I started studying Haitian and Caribbean literature as a graduate student looking at diaspora fiction. This was one of the ways I snuck in as much literature in French while getting a degree based on English. So my ends were selfish but along the way I discovered some truly amazing work, in particular, a Haitian author who quickly became one of my favorites.
Marie Vieux-Chauvet is one of those sadly overlooked writers whose work deserves to be taught, studied, translated, published and republished again. Her literature is politically and socially engaged and she addresses the important issues of oppression, racism, and sexism – all through her particular Haitian lens. She wrote five novels and two plays. Most of which are quite difficult to find outside of a library. None of them are currently available in English.
The story of her most well-known novel, Amour, Colère et Folie is fascinating. Vieux-Chauvet wrote the book in 1968, and although the novel is set in a slightly earlier period of Haitian history (ca. 1939) it was a direct criticism of the Duvalier government. Vieux-Chauvet actually sent the manuscript to Simone de Beauvoir who helped get it published by Gallimard in France. Sadly, worried that her family in Haiti might be affected if the book gained too much success, she actually bought the remaining stock of the book and destroyed them. Luckily, a small publisher in France re-issued this novel along with one other Vieux-Chauvet in 2005.
Amour, Colère et Folie (Love, Anger and Madness) is an incredible novel. Actually a series of three thematically connected novellas, the book examines Haiti’s special form of segregation “shadism” and the devastation it wrought on that country’s society. The first section – Love, is the story of Claire (ironically named, as she is the darkest of her two sisters) and her internal rebellion and transformation. It’s a dark and powerful story. Beautifully written.
I’m hard put to decide which of Vieux-Chauvet’s novels I prefer. It’s a toss up between Amour, Colère et Folie and her first novel Fille d’Haiti, which follows the coming-of-age of a Port-au-Prince prostitute’s daughter named Lotus. This novel also explores Haiti’s powerful religious traditions and paints a fascinating portrait of a young woman struggling to understand who she is when faced with a series of contradictory social mirrors.
I just recently found out that The Modern Library is publishing a translation of Amour, Colère et Folie scheduled for 2009 by a translator duo of Rose-Myriam Rejouis and Val Vinokur. I’m ecstatic. I’ll be one of the first people to buy it. I’d been nearly convinced this would never happen.
And for those of you who do read in French, I would recommend her other novels if you can find them:
Fille d’Haïti. Paris: Fasquelle, 1954.
La Danse sur le volcan. Paris: Maisonneuve & Larose / Emina Soleil, 2004
Fonds des Nègres. Port-au-Prince: Henri Deschamps, 1960
Amour, colère et folie. Paris: Maisonneuve & Larose / Emina Soleil, 2005.
Les Rapaces. Port-au-Prince: Deschamps, 1986.