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Migration and RefugeAn Eco-Archive of Haitian Literature, 1982-2017$

John Patrick Walsh

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9781786941633

Published to Liverpool Scholarship Online: May 2020

DOI: 10.3828/liverpool/9781786941633.001.0001

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For an Eco-Archive

For an Eco-Archive

(p.29) Chapter One For an Eco-Archive
(p.iii) Migration and Refuge

John Patrick Walsh

Liverpool University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter continues to build the conceptual and historical frame of the eco-archive. It argues that contemporary Haitian literature records the transformation of the environment and accumulates and inscribes overlapping temporalities of past and present, like an archive. The first part reviews a range of Caribbean and Haitian thought on the environment, broadly understood, and considers key moments of Haitian literary history of the twentieth century. Earlier forms and paths of migration and refuge, from the sugar migration up to the journeys of “boat people,” inform and historicize literary representations of the earthquake and its aftermath. The chapter then carries out close readings of a selection of René Philoctète’s poetry and his novel, Le peuple des terres mêlées, a text that depicts the “Parsley Massacre” of 1937. It draws out Philoctète’s eco-archival writing and contends that the novel foregrounds the environmental ethos of the border in opposition to Trujillo’s genocidal nationalism.

Keywords:   Literary eco-archive, René Philoctète, Le peuple des terres mêlées, Borderland, Sugar migration

Ici, au moins, on n’en a qu’avec les cyclones, une petite secousse de temps en temps, la faim qui avance à grandes enjambées et finira par nous bouffer tous. Peut-être même avant l’océan.

Louis-Philippe Dalembert, L’Autre face de la mer, 31

As a point of departure, allow me to illustrate the idea of an “eco-archive” with a brief analysis of the above passage from Louis-Philippe Dalembert’s L’Autre face de la mer, one of his earliest works and a stunning novel of twentieth-century Haiti. Dalembert depicts the tight relation between subjective experience and surrounding land and sea as sites of communal struggle against larger political forces. Grannie, the narrator of the first section, tells the story of her family’s journey, during the first U.S. occupation of Haiti (1915–1934), from Port-au-Prince across the border to the Dominican Republic, where her father took up work on a sugarcane plantation. Nearing the end of her life, Grannie marks the historical distance from this period by naming hurricanes, alleged by some, she remarks dismissively, to be “aussi fantasques et imprévisibles que nous” (31). Grannie understands so-called “natural disasters” as much for their periodic disruption of the delicate balance between human populations and non-human nature as for their capacity to delineate social boundaries between order and disorder. Grannie’s narration might be read to go against the grain of what Mark Anderson refers to as a “modern grammar of disaster,” or the political mediation of catastrophic events whose syntax of control includes “key concepts such as risk, vulnerability, trauma, and normalization” (Disaster Writing, 20). Over time, Anderson continues, disasters do not so much disrupt the normal order of things as expose historical processes that have long left certain populations vulnerable. (p.30) Grannie suggests as much when she laments that the Haitian people are said to be as “unpredictable” as hurricanes. In the Caribbean zone, the ferocious convergence of water and wind whips up a two-sided “natural” character in the people who suffer such force: they are helpless and resilient. Grannie is wise to these stereotypes, as she speaks truth to power with her own rhetorical move by personifying hunger and granting it an alarming agency. In her mind, this dire social condition will be more devastating than an angry ocean.

Dalembert’s novel invites such an ecocritical reading informed by Haitian history. Grannie’s narrative is emblematic of an eco-archive in that it draws from and reinscribes the shared space in which humans and the non-human world intersect and interact. The novel evokes a dual ethos of solidarity and struggle as it links together defining moments of rupture and displacement in Haitian history, from the Middle Passage up to the imperial presence of the United States, and from the early years of the Duvalier era to periodic journeys of boat-people. The ecological strata of sea and land depicted in L’Autre face de la mer can be read as a record of these migrations within Haiti and across the greater Caribbean and Americas. In this way, Dalembert embarks on a “poetics of migration” that has much in common with the ecological politics of Édouard Glissant’s Poétique de la relation.1 In fact, allusions to “la grande barque” (22) – regular poetic interludes in L’Autre face de la mer that modulate and give depth to Grannie’s journeys – echo the opening meditation of Glissant’s text.2 In the evocation of the “barque ouverte,” Glissant conjures the symbolic matrix of the slave ship and its crossing from all that is known to the terror and abyss of the vast unknown. The abyss is a fundamental historical experience, in that it initiates a process of worlding, or a constant flow of diversity and difference that Glissant famously called “Relation.” An open-ended system of reaching out and defining oneself in relation to others, (p.31) Relation theorizes the ushering in of a transatlantic modernity that continues to shape patterns of migrations today. “Nos barques sont ouvertes,” Glissant writes, “pour tous nous les naviguons” (21).3

In the francophone Caribbean, the precursor of Glissant is Aimé Césaire.4 Césaire’s seminal Cahier d’un retour au pays natal contemplates the journey back to Martinique by bearing witness to the colonial devastation of the island’s ecology. The poet scans the horizon of “anses frêles”; “ville plate … étalée … inerte … incapable de croître selon le suc de cette terre, embarrassée, rognée, réduite, en rupture de faune and flore”; and “mornes faméliques” (Cahier, 8–11). The Cahier reconfigures a representation of place by way of an archipelagic subjectivity, or a Glissantian “drive,” both affective and ecological, that, as Jaime Hanneken has written, informs and modulates the poem’s rhetorical energy.5 One of the great feats of the Cahier was to deconstruct the myths of colonial rule in the Caribbean, clearing space for future poets. The legacy of the slave trade and slavery has led to foundational poetic expressions of ecological thought in the Caribbean of the twentieth century, notably Kamau Brathwaite’s “the unity is submarine” (p.32) and Derek Walcott’s “the sea is history” – both of which serve as epigraphs to Glissant’s Poétique de la relation.6 The historical depths of Glissant’s poetics of Relation underscore the precarious, unfinished passage between migration and refuge. Studies of migration in the Caribbean, and Haiti in particular, have long insisted on historicizing contemporary patterns of displacement. In his rich yet underappreciated work Négriers d’eux-mêmes, Jean-Claude Icart begins by recognizing that labor migration is always tied to the global flow of capital, and that these twin engines of capitalism have worked to create uneven political and corporate networks.7 As the title makes clear, the phenomenon of Haitian boat-people – the subject of Icart’s largely sociological study – harks back to an older form of capitalist traffic. Yet, as Icart insists, the négrier, the vessel of this ignoble trade, continues to haunt the twentieth century. One of the enduring merits of Icart’s essay, published thirty years ago, lies in its diachronic approach to the movement of people, goods, and ideas. The refugee’s journey is at once worlds apart from colonial missions of “discovery” and religious conversion, yet also historically tied to the accumulation of capital that began in the long era of the Atlantic slave trade.

Joël Des Rosiers also takes a long view of Caribbean migrations. Like Icart, he signals his intention to historicize a range of Caribbean biographies and intellectual trajectories in the title of his book, Théories caraïbes: poétique du déracinement. As he makes clear in its epigraph, Des Rosiers draws on an old meaning of “theory” as a “députation des villes de Grèce aux fêtes solennelles d’Olympie, de Delphes et de Corinthe, cortège, défilé, groupe d’hommes en mouvement.”8 He continues: “La (p.33) multiplicité des cultures entraîne celle des récits. Ces figures du récit ne sont ni gratuites ni insignifiantes; l’imaginaire de la migration peut nous offrir une intelligence du Monde. Il peut surtout nous permettre la traversée des enracinements sans nullement y adhérer” (Théories caraïbes, xiii). For Des Rosiers, literature creates knowledge that speaks to the unsettling yet meaningful crossing between uprooting and attempts at rerooting. In a poetic passage that echoes Glissant – indeed, he invokes Glissant later in the book – Des Rosiers writes, “j’appelle théories caraïbes les groupes d’hommes en larmes, nègres marrons affolés d’amour qui, d’une rive à l’autre, jettent leur langue nationale dans l’eau salée, dans la bouche ouverte, sans fond, de l’abysse” (xvi). Throwing their “national tongue” into the abyss, these historical maroons are an ancestral link, Des Rosiers contends, to today’s Caribbean immigrants, whom he calls “marrons modernes” (122).

Des Rosiers argues that literature sheds light on these migrants as agents of postnationalism. He attends not only to immigrant writers, especially those “Gouverneurs de l’hiver,” or Haitian writers who fled a tropical dictator for the colder yet democratic climes of Quebec, but also to the subjects of their migrant writings, people displaced by imperial forces and the globalizing economies they created. Yet Des Rosiers couches his reflection on the seasonal ironies to be found in the texts of multiple generations of Caribbean migrants mainly in terms of the multicultural encounters that give rise to postnational identity formations. In this respect, he attends to the vexing geopolitical problems that continue to arise in the periodic migratory waves that flow over national boundaries and the cultural and linguistic territories within.

But what about the environmental spaces that subtend Des Rosiers’s displaced “theories” of Caribbean literary history? By way of an answer, let me return to Dalembert’s L’Autre face de la mer. Grannie’s recollection of her family’s journey along the traite verte to the Dominican Republic is conveyed not in terms of the difference of cultural encounters but in the relationship between humans and the land. Known as the “sugar migration,” this trade began at the turn of the twentieth century, with the presence of Haitian workers in cane fields in Cuba and then in the Dominican Republic.9 Apart from traite verte, the language of this (p.34) trade is Spanish, as Georges Anglade has pointed out.10 Grannie’s father would have been a bracero, a Haitian cane worker. Anglade and Icart describe the seasonal nature of migrant labor on sugar plantations, which increased significantly as a result of policies implemented by the United States prior to and following its occupation of Cuba (1906–1909) and, shortly after, Haiti. As Valerie Kaussen writes, “the sugarcane plantation is a crucible of the world system that provides the conditions for a collective movement that would be pan-Caribbean and even global in its implications” (Migrant Revolutions, 102). Grannie and her family never reached the global horizons of “the other side of the sea,” but they were implicated in the regulated borders of the sugar migration. Her story, which moves back and forth between her voice as a young girl and the memories of an elderly woman, captures both the river and mountains of the frontier and the armed soldiers who patrolled it. As the narrative begins to intertwine the natural and the political, its description of migrant labor reveals the active power of the non-human environment:

Papa trouva très vite une embauche dans une plantation. Il n’y a pas de sot métier, grommela-t-il comme pour se justifier. De l’aube à la nuit tombée à couper la canne, au milieu de grosses fourmis rouges qui dévoraient les jambes, de feuilles dont le rebord, plus tranchant qu’une lame de rasoir, lacérait les bras et le visage.

(L’Autre face de la mer, 35–36)

In this passage, Nature is alive with devouring ants and lacerating plants. Crucially, the text foreshadows the political violence that will be brought to migrant workers and their families, transforming them, in Grannie’s expression, into “le gibier à abattre” (42). By way of metaphor, the novel materializes the brute oppression of migrants. By reimagining humans as animalized prey, the text reveals how language naturalizes the violence of political power.

