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 Noir. On 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 Trouillot, Kettly 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?