Little known in the United States outside of academic circles, Evelyne Trouillot is one of Haiti's most celebrated intellectual thinkers. A prolific writer, Trouillot has authored numerous children's books, a collection of poetry and a collection of short stories, numerous plays, two novels, and countless essays and articles in both the mainstream and academic press. True to her Caribbean roots, Trouillot writes in French, Creole, and English, and has examined the current state of the Creole and French languages in Haitian society in a number of academic papers.
This 2005 discussion between Trouillot and Haitian-American novelist Edwidge Danticat is a standout in the BOMB Magazine series because more than any other, the interview is truly a conversation between two artistic equals than a traditional Q&A. In it, Trouillot and Danticat discuss Haiti's complex history of violent political unrest and natural disasters and how each has dealt with that legacy in and through their work.
Read the full interview from BOMB Magazine Issue 90, Winter 2005.
Edwidge Danticat: In September 2004, Haiti experienced yet another national disaster. As the third of three devastating storms—Tropical Storm Jeanne—raged through the Caribbean, it struck Haiti’s fourth largest city, the port city of Gonaïves, the birthplace of the country’s 200-year-old independence, leaving 3,000 people dead and a quarter of a million homeless. In one of the city’s largest hospitals, patients drowned in their beds. In surrounding houses, parents watched helplessly as their children were swept away. Fields and livestock representing years of Herculean labor were washed into the sea because the nude, eroded soil offered little resistance to the flash floods and mudslides. What was your first reaction to this catastrophe? I was told that you sat down and wrote a poem.
Evelyne Trouillot: In Haiti this year we have had many terrible events: the days before and after the departure of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the flooding of Fonds-Verrettes and Mapou in May 2004 and now the Gonaïves disaster. We all hope that the remainder of the year will be peaceful. But we also know that the country is going through an important period that requires all of our energy, our spirit and our creativity. When I learned of the Gonaïves tragedy, I went through a period of shock and sadness, a kind of numbness where the mind refuses to work and the senses can only register the sorrow. I wished for the power to change things, to erase the sadness, but like so many others, I felt helpless. It is one thing to intellectually understand the social, economic and ecological reasons for such a catastrophe, but it is something else to grasp that thousands of human beings, compatriots, women and children, young and old have lost their lives. I was sick. I’m still sick, and when I’m sick I write. With the pain still inside, and it will stay forever, I wrote a short story for children, about a girl who survived the Gonaïves flooding and who must live with her sadness. Then I wrote a poem that will be part of an anthology project to benefit the people of Gonaïves, specifically to enable the reconstruction of libraries and cultural centers that were destroyed.
ED: You’ve already published an exceptional children’s book called L’île de Ti Jean (Ti Jean’s island), which deals with a young boy’s effort to peacefully co-exist with nature. In the story, Ti Jean concocts a plan to always keep his island, Haiti, surrounded by the sea. By sitting down to write on this occasion, an occasion on which nature had been so cruel, were you trying to reclaim Ti Jean’s beautiful idyllic world for all of us?
ET: Writing can be both a task of memory, or homage, and simply a hand held out, the offer to share a sadness that’s too heavy to bear alone. To continue working and try to make a difference constitutes both an obligation and a renewal. This does not mean that writers cannot intervene in other ways, but for me writing helps me sort out my thoughts and feelings, and at the same time, I think I can have some impact on people’s minds. In L’île de Ti Jean I wanted to show first the natural beauty of the country but mostly the resilience and creativity of children. Somehow, in the story about Gonaïves, a little girl called Ana goes through the same process of finding strength to go beyond the tragedy and build a new life.
ED: In my own mind I tend to equate what happened in Gonaïves with the World Trade Center disaster here in New York on September 11th. It’s certainly an event that silenced many writers and artists into sadness, but also encouraged others to explore new ways of working.
ET: I also think that the Gonaïves tragedy is comparable to that of the World Trade Center, the obvious difference being that a group of individuals deliberately caused the latter…
ED: Of course.
ET: For its impact on the Haitian population in general, the Gonaïves tragedy can be considered a defining event of our time. It’s not just about mourning our dead, which we continue to do, but moving forward from the present, working to prevent similar catastrophes from happening in the future. Groups of citizens, of doctors, engineers and other professionals are working together to reflect upon ways to prevent another national disaster. The government had to take some concrete measures (like the closing of the sand mine) to stop the deterioration of the environment. The event has allowed our nation to come together in the face of adversity, and it helps to see the gestures of national and international solidarity. Actually, I want to emphasize gestures of national solidarity, since these act as a breath of hope in this country. We must question not only our methods of environmental management but also, more deeply, our policy of exclusion, which generates resentment and social conflicts, and this can only be done by our citizens.
ED: I completely agree with you. Yet what do you make of the fact that even as we were mourning the loss of so many lives in Gonaïves, there was still fighting in the streets of Port-au-Prince between the supporters of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the Haitian national police and the UN forces? There was even fighting on the anniversary of the death of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, [Toussaint] L’Ouverture’s successor, on October 17, which seems like more salt, if you would, on our revolutionary wound. Some people have said outright that Haiti is “paying” for all of the horrific bloodshed of 200 years ago during its battle of independence, the blood of blacks, whites, as well as mulattos and affranchis, free people of color. Everyone seems to have a theory. Do you have one? Is there room to look at these sad and tragic moments the country has faced this year as cyclical, or simply coincidental? Do we owe some psychic debt for which we are paying? Does the world owe us one?
ET: Haitians often find themselves up against this question. Some ask it outright, while some murmur it with embarrassment. As you say, this year the question has come up more often since we have had a series of tragedies: human, political and natural. These events seem to bolster the opinion of some people, Haitian and otherwise, that this nation was born in the shadows of violence and death that still follow it two centuries later. I always say that Haiti is neither damned nor blessed. Our history began uniquely, on a track that has not yet been traced. We have made many errors and continue to do so, and while I do not minimize our part of the responsibility, I can’t ignore the offensive reception that the international community reserves for Haiti, the sabotage and isolation that this young nation had to face. Haiti suffers the consequences of its history, of the bad choices of its leaders and of the politics of the superpowers with regard to it. I hope that the world will not wait for more tragedies to mobilize. It really seems to me that this year, that of the bicentennial, is a turning point. This year arrived in great chaos, like a surprise guest that one does not know what to do with, a guest one is not at all ready to receive. But the bicentennial is not only an occasion for sadness. The country has known repression and intolerance, but there have also been moments of extraordinary courage. This is a year not just to celebrate the past; it is a year to build, to change, to question, to recover our history and demystify it.
Read the full interview from BOMB Magazine Issue 90, Winter 2005.
Used with permission. All rights reserved. © BOMB Magazine, New Art Publications, and its Contributors.
Evelyne Trouillot, “In the Shade of the Almond Tree,” Words Without Borders