The Voice of Haiti

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

To know Morisseau, one must be acquainted with Jacmel. Surrounded by a breathtaking landscape of lush banana groves and bordered by rough ocean waves, its first settlers were the Taino Indians, who called the area "Jaquezy." An Indian stronghold against the Spanish colonists, it also served as the site of a series of bloody battles between the Spanish and the French.

The city was officially founded by the triumphant French colonists in 1698, 50 years before Port-au-Prince. French coffee barons were attracted to the fertile ground, as were free black men. These former slaves, whose masters had granted them freedom, received the rights of free citizens in 1698 and were thus able to buy land. Along with the mixed-blood offspring of European settlers and their slaves, they would give rise to Haiti's powerful mulatto class. Nearly a hundred years later, in 1791, "men of mixed blood born of free parents" were granted social equality and representation in the colonial assemblies, but continuing white prejudice eventually culminated in a revolt headed by the slave Boukman, with subsequent battles led by Toussaint L'Ouverture. When Toussaint was exiled and imprisoned by the French in 1802, Gen. Jean-Jacques Dessalines continued the fight and in 1804 declared the nation's independence from France.

Separated by mountains and rivers from the Haitian capital (there was not a well-paved road connecting them until French contractors built one in the 1960s), Jacmel was a popular international port since its inception, and thus maintained a tighter connection with France than with its neighbors in Haiti. In the 1700s, Jacmel not only had two sugar mills, it also boasted six stores that sold European fashions and housewares. Fancy prefab houses arrived by boat from Europe and were erected on what came to be the better side of town.

Jacmel was the first place in Haiti to have electricity, a precedent that allowed its residents to call it "the City of Light" -- just like their beloved Paris. The first phone system in Haiti was installed in Jacmel. Cars arrived in 1910, before

most people in Port-au-Prince had ever seen horseless carriages. There was a symphony orchestra in Jacmel before Port-au-Prince, a fire department before Port-au-Prince. . . .

As he ticks off this list of civic achievements, Michelet Divers raises his voice over the merengue that plays at an outdoor cafe on Jacmel's main street. A polite, dark-skinned black man in a green polo shirt, the 41-year-old writer says he is one of the few professionals his age who have not left Jacmel for better opportunity in the capital or abroad. He has instead gone to the town's archives and written a book about the history of Jacmel. Divers makes a living teaching French literature at the Collä#ge Suisse, a private high school in the center of town. His manuscript has not been published. There is no money in Haiti to support provincial writers, he says.

Once it was not so. By the turn of the century, a prosperous population of mulatto merchants, lawyers, and doctors had cultivated a coterie of intellectuals and a regional school of visual artists, who added to the air of savoir-faire that permeated the town. Historically Jacmel's illustrious past has afforded its residents a justifiably exalted view of themselves. "Here having a proud attitude was never called snobbism," Divers asserts. "It was normal."

Morisseau's new novel probes the distinct psychology of the people of Jacmel. The author translates Les Djons D'Hač#ti Tonma as The People of Haiti with Bravado. Djons, he explains, is an obscure colloquial term that refers specifically to people of Jacmel. "When you have a discussion with somebody from Jacmel, you can give them all the reasons you have to be opposed to them," he posits. "Finally he will tell you, 'I am right. Because I am from Jacmel.' That is what I call djonerie. "

And of course Morisseau is a djon. "In Jacmel everyone knows that everything I have done, I have done by the power of my bravado," he says. "That is to say, I have done it all with djonerie."

Morisseau takes off his glasses and steps slowly along the rug in his modest Kendall duplex, feeling his way to a leather lounge chair near the door. He stretches out comfortably, turning his eyes toward the ceiling, hair fanning out in a wild halo above the headrest.

Haitian paintings and African masks decorate the walls. A photo of the poet, at least a decade younger but with the same white Afro, sits on a side table next to a picture of his daughter Maag Mitton, a college professor of Spanish who commutes between Tarrytown, New York and Columbus, Georgia, a city Morisseau hates because it is in the deep, conservative South. Above the photos hangs a portrait by a painter from Jacmel of Morisseau's wife Renee looking like a long-necked African princess.

More petite than she appears in the portrait but just as regal, Renee enters the room offering juice or a beer, but not water. Morisseau doesn't drink water. His father, on his deathbed, expired after drinking some. Why tempt fate?

Renee Lemaire, who met her husband-to-be when she was just fourteen, is from a prominent Jacmel family; her mother was a well-known poet, her father a senator. In an old album that she keeps in the upstairs bedroom is a photo of her as a young woman, wearing what she used to call her "French outfit." She could be a Vogue model (if Vogue models in the Twenties had dark skin), standing in a cafe in a fitted white suit, matching gloves and hat, and high-heel sandals that lace around her slim ankles. Like all well-bred Haitian ladies, she would have a cook in her country, but this is Kendall. She returns to the kitchen to prepare a potluck dinner of pumpkin soup and pigs' feet, and some fish for her husband.

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