The Voice of Haiti

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

Morisseau returned to Port-au-Prince after a year of studying in New York and took the job of General Director of Urban Education. He lived with his family in a modern house in Petionville, a bourgeois section of the city located in the hills above the city's center. As an educator and writer in the Forties and Fifties, he became increasingly involved with what he refers to as "the Creole problem."

"I was fighting in favor of teaching in Creole," he explains. "At that time there was a very strong resistance in favor of Creole." Morisseau was one of a group of writers who would gather regularly to debate whether the native Haitian language should have the same status as French. He stopped teaching and began writing a daily column in the newspaper Hač#ti Journal (he later wrote for the daily Le Matin) in which he frequently took a stand on the subject. Early in 1953 he published his first booklet of Creole poems, Dyakout One. (He would later publish Dyakout Two, Dyakout Three, and Dyakout Four, which have since been collected in one volume.)

"He was really one of the first to take the spoken language and make it the language of literature," says Jeffrey Knapp, a Miami poet and professor at Florida International University who has translated many of Morisseau's poems into English. "Writing in Creole was an act of politics, an act of courage. He realized, What's the point of writing in a language that no one can understand?

"There's nothing artificial about Morisseau's language," Knapp continues. "His form and his approach are conversational and direct. His poetry is the language that you speak as opposed to the kind of poetry that is enforced by iambic pentameter, that has to have a rhyme at the end of every line."

During one of the Saturday-afternoon debates, the argument among the writers in Port-au-Prince came to a head. "They asked me, 'What do you think should be written in Creole?' And I said, 'Everything should be written in Creole! Including Antigone!'" Morisseau shouts. "To me, that was the highest work in world literature."

Morisseau had only used Antigone as an example, but his colleagues took him at his word. When the Minister of Culture stopped him in the street a few weeks later and asked him when his Creole play would be ready, he set to work. He wrote Antigone in a month and a half.

At that time Creole was rarely spoken on-stage, and when it was used, it was in burlesque plays by buffoonish performers similar to American blackface minstrels. "It was the language of jokes," says Morisseau. "It wasn't conceivable that something serious could be written in Creole. I selected Antigone as a high example of a literary work, but also because it was very difficult to write. I didn't mean to take Sophocles and just turn it into Creole. That wasn't the idea. The idea was to rewrite Sophocles from a Haitian point of view."

He rises from his chair and begins enacting snippets of dialogue. He yells and waves his arms until his wife comes in from the kitchen, whispering in French. He sits back down and catches his breath. "It was such a triumph. An article appeared in the newspaper the next day that said, 'Morisseau has won this challenge.'"

Antigone played two nights at the Rex Theatre. Then a special performance was held on the wide lawn in front of the Ministry of Agriculture.

"Everyone sat on the grass," the author remembers. "They were people from the country, from outside Port-au-Prince. It was an audience of peasants. And that was one of my proudest moments. Because it is for them that I write, not for all of those other writers. I write for the peasant. I write for the people of Haiti."

After the success of Antigone, Morisseau continued his work, only now as a well-known poet and journalist. In 1958, shortly after Franaois Duvalier was inaugurated president, Morisseau traveled to Paris, London, and New York. He knew Duvalier A the two had moved in the same intellectual and diplomatic circles A but he was not yet aware of the persecution that had begun under his rule. With his outspoken ways and populist attitude, Morisseau seemed an obvious target of the new regime.

"In New York people told me I should not go back to Haiti. They told me not to go," Morisseau recalls. "They said, 'They will not take into consideration that you've been away. They will just arrest you and kill you.' It was in this climate of fear that I got back to Haiti."

While in Paris, Morisseau had received an invitation to take his company there to perform Antigone at the prestigious Theatre de Nations festival at the Sarah Bernhardt Theater (now the Theatre de la Ville). Back in Port-au-Prince, he rehearsed his actors in his home in Petionville and watched while his friends -- liberal thinkers, artists, political activists -- were imprisoned or killed.

"From May 1958 to May 1959, what happened around me was terrible," he says softly. "I used to say that I am a survivor. I didn't have a direct attack on me. They wanted to make me afraid of the situation, and as a matter of fact they even sent me messages that they wouldn't arrest me but that I may find myself killed. Well, it was not that I was not brave enough to let them kill me, but very seriously, I didn't want to die at the time. Another time I may want to die, but at that time I didn't want to die. So finally I found a way of leaving them."

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