A review by Tara Henley for Toronto’s Star.
The unleashing of racial hatred in the United States in recent times has made it more important than ever to revisit the past, and to remind ourselves where this painful path leads. A new English version of Haitian author Marie Vieux-Chauvet’s 1957 masterpiece Dance on the Volcano — translated from French by Barnard College professor Kaiama L. Glover — does just that. The vivid, heartbreaking epic brings the horror of racial oppression into focus.
Set in the late 18th Century when Haiti was a French colony and based on real figures from historical documents, the story follows a mixed-race singer, Minette. The teen’s talent is discovered by a white Creole actress at the Comédie of Port-au-Prince, who grooms her as an opera singer. Minette’s subsequent presence on the stage breaks the law, and captures the nation, catapulting her to the heart of the seething conflict between whites, those of mixed race and black slaves. When Minette’s mother Jasmine confides her own past as a slave, the performer’s sympathies solidify into revolutionary sentiment. And action.
In the midst of this political turmoil, Minette falls for a volatile, free black slaveholder, who terrorizes the very men and women whose liberty she’s dedicated to fighting for. As the island falls to chaos, and its population becomes bitterly divided, Minette must choose where she stands.
Vieux-Chauvet is a tremendously gifted storyteller, compared to the likes of Tolstoy. Her work highlights the lasting trauma of racial and class oppression — detailing the ripple effects that spread from one person to the next, and infect one generation after another. But it also shows humanity’s struggle to emerge from the ashes of this hatred, and find love and beauty again.
Born in Port-au-Prince in 1916, Vieux-Chauvet lived under the brutal dictatorship of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier. Family members were imprisoned, disappeared and assassinated. In 1968, she published a trilogy Love, Anger, Madness (supported by none other than Simone de Beauvoir) that challenged the regime, forcing her to flee to New York City and live in exile, estranged from her husband and family. There, she worked as a housekeeper and tragically died in 1973, at the age of 57, from brain cancer.
Though her life was a troubled one, haunted by the spectre of her nation’s violent history, her writing ultimately triumphed over these circumstances, serving as a beacon of truth-telling and hope. That is certainly the case with this remarkable work of fiction, which will introduce a new generation of readers to Vieux-Chauvet’s exquisite writing, and its courageous calls for justice.