Felicia Lee reviews Haiti Noir, a collection od mysteries edited by Edwidge Danticat.
The setup is familiar for a crime story: a kidnapping, a ransom demand, a briefcase full of money meant to be delivered on a dead-end street. But the details, specific to a section of Port-au-Prince, are what make the story called “Rosanna” fit snugly into the new anthology “Haiti Noir.”
“At the entrance to the labyrinthine neighborhood,” Josaphat-Robert Large writes, “was a trash heap that was always smoldering.”
“Haiti Noir,” released last week, has taken on new resonance amid the first anniversary of the devastating Jan. 12 earthquake that killed 300,000 people and left over one million homeless. While only 3 of the 18 stories deal with the earthquake directly, Edwidge Danticat, the volume’s editor, said many were filled with reminders of what was lost.
“I had this fear that the stories would lose their relevance,” said Ms. Danticat, the most widely known contemporary writer to come from Haiti. “But the post-earthquake neighborhoods have a new intrigue. Some of these stories are elegies to lost, broken and destroyed neighborhoods.”
That life has never been easy in the impoverished and crime-riddled nation makes Haiti an apt setting for a noir anthology. Akashic Books is publishing the volume as part of its “Noir” series focused on specific locales. (There have been 43 titles since “Brooklyn Noir” in 2004; a Copenhagen volume came out this month as well.) While the publisher defines the term broadly — requiring sinister tales or crime stories that evoke a strong sense of place and do not have happy endings — the Haiti book offers its own spin with plenty of grisly crime, dire poverty, and references to magic and religion. There is also some tenderness.
In “The Rainbow’s End,” by M. J. Fievre, a young love turns menacing; in “The Finger,” by Gary Victor, a burglar’s adventure ends unluckily; and in “Which One?,” by Evelyne Trouillot, a mother uses trickery to surrender her daughter to life in America.
The collection includes established Haitian writers like Kettly Mars, Louis-Philippe Dalembert and Mr. Large alongside the non-Haitians Mark Kurlansky and Madison Smartt Bell, who have written extensively about the country.
“By itself it’s a very good representation of Haitian writers and a way of introducing them to a wider American audience,” said Mr. Bell, who teaches writing at Goucher College in Maryland and is the author of a fictional trilogy about the Haitian revolution. Because few of the Haitian writers have until now been translated into English, they are not well known in the United States, he said. “If it helps with that, that by itself would be huge.”
Among the younger writers is Ms. Fievre, a 29-year-old middle school teacher who lives in Miami. She writes in English and French, and her stories have been published in American magazines. “When I first heard my story was accepted, I was enthusiastic because of my admiration for Edwidge,” she said. “I realized that having my story in ‘Haiti Noir’ would be a step toward recognition and readership.”
Ms. Danticat, 41, who came to the United States at 12 and also lives in Miami, is the author of several novels, including “The Farming of Bones,” the memoir “Brother, I’m Dying” and the recent “Eight Days.” In reaching out to writers for the collection, she said, she was pleased to see work that aimed to “rewrite the genre” from an insider’s perspective.
“Some of it is painful, some of it is funny, some of it is dreamlike,” she said — a variety that might surprise those who only associate Haiti with its sadder elements.
Johnny Temple, the publisher of Akashic Books, said that readers should not come to the new collection expecting a tone of self-pity for all the travails Haiti has suffered. “I love that ‘Haiti Noir’ is totally unapologetic,” he said. “It’s bold, it’s stylized. It’s not like, ‘Give these writers a break.’ They can stand on their own.”
Mr. Temple founded the Brooklyn-based Akashic in 1997. He and Tim McLoughlin, a writer and editor, came up with the idea of a “Noir” series after the critical and commercial success of “Brooklyn Noir,” which Mr. McLoughlin edited.
For each new book a key decision is finding the right editor. “For some places it’s a clear choice,” Mr. Temple said. “Edwidge for Haiti, Dennis Lehane for ‘Boston Noir,’ George Pelecanos for ‘D.C. Noir.’ In those cases I go out and pursue the writers” to act as book editors, he said. “But in other cases we are approached by people eager to edit. We receive proposals nearly every day from around the world.”
“Jerusalem Noir,” likely to come out in 2012, posed a special challenge of finding one editor to bring together writers across divides of religion, ethnicity and politics. After much back and forth the Arab-Israeli (and Muslim) writer Sayed Kashua was recently selected.
A Los Angeles Times review said the “Haiti Noir” collection includes stories “that stretch the definition of noir beyond the criminal and into something more ethereal.”
“Ghosts and gods figure in these narratives, as do the ideas that powerful emotions — particularly vengeance — can empower uncanny action,” Ms. Kellogg wrote.
Ms. Danticat will appear at Symphony Space in Manhattan on Jan. 26 for a staged reading of two selections from the book, her own “Claire of the Sea Light“ (about a man losing his daughter) and “The Leopard of Ti Morne“ by Mr. Kurlansky (about an American Jewish man’s Haitian connection). A portion of the profits from the book will be donated to the nonprofit Lambi Fund of Haiti, which focuses on economic and political empowerment.
“There’s a continuous need for expression that an environment like Haiti demands,” Ms. Danticat said. “All the strife inspires all the writers we have.”
For the original report go to http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/10/books/10noir.html?src=twrhp