As this brief analysis of Dalembert’s novel demonstrates, writers draw inspiration from the symbolic and material links between language and environment to compose texts that represent ecologies of Haitian experience. The chapter develops this central claim in three parts. First, it reviews cultural and political antecedents of environmental thought in Haiti and the greater Caribbean as an essential background for successive generations of writers. Next, it articulates a (p.35) theory of literature as an “eco-archive” that governs and structures the textual analyses throughout this study. As conceived here, literature records the transformation of the environment through the imaginary, while at the same time accumulating and inscribing, like an archive, overlapping temporalities of past, present, and future. In this way, building on David Scott’s theory of generational memory, I suggest that to contemplate and imagine the environment is also to think about temporality. Dalembert’s depiction of Grannie’s lived experience of hurricanes and hunger over time exemplifies generational memories of environmental injustice. Finally, the last section performs a close reading of Philoctète’s Le peuple des terres mêlées, a novel that, like L’autre face de la mer, depicts the clash between nationalism and migrant communities tied to the sugar industry.


“Environment” and “ecology” are far from universally understood terms, and it is imperative to consider their cultural inflections and historical contexts. Before returning to key expressions of ecological thought in Haitian and Caribbean literature, a review of North American and European uses can provide comparative depth and texture. In academic circles, the two terms are understood in a general sense but have also been conflated in misleading ways. In The Future of Environmental Criticism, Lawrence Buell provides a useful primer to the field of environmental criticism, to which he appends a glossary of etymological permutations. “Environment” (from the French, environner, to surround) refers to physical surroundings, “natural” and “built,” whereas, Buell explains, “ecology is the study of the interactions between organisms and the environment” (The Future of Environmental Criticism, 139). While the former is anthropocentric (humans interacting with and dominating plants, minerals, and animals), the latter has primarily been understood as the science of the interconnected relations between non-human entities. As adjectives, however, each has undergone a semantic shift following cultural inroads into scientific debate. On the one hand, there has been a move away from ecology as the privileged laboratory of life scientists to the cultural domain. On the other, the idea of the environment as human-centered has yielded somewhat to eco-oriented perspectives, especially in the fields of animal studies and posthumanism. While these changes (p.36) have opened the door to new ways of thinking, they have also led to slippage between “environmental,” “ecological,” and “Earth system,” all of which have been susceptible to an erroneous synonymity.

Greg Garrard has made a clarification between scientific and cultural domains of ecology that remains instructive. Leaning on John Passmore’s earlier distinction between problems in ecology and ecological problems, Garrard concludes, “To describe something as an ecological problem is to make a normative claim about how we would wish things to be, and while this arises out of the claims of ecological scientists, it is not defined by them” (Ecocriticism, 6).11 Garrard structures his book on a series of large-scale metaphors (pollution, wilderness, apocalypse, and so on) that draw from problems of ecology in order to reflect on their cultural implications. His reading of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring is exemplary: “The great achievement of the book was to turn a (scientific) problem in ecology [the toxicity of DDT] into a widely perceived ecological problem that was then contested politically, legally and in the media and popular culture” (6). Garrard thus clears space for his central claim: “environmental problems require analysis in cultural as well as scientific terms because they are the outcome of an interaction between ecological knowledge of nature and its cultural inflection” (Ecocriticism, 16). Such finesse notwithstanding, the appropriation of scientific discourse in literary and cultural studies remains the subject of heated debate.

Dana Phillips’s The Truth of Ecology is a notable instance of a quarrelsome intervention. Phillips provides an intellectual history of ecology by reviewing scientists’ difficulty in getting beyond its popular origins as a natural utopia characterized by balance and harmony, as well as defining its object of study in relation to evolutionary theories predicated on instability. According to Phillips, the greater problem lies in the capaciousness that literary scholars have ascribed to it in the absence of a more secure scientific position. Phillips takes issue with Buell’s seminal book The Environmental Imagination because, he finds, it “seems designed to help determine the future shape of ecocriticism’s research program [but] does nothing to resolve the theoretical imbroglio of ecocriticism, which is clearly one of the author’s goals” (The Truth of Ecology, 159). The charge that Phillips levels at Buell – beginning in the introduction and unfolding in the better part of the fourth chapter – is that the attachment to realism reduces literary analysis to (p.37) an ecomimesis, one that betrays a disdain for theory’s insistence on the problems inherent to representation.12

Phillips’s contentious tone created quite a stir. In his review of another important work of ecocriticism, Scott Hicks bemoaned the “bombastic complication of the term [ecology]” (“Review of Kimberly N. Ruffin, Black on Earth” 486).13 Phillips is aware of his provocation but argues that it is made in the spirit of a necessary concern for “rigor and precision” (The Truth of Ecology, 76). The thrust of the argument is that literary critics get in over their heads by eliding the critical differences between scientific and humanistic inquiry, and they do so by simplifying textual representations of the world. For Phillips, it is precisely the failure to observe the difference between analogy and metaphor that “leads to a gross misunderstanding of ecology … and a correspondingly gross overestimation of the nearness of ecological thinking to poetic and other modes of essentially comparative thought” (76). Analogy can be illuminating, he continues, but tends to end up in “metaphor, or an obfuscating equation in which the differences between terms have disappeared completely” (76). Ultimately, Phillips argues, knowledge of the world is bound up in the imperfections of language and in the messiness of representation. Frankly, this conclusion offers a hazy idea of “truth” residing somewhere between the poles of natural realism and social construction. It is more convincing, I suggest, to give “the testimony of scientists the benefit to be had from doubt” (The Truth of Ecology, 82). For Phillips, however, this means prioritizing a pragmatic approach to ecology over epistemological truth.

These exchanges are evidence of the controversial and unstable place of the prefix “eco” as it shifts between cultural and scientific discourse. Often pushed to the margins of this academic dispute is the underlying desire to rethink the basic terms by which different peoples experience their relationship with non-human life and the earth itself. In ways pragmatic and epistemological, Haitian and other Caribbean writers inflect these debates with their own poetic and testimonial doubts concerning the lack of attention to the links between ecological problems and colonial and imperial histories. In this perspective, Haitian literary imaginaries are a textual link to the (p.38) socio-economic framework of the “environmentalism of the poor.” This catchy expression, coined through the collaborative efforts of Ramachandra Guha and Joan Martinez-Alier, follows the efforts of various peoples to defend their way of life in both rural and urban spaces.14 In Varieties of Environmentalism, Guha and Martinez-Alier cover a wide range of topics over more than twenty years, from the Chipko Movement in the Indian Himalayas in the early 1970s to urban planning in Barcelona and to the environmental consequences of the North American Free Trade Agreement, signed by the United States, Canada, and Mexico in 1994. These studies investigate problem spots around the world, but the book nevertheless makes a distinction between “rich” and “poor” that has been read as a clear geographical separation between North and South. As a result, Martinez-Alier’s attention to class, and especially to people who rarely identify as environmentalists, loses its specificity in the contrast drawn by Guha, in subsequent essays, between the “ecology of affluence” and the “southern challenge.”15 This is perhaps the unavoidable result of a joint production between a Spanish economist and an Indian historian more attuned to the post-imperial legacies of his native land. Nevertheless, most critics locate the “environmentalism of the poor” on the map of the “Global South.” To a great extent, this makes sense on the basis of colonial history, but it risks a simplified representation of global populations and the continued uneven distribution of resources. In other words, it perversely sustains a hierarchy between North and South as homogeneous regions of the globe. As Upamanyu Pablo Mukherjee writes, “Guha and other like-minded theorists seem to forget the essential feature of global capitalism – its tendency to develop pockets of extreme wealth and vast swathes of poverty simultaneously on local, national and global levels” (Postcolonial Environments, 32). Haitian stories fit into the geopolitical paradigm of the “Global South,” but their portrayals of flows of migrants and refugees into increasingly heterogeneous populations also collapse neat divisions between North and South.

The Haitian texts in this study complicate the geographies of the “environmentalism of the poor.” Read as an eco-archive, they also (p.39) allow for an update of the older idea of littérature engagée, or the aesthetic form as a concrete political resistance. By considering the implicit environmental critique of the writer, it is possible to treat the literary imaginary as a kind of environmentalism, a textual partner to the environmental justice and social advocacy that motivates other projects, on scales large and small. Without downplaying the real differences between literary and political voices and acts, it is possible, I think, to consider a more expansive idea of environmentalism that allows for a comparison of the writing of Edwidge Danticat and the scientific research of the marine biologist Jean Wiener, a 2015 recipient of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize.16 After studying in the United States, Wiener returned to Haiti in 1989 to discover the extent of the damage done to marine ecosystems along the coast that he had visited in his youth. As he related during the prize ceremony, local fishermen would tell him, “We used to be able to fish for a half day and feed our family for two weeks. Now we fish for two weeks and feed our family for a half day.” In 1992, he established the Fondation pour la protection de la biodiversité marine to help local communities restore marine habitats and to develop sustainable practices with a view to economic welfare. As the Goldman press release points out, Wiener knew “that Haiti was the only Caribbean country without any official Marine Protected Areas” (“2015 Goldman Prize Press Release”). Eventually, in July 2013, the government recognized his years of hard work and designated the first area, on the southwestern coast, followed six months later by a second on the northeast coast.

Wiener’s scientific activism begins with the awareness of loss, a reality that Danticat captures in the tale of Nozias, the fisherman of Claire of the Sea Light, the novel that I take up in Chapter Four. Nozias’s decision to send away his daughter, the eponymous Claire, is grounded in environmental and economic deprivation. The narrator reports Claire’s attention to her father’s concerns:

Lapèch, fishing, was no longer profitable as it had once been, she would hear him tell anyone who would listen. It was no longer like in the old (p.40) days, when he and his friends would put a net in the water for an hour or so, then pull it out full of big, mature fish. Now they had to leave nets in for half a day or longer, and they would pull fish out of the sea that were so small that in the old days they would have thrown them back. But now you had to do with what you got.

(Claire of the Sea Light, 9)

It is striking just how much the novelist and the marine biologist are on the same page, so to speak. Wiener and Danticat move between past and present, and each calls attention to the fragile symbiosis of human, marine, and plant life. In different yet related ways, scientists and writers take hold of an island ecology that also inscribes its deprivation on their work. In this sense, it is possible to read Danticat’s novel as a poetics of environmentalism, or a work of the imagination whose making of meaning transforms its surroundings and the lives of those it sustains. Wiener and Danticat both address the erosion of Haitian shores and depletion of resources. These deteriorating conditions are a modern environmental crisis, yet their causes have a much longer history. To offer but one example, deforestation, the subject of recurring debates, has been traced back to French colonial practices.17 Scholars have debunked myths that have held sway in various narratives that appeal to the Western (U.S. and European) popular imaginary by reducing more complex environmental stories to simple themes and misleading iconic images.

