Bastian Balthazar Becker
Edwidge Danticat, ed., Haiti Noir (New York: Akashic, 2011), 300 pages, ISBN 978-1936070657 (paper).
To date, Akashic’s acclaimed Noir series, which opened with the success of Brooklyn Noir in 2004, comprises dozens of noir anthologies spanning geographically from New York’s Wall Street to Delhi and from Mexico City to the Twin Cities. After Havana Noir (2007) and Trinidad Noir (2008), Haiti Noir is the third volume to be centered in the Caribbean. The collection contains eighteen stories (seven of which appear in translation) by Patrick Sylvain, M. J. Fievre, Gary Victor, Kettly Mars, Evelyne Trouillot, Madison Smartt Bell, Edwidge Danticat, Ibi Aanu Zoboi, Josaphat-Robert Large, Marie Lily Cerat, Louis-Philippe Dalembert, Marvin Victor, Katia D. Ulysse, Nadine Pinede, Yanick Lahens, Marie Ketsia Theodore-Pharel, Mark Kurlansky, and Rodney Saint-Éloi. By bringing together these dissimilar and at times contrasting voices, both anglophone and francophone, Haiti Noir creates a dynamic conversation between Haiti’s literary scene, its diasporic contemporaries, and selected “blan” Haitiphile writers. By introducing up-and-coming talents alongside established greats, the anthology makes a very strong case for the complexity, richness, and diversity of contemporary Haitian literature.
Published almost exactly one year after the disastrous earthquake on 12 January 2010, the collection appears at a particularly crucial moment in the history of Haiti (a portion of the book’s profits will go to the Lambi Fund of Haiti). Three stories—Patrick Sylvain’s opening “Odette,” Ibi Zoboi’s central “The Harem,” and Rodney Saint-Éloi’s closing “The Blue Hill”—explicitly address the physical, social, and psychological tears in the fabric of Haitian life. Together the stories paint a frightening picture of the disaster’s enormous implications and ask poignantly, “Could time even be measured anymore, in this silent and fractured world?” (Sylvain, 19). The other narratives, however, were all completed prior to the watershed catastrophe. Yet, as editor Edwidge Danticat (Krik? Krak! ; The Dew Breaker ; Brother, I’m Dying ) articulates in her introduction, this cataclysmic event by no means renders the selections irrelevant. Rather, “each story is now, on top of everything else, a kind of preservation corner, a snapshot of places that in some cases have been irreparably altered. (The fictional places, however, remain unchanged.)” (15). Like many of the literary canon’s most valuable works, Haiti Noir thus captures a precious portrait of a world on the eve of irreparable destruction.
Together the stories push the boundaries of traditional noir fiction. The noir of the detective story meets the multi-facetted noir of Haiti’s rich culture and history. Illustrated by Danticat’s introduction, titled “Noir Indeed,” and the three sections—“Which Noir?” “Noir Crossroads,” and “Who Is That Noir?”—into which the stories are grouped, Haiti Noir blurs the genre of the detective novel by mingling traditional themes such as greed, murder, lust, and crime with particular Haitian subject matters. Put side by side, the stories expose not only the pluralism and richness of the Haitian experience but also Haiti’s social, generational, and demographic tensions. Together the stories paint an extremely sophisticated (albeit quite hetero-normative) picture of contemporary Haiti which entails the country’s geographic and cultural multiplicity but also its staggering social polarities.
The settings of the tales that comprise Haiti Noir vacillate between nocturnal and diurnal intervals, between rural and urban landscapes, and between shanty towns and gated communities. While some of the protagonists live in “poverty, death ever-present, black bodies gleaming with sweat” (Victor, “The Finger,” 46), others enjoy their lives in a “small island of cleanliness and urbanization” in “a city within the city” (Dalembert, “Dangerous Crossroads,” 204). Yet rather than two worlds apart from one another, the stories in Haiti Noir suggest, the dividing line can often be most arbitrary and volatile and the rich and the poor are joined by myriad links. No matter how socially distant and spatially removed their lives might be, Haiti’s disparate populations are constantly brought into (oftentimes harsh) contact with one another. As such, it is only after the brutally mangled corpse of her niece is found on a waste dump that Aunt Solange, in Josaphat-Robert Large’s story “Rosanna,” notices “the trash heap at the mouth of the slum that she had long ignored, a slum that was as much part of her neighborhood as the hilly houses of her closer neighbors” (176). It is exactly these moments in which the estranged populations of Haiti’s polarized society clash violently that constitute the most gripping scenes in Haiti Noir.
