Haitian Literature and the Insult of Dust

October 2016

Translating Frankétienne

In a 1992 interview for the journal Callaloo the late Haitian writer René Philoctète said, in what I have always imagined to be a tone inflected with some combination of puzzled annoyance and simmering rage, “What is a book anyway? It is a product, a commercial item. I write in order to be read, in order to sell to the people around me. But if they cannot read, my book is worth nothing. It is a commercial product which is going to stay here, insulted by dust.”1 I first encountered these words in the course of researching and writing my first book manuscript, Haiti Unbound: A Spiralist Challenge to the Postcolonial Canon.2 They have remained with me—front of mind—ever since. At the risk of overdramatizing, I can say that these five sentences have resonated at the core of all the work I have done and likely will continue to do as a translator—and as a scholar, for that matter. Philoctète is clear: there is no honor for a writer in being unread, unknown. Creating works that live primarily as intellectually fetichized cultural artifacts rather than as actual, dynamic presences in the world is unsatisfying and insufficient. As unfashionable as it may sound, a book is, indeed, a product. It is meant to be consumed. More gently put: a story is nothing without an audience.

The author of those words is one of three writers—along with Frankétienne and Jean-Claude Fignolé—in whose work I have long been invested. Together they are the Spiralists, a loosely bound group of artists who, beginning in the mid-1960s, began to articulate a shared set of aesthetic and philosophical idea(l)s. The Spiralists resolved, first and foremost, to remain and to write literature in Haiti during the thirty-year François and Jean-Claude Duvalier presidencies, despite the climate of brutal, totalitarian repression that marked this period in Haiti’s history. As Alessandra Benedicty-Kokken has rightly noted in her review essay, state violence under the Duvaliers was omnipresent—by no means limited to explicit political and social actors, writers and artists were equally likely to be targeted by the regime.3 As such, Philoctète, Frankétienne, and Fignolé faced constant and immediate danger. Yet, if the three authors nonetheless chose to remain in Haiti, it was because the greatest risk they could imagine was not, in fact, staying on the island. Rather, it was to be exiled therefrom.4 Given that leaving Haiti might well have meant being denied reentry, the Spiralists refused circulation in a global space, unwilling to risk the situation of permanent exile that became the fate of so many of their contemporaries.

The Spiralists’ adamant refusal of displacement came at a real cost. Constrained within an insular space whose reading public was limited at best, they have never had a significant local audience.5 And as the United States has become an increasingly more dominant superpower in Haiti—more politically and economically influential than France, the original imperial center—English has come to supplant French as the de facto second language in Haiti.6 Given these factors, the Spiralists’ determination to remain in Haiti in the 1960s through the 1980s as well as the fact of their having always written in French, and to some extent Creole, has meant a certain foreclosing of possibilities. It has meant alienation both from an Anglo-centric global reading audience that includes diasporic Haitians and from the literary institution—the journals, publishing houses, critics, university humanities departments, and so on—that cultivates and sustains that readership.7

Of the three Spiralists, Frankétienne is both the most vocal and the most prolific. A poet, essayist, playwright, and novelist,8 he has penned more than sixty works in both Creole and French. If Spiralism has a ringleader, Frankétienne is it. Yet, although he is a well-known and much beloved personality in Haiti, extra-insular appreciation has long eluded him. The majority of his writings were (self-)published in Haiti and remain difficult to procure both inside and outside the island. It is only in the past decade or so that three of his works have been re-edited in either France or Canada. And it is only with the publication of Ready to Burst that any of Frankétienne’s prose fiction works in French has been translated into English.9 This is surprising, on the one hand, given the import and sheer volume of Frankétienne’s literary production and given the great esteem in which he is held by both popular and intellectual audiences in Haiti and, to a lesser extent, among scholars and francophone readers outside Haiti. On the other hand, though, Frankétienne’s trajectory is typical.