For another source of this history, one could also look in older layers of the eco-archive by turning to earlier generations of Haitian writers, who have left an invaluable literary legacy of materialist representations of overlapping ecological and political problems. As Max Dominique has demonstrated, the diversity of literary movements in twentieth-century Haiti, particularly the early to middle years, cannot be overstated. In his attempt to chart a periodization of writers and journals, Dominique finds that various movements have as many themes and political ideals in common as not. He writes, “L’opposition entre les poètes de la Revue indigène et leurs prédecesseurs immédiats, ceux de La Ronde, paraît à bien des égards surfaite” (Esquisses critiques, 22). Taking a cue from the way that Dominique rethinks received ideas on Haitian (p.41) literature, I would like to take an ecocritical look at indigénisme, the literary movement that arose in the late 1920s, and Jacques Roumain’s Gouverneurs de la rosée (1944), the most well-known novel associated with the movement’s blend of modernist poetics, nationalism, and internationalist Marxist politics. It is equally important to consider how this novel and the movement that Roumain helped define expose underlying cultural and political assumptions of ecocritical thought in the North American contexts cited above. Roumain’s masterpiece continues to occupy the dual mantle of the Haitian “peasant novel” and the great roman de la terre. It is often read as a kind of éloge du pays natal. Its peasant hero, Manuel, is a prodigal son who comes back to his village, finds the lost source of vital water, and creates a possible future for two communities embroiled in an internecine struggle. Yet, as Valerie Kaussen has argued, Roumain’s novel and greater contribution to indigenism owed less to the rehabilitation of a national culture from under the boot of U.S. imperialism than to the “massive migration of Haiti’s peasantry both into the city and over the borders separating Haiti from Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and other locations in the burgeoning U.S./Caribbean empire” (Migrant Revolutions, 27). Kaussen’s thesis on migration as definitive of the lives and literature of the indigénistes – whose cosmopolitan upbringings and genuine interest in the Haitian folk were not necessarily mutually exclusive – informs the multiple layers (rural and urban, land and sea) of the eco-archive.18

The U.S. occupation lasted almost twenty years and was undoubtedly a watershed for the political and environmental history of Haiti. However, readings that have framed indigenism as a literary homage to the Haitian hinterland, a cultural protest of U.S. hegemony, have led arguably to two corresponding misperceptions: first, that La revue indigène, the monthly journal of literature and art founded in 1927, would reflect a nationalist movement based on the idea of rural authenticity; and, second, that the writings published in the journal would constitute the vanguard of a modernizing literature to come. The former can be summarized, Kaussen argues, as the “classic” reading of indigenism, or the critical tendency “to analyze indigénisme rather exclusively in terms of the racial and nationalist literary prise-de-conscience that (p.42) focused on ‘authentic’ (and thus anti-cosmopolitan) themes associated with the newly identified national indigène, the Haitian peasantry with its African cultural retentions” (36). As for the latter, it has been amply documented that Roumain and his colleagues must be situated as part of an international modernism, connected to writers and artists in the greater Caribbean, Africa, and the Americas.19 However, even if one were to attribute a nationalist ideology to the indigénistes, one would first have to acknowledge that any such resistance had to come to terms with a Haitian countryside that had been decimated after more than a decade of occupation. In fact, by the time of the first issue of La revue indigène, U.S. marines had already put down the caco rebellion in the north; had already killed scores of peasants and forced thousands more into labor camps; had taken control of the border with the Dominican Republic; had rewritten the Haitian Constitution to allow for foreign ownership of land, thereby expelling thousands of Haitians; and had redistricted, remapped, and rerouted much of the map of Haiti.20 In short, the indigénistes inherited environments, urban and rural, that had undergone drastic change after years of development and agricultural projects under U.S. control.21

In this context, it is indisputable that the inaugural volume of La revue indigène defines “indigenous” in environmental terms. In his (p.43) programmatic preface, Normil Sylvain conceives “un retour à la sincérité et au naturel, au modèle vivant, à la description directe, un parfum plus accentué d’haïtienneté voilà qui semble caractériser notre jeune poésie.”22 To be “natural” here is to defy U.S. racism by shedding the “insulte du mot indigène,” (9) and thereby recuperating Haitian identity through poetry. Sylvain also professed a desire to reconnect with the people of greater Latin America, and thus his initial proclamation of a “natural” indigeneity is already situated within preceding and contemporaneous migrations. And yet, as evidenced in the journal’s publication of a chapter of Jean-Price Mars’s Ainsi parla l’oncle, the pioneering socio-ethnographic study of the Haitian folk, “indigenous” unmistakably referred to an idea of a core Haitian identity to be found in the communal life and work in the countryside.23 Referring to the French philosopher Jules de Gaultier, Price-Mars denounced a Haitian “bovaryisme collectif,” or the “faculté que s’attribue une société de se concevoir autre qu’elle n’est” (10).24 He continued, “par une logique implacable, au fur et à mesure que nous nous efforcions de nous croire des Français ‘colorés,’ nous désapprenions à être Haïtiens tout court, c’est-à-dire des hommes nés en des conditions historiques déterminées …” (10). For Price-Mars, elites had internalized their alterity, a product of an exoticizing colonial gaze that dehumanized the Haitian people and their traditions. Despite their international connections, the indigénistes asserted that the “natural” response to an imperial condition was to reclaim popular roots. As Price-Mars argued, the imitation of French language, art, religion, and other cultural and environmental modes of being was a form of self-denial that reinforced the colonial view of the folk as primitive other. In the attempt to praise the originality and spontaneity of local cultural forms, indigenism was just as much a resistance to the U.S. occupation as it was an uprising against the alienation engendered by an even longer French cultural colonization. In many ways, it was a search for authenticity that humanized cultural difference through an environmental ethics.

In Gouverneurs de la rosée, the ethos of solidarity with the land and among fellow inhabitants of Fonds Rouge is under duress. The “natural” (p.44) vivacity of the countryside that Sylvain had praised is quickly dying. The land is parched; the villagers eat little more than soup thickened with corn that usually went to feed livestock; and an extended family has split into two feuding camps. Yet there is hope in the figure of a migrant, an apparent stranger who brings with him the knowledge, skills, and desire to revive the land and the communities that share it. It turns out that this stranger is Manuel, a native son who returns after fifteen years of cutting cane in Cuba to rally the people to the common cause of their labor. This complex character incarnates Roumain’s vision of the possibilities of revolt by way of an international Marxism, a migrating politics that would serve as a guide to local knowledge. Over the years, critics have called attention to the novel’s narrative structure and logic, to the religious symbolism behind Manuel’s ultimate sacrifice for the future of Fonds Rouge, and more recently to the gendered hierarchies of its representations of the land.25 It is equally important to understand how the environmental politics of the novel is informed by local, regional, and international flows of migration.

Roumain and his compatriots shared an inward focus on Haiti and an outward-looking, pan-Caribbean perspective.26 It is perhaps easier to see this duality with the benefit of hindsight: that is, to read retrospectively the texts of a group of writers so focused on the future. If critics have argued for differing interpretations of indigenism and other literary movements, all agree that they have left a legacy of resistance to the brutal deformation of Haitian lands. Their struggle to redefine (p.45) what the land means to Haitians who rebelled against occupation foretells Edward Said’s assertion, in Culture and Imperialism, that colonization and decolonization are essentially struggles over land. Said argued, “Underlying social space are territories, lands, geographical domains, the actual geographical underpinnings of the imperial, and also the cultural contest … The actual geographical possession of the land,” he continued, “is what empire in the final analysis is all about” (78). Colonial plunder and the slave-based economy of the sugar plantation, followed by additional forms of indentured labor, caused the dépossession on which Glissant based his political and theoretical project of antillanité. And, while Glissant rejected any tendency toward cultural authenticity in favor of a creolizing Relation, his “esthétique de la terre” lays out a theory of renewed attention to Caribbean lands and to the possibilities of local production and consumption. As such, it owes a great deal to previous counterdiscursive movements such as indigenism.

Spanning some fifty years, Glissant’s writings loom large in the effort to theorize an eco-archive. Readers can follow the development of recurring themes and figures from the earliest texts, including the epic sweep of the fiction, to the more abstract essays of his later years. I have discussed above the fundamental, historical place of the abyss of the Middle Passage for his theory of Relation. Glissant also reflects on the monumentality of Caribbean landscapes as sites of memory in the absence of textual archives. He conceives of “Relation” as a way out of the generalizing sameness of a French universalism that constituted itself as superior to its tropical others. In Postcolonial Ecologies, Elizabeth DeLoughrey and George Handley read in both Le discours antillais and Poétique de la relation an expression of “wariness” of the “universalizing impulses of the global” (Postcolonial Ecologies, 28). Glissant’s suspicion of departmentalization leads to a damning critique of the neocolonial model of assimilation, through which the French government would serve as a tutor to overseas citizens. In the French neo/colonial family romance, histories of race, culture, sexuality, and gender are subsumed under the banner of republicanism. For Glissant, this is a hierarchical politics of identity based on the ancient model of the sacred root. Instead, he called for difference and variation, rhizomatic branches that, he claimed, could not be enchained in theories of the universal. The intolerance of the universal to multicultural and multilinguistic difference betrays its definitive violence. The “aesthetic of the earth,” then, is an existential struggle led by what Glissant calls “une vision écologique (p.46) de la Relation” (Poétique de la relation, 160). It is a poetic and political program of resistance in three ways: “le rapport à l’entour naturel, la Caraïbe; la défense de la langue populaire, le créole; la protection de la terre, par mobilisation de tous” (160). These methods suggest a defensive posture, an insistence on self-sufficiency and an “ethnotechnique” (167) that turns away from the world. Yet such an interpretation ignores the equally insistent pull of Relation to the outside, its inherent capacity to migrate into larger cultural flows.

Glissant’s Relation exemplifies a delicate balance of poetics, theory, and politics held together by an ecological thought. Taking an expansive view of his oeuvre, Carine Mardorossian has argued that it “provides a useful bridge between environmentalist and postcolonial considerations today” in that it reconciles the conservation-oriented ethics of the former with the “incontrovertible question of the relationship between language and landscape” that has defined the historical and political focus of the latter (“Poetics of Landscape,” 988). Mardorossian reads Glissant’s “creolized ecologies” as a critique of manichean conceptions of nature and culture. Yet “écologie” and “environnement” are terms that Glissant uses with some apprehension in Poétique de la relation, because, he explains, they “paraissent si oiseuses dans ces paysages de la désolation” (166). In its semantic and political capaciousness, “ecology” risks an uncomfortable association not only with universalism but also with some mystical thought. In a moving piece on her mentor, Valérie Loichot points out, “In his late work, Glissant increasingly replaces the word paysage (landscape) with the French word entour, which establishes a continuum between the natural environment and its historical surrounding” (“Édouard Glissant’s Graves,” 1016). This discursive shift is illuminating, Loichot suggests, because “Glissant’s entour is simultaneously natural, cultural, poetic, historical, and political” (1017). In this reflection, Loichot provides an apt summary of the eco-related terms I have worked through thus far. In the end, entour speaks to a politics of ecology that, Glissant insisted, “concerne les peuples décimés, ou menacés de disparition en tant que peuples” (Poétique de la relation, 160). He affirms a poetics grounded in histories of migration across the Atlantic and around the Caribbean.