As each author colors his or her story in a different mood and frames it in his or her individual style, ranging from social realism to surrealism and absurdism, from gothic tropes to cinematic vantage points, there emerges an irreducibly complex, yet astoundingly coherent, portrayal of Haiti. Though they occupy disparate corners of the country and the global diaspora and though they come from extremely disparate spheres of life, the protagonists are almost invariably caught between traditions and ambitions, between a strong sense of rootedness and a longing to depart, and between superstition and skepticism. Evelyne Trouillot’s “Which One?” a story about two mothers who compete for the privilege to send her child to the United States, and Katia D. Ulysse’s “The Last Department,” which tells the story of an old Haitian woman who lives with her daughter in Brooklyn and longs to “sprout wings and fly back home” (223), depict this contradiction between belonging and longing in the most vivid, and ultimately oppositional, terms. Many other protagonists share this inner turmoil.
Although the world of Haiti Noir is fast moving and fast changing, the lingering presence of Haiti’s past is ubiquitous. On their convoluted trajectories, the heroes and anti-heroes encounter historical reminders and cultural memories of the Middle Passage, of slavery, and of Haiti’s revolutions and dictatorships. In many of the stories, the dead quite literally live among the quick and their voices intrude upon their descendants’ daily lives. In Edwidge Danticat’s brilliant “Claire of the Sea Light” a girl dies by pounding her head against her mother’s grave stone, saturating with her blood the earth in which her mother is buried, because she fears a perpetual separation. No matter how strong their individual aspirations may be, no characters in Haiti Noir can deny the strong hold that the community and communal imagination have on them.
From all these skillfully told narratives Haiti emerges as a place where magic merges with realism and where spirituality and materialism, religion and mercantilism rub against one another, sometimes uncomfortably, sometimes effortlessly. “This country,” one character remarks, “is a land of mystery” (Large, “Rosanna,” 169). Lougawous, werewolves, and lwas live alongside drug lords, petty thieves, and fishermen. The lives of the islanders are simultaneously shaped by Haiti’s entanglement in international politics, (a virulent) global capitalism, and transnational corporate crime, on the one hand, and by local gossip, superstition, and personal affinities and antagonisms, on the other. They are caught up in and sometimes almost split apart by a world that revolves around hope and despair, violence and affection, vengeance and forgiveness, freedom and detainment, death and survival.
Yet maybe most remarkable, particularly against the undercurrent of the recent historic events, the protagonists in Haiti Noir show a remarkable resilience in the face of adversities. The anthology closes with Rodney Saint-Éloi’s “The Blue Hill,” which is set in the very hours before the 2010 earthquake. Despite his resigning and at times even apocalyptic tone, the narrator’s voice nevertheless reveals resistance and hope: “Despair is the only certainty here. If it doesn’t kill you, they say, it will strengthen your veins, your muscles. Despair sticks to your skin; it’s your sweat, and the air you breathe. Despair is second nature from which everyone draws the joy of laughter and resilience together” (305). It is this pervading spirit of resistance and constant renewal which allows Danticat in her reflections on the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake to declare that in Haiti there has always been “hope, laughter, and boundless creativity. Haitian creativity has always been one of the country’s most identifiable survival traits” (introduction, 11). It is ultimately this promise against the contextual background of the historic disaster which distinguishes Haiti Noir from the other volumes of the fast growing Akashic Noir Series.
Bastian Balthazar Becker is a PhD student of English literature at the City University of New York, Graduate Center, and teaches at Brooklyn College. He has pursued studies in Amherst, Massachusetts, and Atlanta, Georgia, as well as in Tübingen, Germany, and has lived and taught in Alexandria, Egypt; Lima, Peru; and Toulouse, France. His primary academic focus is on postcolonial narratives, comparative approaches, and collective memories. He is the author of Re-Signifying Lynching’s Memory (2009), and contributes on a regular basis to Kritikon Litterarum.