Laurent Dubois: “Heroines of the Haitian Revolution”

Linen-Market-at-St.-Domingo-e1493250438900-1024x791

In “Heroines of the Haitian Revolution,” Laurent Dubois (Duke University) writes about Kaiama Glover’s Dance on the Volcano, her translation of Marie Vieux-Chauvet’s La Danse sur le volcan, as a corrective, counteractive, or supplemental alternative to historical accounts of colonial Saint Domingue and the Haitian Revolution for Anglophone readers. The importance of Dance, he says, is that it centers on the role of women and that the (hi)story is told from the perspective of women of color. Here are excerpts of the article. Please read the full article at Public Books.

[. . .] For Anglophone readers and students, Dance is an ideal way to enter the world of colonial Saint-Domingue and the Haitian Revolution. The novel does not focus on the uprising of the enslaved in Saint-Domingue’s Northern Province, depicted in Carpentier’s well-known The Kingdom of This World. Instead, it focuses on Port-au-Prince and the colony’s Western Province, where planters battling one another first armed their slaves. [. . .]

Vieux-Chauvet offers a striking portrait of the world of colonial Port-au-Prince from the perspective of women of color, and seeks to reconstruct their interior lives. Minette’s mother, Jasmine, is haunted by memories of her previous life and remains sympathetic to those still enslaved, aware of the ongoing resistance to slavery among Maroons in the hills, but remaining in the town as she realizes that there were others “more suited than she for battle and for vengeance.” She sees a future of freedom in her two daughters, Minette and Lise. When she hears them sing, “the beaten and debased former slave held her head high, forgot about the past, smiled at the future.” And yet this is a “brief feeling of joy that lasted only as long as her daughters sang,” tied to the moment itself, shadowed by all that still lurks around her and threatens to crush their voices.

Minette ultimately triumphed onstage, becoming perhaps the most important performing artist in the colony. [. . .] There were also playwrights in the colony, some writing plays in Creole—the first literary works produced in the language. Jeannot et Thérèse, for instance, reworked Rousseau’s blockbuster romantic opera Le devin du village. The village became a plantation, the villagers became enslaved and free people of African descent, and the magician who helps reunite the lovers became an African-born healer named Papa Simon. First performed in 1758, it was a favorite among theatergoers in the colony for decades. In fact, on the evening Minette first performed a full-length opera role, the other play performed was Jeannot et Thérèse, in which Minette’s white mentors performed the lead roles—in blackface.

Minette, interestingly, refused to perform in plays written in the colony, preferring the European repertoire. Fouchard situates Minette’s rejection of local plays in a tradition of elite Haitian rejection of the Creole language and popular culture. Vieux-Chauvet, however, suggests that Minette disliked how those plays depicted slaves as comic figures, without serving some “greater purpose.” She sees Minette as having wanted a more political theater, one through which the enslaved themselves could speak in their “own language,” expressing “their sufferings and their desire for freedom!” [. . .]

In the translation by Kaiama Glover, a scholar who has also written about the author, the twists and turns of Vieux-Chauvet’s prose—as she moves from town to stage to plantation and brings to life a multiplicity of characters—are rendered beautifully into English. In the swirling passages about the revolution itself we see Haiti’s people “trying to forget the dead and regain their taste for the living” in the “still-smoking ruins of the town,” and find Minette, taking in the destruction but also the possibilities emerging from it, concluding simply: “In the end, it deserved to be lived, this life.” The novel reads easily, but the intricate layers and resonances of Vieux-Chauvet’s stylistic choices are all here for readers to grapple with and explore. [. . .]

[Painting above: “The Linen Market, Santo Domingo,” Agostino Brunias (1730-1796, Italy)]

For full article, see http://www.publicbooks.org/heroines-of-the-haitian-revolution/

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