vendredi 26 août 2011

Musings on Choosing

Recently a friend asked me in regards to an essay he was working on, “does the world need another article on Edwidge Danticat?”  The question was posed in reference to an article he is writing that considers some of Danticat’s more recent nonfiction.  In answering the question I found myself torn.  It is no secret that I am a huge fan of Danticat’s work. One of the things I appreciate the most about her is the way she uses her own reknown to also introduce her reading public to other Haitian writers as we see in The Butterfly’s Way and more recently in Haiti NoirOn the other hand, as someone who is well versed in the diversity of Haitian literature, I sometimes get frustrated that so much of the work in the field focuses on Danticat and writers in the diaspora in general.  Overall I feel that when it comes to Haitian literature, there is a huge amount of work on the chosen few, whereas the brilliant and important work of others garners less critical attention.  One could write the same of Jacques Roumain and Jacques-Stephen Alexis, both of whom have generated significant scholarship.  It is an issue prominently on display for people on the conference circuit as well, you can be sure that a panel on Haitian women's writing, for example, will certainly include Danticat and Chauvet whereas papers on Yanick Lahens, Evelyne TrouillotKettly Mars  or Jessica Fièvre are less common.  My frustrations over the lack of attention to the different writers that make up the Haitian literary tradition is one of the reasons that as a scholar I am so grateful for the contributions of people like Kaiama Glover, who recently published an insightful and innovative study entitled Haiti Unbound:  A Spiralist Challenge to the Postcolonial Canon on Jean-Claude Fignolé, Frankétienne and René Philoctète, writers who rarely make the cut on the syllabi for courses taught in the US.

Perhaps this is a dilemma that is specific to people dealing with “minor literatures” (to borrow a phrase from Deleuze and Guattari). After all, when was the last time someone questioned whether there were too many articles written about Shakespeare, Proust, or Foucault?  Again I think that in terms of these literatures it also tends to happen more with women, for example one could never count the number of articles on Aimé Césaire or VS Naipaul.  Doesn’t true intellectual freedom mean writing about whatever moves you rather than being beholden to some standard or quota of how much work is being done on the person? At the same time it is also a problem that relates to canon formation, which can be applied to writing across the globe.  Who do we teach?  Why teach this particular author over another?  How do we choose the writers we do work on? 

In the Haitian context this issue takes on many forms.  The question is linguistic as we consider writers working in Kreyol, French or English.  (See here for a fascinating discussion of Kreyol and education featuring the Haitian linguist Michel Degraff.)  Deciding which author to focus on then can sometimes come down to a question of which language one may be most comfortable in reading and writing.  Yet, as much of Haitian literature reminds us, these languages also function in relation to one another and when you consider the breadth of work being done in the field it is essential to be familiar with each one.  In fact, maybe these reflections are only specific to the context of the USA where the preference is for texts written in English for obvious reasons. 

But back to my friend’s question, how does one decide which writer to focus on and is there even really such a thing as “too many articles” on one author?  The answer to the latter question is easy, a resounding no.  For me what matters the most is innovation and creativity in terms of the critical approach and topic rather than the scope.  That is to say when reading another book or article on Toussaint Louverture, what I look for is a new approach, for something that has not been said before and offers a new perspective.  In teaching I purposefully include authors writing today that my students are most likely unfamiliar with because I want to expose them to the diversity of Haitian writers. I have found that my students are especially excited to read work by contemporary writers in general.  When I had them read L’heure hybride for example some students mentioned that this was the most recent novel they had read in almost all of their time studying French.  I guess one could say that I also think of this as my own small act of literary activism, promoting authors who students may not regularly have access to and encouraging them to pursue more work by lesser known writers.  What about you, how do you choose who to work on or teach in your classes?


16 commentaires:

  1. This is a timely post as I settle in to work on course prep and various writing projects. As far as writing goes, I just choose writers and works that resonate with me. But in my teaching, I definitely try to strike a balance of writers that are representative of different categories in terms of age, place of residence, gender, etc.

  2. Salut RMJC!!

    Fantastic post, full of important questions. I'm honored that you so thoughtfully answered my question. I agree, it's the new approach that is engaging and necessary; but, as you also imply, we have a responsibility to introduce both canonical and not-yet-canonical to our students. Like Nadève, it's all in the balance. To that end, I submitted a different approach to the "new" Danticat, and at the HSA, I'll be talking about Kettly Mars' Saisons sauvages. mille merci, JP

