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'Ha#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.
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'Ha#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.
Morisseau waits in his easy chair. He often sits here and listens to local Haitian programs on the radio installed on a shelf behind his head. He thinks up ideas for his weekly political column in Ha#ti en Marche, a French- and Creole-language newspaper published in Miami and distributed in Port-au-Prince as well as in other major cities of the Haitian diaspora (New York, Montreal, Boston, Washington, Chicago). He remembers Haiti.
Morisseau's father was a general in the army of Haiti, created to defend the republic that in 1804 had become the first autonomous nation in the Caribbean, and the first free black nation in the world. The poet was born in 1912 in Grand Gosier, a rural village east of Jacmel. Shortly thereafter his father left for a tour in the north and stayed there. His son saw him only occasionally.
When Morisseau's mother was pregnant, she spoke French during the day when she taught school, and Creole at night at home. The writer likes to say he was born bilingual. Umirene Leroy kept her son at home and gave him his lessons in French. There was no reason to send him to the village school; he already spoke French better than the principal. His mother made sure he had a balanced education. She coddled him, singing him the latest songs from Paris, but she was strict and made him do chores. She sent him with the other village children to fetch water, which he carried home in a container balanced on his head. No one ever used his Christian name, Felix. He was always known only as Morisseau.
When he was seven, the family house burned down. The boy managed to salvage a big box that had belonged to an uncle in Port-au-Prince that contained the basic classic works of literature. Morisseau says he read Homer at age eight (in French; he didn't read Greek -- yet). By the time he was ten, he had finished all the books in the box.
"That was when I vaguely decided that I wanted to be a writer," he muses. "By age thirteen, I thought I should start writing."
By then Morisseau was in Jacmel, where his mother had sent him to live with maternal cousins while he attended secondary school at the prestigious Lycee Pinchinat, a private school for boys. He immediately took to what seemed to him like big-city living.
"I was a very spoiled young man since the age of thirteen," he recalls. "I wrote my school papers on a typewriter -- there were only seven typewriters in Jacmel. I would not say I was from a wealthy family. I will allow that I was from an educated family, and a family with a certain prestige."
When Morisseau arrived in Jacmel, it was no longer an insular, quasi-European enclave. U.S. Marines, protecting American economic interests, had invaded Haiti in 1915 and begun what would be a nineteen-year occupation of the island. The people of Jacmel, as in the rest of Haiti, were thus displaced in their own country. "The man who was in charge of the town is not the authority any more," explains Morisseau, describing the surreal situation that serves as the setting for the opening of his novel. "He doesn't speak English, and the American captain doesn't speak Creole. From time to time they shake hands."
Characteristically, the headstrong Jacmelians actively opposed the occupation, and Jacmel became known as a center of organized resistance to the American presence. The young Morisseau staged his own campaign against les blancs -- the word means both white and foreigner in Haiti. "I refused to be vaccinated," he recalls with a laugh. "I said, 'I refuse to let an American touch me.'" At age seventeen he organized the city's first public demonstration against the occupation, a march he called "the peace walk." By then his militant activities could not escape the notice of the U.S. enforcers.
"I will not say I was arrested," he says, beaming up at the ceiling. "I was invited to come to the police station 30 times in a month and a half. It started in November. In that month I acquired the sense of a young man who is not afraid of dying."
Morisseau's experiences in Jacmel formed the ideology to which he would subscribe thereafter. In his career as a teacher, journalist, and writer, he has been a lifelong militant, defending the principles of freedom upon which Haiti was founded when the African slaves rose up against their white oppressors.
"My first concern is the problem of the freedom of the people of Haiti," Morisseau told WLRN-FM producer Steve Malagodi in an interview the station broadcast in the mid-Eighties. "But I write of anybody who would be in the situation of the people of Haiti. I feel a solidarity with the poor people of the world. Wherever they are suffering, I am ready to defend them."