(p.47) -Archive

There is a common function of landscape in Glissant’s works and generally in post-slavery cultures where trees and plants act as witness to a past with no written archive.

Valérie Loichot, “Édouard Glissant’s Graves,” 1016

Quant au mot ‘archive’ il est synonyme d’ordre. Mais je parle ici d’archives du littoral, ce qui nous sort de tout ordre archicodé et nous introduit dans un espace mouvant, dans une logique discontinue, fluctuante, brisante, surgissante, éclatante.

Kenneth White, Les archives du littoral, 9

As Walcott and Glissant have shown, Caribbean literature and theory give voice to histories drowned at sea and buried in the land. Yet these texts are more than an “archive” in any conventional sense. The abundant scholarly activity on the archive as both “object and concept,” as Lia Brozgal has observed, means that “we are certainly in a position to diagnose an epidemic of archive fever” (“In the Absence of the Archive,” 34). Building on the work of many scholars, and especially the two major figures of Foucault and Derrida, Brozgal proposes a two-pronged argument. First, as political power authorizes and curates the conservation of institutional knowledge, as well as the historical memories that take hold within the official domain, it simultaneously suppresses other stories. In this void, literary texts work outside such guarded purview, Brozgal continues, to “inform identity, culture, and knowledge” (35). Second, more than simply historical records of the past, fictional narratives reimagine a range of experiences considered to be peripheral or secondary to historical events but that undermine archival authority by representing what is obscured from public view.

Brozgal is interested in the ways that power is invested in hierarchical spaces and in unsanctioned forms of knowledge that contest official versions of events. Building on Derrida, she calls these unofficial sources an “anarchive … a set of works that evince an archival function and that, together, produce an epistemological system in oppositional relationship to an official archive” (50, emphasis added).27 As Brozgal acknowledges, (p.48) the notion of the “archival function” of literature is an abstraction, one that is inspired, in part, by Derrida’s analysis of the spatial, technological, and psychic dimensions of the archive. Brozgal briefly refers to Derrida’s analysis of Freud’s (anti)thesis of the death drive as a potential destruction of the archive’s power to reveal and conceal knowledge. Instead, she suggests a productive tension between official archives that instantiate and conserve authority and literary works that oppose such rule by inhabiting and expressing other spaces and repressed memories. To be sure, literary texts may be housed in archives, public and private, yet Brozgal is concerned with cultural production on the outside as an “alternate form of epistemological activity at work during … archival silence” (35). Taking up two novels on the massacre of Algerians on October 17, 1961, she proposes to examine their “archival function” (45) in relation to redacted accounts of French authorities. Borrowing from historian Antoinette Burton, Brozgal elaborates: “The term denotes the way in which a novel (or any cultural text) may be understood as functioning like an archive, that is, by proposing ‘traces of the past collected individually or haphazardly’” (45).28 Yet she goes on to make a key distinction:

whereas Burton refers to cultural objects as being archives, I prefer to conceive of their archivistic attributes as a function, a gesture that allows their specificity as cultural texts (literary, in this case) to signify, thus underscoring the importance of analyses that account for their aesthetic and formal, as well as historical attributes. (46, emphasis in original)

At the risk of simplifying, literary texts are more than static documents gathering dust in cardboard boxes. The focus here on function betrays the influence of Ann Laura Stoler, who framed her analytical approach as “archiving-as-process rather than archives-as things. Most importantly,” she continues, “it looks to archives as condensed sites of epistemological and political anxiety rather than as skewed and biased sources” (Along the Archival Grain, 20). For Brozgal, literature, too, runs on what Stoler calls the “pulse of an archive” (19). Through the beat of epistemic anxieties, it creates stories of subjective, aesthetic, and political perspectives with varying degrees of connection to October 17.

(p.49) Brozgal’s work in the contested field of French–Algerian colonial memory is not likely to reduce archive fever anytime soon. In fact, it has also spiked in Haitian literary studies with Rachel Douglas’s innovative analyses of Frankétienne’s play Melovivi and Yanick Lahens’s Failles. Chapter Three takes up her reading of these texts as an archival-like process in the wake of the destruction of other physical repositories in the earthquake. For now, I will simply point out that, like Brozgal, Douglas turns to Derrida, and specifically to the idea of Haitian writing en mal d’archive, to argue for the “archivisation” at work in Haitian literature in the wake of January 2010:

Archival and rewriting impulses highlight a preoccupation with Haitian archives in written works that seek to produce them textually as well. In the Haitian context, these archive stories and rewriting practices are at their most highly concentrated because the stakes and the scale of the destruction are more widespread and catastrophic. Caribbean writers, especially in Haiti, had always been archivists preoccupied with ‘saving the word’ long before the earthquake struck and the cultural search and rescue began.

(“Writing the Haitian Earthquake and Creating Archives,” 389)

Douglas seeks to ground Derrida’s abstractions in the materiality of the scriptural and textual practices of Lahens and Frankétienne.

Whether fiction or non-fiction, literature exposes unequal structures of power (Brozgal) and the literary form functions as an archive itself (Douglas). Both arguments are a refreshing update to Foucault’s Archéologie du savoir. Foucault conceived of the archive as a mesh of discursive practices made meaningful over time by emerging “systèmes qui instaurent les énoncés comme des événements … et des choses” (169), composing and governing larger formations of knowledge. “L’archive n’est pas non plus ce qui recueille la poussière des énoncés redevenus inertes et permet le miracle éventuel de leur résurrection,” Foucault continued, “c’est ce qui définit le mode d’actualité de l’énoncé-chose; c’est le système de son fonctionnement” (171, emphasis in original). Foucault’s well-known theory was in the service of a methodological explanation of historical analysis, one through which he argued for a discontinuity between the discursive possibilities of past and present. Yet the archive has a hold on the future, Foucault implies, because “à la fois proche de nous, mais différente de notre actualité, c’est la bordure du temps qui entoure notre présent …” (172). The interplay between rupture and continuity and the idea of difference as constitutive of (p.50) the current moment are enduring concepts of Foucauldian thought. Nicholas Birns encapsulates just how much Foucault remains indispensable to contemporary theory. He writes, “This interest in cultural transition, in the eddies between one episteme and another, is an aspect of Foucault that is as liminal as it is political, as interested in borders as it is in defining centralities” (Theory after Theory, 73). Picking up on Birns’s ecological metaphor, I would add that situating Foucault in the swirling current between fields of knowledge is also to read his search for social justice, especially as the production and storing of knowledge is still carried out through uneven networks of political and corporate power.

Foucault and Derrida have influenced all manner of cultural, historical, legal, and information technology theorists. Joan M. Schwartz and Terry Cook underscore just how much the archive operates as the “central metaphorical construct upon which they fashion their perspectives on human knowledge, memory, and power, and a quest for justice” (“Archives, Records, and Power,” 4). The social construction of institutional archives, Schwartz and Cook argue, also winds its way down to individual creation and safekeeping of private documents. “Like archives collectively,” they explain, “the individual document is not just a bearer of historical content, but also a reflection of the needs and desires of its creator …” (3). As archivists, Schwartz and Cook are well positioned to write of the emotional bond generated in the archives (public and private), and by now the notion of the “affective archive” has become a robust area of research.29 That tangible documents produce psychological and even physiological responses from both those who create and those who consult them complicates Foucault’s theory of knowledge production in larger, normalized discursive formations. Yet the attention to affect is also an acknowledgment of Foucault’s great influence on theories related to liminal spaces of subjectivity and to questions of gender and sexuality more broadly, at the same time as it reflects the desire to go beyond the discursively constituted subject.

The eco-archive of Haitian literature inhabits and is inhabited by subjects that dwell in rural and urban spaces, and that also traverse land and sea in search of refuge. Its function is to call forth spaces that are (p.51) subject to ideological and political deformation but are also capable of undermining such power. Given the general connotations of “eco” and the corporate takeover of this prefix, I cannot stake an original claim to the term. However, I have in mind a different kind of interface than the risk assessment app developed by a Scandinavian company that allows users to “map, prioritise and minimise chemical hazards in the workplace.”30 I am also thinking in a way that diverges from the resource management function of information technology systems that “archive” data, or remove it from a computer’s hard drive to secure storage off-site. Instead, I theorize a literary corpus that evokes an ethos of living in an environment on the wrong side of the equation of calculated risk. These are texts that depict the damage wrought by political and economic policies and practices deemed socially accepted as a necessary hazard.31 Brozgal conceives of a literary anarchive that channels the relationship between literary ethics and political power. There is common theoretical ground here with Anderson’s thesis of literature as a necessary cultural mediation of the political reappropriation of natural disasters. What is more, Brozgal proposes the figure of the anarchon, the critic who participates in the production of knowledge, “less as a guardian and more like an interpreter …” (51). One hears the echo of Danticat’s “immigrant artist at work,” who imagines a symbolic ethos of individuals and communities, and the cultural processes that give meaning to the land on which they live.

Whereas Foucault’s archaeological method historicized discursive formations that change over time yet hover around temporal edges, the eco-archive is a witness to the play of rupture and continuity in time and space. In the absence of written archives on experiences of migration amidst political violence, economic hardship, or natural disasters, Haitian literature fills a void with depictions of entours that speak in more hushed tones. As Loichot suggests, it is as if trees and plants whisper secrets to those who listen. Moreover, this literary anarchive considers its borders with the texts of earlier generations. I (p.52) have examined elsewhere how, in her novel Saisons sauvages, Kettly Mars reimagines the guiding themes and figures of literary ancestors, including Roumain’s Gouverneurs de la rosée, Alexis’s Compère Général Soleil, and Marie Vieux Chauvet’s trilogy Amour, Colère et Folie.32 Writers of today reflect on ecological thought from one generation to the next, as well as on the various representations of changing environmental conditions. Dalembert’s L’Autre face de la mer performs this cross-generational reflection within the text itself in a narrative structure in which Grannie’s descriptions of the sugar migration and the concomitant transformation of Port-au-Prince are in dialogue with her grandson’s contemplation of environments devastated during the Duvalier era. The archival function of both Mars’s and Dalembert’s novels lies in the way the different experiences of their characters resonate with the untold stories of scores of historical migrants and refugees, as well as their extended families who stayed behind.

René Philoctète: Eco-Archivist

Les réfugiés mesurent du regard leur terre, voudraient la baigner du parfum d’eau, d’écorce, de feuille, auquel ils aujouterait du sel. Pour la force. La pureté. Ils comptent les toits qui pousseront; une école pour la liberté, un hôpital pour la compréhension, des syndicats pour le travail, une église pour l’amour.

Et savent qu’ils ont un monde à construire.