  3. Very legitimate, eloquent and passionate argument, precisely the type work that put Tande on the list of my edifying reads. I remember a similar post about the prevailing fallacy that there were more "diasporean" writers than national ones.
    Please be patient with me as I unpack my thoughts:
    The problem is as complex as it is technical. Certainly, taken in the context of contemporary media cultures, a few more dimensions emerged, namely accessibility, networking and the like.
    Mozart or Beethoven, Who made a bigger splash? While history worship both men, individuals have their preferences. Hence, we must account for the audience and its preferences. In Danticat's case, she has fame, substance, a passionate audience, and a media machine that spread her work through all extremities of the networking realm. This isn't to undermine the greatness of other greats. Danticat enjoys royalty treatments few Haitian authors do by combining a number of factors that compliment the substance in her work. I firmly believe the situation would differ vastly had she first published nationally absent the communication tools readily available to her. She did make a huge splash with her debut. Substance is as important as exposure is the conclusion here.
    Linguistics, as you alluded to, is a deterrence to haitian writers. Of course we can't talk about it without mentioning the nature of the national audience. A 55 percent literacy rate does little to help national writers, let alone the marginalized few with reading interests. The great "Livres en Folie" with its 17-year history does not attract the masses nor does it advertise itself to them. There remains a nagging issue about language and class in the country. What one speaks is subject to categorizations and unfair stigmatizations that has little to do with substance or networking.
    Then there is you with the passion for reading and curiosity know by few. You know the difference and that matters. You look for the particulars because of that knowledge and interest. I'm sure people read for different reasons, but you're committed to searching and, finding and comparing works of these great writers. That kind of devotion is not shared universally. However, like Danticat, you do your best to do the work of their publishers and media personnel, assuming they can afford them.
    As Le Nouvelliste pointed out in one article, Haitian writers cannot live off their work, which present another problem. how does one get proper exposure for excellent work if one is starved. The problem is systemic and require systemic solutions. Maybe a state sponsored programs for promotion and networking.
    Thank you for this great post. Discourses such as these reveal solutions, so keep the conversation going, please.
    Rapadoo Observateur,

  4. Marthe Gaillard, Reader12 septembre 2011 à 01:07

    This came my way via twitter. I, unlike the rest of you, am not an academic. I am a simple reader. I think the academic who posed that question then came back for a pat on the head here for writing about Kettly Mars was approaching this the wrong way. Asking whether the world needs another article about Danticat poses the same divisive dichotomy that means we have to crush someone to raise another one up. Danticat herself does not seem to function that way. Everywhere I have seen her speak, she is plugging Haitian writers. Her last book Create Dangerously is practically a love letter to Haitian letters. She was certainly not asking Mr. Walsh to write about her. He should have solved this dilemna privately for himself. Now his choosing the wonderful Ms. Mars--who folks will be hating on next I guess because she just scored a huge international prize--seems like pandering. Pandering to our writers does not help. Trashing Ms. Danticat does not help. If you want to support Haitian writers, just do it. Ms. Danticat did not sell her body or soul for this. She worked hard and her hard work was rewarded, just as Kettly Mars has deservingly been rewarded and I presume will continue to be. Ms. Danticat found an audience as many other immigrant writers have in the country to which they arrived as children or young adults. She wasn't born with "connections" or networks to a media machine in this country or in Haiti. From what I understand of her life, she is from the lower classes in Haiti. Her father was a taxi driver. Her mother a seamstress. As a person who grew up in a family like Danticat's, I see her success as opening a door for other writers of Haitian descent here in the US, who deserve a platform and audience. Faulting her for the cowardice--or laziness-- of certain academics does nothing to further any of your causes.(And might possibly put the fear of God in other Haitian-American writers who will follow her.) I see Ms. Danticat through her many anthologies and endless preface writing making Haitian literature attractive to a new generation of Hatian_Americans. Those of you who can should translate. You have more than a million Haitian-Americans in the United States, who are a big chunk of Ms. Danticat's audience. Why don't you academics, without wringing your hands and throwing cheap forked tongues shots("I love her/I hate her") at this woman, find these readers for the writers you feel are so neglected by translating their work. These easy us against them/ here and there dynamics get us no where and we can do better.

  5. Marthe Gaillard, Reader12 septembre 2011 à 01:12

    I also meant to add as a response Rapadoo. Most American writers have some other job or another. When they are not working they are living off a fellowship or a grant for a few years. Just go to any Creative Writing program in the United States. Not being able to live off your writing is not a sign of failure by any means. it is the very normal condition of most people who write all over the world.

  6. Thank you for responding Marthe.
    I must admit. I went back and reread the post a few more times as well as the comments made. I was hoping to digest everything and catch possible misinterpretations.
    I failed to find any passage of comment that belittled Danticat or her great accomplishments. It could be that I misunderstood the whole thing or I didn't explain my thoughts well enough. I think the post is a compliment to Danticat and her media strategy. What I tried to articulate was the fact that other writers with great or not don't use the media as effectively to get exposure. It could be purely economical reasons or poor media strategy by publishing companies.
    You're right pointing out the difficulties writers face and those aren't particular to Haiti. however, If it's that bad here in the states, I can't imagine the upheavals Haitian writers face. I recommend establishing some fund dedicated to promoting Haitian works and help them reach a broader audience.
    Thank you for responding. I'm far from the academician title, but I thank you. :)
    Rapadoo Observateur.

