The Voice of Haiti

Paris, Ghana, Senegal, Miami. Poet Felix Morisseau-Leroy spent half his life in exile, but his heart never left home.

Felix Morisseau-Leroy speaks six languages fluently, but when he writes poetry it is not in French, English, Spanish, or in the African tongues Twi or Wolof. He writes in Creole -- in the voice of the people. His people. The people of Haiti.

"Peeee-pulll." When Morisseau says the word in English, it can sound like a prayer. "The peepil," he will whisper when singing praise. "THE PEOPLE!" he booms, speaking out in their defense.

On a Saturday in mid-March, a week after his 84th birthday, Morisseau is the guest of honor at an international Creole language workshop organized by Florida International University. About a hundred academics and educators have gathered at a luncheon to pay tribute to the "Father of Haitian Creole Poetry, Literature, and Play-writing." Accompanied by Miami poet and translator Jeffrey Knapp, the Haitian diaspora's populist man of letters takes the podium in a natty charcoal suit with suspenders, an oxford shirt and red sweater, shiny black shoes. A high cloud of stiff white hair encircles his smooth mahogany face. His pale, almost translucent pupils give him a mystical countenance, like that of a tribal wise man incarnating sacred spirits. He turns to the audience and launches into a poem, first in English translation, then in Creole.

Morisseau does not read poetry. Even if he could easily make out small lines of text from behind his thick eyeglasses, even if a page didn't look to him now like some obscure shadow play, he would not simply read his poems. Morisseau performs. Thrusts his arms out wide, sways on his feet, points his finger. He quivers and shouts, eulogizes and rails.

Then he tells a story.
"I was born with pink hair," he begins, his authoritative voice syncopated with a lilting Caribbean rhythm. "Then it turned red. Then I decided to blacken my hair with ink, and it stayed black for a long time. Suddenly, it turned white. By then I was fighting against the dictatorship in Haiti. I used to say, 'I am going to fight until my hair turns compleeeeetly black!'" He laughs, throwing his head back and relishing the sort of joke he likes best A his own.

Morisseau has reason to be cheerful. Compared to the stifling climate of fear that forced him into exile in 1959 and the political unrest of the past few years, the situation in Haiti seems relatively stable. His published poems, which were circulated clandestinely during the regimes of Franaois and Jean-Claude Duvalier, can now be found in bookstores in Port-au-Prince, and five of his plays in Creole will be published there this year. Most important, his new novel, Les Djons D'Hač#ti Tonma, just came out in France. That book was a long time coming. Morisseau began writing it in Creole five decades ago in Haiti. He lost the manuscript, only to recover it while in exile in Senegal and begin work on it again, this time in French, in the hope of attracting the interest of a French publisher. He misplaced the manuscript again, found it again, and finally completed it last year in Miami, writing on an electronic typewriter on the small balcony of his Kendall apartment. He intends to have the novel translated from French into English once he finds a translator he can trust.

The book takes place in Jacmel (pronounced zhock-mel), a provincial city on Haiti's southeast coast where Morisseau lived as a boy, and where he returned to teach high school mathematics after studying law at the University of Haiti in Port-au-Prince. Today in Jacmel he is acclaimed as the town's poet laureate and remembered as one of its revolutionary leaders. People there smile at the mere mention of his name.

At once a small-town comedy of manners, a political satire, a social history, and a thinly veiled memoir, the three-part novel begins around the time of the 1915 American occupation of the island, traverses the father-son Duvalier years from the late 1950s to 1986, and ends with the 1991 coup d'etat that followed the democratic presidential election of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Morisseau's magic-realist coming-of-age tale is the story of modern Haiti.

Which is the story of Morisseau.
A quartet of roosters is still crowing when a crowd gathers on a dusty Jacmel street to referee a domestic squabble. A proud-faced man in baggy jeans, now screaming in Creole, did not come home the night before. When he finally arrived, his wife, who is at this moment standing in the street shrieking back at him, threw dirt in his breakfast.

Two small children pass by riding a pack mule, and a girl carrying a sack of sweet potatoes on her head hurries on, but others stop on their way to market to monitor the commotion. One smartly dressed matron looks on and shakes her head with a laugh. People often settle their arguments in public in Jacmel, she explains with a dismissive wave of her hand. But it is with obvious pride that she points out that Jacmel is different from other towns in Haiti. More genteel. More civilized. Here, she says, people settle their disagreements without killing each other.

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