René Philoctète, Le peuple des terres mêlées, 147

The eco-archive is an elemental link between literature, history, and world. Often part of the background, “le monde muet,” as Michel Serres writes, “les choses tacites placées jadis là comme décor, qui n’intéressa jamais personne, brutalement, sans crier gare, se met désormais en travers de nos manigances. Fait irruption dans notre culture” (Contrat naturel, 16). In Haiti, this world irrupts as a witness to a tumultuous past. Literature records, depicts, laments, and interrogates the imbrication of natural and political disasters. By “elemental,” I do not mean to convey simply the sense of resembling the raw elements of earth, air, fire, and (p.53) water that sustain these events.33 At its most basic, literature represents “natural” forces, but various postmodernist critiques – and going back further to Roland Barthes in Mythologies – have sought to deconstruct the myth of Nature untouched by human hands. “En un mot [naturel],” Barthes wrote in the 1956 preface, “je souffrais de voir à tout moment confondues dans le récit de notre actualité, Nature et Histoire, et je voulais ressaisir … l’abus idéologique qui, à mon sens s’y trouve caché” (9). Just as ideology hides behind the evocation of landscapes as pristine and wild, political and economic policies and agreements remain out of view of the degraded environment. The literary imagination exposes ideology and elicits an emotional response, creating an affective dimension that is just as much about the intertwining subjectivities of writer and reader as it is their relation to the physical matter and entangled elements of all life on Earth.

Philoctète’s Le peuple des terres mêlées is an exemplary work of fiction that inspired the theoretical speculation of the eco-archive. In the opening paragraph of his preface to an anthology of Philoctète’s poetry, Lyonel Trouillot underscores the “élément nativiste dans sa poésie” (Poèmes des îles qui marchent, 7), in the sense not of a nationalist bent but rather of the primacy of the material world. One of the most influential Haitian writers from the 1960s until his death in 1995,34 Philoctète was co-founder of both Haïti Littéraire and the Spiralists. He is most well known as a poet, who praised a vision of a diverse yet unified Caribbean.35 “Caraïbe” (1981), was republished shortly after the poet’s death in 1995. Outside circles of Haitianists, this epic poem, like much of Philoctète’s corpus, remains relatively unknown. The poem begins with a vital question about the poet’s place in the islands where the Caribbean meets the Atlantic:

Jusqu’où porter la voix dans cette fête des vagues, l’arrogance de la chlorophyle, le siège des étoiles, dans ce culte à perpétuité du soleil, le va et vient des ailes, dans ce tumulte des peuples en vrac livrés aux rites des (p.54) croyances millénaires? … Tant de couleurs, de palmiers, tant de rythmes, tant de hanches, de volupté: la générosité du poème sombre dans la folie de ce grand bal masqué atlantique. (13)

The poet initially celebrates the diversity of the natural world, its aquatic waves, flora and ever-present sun, intertwined with a mass of people, whose disorderly arrival appears only to add to the “folly of this great Atlantic masquerade.” Yet the people were delivered [livrés], which hints at a forced passage and thus augurs an ominous history. “Jusqu’où porter la voix” is a refrain that gives the poem its forward momentum, a cadence that leads the poet through the dark history of the Caribbean. Like Walcott, Philoctète knows that the sea carries history. “La mer portait la cargaison par les cadavres d’astres,” the poet laments, “le sombre accord des coques avec la flache des flétrissures; toute une race à têtes d’homme … toute une race à raison d’homme, avait échoué dans le bétail” (19). And yet, the poet seeks not only to find himself but also to walk through this history, and he travels around the Caribbean, across time, to grasp this “âge Caraïbe, âge d’homme! où chaque branche porte le voeu de la racine! âge nouveau! dont chaque pierre témoigne de l’épopée de la sueur!” (50). As with so much of Philoctète’s oeuvre, poetic language has a material presence, endowing terrestrial and maritime objects with testimonial authority. As Marlene Daut remarks, “Philoctète, too, appeared to believe in the transformative power of poetry, in particular, to restore, create, and forge … ‘freedom, development, [and] humanism …’”36

In his analysis of “Caraïbe,” Max Dominique observed, “le poète marche dans cet ‘âge Caraïbe’ et, renouvelant le geste d’Alexis ou la ‘triple greffe’ de Phelps, assume dans l’exultante nomination tout l’héritage indien, africain, occidental” (Esquisses critiques, 90). The critic situates Philoctète among fellow writers and poets and underscores the diasporic fabric of the poem. In this regard, he contrasts the dizzying proliferation of references to historical figures and geographies – what he calls Philoctète’s “art du foisonnement” – with the exilic writings of Anthony Phelps (88, 90). One can also appreciate just how much (p.55) Philoctète was enamored of Caribbean entours by reading “Ces îles qui marchent” (1966). Written upon his return from Quebec, the poem is another epic-like celebration of Haiti and the greater Caribbean. Initially, the poet comes in from the cold: “Je reviens fatigué des giboulées du Nord,” he writes, “Le soleil que j’ai bu est froid comme la mort.” Then, personifying the land, he is ready to rejoice in its warmth: “il faut dans ton corps / ô ma terre / que je sente ta chaleur me soûler comme une aurore!” The poet identifies himself as “Simidor prodigieux,” recalling the reveler from Gouverneurs de la rosée, whose drumbeat provides the rhythm for the workers of the coumbite. Having adopted this persona, the poet walks through the land with a song that intertwines environmental and social histories.

Like the poetry that preceded it, Le peuple des terres mêlées is an ode to the search for unity. As Ulysse Pierre Louis remarks in the preface to the novel, it ought to be read as a “fresque poétique … truffée d’images étincelantes” (Le peuple des terres mêlées, 7). For his part, Dominique calls it a “chant du peuple de la frontière” (Esquisses critiques, 161–162). Both critics call attention to the ways that Philoctète experiments with time, language, and narrative technique to unsettle generic convention. The question of form is illuminating of Philoctète’s visionary art, yet so is the representation of migrants with little use for political borders. In fact, it is not until the novel’s conclusion that the narrator asks, “Sont-ils Haïtiens? Sont-ils Dominicains?” (147). Because of the persecution suffered by these people, the narrator refers to them as refugees, who “have a world to build together.” Having fled to Montreal in the early years of the first Duvalier regime and, later, having witnessed boat-people fleeing the second, Philoctète uses “refugee” fully aware of its historical and symbolic weight, in the Caribbean and beyond, to describe those in need of protection.

Given the intense media focus on today’s global refugee crisis, a brief parenthesis is useful here to consider the legal, political, economic, and humanitarian contexts that have shaped the meaning of “refugee” throughout the twentieth century.37 In fact, as April Shemak has pointed out, “the term ‘refugee’ can be traced to seventeenth-century France when it was used to describe French Huguenots who fled to England (p.56) to escape religious persecution when Louis XIV in 1685 revoked the Edict of Nantes” (Asylum Speakers, 5).38 Yet events of the twentieth century – chiefly, both World Wars and decolonization movements – led to a series of political and humanitarian actions that would grant the term institutional meaning. The 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees resulted in international agreement around an official definition that emphasized a fear of persecution and the impossibility of finding safe haven in one’s home country. However, as Shemak reminds us, owing to its contentious history of protectionist measures regarding immigration, the United States refused to sign the accord until 1967, when the UN reached a new Protocol. Preliminary codifications of refugee status, as well as subsequent revisions to both international and U.S. law, were limited to largely European-focused ideas of displaced persons.39 Therefore, ostensibly abstract juridical notions were always susceptible to political manipulation. Jean-Claude Icart explains, “Aux États-Unis, la politique vis-à-vis des réfugiés s’est longtemps confondue avec la politique d’immigration … Dans l’octroi du statut de réfugié, les États font donc souvent intervenir des choix idéologiques, en plus de considérations relevant davantage de leur politique d’immigration …” (Négriers d’eux-mêmes, 70). Scholars of Haitian history have highlighted the evolution of policies and laws enacted in the United States, as well as the concomitant rise of camps and detention centers, to check the flow of immigrants and refugees from Haiti, Cuba, and elsewhere in the Caribbean and the Americas. “Over the years,” Michel Laguerre writes, “the US government has developed an elaborate scheme of control mechanisms – a regime of control – to deal with refugees and immigrants” (Diasporic Citizenship, 77; emphasis in original).

In Le peuple des terres mêlées Philoctète contrasts the border violence (p.57) of sovereign powers with refugees seeking shelter. One of the archival functions of the novel is to depict the humanity of those objectified or politicized by juridical and humanitarian categories. For instance, we might ask, how does the text imagine the “liminal citizenship” that Laguerre attributes to the “diasporic condition” (76) of Haitian refugees? How do its characters speak to the idea that the refugee has become the universal figure of suffering within “the international order of things,” as Liisa Malkki has argued (“Speechless Emissaries” 378)? Echoing Laguerre, Kaiama Glover writes that the refugee is “a very particular sort of border-crosser: a victimized and endangered person; a surplus person – unwanted, unwelcome; a person involuntarily existing in a state of transition” (Haiti Unbound, 151). In the passage of the novel cited above, unhomely characters assume community-oriented tasks of measuring and cultivating land, building structures of knowledge and healing, and seeking solidarity and faith. The apparent harmony between the inhabitants and the land unfolds in a pastoral-like movement of communion but shifts to accommodate the refugees. The earth, trees, and wind seem to provide a fresh start for this fragile community, whose surroundings are idealized as a site of new beginnings after a perilous exodus. Yet this utopia is burdened by memories of environmental destruction and political violence. At the same time, it is a transitional space in which the refugees look to an uncertain future.

Le peuple des terres mêlées conjures the massacre of mainly Dominican-born persons of Haitian descent in the fall of 1937. Still a relatively underexamined event in the history of the two countries, the “Parsley Massacre” – as it is known in the anglophone tradition; in Spanish, it is referred to as el corte – was ordered by the Dominican President Rafael Trujillo, with the tacit consent of the powers-that-be in Port-au-Prince.40 For two days, Trujillo’s soldiers lined up people, held up sprigs of parsley and demanded that they pronounce the Spanish, “perejil.” Those Creole speakers who could not pronounce it correctly were killed on the spot. Many Haitian and Dominican writers, (p.58) including Jacques-Stephen Alexis, Edwidge Danticat, Junot Diaz, and Julia Alvarez, among others, have written about the killings. Philoctète portrays the interwoven lives of people that share a river yet are divided by political powers. He transforms an apparent border into an ecopoetic site of memory from which he draws a longer version of history. In fact, the tragedy occurred just a few years after the end of the first U.S. occupation. In this historical light, the depiction of a shared community with little regard for political boundaries can be read to oppose not only violent forms of nationalism but also the usurpation of Haitian sovereignty during and after the occupation.

Philoctète plays with the language and concepts of political power and its official archives of knowledge by submitting them to the wildly lyrical and elusive texture of his poetic imagination.41 Passages with data on Trujillo’s troops, munitions, and matériel read like administrative registers that contrast sharply with the poetic representations of the island’s flora and fauna, as well as the quotidian rhythms of village life. Consistent with his poetic vision, Philoctète continues to recover an ethos of “togetherness,” where “mêlées” denotes an ensemble of lands that nurture the Haitian–Dominicans who live side-by-side. In an interview, he stated that the novel “calls for harmony between the two [Haitians and Dominicans] because, whether we want it or not, the dissension and the hatred between those two peoples are, for me, but an accident of history.”42 “Mêlé” also evokes “sang-mêlé,” or the “mixed-blood” people who are part and parcel of the island’s colonial legacy. As Philoctète knows, this historical “living together” has meant less harmony than antagonism, and more accurately the struggle (in French, “mêlée” is a loose group of fighters; in Haitian kreyol, “mele” means “tangled” but also “confused”) to be together and to share an island that has witnessed a long history of invasion and occupation of both sides.

