How do you construct courses about Haiti? Or, what are some classes that you have taken that focus exclusively on Haiti? This semester both of my classes have a Haitian focus: "Haiti Chérie: Haitian Literature and Culture" and "Haitian Studies 101 or Haiti and Globalization." The former is in the department of Romance Languages and Literatures and the latter for the African and African Diaspora Studies Program. In compiling my syllabi and preparing to teach I have been confronted with what has become an increasingly daunting task. How to you cover the vastness of Haitian history, the depths of Haitian culture, and the vicissitudes of Haitian literature, and the ebbs and flows of Haitian politics with nuance and complexity in one short semester? I set out to begin with the books. What are the essentials? Moreover, how do I approach teaching such a range of material knowing that this would probably be the first and only class on Haiti my students may take?
I set out to begin with the books. What are the essentials? The French department class appears to be a bit more straightforward due to its literary focus. The interdisciplinary approach to literature as I see it necessitates examining history along side other fields such as anthropology and sociology so I was determined to use other sources such as historical documents, films and music. Since the title of my course is Haiti Chérie I let my students listen to the original version of the song during the second week. Doing so allowed me to give them a taste of “sound studies” as a new field in African diasporic studies, encouraging them to listen to these novels for their rhythms, sonorities and musicality rather than only for the words. I also gave them an excerpt of l’Acte d’independence to expose them to work from that formative historic time period.
Certain books from the literary canon like Jacques Roumain’s Gouverneurs de la Rosée and Jacques Stephen Alexis’ Compère Général Soleil were among the first I placed on the syllabus. I also wanted to be sure to introduce them to important literary movements such as La Ronde, indigenisme and spiralisme. The Roumain novel helped to cover indigenisme, but I was at a loss for which to include for the latter. Despite my abiding desire to include something by Frankétienne ultimately I decided that some of his work might be too challenging for my students at this level. I decided to limit my discussions of these movements to lecture notes that would provide the students with an overview of what they entailed.
I am also deeply committed to teaching contemporary authors, understanding that, as Barbara Christian once put it in “The Race for Theory,” writing disappears unless we read it and talk about it. For contemporary Haitian authors I had on my original list Evelyne Trouillot, Gary Victor, Lyonel Trouillot, and Kettly Mars. Trouillot’s La chambre interdite could allow me to be more inclusive at the level of genre since it is a book of short stories. I taught La chambre… two years ago in a survey of francophone literature and know how well Trouillot’s range of topics connected with students. Pairing Mars’ Saisons sauvages with Marie Vieux-Chauvet’s Colère would give me two for one, allowing me to explore the role of intertextuality as well as the category of “roman de la dictature.”
Another area to cover is Haitian writers living in the diaspora. I began with the Canadians—Marie-Célie Agnant, Dany Laffériere, Gérard Étienne, JJ Dominique. Marie-Célie Agnant’s La dot de Sara was particularly compelling for how it addresses the themes of “ici” and “là-bas” and cross generational understandings of Haitian identity. Reading Louis-Philippe Dalembert, and Fabienne Pasquet could broaden our discussion to authors who did not live in francophone countries, introducing us to the contested notion of the francophone category to begin with. I even considered for a brief moment teaching Edwidge Danticat in translation by using Le cri de l’oiseau rouge but that desire was only fleeting as I attempted to whittle down the list.
Then of course there was the elephant in the room, given the demographics at my university, the majority of my students will have had little to no exposure to Haiti, Haitian culture and literature; at the same time I could expect to have several Haitian born and Haitian-American students at the very least. How do I teach about the earthquake? To this end I added a few pieces from the collection of Haiti parmi les vivants. This book would certainly offer my students an indigenous source of information about the earthquake to measure against all of the outside information they had surely been exposed to.
With a semester made up of only 12 weeks and a limit for how much reading I can assign in a week (a mere 100 pages!) I was in a real quandary about how to divide my syllabus since I needed to pare it down to only five books. In the end I chose the following:
1. Jacques-Stephen Alexis, Compère Général Soleil (1955)
2. Kettly Mars, Saisons Sauvages (2010)
3. Fabienne Pasquet, L’Ombre de Baudelaire (1999)
4. Jacques Roumain, Gouverneurs de la Rosée (1944)
5. Lyonel Trouillot, Bicentennaire (2004)
The list, while not perfect managed to combine canonical authors with others my students certainly may not have heard of, classic novels with more contemporary ones, contemporary and diasporic writers. In the end some of these choices had to be made vulgarly, for example I opted for Trouillot’s Bicentennaire over Victor’s Le diable dans un thé à la citronnelle purely based on the length and number of weeks in the semester. Likewise, I did not include a Haitian-Canadian author only because La dot de Sara was on back order at the school bookstore, leaving me with Pasquet alone to represent the diaspora. However I still hope to at the very least include a story from Agnant’s Le silence comme le sang or a piece by Lafferiere. In terms of poetry I decided to limit myself to the complete works of Rene Depestre, René Philoctète's Poèmes des îles qui marchent and the anthology Brassage! A Trilingual Anthology of Haitian Poetry by Women. The other required texts are:
René Dépestre, Rage de vivre : œuvres poétiques complètes
Poésie et révolution
L’âge de Papa Doc
Alleluia pour les femmes jardins
René Philoctète, Poèmes des îles qui marchent [excerpts]
Brassage : Une anthologie poétique de femmes haïtiennes [excerpts]
Mon pays, Marie-Thérèse Colimon-Hall
Filles des iles, filles des Antilles, Lyssa Laraque-Piquion
Que vive Haiti, Mona Salgado
1. L’homme sur les quais/ Man by the Shore, Raoul Peck (1994
2. The Agronomist, Jonathan Demme (2004)
3. The Price of Sugar (2007)
4. Poto Mitan: Haitian Women, the Pillar of Society (2008) by Marc Schuller
As I think back to what I learned about Haiti as an undergraduate and graduate student I remember the frequent revision of the classics such as CLR James’ The Black Jacobins and Jacques Roumain’s Les Gouverneurs de la rosée. In fact both books were the token book by a Haitian author for at least two classes that I took in my academic career. Teaching a class with an exclusive focus on Haitian authors allowed me the luxury of including more than merely the one text, but the challenge I encountered was how to choose from such a rich list of authors and manage to cover the range of themes, movements, historical events, time periods, and political moments that make up Haitian literature.