South Florida is home to a lively literary culture from Haiti
By Chauncey Mabe
Photos by Angel Valentin
January 1, 2006
Max Pierre came to the United States, like many Haitians, illegally.
On the way home from a trip to the Bahamas, he left the plane during a Miami layover to see his mother, who had been in the United States for 16 years. It was 1990; he was a teenager with no papers, not even a tourist visa. Just getting into high school was a struggle.
Now, after graduating from Miami-Dade College, after working as a teacher and a travel agent, after writing two books of poetry in French, the language of his Haitian education, Pierre has produced his first book in English. Called Soul Traveler, it's a poetry collection.
"I write in English because I
feel American," Pierre says.
Pierre is one of dozens, if not hundreds, of poets, novelists, playwrights, children's authors, bookstore owners, publishers and spoken-word artists who make up a lively literary community among about 245,000 Haitians thought to be living throughout Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.
The literary scene is centered in Little Haiti, the changing neighborhood just north of Miami's Design District, where celebrated novelist Edwidge Danticat makes her home, and where playwright Jan Mapou's modest Libreri Mapou bookstore is a locus of Haitian culture. But it extends much farther.
Children's author Joanne Hyppolite lives in Pembroke Pines, while spoken-word poet Prosper Sylvain, a member of the four-man performance troupe The Maroons, resides in Davie. Fequiere Vilsaint runs his small company, Educavision, in Deerfield Beach, publishing English-Creole textbooks, children's books, adult novels and nonfiction. In Delray Beach, the small Haiti Kreol
bookstore serves the growing Haitian community in Palm Beach County.
"Literature is a unifying force in any diaspora culture," Danticat says. "We have Haitian literature in several languages now. French in Canada and Haiti, of course, and there is even a Haitian writer in Spain writing in Spanish. And you have this whole generation of young Haitian-Americans writing in English. The great thing is you don't have to feel excluded from Haitian culture to live here."
Indeed, says Sylvain, literature is one way Haitian-Americans hold on to their roots.
"When I was growing up, I was never taught about Haitian culture or literature," says Sylvain, who was born in New York to immigrant parents. "The closest we got was Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance. But the literary movement in Haiti is old. Haitian literature has toppled governments and caused exiles and murders. If you happen to come to one of our poetry venues, you will learn about our history an
d our literature."
Yet, as Pierre demonstrates, it's also a way for immigrant writers to synthesize their Haitian literary tradition, a sort of mash-up of formal French literature and African oral storytelling, with the English influences they encounter in the United States.
Pierre, in fact, volunteered to teach English as a second language as a way to master his new tongue. "In French I can reach only a few readers," Pierre says. "My poetry is about love for a country and a people, and I want to share that love with my new countrymen."
Mentoring is common: Pierre, for example, received encouragement from Danticat and Mapou, as well as the great Haitian poet Felix Moriseau-Leroy, who lived out his last years exiled in Miami, where a street is named for him.
"Anyone who writes about Haiti knows about Edwidge and goes to Mapou's bookstore," Pierre says. "I started writing poetry when I was 12, but I doubt I would have ever had the chance to p
ublish anything if I had not come here. The community here is so energized, I'm still getting to know everyone."
Danticat grew up in New York and moved to Little Haiti to be with her husband, who has a Haitian-American translation business in Miami. At 32, she is the most prominent Haitian writer in the world, with such acclaimed novels as Krik? Krak!, The Dewbreaker and Breath, Eyes, Memory.
She is, Hyppolite says, "the voice for the Haitian-American generation, with one foot here and one foot in Haiti." What Amy Tan was for Chinese-Americans, Danticat is for Haitian-Americans: the first to achieve critical and commercial literary success, showing the way to mainstream acceptance.
"One writer does not make a movement, but I think it will soon be our turn," says Hyppolite, author of the young adult novels Ola Shakes It Up and Seth and Samona.
Little Haiti's origins as a distinct immigrant community date to 1965, when the first Haitians arrived in what was
previously known as "Lemon City," settling only a few houses apart: Claire Nasser, who worked for a mental health agency at Jackson Memorial Hospital, and Roland Jean Louis, a teacher and the first Haitian assistant principal in Dade County.
The first to document the history of Little Haiti is not a Haitian, but a Jewish American named David Brown. A community activist and former teacher, he includes the stories of Nasser and Louis in his as-yet-unpublished pamphlet, The History of Little Haiti: Featuring Its Pioneer Settlers. Brown operates Urban Tour Host, a company that provides tours to Little Haiti, Liberty City and black-Bahamian Coconut Grove, as well as more conventional tourist destinations such as South Beach and Little Havana.
"The literary community is very rich," says Brown, who frequently makes the Mapou bookstore a tour stop. "The Haitian culture stands out as unique, especially the literature. The Creole language also lends a flavor all its own, even in
English, and the African tradition gives the literature a lot of folk tales and proverbs."
Jan Mapou moved to New York in 1971 after being released from the notorious Fort Dimanche. The regime of dictator Jean-Claude "Papa Doc" Duvalier had imprisoned him for the crime of advocating that Creole -- Haiti's blended language, with French and African roots -- be taught alongside French in the schools.
"Duvalier, like all tyrants, did not favor of the education of the masses," Mapou says. "People who are educated might start asking questions and want a free press, so they labeled us as communists."
Since 1984, Mapou has been director of the parking system at Miami International. "Miami felt just like home," he says. "You come to Little Haiti and hear the music, smell the foods of Haiti, feel the sun, talk in Creole. It was very nice."
But in 1984, boat people were coming in the thousands, Mapou said, and once they got here they wer
e blamed, in part, for the AIDS epidemic. Young Haitians denied their roots and tried to pass as African-Americans. Mapou founded a new chapter of Sosyete Koukouy -- "Society of Fireflies," his Creole movement in Haiti -- to promote Haitian culture in Miami.
After several years of writing and producing plays, writing two books of poetry and a collection of short stories, Mapou opened Libreri Mapou in 1994. The store instantly became a center of Haitian culture. "Haitians wanted to stay in touch with their culture and literature, and they had nothing," he says. "It was a time when Haitians were accused of carrying the AIDS virus. With a label like that, people need the antidote of good books about Haiti."
Danticat, who says her friendships with Hyppolite, Mapou and other South Florida-based Haitians made her decision to move here easier, praises the bookstore's contribution.
"Mapou has helped create a sense of cultural community," says Danticat. &qu
ot;I had been to his store, and I was struck by the energy there. He very much had things happening, offering an example for young people. Others did that for me. I hope it conveys to younger people that if you achieve in American culture it doesn't mean you have to flee your own community."
Chauncey Mabe can be reached at email@example.com or 954-356-4710.
Copyright (c) 2005, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
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