(p.59) Despite the hopeful conclusion regarding a “world to build,” a future of togetherness would be short-lived.

At the center of the novel is a love story between Pedro Alvarez Brito, “el mulato dominicano, l’ouvrier de l’usine sucrière de San Pedro de Macoris,” and Adèle Benjamin, “la chiquita negrita haitiana de Belladère” (Le peuple des terres mêlées, 15; Spanish in original). The couple lives in the border town of Elias Piña. Pedro attempts to organize his fellow workers against Trujillo and his two local representatives, Don Pérez Agustín de Cortoba and Don Preguntas Feliz. These henchmen are charged with carrying out the fantasies of their leader, who, from a very young age, dreamed of an “engagement du sang” (24). Sensing the ominous signs all around him on the way to the sugar factory, Pedro witnesses a truck loaded with armed soldiers. Earlier that morning, Adèle had had a premonition – “le jour du sang approche, murmure la jeune femme” (15) – and Pedro soon realizes the “mue sauvage” (26) of all layers of society:

Tous sur la place: besogneux, professionnels, autorités civiles, militaires, religieuses, cadres supérieurs, enfants, parents, domestiques. Participation massive, totale, directe. Acceptation inconditionnelle d’un état de choses, d’un ordre d’idées. D’esprit. Les micros grésillent. On se presse sous une même carapace. On s’accorde aux crocs des mots. La rareté affecte l’abondance. La liberté s’offre des chaînes. La fraternité pactise avec le génocide. (26)

The prose begins with some hesitation but gains momentum here, just as Pedro reckons with the crippling ironies surrounding him. This moment serves as a haunting foreshadowing that contrasts with periodic radio broadcasts in Elias Piña, macabre public announcements that tally the number of fallen heads yet sign off sardonically with advertising slogans from Coca Cola, Gillette, Listerine, and others, an explicit reminder of the corporate interests of the United States. (It is worth pointing out that the U.S. occupied the Dominican Republic twice, first from 1916 to 1924 and then again in 1965, four years after Trujillo was assassinated.) These radio spots transmit Trujillo’s desire to cleanse the Dominican vocabulary of the poetic metaphors of the borderland. As the head count rises, Pedro heads back to Elias Piña to attempt to rescue Adèle.

The various meanings of mêlées spread throughout the novel, going well beyond the nominal dream of “mixed lands” and extending to the interracial, bilingual, and transnational relationship between (p.60) Pedro and Adèle. In her close reading of the novel, Maria Cristina Fumagalli highlights these multiple layers of the transnational, picking up especially on local exchanges in transnational markets that “are posited as powerful ‘everyday utopias’ which, providing the opportunity for across-the-border bonds of intimacy, were instrumental in the forging of alternative individual and collective identities” (On the Edge, 178). On a structural level, the idea of mêlée as struggle encompasses the antagonistic narratives of the “langage des arbres et de la terre” (23) and the narrative of Trujillo. The chapters of the novel alternate between these two sources: the frontier utopia of Pedro and Adèle, and Trujillo’s nationalistic fantasy of possession. Both narratives take off in long passages, rendered utterly surreal (and at times inscrutable) by extended streams of hallucinatory language; and both are layered with a bewildering temporality. Fumagalli underscores the oral dimensions of the text, including the use of repetition and digression in the nonlinear narrative. Likewise, Mamadou Wattara argues that Philoctète’s spiralist aesthetic draws from the wells of indigenism and marvelous realism to create “une oeuvre baroque au sens du penseur de la créolisation” (Le Peuple des terres mêlées de René Philoctète,” 108). Like Césaire’s Cahier d’un retour au pays natal, Le Peuple des terres mêlées is replete with historical, cultural, and botanical references. Such virtuosity accounts for Wattara’s attempt to distill the novel by recourse to some sixty years of literary movements in the Caribbean and Philoctète’s place among them. Yet this approach risks eliding the differing visions of each of the groups collected above in one sweeping conclusion.

Attention to the archival function of the novel can give analytical focus without minimizing its baroque design. How do its aesthetic features relate to its historical content? One way to answer this question is to contrast the two stories woven together by the third-person narrator, those concerning the dictator and the refugees at his border. Philoctète divides the narrator’s voice such that the reader alternates between two archives. The stories continue to split as the narrator recounts events from the perspectives of Dons Cortoba and Feliz, as well as Pedro, Adèle, and even Chicha Calma, “la guagua folle [crazy taxi-bus] de la frontière” (31). One might explicate the process of splitting in psychoanalytical terms to suggest a narrative emphasis on working through the memorial dimension of the novel. The narrator would be understood to repress painful historical memories in a complex dynamic of forgetting and fantasizing. This approach can help make sense of the gradual disintegration of Adèle’s mind, which brings Pedro to nickname her “Douce (p.61) Folie” (15). The text leaves clues here and there about Adèle’s depression, and we learn that she is under a doctor’s orders to take a sedative to calm her nerves (54, 85). Kaiama Glover situates Adèle’s character in the context of Philoctète’s aims as a spiralist writer. “Fragmentés et imprévisibles,” she writes, “les personnages spiralistes maintiennent une imperméabilité fondamentale” (“Écrire la schizophrénie,” 85). Glover argues that, by “writing schizophrenia,” Philoctète reveals the mental and physical struggles of Haitians up against the long, frustrated history of an unfinished revolution. In this way, the political instability that surrounds the border communities in the novel becomes manifest in Adèle’s fragile psyche.

The novel stages a lop-sided conflict between a narcissistic tyrant and a schizophrenic peasant. Trujillo orders a territorial possession that strikes down bodies of transnational communities. To evoke such drastically different ways of living on the land, Philoctète alternates between two aesthetic frames: the hallucinatory, dream-like ramblings of Adèle and Pedro and the stark language of Trujillo’s political quest. Philoctète clearly revels in the back and forth movement of these narratives and, even in the more restrained, pared-down confines of the latter, he finds release in satire. The novel imagines the ways that the Dominican state records official history, including the use of palace poets. The first troubadour begins by recounting how “Le général Jean-Pierre Boyer, l’Haïtien, réunit l’Est à l’Ouest” (87), but quickly changes his tune when Trujillo is visibly displeased.43 “Cette union avait trop duré,” the poet adds quickly, “l’Est se détacha de l’Ouest. Le soleil dominicain fut plus prompt à se lever, le travail chanta mieux dans nos champs cultivés” (87). When a second troubadour steps up to sing of foreign intervention in the Dominican Republic he is sent away by Trujillo, who assumes these roles himself, and the court becomes the scene of revisionist history. In the end, Trujillo replaces poetic song with lists of weapons and matériel necessary to realize his political dreams:

  • 70,100 mitrailleuse à feu de bougainvillier

  • 13,250 canons de fer

  • 4,316 fusils à glougous de citerne

  • 400 canons de cuivre

  • (p.62) 271 robinets d’eau sulfureuse

  • 6,613 grenades à têtes chercheuses

  • 10,014 baïonnettes

  • 5,500 pistolets à cheveux

  • 600 canons de fonte à blason du dragon

  • 7,000 sabres de cavalerie …(89)

Philoctète imagines Trujillo’s fantasy by qualifying weaponry in hair-raising terms that foreshadow the violence to come. Moreover, he counters the historical silence of the massacre with precise, jaw-dropping numbers that reveal the intensity of Trujillo’s desire to “posséder sa terre entière … comme un conquistador” (128). This conquering spirit is so great that he obsesses over the Citadel, the fortress built by the Haitian king Henry Christophe. To possess the land is not enough; to inventory, as the text does, the seemingly inexhaustible resources at his disposal still does not cure Trujillo’s “mal de la Citadelle Henry” (129).

In the absence of a national monument, Trujillo substitutes a myth of racial purity that will have devastating consequences for the people of the borderland. “Nous sommes los blancos de la tierra,” he announces (51). Philoctète caricatures the racialist nationalism in the abovementioned radio ads by way of loudspeakers that impel Don Agustín to act with murderous intent. The call goes out through the radio to speed up Operation Haitian Heads in a manner that does not “poétiser l’accumulation des têtes” (55). Unable to distinguish on racial lines alone, the soldiers must resort to linguistic difference, undercutting Trujillo’s proclamation. Don Agustín rips out a clump of parsley in a garden and begins to shout, “perejil!” (56). As he makes his way to Adèle, he seems possessed by his machete. Indeed, Adèle sees it coming and, in her “sweet folly,” she even hears it speak. However, it is unclear if the machete speaks to her or to Don Agustín. Regardless, at this crucial point in the text, the machete appears to take on a life of its own and assumes a violent subjectivity:

La machette de Don Agustín se lève, s’approvisionne de noirceur … renifle l’odeur du sang, pirouette, danse, se carre, s’entretient de nouveau avec la machette, coordonne, planifie, revient sur terre, gambade, folâtre, rassure la main de don Agustin, observe, raisonne, hésite: ‘Suis-je faite pour couper des cous? Que diront les herbes? les troncs des chênes? les vieux manguiers aïeuls de la Sierra?’ puis d’un coup de tête: ‘Je suis maîtresse de moi-même, comme de la mort’, la machette opte pour la raison d’État, la pureté de la nation dominicaine, son authenticité, sa (p.63) spécificité, son originalité, se souvient qu’elle est chevalière des blancos de la tierra, se persuade qu’il faut que l’ocre étouffe le noir, le dissolve, afin que du Bahoruco à Monte Christi tout soit jaune, blanc … (blanc surtout) comme l’aube rameutant son peuple de clarté … Et hop! La machette decide … conclut, tombe sur la nuque d’Adèle! (57, emphasis added)

This passage disorients the reader as it moves back and forth between the first and third persons, and as the personified machete appears to speak to Adèle and to itself. It is also frightening because Adèle, who has already lost her mind, now appears to lose her head, as the machete falls on her neck. Yet the reader cannot know for sure if Adèle has perished. Later on, it is Adèle’s head that take on a life of its own: “Adèle a beau vouloir reprendre sa tête, la placer sur son cou, l’enfoncer dans son cou … la tête cabriole, saute par-dessus l’enclos de candélabres, gagne la rue blanche, la rue principale d’Elias Piña …” (108). The disarticulation of mind and body seems complete.

