­­­­­­­We’ve Barely Begun to Speak/Scream/Sing: On Frankétienne’s Dézafi

February 2021

Frankétienne, Dézafi: A Novel, trans. Asselin Charles, afterword Jean Jonassaint (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2018); 244 pages; ISBN 978-0813941394 (paperback)

Frankétienne’s Dézafi summons us to Bouanèf.1 This is postoccupation Haiti, and while the villagers of Bouanèf live and labor in the aftermath of US imperialism, we find them gripped by a private terror—one that traffics in broken bodies, stolen spirits, and total command. “The whip cracks and falls again and again in Bouanèf” (61). Follow the whip! Frankétienne dares. This is a macabre though spellbinding invitation to the underworlds and overlords a community must share, the poetry of Haitian survival, and the bloody footpaths between love and death.

With Dézafi, we follow the whip, and it is Sintil we find. Sintil, who has stolen land and cattle, water and women, and quite simply one too many souls. “Dead people are scattered all over his farmland. . . . Children get buried alive under the péréstil’s floor. . . . The rooms in his house are crowded with zonbis [zombies]. Human intestines hang on his property’s fence. So then tell me what can we do?” (49). Dézafi is the story of what was done. 

At the novel’s start, Sintil is an increasingly tyrannical bókó, or practitioner capable of dark sorcery in Vodou. He presides over a “gaggle of zonbis on their knees,” flanked by his daughter Siltana to the right and Zofe, his violent enforcer, to the left (6). “The dead don’t come back to life,” he declares. “Nothing will change for you. You’ll starve. You’ll be without. You’ll get something only when I give you something, only when I feel like giving you something” (7). In Vodou, the zombie is not the source of unbridled terror but rather the subject of unremitting violence. Unlike its American counterpart, a stolen and perverted artifact of the US occupation (1915–34), the Haitian zombie indicts the living masters. Indeed, zombification, through elaborate rituals of death, resurrection, and coerced consent, is as much a process of becoming master as it is of becoming slave. And as Sintil reveals, zombification is not only the conversion of life force into an inexhaustible reserve of labor but the pursuit of pure submission and command. The zombie is liquidated of speech and memory—the raw materials of relation (and rebellion). 

After an uncontested reign over Bouanèf, Sintil has finally chosen the wrong victim. His profound jealousy of Klodonis, a beloved city intellectual originally from Bouanèf, incites his own demise. His péréstil (house of worship) falls from within, as it is Siltana’s fatal and rapturous though unrequited desire for the zombified Klodonis that initiates her father’s undoing. “So much suffering, good Lord!” she cries. “What is this ragged cross I’m dragging! Klodonis, I want you for my man. Please talk to me so I can taste life again. . . . Make me your woman. Klodonis kill me!” (145). As the translator Asselin Charles observes in his intricate and compelling introduction, love (lanmou) and death (lanmò) share both an aural and a visual physiognomy in Haitian Kreyòl (xxviii). Through Siltana’s breathtaking obsession with Klodonis, her private crucifixion, Frankétienne offers loving and dying as two names for a single human process, two code names for life itself. Love crucifies and death resurrects. 

Woven into the struggle between Sintil, Siltana, and Klodonis are portraits of the people. There is Rita, an abused domestic worker who longs to be freed by the lwa of the sea: “O beautiful Lasiren, please carry me on your back!” (30). There are Gaston, the naïve migrant in search of means and leisure in the big city, and Louizina, his exasperated and overworked aunt. There is Jéròm, who in fear of Sintil lives and hides in an attic all day while condemning the community for their cowardice. And of course, the “wandering seeds” Kamelo and Filojen, roving gamblers and cockfighters, fixtures at the dézafi (cockfight) (13). These characters, who feel like and operate as forces, as animate markings, as symbolic life, traverse that bloody boundary between loving and dying, holding together the radiant longings and the silent tragedies that underwrite survival. Life, after all, is a dézafi. We bet and are bet on, we are trained and at odds. We fight as the world watches: “Two mean and fearless roosters face off in the cockpit / our hearts are heavy with anxiety / cockspurs here there everywhere / shouts rise after a killer spur hit / our hearts are jacked up (125; boldface and slashes in original).

