English-speaking readers are unlikely to be terribly familiar with the name that concerns us this week: Évelyne Trouillot. One of the most engaging exponents of contemporary French Caribbean literature, Trouillot stands out even against the impressive backdrop of a generation that includes the likes of Patrick Chamoiseau, Marise Condé and Raphael Confiant. Active in the field of literature for over 15 years, Trouillot is a lecturer at the State University in Port-au-Prince, where she has lived since 1987, splitting her time between writing and teaching.
Born in the Haitian capital in 1954, Trouillot departed to the United States to attend university. Unlike so many members of the Caribbean diaspora, however, she resisted the idea of staying abroad and returned to her motherland when she was 33 years old to help to develop, and no doubt also enrich, the cultural establishment of her country from within.
Intellectually curious, Trouillot has explored a wide variety of genres and forms in her literature. Her first incursion into fiction came in 1996, with a collection of short stories published by L’Harmattan in Paris, La chambre interdite (“The Forbidden Room”). This was followed by two further collections published in Port-au-Prince, Islande, suivi de La mer, entre lait et sang (“Iceland, followed by The Sea, Between Milk and Blood”) and Une cousine inattendue (“An Unexpected Cousin”), published in ’98 and ’99 respectively. Her first collection of poems, Sans parapluie de retour (“Back Without an Umbrella”), also published in Haiti, would come in 2001, and a year later she would produce what to date remains her latest collection of short stories, Parlez-moi d’amour… (“Let’s Talk about Love…”). Unfortunately, no English translation exists of any of this work.
In an interview, as part of the Poetry Parnassus initiative carried out earlier this year in London in the context of the Olympic Games, Trouillot told her interviewer that her reasons to choose Haiti as her habitual residence were fully personal and selfish: “this is the place where I am the happiest; this is the place where I can be myself to the fullest.” That may well be so, but Trouillot must also be perfectly aware of the strong statement her choice constitutes, be it collateral to her main reasons or not. Indeed, it is no matter of chance that her first big break came in 2003, with her first novel, Rosalie l’infame (“Rosalie the Infamous”), which was published by the Musée Dapper in, crucially, Paris, not Port-au-Prince.
Rosalie l’infame tellsthe story of a female slave in the XVIII century in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (present day Haiti). A tale of everyday resistance, Rosalie… merited Trouillot a good deal of credit and served as cornerstone for her to build the corpus of her mature work. From that point onwards, she has produced three more novels, has penned an award-winning play, Le Bleu de l’ile (“Island Blue”), and has published (in Haiti, again) a collection of poems written invernacular Creole, rather than in French. All of this is significant both in the context of her work and of the establishment: it is significant that her progression has taken her from short stories to poetry to full-length fiction (all in French); it is significant that it was her first novel, and not her first collection of short stories (also published in Paris) which brought her to the limelight; but most of all, it is significant that she feels confident enough to publish her poetry in Creole, a choice that certainly points at something that could not be expressed fully, accurately or genuinely in French. All of these things tell us something about Évelyne Trouillot, and about the environment in which she lives—in which all of us live.
Lately, Trouillot has also been attracting some attention in the English-speaking media. In the aftermath of hurricane Jeanne, which hit Haiti in 2004, she appeared together with fellow Haitian writer Edwidge Danticat in the winter edition of Bomb magazine, and one of her short stories was published by Words Without Borders some time later. Both of these pieces are still available online, as is another story she published with Words Without Borders in 2011.That same year, her story, “Which One” was included in the collection Haiti Noir, published by Akashic, and “My Name Is Fridhomme” was included in the 25th anniversary edition of The Caribbean Writer. That was when I first came across her name, as I was struck by a compelling short story that ultimately earned her the publication’s Canute A. Brodhurst Prize for short fiction. Meanwhile she has completed her fourth novel, La memoire aux abois (“Moored Memory”), for which she has been awarded Le prix Carbet dela Caraibe et du Tout-Monde, and which has been translated into Spanish by Casa de las Américas in Cuba.
La memoire aux abois is a gripping tale of internal struggle, of grief and bereavement, but most of all of pain: direct pain, experienced by one of the narrators, and oblique pain, felt by the same narrator through the recollection of the experience of her loved ones. Set in Paris, Trouillot builds her plot around a domestic scene at an elderly home, where a young Haitian nurse is in charge of taking care of a fellow-Haitian old woman towards whom she feels obvious resentment. The structure of the novel hinges on the two poles of the stories internally recollected by the two women to themselves. The old lady, it turns out, is the wife of the late Haitian dictator Francois Duvalier, whose identity is being kept secret for safety reasons. Her caretaker recognizes the old lady and the animosity she exhibits against her is nothing but the faintest trace of the true hatred she feels towards the first lady of a country that ruined the existence of her own recently deceased mother.
What ensues is an expertly woven psychological thriller in which we see the progression of the younger narrator’s frame of mind as she explores the horrors of the life of her dead mother (her own life is rather shaped by absences: the absence of her brother, of her father, of her homeland). Through the use of diametrically opposite protagonists, however, Trouillot makes a very conscious effort to show the two sides of a story that could easily have gone the demagogic way. Duvalier’s wife looks at the chaos, at the ignorance that ruled in Haiti when her husband came to power and extols his ability to bring some sort of order into a people who are manipulated like children. Hence, the demonic view of the Duvalier regime we get on the one hand is craftily balanced on the other by the glorification of messianic proportions that the persona of Papa Doc gets from his bedridden wife.
Short and poignant, La memoire aux abois maps the effects of events long gone in the present reality of two women who have been united by fate. Except, far from falling into sentimentalist rhetoric, Trouillot deftly gets her characters to navigate through the pain lodged in their hearts (and their memories), such that they ultimately shift away from their normal behavior—from that which you would normally say “characterizes” them—and in effect change, due to the presence of each other. Ultimately, this change might be too subtle to be considered an unchaining or liberation of the two women from their pasts, but, certainly for the younger narrator (the older seems no longer to have enough time left) it spells the first step onto the road of recovery—recovery from the loss of her mother, to be sure, but also recovery from what she (her memory) has done to herself.
La memoire aux abois is a tremendously sensitive book that confirms Trouillot’s place among the most intriguing Caribbean writers alive. I just hope an English publisher agrees with me pretty soon, so we can enjoy all of her texts in translation!
PUBLISHED IN THE WEEKENDER SUPPLEMENT OF SINT MAARTEN’S THE DAILY HERALD ON OCTOBER 27, 2012.