Haitian Newspaper Features French Class

This article was first published in the Haitian newspaper Le Nouvelliste on April 17, 2013. Translated by Carolyn Shread, language instructor in French at Mount Holyoke College.

Mount Holyoke College Students Discuss Marie Vieux-Chauvet

By Dieulermesson Petit Frere

In an interview for the first issue of the new journal Legs et Littérature, on the theme of Insularity, Dominique Batraville emphasized that we Haitians “are a people born of great changers who change greatly.” As much as to say, contrary to common perceptions, Haiti is a nation of marvels and Haitians are capable of great things. Indeed, the hills of Haiti have far more than poverty to offer the world, as so many hysterical, disingenuous, and disrespectful foreigners would have us believe. This is a country with tremendous cultural potential.

Dany Laferrière stressed this point just days after the January 2010 earthquake: “In Haiti, all that’s left standing is our culture.” And it’s doing very well, thank you. Through literature, art, and other media, Haitian culture has crossed every frontier. Our culture endures. Our culture is memory. Marie Vieux-Chauvet’s writing is part of this process.

At Mount Holyoke College—a small women’s college in South Hadley, Massachusetts, founded in 1837—Marie Vieux-Chauvet, author of Love, Anger, Madness, is widely discussed. She continues to prompt talk about Haiti and is on the tip of every tongue: professors, students, guest lecturers, in the quad, in the cafés, classrooms, and on the bus. Students who have read and studied Les Rapaces expressed their admiration and interest in her work.

Top marks

Xi Zhou is a Hampshire College student of political science from China:

“It’s all thanks to Carolyn Shread who teaches in the French department. She specializes in Haitian literature and wanted to introduce us to the world of Marie Vieux-Chauvet by including her novel Les Rapaces (which she translated into English) on the syllabus, along with Marjane Satrapi’s Persépolis.

It was an excellent idea to read Les Rapaces. Before we had only read novels from France. This book gave us some breadth, brought us into contact with other cultures, specifically, Haitian culture. I’d love to visit Haiti one day.”

A memorial novel

Amelia Neumayer '16 is an American student studying library science, communication, and technology:

“This novel taught us a lot about Haiti during the Duvalier era. It taught us about the difficult situation of peasants, as well as the types of solidarity and community support they enjoyed. We learned about “coumbite” as a way of working the land together. We had already read Persépolis, but Les Rapaces is really different. Marie Chauvet was a very brave woman. Nowadays, Haiti needs women like her more than ever.”

Isobel Barry '16 is an art major:

“This is the first Haitian novel I have read. More importantly, it’s written by a woman. She showed a lot of courage, since I imagine that writing under the dictatorship wasn’t easy. It’s a memorial novel. I like the symbolism of the cat and Alcindor, the poor man. He has a sense of responsibility. He’s the one who proves that humans can change their circumstances.”
On respect for human dignity

Alma Osorio '13 is from El Salvador. She has a bachelor's degree in political science and human rights:

“I do not know many Haitian writers. I did, however, do a presentation on Haitian literature in this class and that was when I discovered the true wealth of Haitian literary output. I’m grateful to Professor Shread, who talked a lot about Haiti in our class.

“What is shocking in this novel is the sale of blood and cadavers that the author includes in the story, as well as portraying starving people eating cats. Human rights are not respected. Aside from the terror created by the government, I also learned that Haiti is not simply the dictatorship or poverty, but is also a great people who fought against slavery. . . . The novel is a plea to respect human dignity.”

A revolutionary novel

Chrislyn Laurore '16 is a student in the arts and sciences. She is of Haitian origin:

“I was born in the United States, but I spent some of my childhood in Haiti. When my professor, Carolyn Shread, turned up with the book in class I thought it was great, but also strange since French novels are often foregrounded here and people forget that Haiti is part of the Francophone world.

“It’s a beautiful book. It has a lot of information about the Duvalier era and the types of solidarity that existed among the Haitian peasantry. It’s also a revolutionary novel. Alcindor was transformed—his conscious was raised by meeting Anne, the minister’s daughter, who dies for a just cause.

Les Rapaces is about how the government oppresses the peasants, the bourgeois oppress the peasants, and the peasants oppress each other. There are so many instances of this type of behavior which must, at all costs, be changed to allow for progress in Haiti.”