Out of Siltana’s “jacked up heart,” out of her manic desire comes the resurrection of not only Klodonis but the village of Bouanèf itself. Siltana feeds Klodonis salt—the forbidden elixir—and in a stunning and selfless act of retribution, he chooses to free the captives, violently rebukes Siltana, and leads what becomes a community rebellion. As the salty broth stirs his blood and consciousness, speech and memory return. In a violent rage, Klodonis “hits Siltana with a bone-breaking bone crashing bone shattering body-felling backhanded slap” and feeds all the living dead. Speech proliferates: “A jumble of shouts and screams and yells erupt from the zonbis’ throats. . . . Bridles and bits come off and mouths are freed. Words popping like corn kernels and salt exploding. It’s a new day” (153). Together, the resurrected and the never dead violently purge their community. Sintil is dismembered. Siltana flees. Life begins again. 

To write about Dézafi as though it has a conventional plot line with any structural or descriptive purchase is to fundamentally misrepresent Frankétienne’s craft and the Haitian literary movement that nurtured it. Frankétienne being a founding practitioner of spiralism, his work seeks what he calls the “Complete Genre.” In Ready to Burst he writes,

Re-creating wholes from mere details and secondary materials, the practice of Spiralism reconciles Art and Life through literature, and necessarily breaks with the hypocrisy of the Word. . . .

. . . Spiralism uses the Complete Genre, in which novelistic description, poetic breath, theatrical effect, narratives, stories, autobiographical sketches, and fiction all coexist harmoniously.2

The story, then, unfolds in what Charles calls “short cuts” (xxv) and as what I call buried fragments; the plot is conceptually and visually embedded within and between poetic breaths, aphoristic line breaks, extended parables, stream of consciousness, and even a kind of vèvè, or ritualistic Vodou drawing. All these modes are represented through distinct typographical forms (italics, cursive lettering, boldface) and topographical experimentation (indentation, various alignments, blank space). Indeed, this unique “spatial distribution” (xxxi) makes the novel as arresting visually as it is conceptually.   

Dézafi is a work of deep Kreyòl generously offered to the anglophone world. As such, it retains an opacity that can be both enchanting and alienating. One must search for the story. The form of the novel is emancipated from narrative plot, and it is exhausting, demanding, and impossible, as all freedoms are. The story creeps ahead, incremental and adorned, a set of accumulated escalations and relapses. Repetition is both disorienting (Didn’t I read that line already?) and rhythmic: after all, “the drum beat always tells the truth” (133). And perhaps most stunning is how the ecstatic banality of life is captured in lush imagery, both ethereal and fleshy: 

We want to pull our dreams alive and kicking out of the sun’s womb. . . .

. . . A harsh light blinds our eyes. Our backs arch like bumps under the heavy load. There is still a long way to go before we find the roots of death. Flowers of evil. Cursed buds. Epileptic shade. Should the sun flee to the other side of the ocean, should it go into hiding for good, who will warm our children’s blood? (44, 103; italics in original)

Deep Kreyòl mobilizes the word as a unit of force, as an energetic field within a symbolic and material economy of life and death, as an archive of grotesque deprivation and magisterial becoming. Everything speaks. Everything is speaking. It is a cacophony of meaning, effusive and terrorizing. “We light a fire, we use a hot iron to scrape the hardened crust off our vocal cords. . . . Words have branches / words have knots / words have curves. . . . Corpses rot and leave speech behind” (132, 105, 136). Frankétienne fearlessly wrote against and through the François Duvalier dictatorial regime. Dézafi is a record of that confrontation, an indictment of all masters and all forms of mastery. Zombification is the work of the dictator. To become Human—finally and fully Human—demands the end of masters/dictators/tyrants both private and public, those who steal speech, steal memory, steal life. The master ritualistically requests our consent to be terrorized. But with “awakened zonbi voices,”

We’ve barely begun to speak 

We’ve barely begun to scream 

We’ve barely begun to sing. (137)


Felicia Denaud is a fifth-year doctoral candidate in Africana studies at Brown University. She is currently writing her dissertation, “At the Vanishing Point of the Word: Blackness, Imperium, and the Unnameable War.” Felicia cofacilitates the Carceral State Reading Group out of the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice and was a fellow with the Black Feminist Theory Project out of the Pembroke Center at Brown University.


[1] In 1975, Frankétienne’s Dézafi (Port-au-Prince: Fardin) became the first novel published in Haitian Kreyòl.

[2] Frankétienne, Ready to Burst, trans. Kaiama L. Glover (Brooklyn, NY: Archipelago, 2014), 2; originally published in 1968 as Mûr à crever.


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