make meaning out of lives that the more “powerful” countries and their decision makers look upon as a largely undifferentiated mass of people. Mars does not judge her protagonists; she listens to them, narratively creating a “safe space” in which they may explain themselves to the more judgmental audiences that read them.

Kettly Mars was recently in Amsterdam for the Prince Claus Awards, for which she was a laureate in 2011. It was an extreme honor to speak with her there, as well as to nurture the conversation via e-mail in November 2014.

Alessandra Benedicty: What does the word gender mean to you?

Kettly Mars: The word gender did not mean much to me before I reached a certain maturity in my life, let’s say, before I reached my thirties. In English, the word specifically evokes the question of male and female, sexual characteristics, gonads, and so on, and also grammatically it evokes the division of a class of words. In French the word for “gender” is genre, and so at the same time that it relates to specific sexual behaviors and characteristics, it also refers to grammatical, stylistic, or aesthetic conventions. However, in French it also covers other meanings. You could say of that girl, “I don’t like her genre,” meaning you don’t like her style, her moves, her way of being. Someone strange or eccentric has an upsetting or disturbing genre. In Haitian Kreyòl, “Let’s make a genre” means, maliciously, let’s go have some sex, some fun. In fact, I remember the first time I heard the phrase la problématique des genres—“the problem of genres”—I had absolutely no idea what it was about but, well, now of course I do.

AB: It would seem that your acclaimed novel L’heure hybride (Hybrid Hour; Vents d’ailleurs, 2005) does not just push the boundaries of what is deemed acceptable “sexual” behavior but also deals directly with gender. What was it that motivated your character? (I don’t want to reveal the name because I don’t want to ruin the plot for potential readers!)

KM: In my first writings, I did not reflect specifically on the question of gender. I was busy making my characters live, love, suffer, and pursue happiness, and it was hard enough for me. I had to start with “regular” people, the way I saw them around me, everyday people, and I did not try to deal with specific issues; sexual, psychological, physical, and social complexities in my characters came later, although many of these “regular” protagonists did manifest some of the issues that emerge from the complexities of gender. Yet, with Hybrid Hour, the notion of gender started to carry explicitly into my work. The social and human revolutions and victories over all kinds of discriminations usually reach “third world” countries later. Mentalities are hard to change in more insular societies. But by the turn of the century, all the issues that had revolutionized societies in Europe and North America had reached our shores, particularly feminism and LGBT rights. I don’t mean that our society was never concerned with them; we had our suffragettes starting from the middle of the twentieth century, and growing up I had heard of private clubs tolerant of same-sex behavior. By the end of the Duvalier dictatorship (1980s), what more highbrow members of our society labeled as the “degeneration” of mores had become a “notorious” behavior in the country. It is then of no surprise if Hybrid Hour’s plot is set in this period of our history. But what I mean is that with the Internet and the liberalization of the media, speech became more and more free. The notion of human rights was no longer reserved alone to politics but was seen as a factor of emancipation in minorities’ conditions, in sexual and religious orientations.

With time my ideas and feelings on gender issues changed. With the public discourse more open as regards non-masculine-centered sexuality, I became aware of sexual orientations different from my own, and I learned to consider sexuality with objective eyes and to converse more openly about sexuality. People whom I met and friends told me their stories. They were the same stories as those of straight people. So taking up gender issues was a way for me to open my mind and empathize with other dimensions of human nature and transmit these feelings to my readers.

AB: Would you say that your work with gender is informed by a more “Western” sensibility or by a specifically “Haitian” one? Or can one even discuss your work in these Manichean (and stereotypical) terms?

KM: I would say that my work with gender is informed by a Haitian sensibility first. Of course, my travels, my readings, my encounters with many people of different cultures and mentalities have played a role in my perspective of the gender issue today. But my ambition as a writer is to reach the universality of the human condition through the prism of my experience and sensitivity as a black woman living in the very complex society of a Caribbean country.

AB: Which of the protagonists whom you have created do you find yourself thinking about the most, lingering with you right now?

KM: A couple of weeks ago I sent to my French editor the manuscript of my latest novel (we are still looking for the best possible title for the book). Two characters in particular in that novel linger with me: a schizophrenic man who came back to stay with his family after more than forty years living in a psychiatric institution, and his elder sister, in her sixties, who discovers during the same period same-sex love and pleasure. I realize that with time my characters are becoming more and more complex and challenging to me. In preparation and before starting to write, I read enormously on schizophrenia, and still I am not sure if I have rendered an honest picture of the character. Even though my project was not to write a textbook on the subject of mental illness, there is always the fear of not having succeeded in the endeavor. As for the woman, it is the first time I am writing about female homosexuality. I had not done it before because writing about such a topic was not something I wanted to do just because “they” [the readers] are expecting that I do so. That said, I do feel free to write about whatever subject I am interested in, but it has to come when I am ready. Also, I think that I resent the fact that female homosexuality is perceived as more “accepted” among the male population just because the bodies of two women in the act of love is supposedly a powerful arouser for men. Female homosexuality is very marketable, which is extremely sad, which is why I wanted to offer more depth to the topic in my most recent novel

AB: Most of your work shines the light on female characters; however, with Aux frontières de la soif (At the Frontiers of Thirst; Mercure de France, 2013), you focus on a very masculine male character, Fito. Why this attention to the male figure? Does it have something to do with the plot of the novel and its depiction of post-2010-earthquake Haiti?

KM: This attention to the male figure is due to the fact that the context of the post–2010 earthquake in Haiti sheds light on the vulnerability and injustice of which a vast majority of women are victims in the country, as a result of a weak and corrupted judicial system dominated by men. This situation existed prior to the earthquake, but the chaos provoked by the natural disaster made it worse. I just had to write about it; it was something too heavy to cope with on a day-to-day basis because the living promiscuity was all over the place. Five years later I am glad that some positive changes have been made to alleviate the situation, however small they may be. I feel very strongly that contemporary literature must take account of what is happening to us now, as harsh and as hard as such realities might seem to readers outside of the country. We might not technically be in a war, but our situation is constantly compromised and our living conditions are extremely challenging. These are hard realities, and bringing them to life in novels helps people to process what they are forced to endure.

AB: Since your novel Saisons sauvages will soon appear in English under the title Savage Seasons, would you like to speak on the question of gender in that novel?

KM: In my novel Savage Seasons, there exists a panoply of issues related to gender. The reason being that in times of war, as under dictatorships, sex is a very powerful weapon of control, vengeance, and domination. We have seen or heard about sexual atrocities committed on vulnerable (female) populations during war time. We hear less of sexual abuses lived in the intimacy of homes, especially under dictatorships, while the victims have to keep a façade, shut their mouths, suffer in silence. But sometimes in the frenzy of sexual sadistic play, one does not really know anymore who is the dominator and who is the dominated. In the novel, the secretary of state uses his political power and wealth to submit the opponent’s wife to his lust. She has only her body, the tone of her skin, her social condition, and her sexual organs to manipulate him and keep him so that she can live with the illusion that her imprisoned husband and her teenage kids will remain safe. But lust, passion, deviation, fear, and fascination have their own rules; they live their own lives and can bring very unexpected coups de théâtre [moments of drama] to those who think they master them.

 

Alessandra Benedicty is an assistant professor at the Division of Interdisciplinary Studies at the City College of New York (CUNY). Her book Spirit Possession in French, Haitian, and Vodou Thought: An Intellectual History (Lexington, 2015) dedicates a chapter to Kettly Mars’s work.

 

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