Noir Revisited

Edwidge Danticat, ed., Haiti Noir 2: The Classics (New York: Akashic, 2014); 320 pages; ISBN 978-1617751936 (paperback).

• June 2015

Haiti Noir 2: The Classics, part of the award-winning series by Akashic Books, is a collection of sixteen reprinted stories edited by Edwidge Danticat. When read alongside the original Haiti Noir (2010), this second volume is lacking and perhaps even superfluous, given how well the first volume succeeded. Despite this comparative drawback, the second volume revisits the mystery and darkness of noir through the different optic of the classics. As the first three stories, by Jacques Roumain, Ida Faubert, and Jacques-Stephen Alexis demonstrate, the classics signal the presence of canonical authors whose contribution to the Haitian literary tradition is well established. Yet the notion of “classics” in relation to the Noir series itself is thwarted here, since many of the stories can be only loosely grouped according to the genre. By definition, literature of the noir genre is similar to detective or crime fiction, but rather than focus on the detective, the protagonist is usually the perpetrator, suspect, or victim of the crime. The theme of victimizing others or being a victim oneself makes Haiti an especially compelling setting for noir stories.

In the introduction, Danticat explains the delicate task before her as editor: “People kept asking me if I wasn’t contributing to the negative image of the country by editing a book filled with so many ‘dark’ stories about Haiti.” Indeed this question could be “the elephant in the room.” When Haiti is already seen as a place of death and darkness, why fictionalize these themes for an English-speaking (mostly American) audience to consume at all? Danticat’s response to this question is helpful here: “My answer was, and remains, that showing the brilliance of our writers and their ability to address Haiti’s difficulty through their art can only contribute to a more nuanced and complex presentation of Haitian lives” (16).

The collection begins with “Praisesong for Port-au-Prince,” a poem by Danielle Legros George that situates the city in terms of death: “You, city of the fast death, of the bloody coup, I bow to you” (23). Each stanza captures the nuanced approach to difficulty promoted by Danticat, and the poem heralds the theme of death linking several of the stories that follow. The first story, Jacques Roumain’s “Preface to the Life of a Bureaucrat,” features a diaspora who had returned to Haiti five years prior to the story’s unfolding. Here, death operates metaphorically for a character animated by hatred for his mother-in-law and disgust for the elite class to which he belongs. “This is his prison: this sad house. And the bars of his cell his wife who cannot understand, his children who fear and refuse to love him” (33). The metaphorical prison in which he finds himself is one from which he will never be released. Next, Ida Faubert’s “A Strange Story” begins on the threshold of death: one of the main characters is dying. After she dies, the protagonist, Jeanne Marais, goes on a quest to find another woman who had been believed dead for years. When Jeanne finally locates her in another country, she is more like a zombie: “A strange form of a woman. A livid, ravaged face hardened by a white headdress, her sunken eyes lifeless, that mouth with a frightening grin, and that walk, the walk of an automaton—could all this belong to a living being?” (44).

One of the strongest stories in the collection, Jan J. Dominique’s “A White House with Pink Curtains in the Windows Downstairs,” does not include death but haunting, mystery, and disappearance. This lyrically written story is told in the first person, drawing the reader in to both the mind of the protagonist and the setting that surrounds her. Set in the hilly area of Kenscoff, the story also captures the pace of life in that suburb of Port-au-Prince. The house in question is inhabited by devils, a problem that does not discourage the protagonist from living there. The story’s success lies in how Dominique captures so many subtleties, from the expectations foisted on the protagonist as she plans to marry to the extent to which she is critical of the conventions of her class status. Her certainty about buying the house contrasts tellingly with her ambiguity about her imminent nuptials. In terms of the house, she is adamant: “I wanted that house. I didn’t care about the legend. Every body thought it was a whim on my part, or worse, that I was losing my mind. But I really wanted it and I bought it” (69).Yet when describing the days before her wedding, she is quite the opposite: “I came back to town just a month before the great beginning—or the great ending, depending on how you see it, but for women, its well known that it is the beginning as they will know what real life is like only through marriage, and I must be like all women” (74). Despite these kinds of pronouncements, the story makes clear that the protagonist is not at all like “all women.”

In another compelling story, Danticat’s “The Port-au-Prince Marriage Special,” about a young woman who contracts AIDS, the theme of death returns; the protagonist’s life is riddled with death. Concerned that the domestic worker Mélisane might have somehow passed the virus to her young son, the protagonist thinks to herself, “How would I live with yet another loss? How would I live with myself—how could I live if he had been infected?” (163). The juxtaposition of the protagonist’s reaction to the possibility that her son is infected and the infection of her maid sheds light on social relations once again.

The final story of the volume is Roxane Gay’s “Things I Know about Fairy Tales” (the story forms the basis for Gay’s 2014 novel An Untamed State). As the narrative progresses, the use of fairy tales becomes a frame to which the protagonist refers throughout the entire story as she attempts to describe and understand what is happening to her. “Once upon a time, not long ago, I was kidnapped and held captive for thirteen days. Shortly after I was freed, my mother told me there was nothing to be learned from what had happened to me. She told me to forget the entire incident because there was no moral to the story” (247). The references to “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Snow White,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “Rapunzel,” and other such tales, which are scattered throughout the story, move the reader back and forth between what happened to the protagonist and how she and those in her family process it. Gay’s story concludes the volume with the theme of death metaphorically rendered through the protagonist’s contrasting perspectives of life before her kidnapping, rape, and torture and the traumatic aftermath.

Diverse in its inclusion of writers who live in Haiti and in the diaspora, who are still alive and writing and who have long since passed away, Haiti Noir 2 displays the variety of Haitian writing. The array of authors is distinctive, allowing an audience unfamiliar with Haitian literature to encounter lesser-known writers of different generations. While as an ensemble, the stories gathered are not as powerful a collection as Haiti Noir, the sequel contains many stories that are worth reading.

 

Régine Michelle Jean-Charles is associate professor of Romance languages and literatures and African and African diaspora studies at Boston College. She is the author of Conflict Bodies: The Politics of Rape Representation in the Francophone Imaginary (Ohio State University Press, 2014).  Her work has appeared in American Quarterly, Callaloo, French Forum, Journal of Haitian Studies, Journal of Romance Studies, Research in African Literatures, and Small Axe.

 

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