  7. My point is, and this is the last, is that you are assuming that she has a personal "media strategy" and that is the ONLY thing that separates her from these other writers. Perhaps the true difference, without talking about tastes and varying degrees of talent--which exists everywhere in every culture--is a publishing mechanism here in the US, which is lacking in Haiti. That comes with the package here in the US. When a trade publishing house acquires your novel--even a small publishing house-- they have to sell it. They take care of the media too. I don't think she is a media whore and even if she were as you imply, one can only get so far without being talented. It's not like in Haiti where you can have friends or relatives in every media place. She has earned interest because her work demands it. I think we should acknowledge that. Before starting yet another Haiti fund--why is a fund always our first instinct--I would recommend, as before that those of you who are so concerned translate these writers and surely some of you are full of media strategy as well. Pitying them ad nauseum and stacking them up against their dyaspora sistren and brethren ( Dany Laferriere is also the subject of posts like these on the French-speaking side) in this "woe is they" manner does them absolutely no good.

  8. Thank you to both of you for your comments! Marthe, I want to personally welcome you to Tande and thank you for your contributions to keeping the conversation going as well. Like Rapadoo I went over the comments in order to figure out what you referring to as far as "trashing Danticat" and "throwing cheap forked tongues" because I was really puzzled. In fact one of my points re Edwidge is how much I appreciate her commitment to promoting other Haitian writers, something she uses her own network to do which is great. My only concern, as an academic and as someone who is an educator in the USA and thus conscious of how it bears upon me to be actively mindful to the diversity of Haitian writers, is how to do so in the most effective way possible. This is something Danticat does herself as exhibited in her writing and her editing and that we as academics can learn from.

  9. Marthe,
    I'm under the impression we're talking about two different topics. I must blame my english for the lack of understanding. "Media whore" is a bit of an exaggeration, in my view. I would not call anyone that.
    Your passion for the topic is evident. Keep the candle burning.
    Rapadoo Observateur,

  10. Reine,
    Excellent post and great topic as well. I do think that effective communication strategies lack on the national front. the postmodern world requires both talent and maximum exposure.
    I'll be looking for more engaging works such as this.
    Rapadoo Observateur,

  11. Ms. Danticat is probably many a Haitian-Americans exposure to Haitian life and culture set to the written word. She writes in English,a language that is accessible to most of us. The other writers and authors that make up the literary cannon of Haitian identity should also be explored.

  12. Agreed Kreyol, but how you propose we resolve the exposure issue? any ideas?

  13. I agree with you Kreyol. Why isn't translation an obvious answer to those of you in this milieu? I read In the Flicker of an Eyelid by Jacques Stephen Alexis in part because Edwidge Danticat was the co-translator. My friends and I read Tante Rezia and the Spirits by Yanick Lahens, Love, Anger and Madness by Marie Vieux Chauvet, Vale of Tears by Paulette Poujol Oriol and Massacre River by Rene Philotetre because these books and others I am not remembering now come up under her name at because she has written prefaces for them or has recommended them in her writings. I know of Marvin Victor and Louis Phillipe Dalembert and Ketly Mars becasue of Haiti Noir, which she edited. I am Haitian-American but these names and books were unfamiliar to me before. Marthe is right. Wringing your hands over whether an essay should be written about her or bemoaning her media conspiracy/savvy is not going to do it. She has done her part. Now it is up to the rest of you in this field and others to do yours. Teach these writers. Translate them. Start with Haitian-Americans like me who NEED to know this literature. That's where the debate should be focused on HOW not WHY HER?

  14. I am so happy to see our readers passionate about Haitian literature and Haitian writers! It's great because we do have so many wonderful authors.

    I just wanted to point out that Régine, John Walsh and myself as professors in French departments, are all able to teach Haitian works in the original, which is why our focus was not on translation. And since I teach in Haiti, this is actually the first semester I'll be able to teach Danticat since there is an affordable French translation available to my students. I'm excited about that.
    Perhaps we'll do a future post on translation, since it seems like people have a lot to say about it! Also, if you are truly interested in Haitian literature, please don't let linguistic barriers stop you. There's no rule stating that Haitian-Americans are only allowed to read in English! Check out ile en ile -- there are a number of short stories in French available on the site. I'm currently reading a novel in Creole by Pierre Michel Chéry: Bèbè Gòlgota. It's a great read!
    Thanks for visiting Tande and please come back again. These discussions are what we're all about!


  15. NM, There's nothing to say that we are only allowed to read it in English except the reality of our lives. If I and most of my Haitian-American friends could read this literature in the original languages then the question would be moot for me. Sad, but true, most of us did not come from households were French was spoken or Creole read. The former perhaps for economic reasons and the latter going deep into Haiti's own stigmas. The translations would not only benefit us, but the larger American or English-speaking public as well, to whom most who have posted here seem to be seeking access. Those who raised the issue do not seem bothered that these writers are also not read by Haitians in Haiti who can not read French or Creole. They are seeking a bigger American audience of which we are a part.

  16. Actually, I think the original point being made was about the critical discourse surrounding Haitian authors. Which ones do we choose to publish books and articles about? Whose works do we teach? No one here is against translation -- on the contrary, we are all for it!