Last Wednesday evening, faculty and students gathered in the Scheuer Room in Kohlberg to welcome Haitian novelist and poet Kettly Mars. Mars read from her newest book “Savage Seasons” for its English debut. The talk, organized by French department professor Micheline Rice-Maximin, focused on Haiti’s totalitarian past and its continuing impact on Haitian literature.
Mars began by thanking Rice-Maximin for her passion for literature and for welcoming her to the college. She then gave a brief synopsis of her book before reading a passage aloud in English.
“Savage Seasons” describes the experiences of a Haitian family living in Port-au-Prince under the dictatorship of François Duvalier. The book follows Nirvah Leroy, whose husband has been arrested, and her attempts to protect him and their children. The passage which Mars read to her audience depicts Nirvah visiting her neighbor Solange, a vodou shaman, after being sexually assaulted by Duvalier’s Secretary of State. Solange bathes Nirvah in spiced water, and for the first time since her husband’s disappearance, Nirvah cries. Mars’ descriptive language and her attention to detail brings this scene alive with gritty realism and emotion. Her audience was captivated, and applauded when she finished the excerpt.
Mars then spoke a bit about her own reality in Haiti and how it influenced her writing. Born in Port-au-Prince in 1958, Mars experienced first-hand the fear and oppression of Duvalier’s regime. She explained that Haitian writers who lived during this tumultuous time period tend to produce extreme literature. She admitted with a laugh that her novels tend to be fairly dark in content.
“I would love to write some not dark stuff,” she joked. “Just one.”
She maintained that it was a strange way of life, but that it was their life. They learned to internalize the terror of the regime and to live with it from day to day. Mars mentioned that her father used to carry a gun for his safety, and she insists that it is crucial to remember one’s experiences and to verbalize them in literature. She tries to stay as close to the truth as possible because the history of her country needs to be told.
“It is my right,” she stressed, “not to be reduced to silence by the past … Haiti needs her writers.”
Mars further drove home the importance for uninhibited testimony by expressing a disappointment in the Haitian schools.
“Kids aren’t taught their country’s history,” she objected. “[The schools] try to erase the dictatorship from history lessons.”
Mars concluded by insisting that the truth of the regime’s oppression must be expressed in narrative literature to remind people of that painful era of Haiti’s history. The floor was then opened up for a question and answer session. Audience members were very taken with the vodou excerpt from her novel, and asked Mars for more information on the religious state of Haiti.
“I love this passage,” Mars expressed. “I love the whole book actually. I am very fond of it … The vodou [in this passage] represents the need to turn to the supernatural. Vodou is our heritage which we have denied ourselves. I’ve embraced it because I feel the need to get in connection with the supernatural.”
She said that in her moment of dismay, Nirvah needed the comfort of the vodou and the shaman, who Mars described as a genuine and down-to-earth woman. This intimate moment involving the practice of vodou was intended to contrast with the corrupt weaponization of spirituality by the dictatorship. Haitian vodou is rooted in the African heritage of the Haitian people. White slave traders tried to extinguish vodou practices by insisting that it was demonic and evil. Duvalier used this prevailing suspicion and unease to control the Haitian people.
“It was believed that he could read people’s minds,” Mars said. “[When I was young] we would pass in front of his home and say to each other, ‘Let’s stop thinking.’”
Terrorism, Mars explained, used to belong only to the state. As a result, everyone always knew that a terrorist attack had originated in Duvalier’s administration. In Haiti today, the same violent actions happen frequently, but it is much more chaotic. Drug trafficking, Mars pointed out, results in high incidence of violence that cannot be tied to any single organization like under Duvalier’s regime. She added that the population increase from five million to eleven million exacerbates this situation.
The political turmoil clearly affected Haiti on a large scale, but Mars returned to the passage about Nirvah and Solange and called attention to the significance of Nirvah crying for her husband. The politics of the regime created Nirvah’s situation, but Mars claims the real significance of the novel lies the tiny emotions and reactions of the characters. She subtly addresses the political influences by focusing not on dates or hard facts, but on the feelings and experiences of the people.
The oppression of the Haitian dictatorship left the country reeling in the aftermath of the corruption. Mars concluded that politics affect Haitian literature because of the individual experiences which compel readers to acknowledge Haiti’s lamentable past.
A reception followed the talk with refreshments and an opportunity for audience members to interact with Mars and hear more about her novel.