As I have written about at some length in Haiti Unbound, getting the global reading public to think about Haitians as producers of culture rather than as mere receivers of aid has been a struggle. For reasons I, and many others, have evoked—reasons ranging from indifference to embarrassment to ignorance, condescension, and disdain—Haiti has been largely dismissed as backward and “progress resistant,” hopelessly violent and unsettlingly black. Ever since the United Nation’s intervention in Haiti in 2004 and the devastating earthquake of 2010, there arguably has been greater interest in Haiti in the so-called global North, especially in the United States. Much of this interest is, however, colored by the negative stereotypes of Haiti that have circulated since its independence at the start of the nineteenth century. The last decade has, then, been a period of both opportunity and humiliation for the Haitian people, and the nation's writers have been compelled to make the most of this time in the spotlight, drawing attention to the ways Haiti's contemporary struggles have emerged directly from a history that implicates the whole of the Atlantic world.10

It is in this historical moment that Frankétienne's voice, which has insistently addressed a global audience, has risen to greater prominence. It is in this moment that it made sense to me to turn back to Ready to Burst—a novel that ripened and burst onto the Haitian literary scene in the radical year that was 1968. It is in this text that Frankétienne comes closest to laying out Spiralism’s underlying motivations, ethos, and creative intentions and to describing our collective world order. First published nearly half a century ago in Haiti and re-edited in French three times since, Ready to Burst is a text that has spoken consistently of what it means to be marginal, to be bound, and to be silenced in a world that is socially, politically, and environmentally ailing. Insofar as Haiti's fraught positioning on the global stage has produced a phenomenon whereby many Haitians do not have access to the francophone pillars of their own cultural patrimony, and insofar as English persists as the lingua franca of the contemporary literary institution, bringing this incisive text to an anglophone readership is, I believe, critical to sparing a literary treasure the insult of dust.


Kaiama L. Glover is an associate professor of French and Africana studies at Barnard College, Columbia University. She is the author of Haiti Unbound: A Spiralist Challenge to the Postcolonial Canon (2010); coeditor of Marie Vieux Chauvet: Paradoxes of the Postcolonial Feminine (2016); and translator of Frankétienne’s Ready to Burst (2014), Marie Chauvet’s Dance on the Volcano (2016), and René Depestre’s Hadriana in All My Dreams (2017). She has won awards from the PEN/Heim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Mellon Foundation, and the Fulbright Foundation. She is the founding editor of sx archipelagos: a small axe journal of digital practice and the director of the forthcoming digital humanities project In the Same Boats: Toward an Afro-Atlantic Intellectual Cartography. She is currently completing a monograph concerning individualism and representations of womanhood in Caribbean prose fiction.


1 René Philoctète, “Entretien,” Callaloo 15, no. 3 (1992): 626.

2 Kaiama L. Glover, Haiti Unbound: A Spiralist Challenge to the Postcolonial Canon (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2010).

3 See Alessandra Benedicty-Kokken, “Reckoning with Impunity,” this issue of sx salon.

4 See Jean-Claude Fignolé’s Vœu de voyage et intention romanesque, which I also mean to translate at some point in the near future.

5 Literacy rates in Haiti are currently at a “high” of 60.7 percent. That number, far below the average literacy rates in the rest of the Caribbean, is up from 45 percent in the mid-1990s.

6 See Yves Dejean, “Diglossia Revisited: French and Creole in Haiti,” Word 34, no. 3 (1983): 189–213, dx.doi.org/10.1080/00437956.1983.11435744.

7 See Richard Watts, Packaging Post-Coloniality: The Manufacture of Literary Identity in the Francophone World (New York: Lexington, 2005), 62.

8 Frankétienne is also an accomplished painter, a musician, and a teacher of mathematics and physics.

9 Frankétienne’s 1978 play Pelin-tèt (The Noose) was translated from Creole into English in 2003 by Asselin Charles and published in Metamorphoses: A Journal of Literary Translation 11, no. 1 (2003): 135–71. Currently, Charles is translating Frankétienne’s Dezafi (1975) from Creole into English.

10 See Martin Munro, Haiti Rising: Haitian History, Culture, and the Earthquake of 2010 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2010).


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