Yet Adèle and her fellow villagers are not the only victims of Trujillo’s obsession with absolute power. In the passage above, the machete falters in a moment that betrays the narrator’s ecological thought and thus offers an alternative vision to Trujillo’s dystopic fantasy. In the middle of an otherwise triumphant political march, the machete becomes anxious. Even as it resolves to act on behalf of the purity of sovereign power, it knows that the old trees stand as witnesses to genocide. Throughout the novel, environmental figures are targets of dictatorial power, precisely because they undermine its authority. For instance, Chicha Calma is a personified Dominican bus that transports Pedro and his fellow inhabitants of the border and communicates with its garrulous surroundings. On the surface, it represents the kind of naïve metaphor forbidden by Trujillo. For Pedro, however, an environmentalist discourse is a necessary lifeblood. As a labor organizer, he speaks of the land not simply in the language of metaphor but crucially “au nom de la sueur ouvrière” (61). The fight for the land is about transnational solidarity. Similarly, Pedro announces his love for Adèle in terms of an organic communion with the land: “Je suis l’arbre, Adèle en est l’écorce,” he cries, “Nous sommes irrigués par une même sève. Les fruits qui sortiront de nous auront le même goût, même âpreté, même douceur, même persistance dans le palais, tant il est vrai que je l’ai habitée et qu’elle m’a reçu. Mais Trujillo!” (62). The passage closes with the interjection of political power that aims to destroy a way of life. Later, the novel depicts the many mixed families, who, after generations of cultivating (p.64) gardens together, now struggle to come to terms with “un mot qui porte la mort: ‘Perejil!’ Un condiment, roturier de potager” (93). The novel links together several communities (“Mancenille face à Monte-Christi jusqu’aux Anses-à-Pitre non loin de Las Damas”) in a cartographic dimension that charts an eco-ethics of the border:

Un immense espace de montagnes, de fleurs, d’insectes, de cours d’eaux, de rongeurs, de plaines, d’oiseaux, contenant plus de cent mille âmes, Dominicains et Haïtiens, se parlant dans un langage que seuls eux-mêmes puissent comprendre: le langage de la frontière, où entrent à la fois us et coutumes, histoire et feux du coeur. (99)

Like the “langage des arbres et de la terre,” the ecological idiom invoked earlier in the text, the “langage de la frontière” does not signify a limit but rather evokes what Michel Agier has called “situations de frontière” (La condition cosmopolite, 25). As Agier explains, “Le rite de la frontière témoigne de l’institution de toute vie sociale, dans un environnement donné; il détermine le partage et la relation avec le monde naturel et social qui l’entoure” (25). For Agier, the border is a process of constituting relationality, one that is always in process. He continues, “ce que la frontière met en oeuvre est à la fois un partage et une relation” (25). Fumagalli, too, underscores these positive exchanges but also observes that the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic “has in fact produced a complex ‘contact zone’ characterized by conflict and violence but also by many collaborative linkages, often established against the directives of the central colonial, national, and occupying authorities” (On the Edge, 2). Drawing on Mary Louise Pratt’s well-known theory of “contact zones,” Fumagalli calls attention to the asymmetrical power relations at work in the space of the border.44 “On the edge” captures well what is at stake in Philoctète’s depiction of border communities that have long proposed an alternative to Trujillo’s nationalist vision. Enforced by a “covenant of blood,” the dictator’s rule would negate the rituals of sociality that are exchanged in the uncertain yet creative and life-affirming space-time of the threshold.

The conclusion of the novel offers some hope for the future of the border. Pedro finally arrives back in Elias Piña, and, even though he is discombobulated and, perhaps, physically wounded, he seeks out Adèle. Her head finds him first, nestling up against his legs. At this point, it is (p.65) still unclear if Pedro and Adèle are alive or dead, and Pedro cannot be sure what has happened:

Debout au milieu de la rue principale, Pedro ne saisit pas trop bien ce qui lui est arrivé. Il vacille. Qui donc l’a frappé à la nuque? En somme l’a-t-on frappé? Il sursaute. Qui lui a parlé l’oreille? Au fond, lui a-t-on parlé? Vraiment, il se passe des choses à Elias Piña! Entre autres, la chronique de la poussière. Certes, au long de sa bosse de vie, il a connu des moments particuliers. (134)

Perhaps hallucinating, Pedro wobbles, as if the ground were moving beneath his feet. Seeking an elusive equilibrium, he continues to look for Adèle and their house. It remains a dangerous search, because machetes are still after heads, and survivors are fleeing the village for the Haitian border. Pedro witnesses a throng of people pile into Chicha Calma and, as soon as the bus begins to leave, his house comes into view, along with the sight of Adèle’s body. “Mujer mia!” Pedro cries. With refugees streaming past, Adèle tries again to get her head on straight, this time with her husband’s help. Pedro urges her, “Reprends ta tête” (143), a phrase that suggests Philoctète’s dark sense of humor. Their reunion and the reconstitution of Adèle’s body occurs just in time to allow them to escape Don Agustín by joining the exodus of refugees:

Pedro entraîne Adèle, court avec elle, sue, s’essouffle, court jusqu’à ce qu’ils entrent dans la grande, énorme masse, hommes, pelles, bourdonnements, houes, crépitements, chaudières, cris, garance, pioches, fracas, boeufs, gorge de pigeon, femmes, brouettes, hurlements, chaises, tridents, hermine, ronflements, cabris, ronrons, matelas, vert d’eau, cliquetis, volailles, pics, murmures, olive, enfants, armoires, hottes, vociférations, ânes, indigo, grincements, réchauds, mulets, sarcloirs, vacarmes, orange, cisailles, craquements, chats, paille, vieillards, sifflements, gris cendre, fourches, rateaux, brun, qui entourent Chicha, moussent, grouillent autour d’elle. (144)

This passage is cited at length because its conveys not just the world that refugees carried with them but also the sounds and emotions of forced migration. This is a history that Philoctète wants his readers to hear and feel. Moreover, the list-like structure recalls and contrasts with the list of munitions assembled by Trujillo. Aboard the bus, Pedro holds tightly onto Adèle: “Il sent la chaleur troublée de cette femme qui réclame sa protection … Et se met à espérer que ce jeune corps reprenne un jour la lumière de sa tête avec la promesse d’une chair vagissant dans sa chair” (145).

(p.66) As Adèle seeks refuge in Pedro, Chicha Calma struggles to bring the refugees across the border. The narrator adds, “Avec leurs meubles, leurs outils, leurs saints, leurs odeurs, leurs démarches, leurs chansons, leurs légendes, leur parler. Leurs us et coutumes” (145). The novel depicts the refugees crossing the threshold with rituals of community, which lends some credence to the idea that Pedro and Adèle have survived. It is also evidence that political violence cannot destroy, as Philoctète writes, “le rêve de créer les peuples des terres mêlées” (147). Le peuple des terres mêlées moves within and beyond this local space-time to situate Trujillo’s brutality in the wider Caribbean and Americas. Trujillo’s genocidal desire, seemingly at the limits of literary representation, is imagined here as part of a longer history of violence, from pre-colonial contact to the colonial era and beyond. Previous massacres, as Glover explains, “necessarily contextualize the butchery of Haitians as the postcolonial iteration of an ever-repeating historical model” (Haiti Unbound, 146). The novel revives layers of history that mingle in the narrator’s consciousness by activating memory through Pedro’s labor of the land: “La terre d’ici porte mes pas qui doivent s’entendre de l’autre côté. Dans l’autre terre, ma terre! La caciquesse visita le cacique, leur feux ont longtemps couru, d’ici à l’autre bord” (19). The ode to Taino chiefs, previous inhabitants of the island, recalls the slaughter of indigenous peoples by Spanish conquistadors. For Philoctète, making the land “heard” serves just as much to recall the extinction of the Taino, whose fires seem yet to be extinguished in Pedro’s environmental imaginary, as it does to undo Trujillo’s naturalization of the border as a linguistic, racial, and national barrier.


This chapter has articulated a theory of an eco-archive. To be sure, the space between theory and literature and between art and lived experience is an old question. As Glover reminds us, “ … the reality for many of those forced to settle in these unsettling spaces is far less inspired (or inspirational) than (we) theorists of literature tend to put forward” (152). Philoctète reimagines the refugee’s story by way of his spiralic conception of history. In the novel’s “befuddled space-time” (Haiti Unbound, 152), Glover continues, “the reader is … constantly de-situated with respect to the 48 hours during which s/he knows, historically, the slaughter of Haitians took place. Time spirals without (p.67) any definitive advancement” (153). The archival function of Le peuple des terres mêlées does not collapse the distance between the beginning of the Trujillo era and the end of Duvalier, when the novel was written. It retrieves the idea of the border as a transnational, multilingual, and popular source of knowledge. Given the renewal of political division that has left Haitians, yet again, stripped of citizenship and home, the novel continues to resonate today.45

Among the many writers who have written their own stories of the 1937 massacre, Danticat is a close reader of Philoctète. She traveled to Massacre River as part of the research that led to the novel The Farming of Bones.46 After observing the degradation of the border site, now a “so called free-trade zone [that] has been invaded by slums, underpaid workers, and labor-law abusers” (Massacre River, 8), Danticat witnessed the river itself and was surprised by the “tiny braid of water running beneath a concrete bridge and into the distant plains” (8). She continues:

Where was the high current forced to engulf hundreds and hundreds of corpses in 1937? I wondered. The torrent towards which poor Haitians fled when, as Philoctète put it, death seemed so tangible that it had set up shop everywhere. However, what this extraordinary novel reminds us is that sandwiched between the two borders was a group of people who tried to build a new world, people who were as fluid as the waters themselves, the people of Massacre River. (8)

(p.68) Danticat’s movement through the physical space of the fluid border is mediated by her reading of Philoctète’s novel. In other words, she processes the historical change of the environment from the literary imaginary to the reality of what she sees. She carries out a brief ecocritical analysis of Le peuple des terres mêlées that also helps to visualize her own aesthetic representation of a great political injustice and its environmental legacy.


(1) See Jana Evans Braziel, “Caribbean Genesis: Language, Gardens, Worlds (Jamaica Kincaid, Derek Walcott, Édouard Glissant),” in Caribbean Literature and the Environment, ed. DeLoughrey, Gosson, and Handley (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2005), 110–126. Inspired by Glissant, Braziel writes, “I suggest a ‘poetics of (eco)-relation’” (112).

(2) For a comparison of Dalembert and Glissant, and particularly their poetic reflections on “insularité,” see Victoria Famin, “L’Autre face de la mer de Louis-Philippe Dalembert ou les récits de la dualité caribéenne,” in Écrits d’Haïti: Perspectives sur la littérature haïtienne contemporaine (1986–2006), ed. Nadève Ménard (Paris: Karthala, 2011), 177–188.

(3) For the influence of Glissant’s metaphor of the “open boat” on Caribbean works of autobiography, see Sandra Pouchet Paquet, Caribbean Autobiography: Cultural Identity and Self-Representation (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2002), 77.

(4) An anglophone contemporary of Glissant is the Barbadian writer George Lamming. As Michelle Stephens points out in her reading of Lamming’s collection of essays, The Pleasures of Exile (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, [1960] 1992):

Glissant shares the same geographical imagination as George Lamming, who, much earlier, in 1960, before the turn to globalization and diaspora, conveyed an archipelagic understanding of the relationship between the Caribbean and the United States. Lamming remarked, “America is very much, with us now; from Puerto Rico right down to Trinidad. But America is one island only; and we are used to living with many islands.” Here, Lamming, like Glissant, asks us to think about the continents of the Americas as islands, as parts of island systems.

See Michelle Stephens, “What is an Island? Caribbean Studies and the Contemporary Visual Artist.” Small Axe 41 (July 2013): 10–11. Stephens cites Lamming, The Pleasures of Exile (New York: Allison and Busby, 1984), 154.

(5) See Hanneken, Imagining the Postcolonial: Discipline, Poetics, Practice in Latin American and Francophone Discourse (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2015), especially Chapter Three, “Édouard Glissant’s Archipelic Thought and Second Nature.”

(6) Edward Kamau Brathwaite, “Caribbean Man in Space and Time.” Savacou 11–12 (September 1975): 1–11; Derek Walcott, “The Sea is History,” in Collected Poems 1948–1984 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1992).

(7) Jean-Claude Icart, Négriers d’eux-mêmes: essai sur les boat people haïtiens en Floride (Montreal: CIDHICA, 1987).

(8) Citing Anatole Bailly’s Dictionnaire grec-français, Des Rosiers uses “théorie: du grec theôria” in a way similar to Christopher L. Miller in Theories of Africans (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1990). In his approach to francophone African literatures, Miller argues for a cautious use of literary theory, one that contrasts Western abstraction with the material understanding of the ancient Greek meaning. It is in this spirit that he cites Yambo Ouologuem’s description of those “lamentables théories d’hommes, de femmes, et d’enfants,” in Devoir de violence, as a reminder, Miller writers, that “any link can be a link in a chain of enslavement. Europeans have been making ‘theories’ of Africans for centuries” (Theories of Africans, 24). Theorizing cultural production cannot pretend to rise above traditional, local contexts.

(10) Georges Anglade, Rire haïtien (Coconut Creek, FL: Educa Vision, 2006).

(11) Garrard cites John Passmore, Man’s Responsibility for Nature (London: Duckworth, 1974), 44.

(12) Buell’s The Future of Environmental Criticism can be read, in part, as a response to what Buell sees as Phillips’s uncomplicated understanding of mimesis.

(13) See also John P. O’Grady’s review of Phillips in Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 10.2 (2003): 278–279.

(14) Ramachandra Guha and Joan Martinez-Alier. Varieties of Environmentalism: Essays North and South (London: Earthscan, 1997).

(15) See Ramachandra Guha, Environmentalism: A Global History (New York: Penguin Books, 2000).

(16) See “Jean Wiener: 2015 Goldman Prize Recipient, Islands and Island Nations,” http://www.goldmanprize.org/recipient/jean-wiener/ (accessed July 18, 2016), hereafter “2015 Goldman Prize Press Release”; see also “L’Haïtien Jean Wiener parmi les six héros du monde de l’environnement.” Le Nouvelliste, 23 April 2015. http://lenouvelliste.com/lenouvelliste/article/143930/LHaitien-Jean-Wiener-parmiles-six-heros-du-monde-de-lenvironnement (accessed July 18, 2016).

(17) See Sherrie Baver, “Hispaniola’s Environmental Story: Challenging an Iconic Image.” Callaloo 37.3 (2014): 648–661; see also Laurent Dubois, “Who Will Speak for Haiti’s Trees.” The New York Times, October 17, 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/18/opinion/who-will-speak-for-haitis-trees.html (accessed November 5, 2016).

(18) See also Kathy Richman, “Militant Cosmopolitanism in a Creole City: The Paradoxes of Jacques Roumain.” Biography 35.2 (Spring 2012): 303–317; and Andrew Leak, “The Nonmagical Realism of Jacques Roumain’s Gouverneurs de la rosée.” Journal of Haitian Studies 23.1 (2017): 135–159.

(19) See Celucien L. Joseph, Thinking in Public: Faith, Secular Humanism, and Development in Jacques Roumain (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2017), especially Chapter One, “Global Thinking and Thinking Globally,” 25–85; see Richman; in a broader francophone context, see Brent Hayes Edwards, The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003). In her analysis of early Haitian constitutions, Sibylle Fischer argues that the particular claims of race and national identity in certain clauses and articles must be read in the context of the transnational politics of Haiti’s founding. She writes, “This, I would argue, is the genealogical story of twentieth-century indigenist nationalism in Haiti, which gave a political and cultural articulation to the opposition against the American occupation in 1915 and in a unique move makes a certain kind of pan-Africanism the backbone of national resistance against American marines” (Modernity Disavowed, 241).

(20) See Mary Renda, Taking Haiti: Military Occupation and the Culture of U.S. Imperialism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001); and Brenda Plummer, Haiti and the United States: The Psychological Moment (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1992).

(22) Normil G. Sylvain, “Chronique – Programme.” La revue indigène: Les arts et la vie 1 (July 1927): 9–10.

(23) Jean Price-Mars, Ainsi parla l’oncle: essais d’ethnographie (New York: Parapsychology Foundation, 1954 [1928]).

(24) Price-Mars draws on Jules de Gaultier’s Le Bovarysme (Paris: Mercure de France, 1902).

(25) For a representative sample of the diverse approaches to Roumain over several decades, see Michel Serres, “Le Christ Noir.” Critique 29 (1973): 3–25; Roger Dorsinville, Jacques Roumain (Paris: Présence Africaine, 1981); Maximilien Laroche, La littérature haïtienne: identité, langue, réalité (Montreal: Leméac, 1981); Beverley Ormerod, An Introduction to the French Caribbean Novel (London: Heinemann, 1985); J. Michael Dash, The Other America: Caribbean Literature in a New World Context (Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia, 1998); Celia Britton, The Sense of Community in French Caribbean Fiction (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2008); and Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley, Thiefing Sugar: Eroticism between Women in Caribbean Literature (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010).

(26) Munro makes a similar observation in his analysis of the writings and politics of Jacques-Stephen Alexis. He identifies a conflict between the inward pull of resistance to Duvalier and the outward movement of exilic migration. See Martin Munro, Exile and Post-1946 Haitian Literature: Alexis, Depestre, Ollivier, Laferrière, Danticat (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2007).

(27) Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

(28) See Antoinette M. Burton, “Introduction: Archive Fever, Archive Stories,” in Archive Stories: Facts, Fictions, and the Writing of History, ed. Antoinette M. Burton (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005), 3.

(29) See Ann Cvetkovich, An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003); see also Anne J. Gilliland and Marika Cifor, eds, “Affect and the Archive, Archives and their Affects.” Special Issue of Archival Science 16.1 (March 2016).

(30) See http://www.ecoonline.com/Eco-Archive/ (accessed July 18, 2016).

(31) A different project might turn here to the sociological theory of the construction of risk, and especially the “risk society,” as coined by the late Ulrich Beck. See World Risk Society (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1999). On Beck, see Ursula Heise, Sense of Place and Sense of Planet: The Environmental Imagination of the Global, Part Two, “Planet at Risk” (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 119–203.

(32) See John P. Walsh, “Reading (in the) Ruins: Kettly Mars’s Saisons sauvages.” Journal of Haitian Studies 20.1 (Spring 2014): 66–83.

(33) For a materialist approach to ecocritical theory, see Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Lowell Duckert, eds, Elemental Ecocriticism: Thinking with Earth, Air, Water, and Fire (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015).

(34) See Lyonel Trouillot, “Préface,” in Poèmes des îles qui marchent, by René Philoctète (Arles: Actes Sud, 2003).

(35) Philoctète was a prolific writer across several genres, including theater, short stories, and the novel. Most of his works were published in Haiti and several at his own expense.

(36) See Marlene L. Daut, Baron de Vastey and the Origins of Black Atlantic Humanism (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), 389. In the epilogue to her book, Daut examines Philoctète’s play Monsieur de Vastey (1975). Quoting in part from an interview Philoctète gave in 1992, Daut envisions the play through a Glissantian lens as a critique of Haiti’s “colonial relation as necessarily global …” (183).

(37) See Liisa H. Malkki, “Refugees and Exile: From ‘Refugee Studies’ to the National Order of Things.” Annual Review of Anthropology 24 (1995): 495–523. See also Malkki, “Speechless Emissaries: Refugees, Humanitarianism, and Dehistoricization.” Cultural Anthropology 11.3 (August 1996): 377–404.

(38) Shemak refers to Aristide R. Zolberg, Astri Suhrke, and Sergio Aguayo, Escape from Violence: Conflict and the Refugee Crisis in the Developing World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).

(39) For a more detailed account of the codification of refugee status in the twentieth century, see April Shemak (Asylum Speakers: Caribbean Refugees and Testimonial Discourse [New York: Fordham University Press, 2011], 6–8) and Icart (Négriers d’eux-mêmes, 70–74). Shemak also considers the changes to asylum laws in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001, particularly in the Patriot Act. More recently still, one would have to include ongoing revisions to the treatment of refugees in light of President Trump’s travel ban and the attempt to revoke the “temporary protected status” of Haitians displaced by the earthquake.

(40) See René Larrier, Autofiction and Advocacy in the Francophone Caribbean (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2006) for an extensive bibliography on the massacre.

(41) In Caribbean literary history, Patrick Chamoiseau’s Texaco (1992) comes to mind as a novel that also depicts fictional archives. The various notebooks of its protagonist, Marie-Sophie Laborieux, as well as those of the urban planner who interviews her, are imagined to be housed at the Bibliothèque Schoelcher. The novel also invites an ecocritical reading of what might be called its eco-historical structure, divided in four sections: temps de paille, de bois-caisse, de fibrociment, and, finally, de béton.

(42) See “Interview with René Philoctète.” Callaloo 15.3 (Summer 1992): 623–627 (624). In his foreword to the English translation, “René Philoctète: A Dream of the Triumph of Goodness,” Lyonel Trouillot observes that Philoctète’s “voice … was always raised against misfortune …” (Massacre River, 16).

(43) Coverdale’s translation reads “Boyer reunited the East and the West” (134) but the original French is “l’Est à l’Ouest,” which denotes the transfer of the East to the West, suggesting the Haitian repossession of the Dominican side. This is a version of history that Trujillo clearly does not accept.

(44) See Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (London: Routledge, 1992), 6–7.

(45) In September 2013 the Constitutional Tribunal of the Dominican Republic enacted Sentence 168–13, a ruling that retroactively stripped citizenship from Dominicans of Haitian descent by declaring that those born in the Dominican Republic to illegal parents were not entitled to citizenship by birth. See Tiffany Basciano, ed., “Justice Derailed: The Uncertain Fate of Haitian Migrants and Dominicans of Haitian Descent in the Dominican Republic.” School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University (2015), April 15, 2016. https://www.sais-jhu.edu/sites/default/files/Final-Report-Justice-Derailed-The-Uncertain-Fate-2015-v1.pdf (accessed November 22, 2018).

(46) In her translator’s note, Linda Coverdale offers a justification for changing Philoctète’s title to Massacre River. However, as Maria Cristina Fumagalli demonstrates, Coverdale thus misidentifies the river in the novel. “There is in fact no mention of [Massacre river] in Philoctète’s novel,” Fumagalli points out, “because it runs more than 100 kilometres north of the town where the novel is set and the river that marks the borderline by Elias Piña is in fact the Artibonite, not the Massacre” (On the Edge: Writing the Border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic [Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2015], 177, n. 70).