When he was 28 years old, in 1941, Morisseau left Haiti for the first time and went to New York on a scholarship to earn a master's degree in education from Columbia University. He also took courses at City College and at the New School for Social Research. The young writer met "all kinds of leftists in Greenwich Village" A artists and intellectuals who shared his radical viewpoints regarding issues of race and class. One of these was the poet Langston Hughes, whose bluesy ballads of the black American experience were an enduring influence on Morisseau's street-smart poems about the everyday trials of the Haitian masses. He also met the great singer/actor Paul Robeson, the son of a former slave with whom he discussed popular theater, African languages, and politics. He remembers one conversation:
"Paul told me they were offering him the job of playing Henry Christophe, the Haitian king of the north, in a movie called Black Majesty. They came with one million in their pocket!" Morisseau recounts. "They said, 'Mr. Robeson, we want to ask your advice on one problem. It will be difficult for us to make a movie for the American public in which black men are pushing white men into the sea like they did to the colonists in Haiti.' So Paul says to them, 'Well, you asked my advice, I'm going to give it you. My advice is to forget about that movie because that's the only thing to show about Haiti. After that, there's nothing to say about Haiti.'"
Morisseau rocks in his chair, giggling like a mischievous child.
Many of the grand houses in Jacmel are now shuttered and abandoned. Others, long ago divided into apartments, are simply faded remnants of the town's former splendor. At the time of the American invasion, businesses began moving to the capital. After Franaois Duvalier was elected in 1957, he shut down the provincial ports altogether to protect himself against insurgent attacks by sea. Today Jacmel is a slow-moving city where every day seems like Sunday and passersby greet strangers on the street. At night its citizens sit on their balconies or walk laps around the town. A crowd gathers in front of a television set placed in the window of a bar.
At city hall, an airy colonial building that overlooks the sea, farmers in straw hats sit lethargically on a bench outside the mayor's office. Guy Masse, the 35-year-old mayor, comes out to shake their hands. An Aristide supporter who went into hiding after the 1991 coup, Masse wears the sort of chunky gold jewelry favored by rappers in this country. He has big plans for the renaissance of Jacmel.
"Jacmel is a civilized town, different from the other towns in this country," he boasts. "People are proud to say they're from Jacmel."
Outside the public library is a multicolored sign that reads in French "Jacmel Cultural Capital." Inside a large room where the books are kept in polished wood cabinets under lock and key, one lone student sits at a table. He is organizing a poetry reading. On his list are several poems by Felix Morisseau-Leroy.
He's 26 years old, the young man says, and a high school student at Lycee Pinchinat, where Morisseau studied and later returned to teach. Over at the school, on the main street of town, the principal, a man of about 30, is entering grades in a book. He asks visitors whether they have come to see the archives, then apologizes because the archives were destroyed in a fire.
A few blocks from city hall stands the southeastern headquarters of the Haitian Red Cross, a once-elegant two-story structure accented with neoclassical columns, whose faaade is now scrawled with graffiti and plastered with political flyers. The building had another life as the Excelsior, a social club for the wealthier, mulatto members of the town's bourgeoisie. Mayor Masse says the club was so exclusive that its only dark-skinned member, a very wealthy but very black man, was required to wear a white suit while on the premises so he would look lighter.
As a boy Morisseau would stand outside the Excelsior and watch costumed partygoers file through the arched doorways to attend extravagant masked balls. He was invited to the club before he was twenty, as president of the strike committee against the Americans. As a 23-year-old teacher at the Lycee, he was asked to give a lecture there.
"I said, 'If you don't invite my friends I won't come,'" he remembers, delighted with the spirit of his younger self. "I said, 'Forget it, I'm not coming if you don't let them all in.' You see, most people of my age wanted to go there, but I didn't care. I always said that I was going to do anything that the rich people could do, plus what they could not: I would write verse.
"And I not only said it, I did it," he cries, pounding the armrest of his chair, and, for a second, sounding surprised.
"I did it!"
Morisseau's seminal work, a milestone in Haitian literature, is Antigone. He reset Sophocles's classic text in Haiti and replaced the Greek chorus with the voices of Congo spirits summoned on-stage by a Vodou priest. The play was performed at the venerable Rex Theatre in the center of Port-au-Prince. The actors spoke in Creole.
Article Five of the 1987 constitution of the Republic of Haiti states: "All Haitians are united by a common language: Creole."
This new charter declares Creole and French as the nation's two official languages. Before it was drafted, Haiti's official language was French, which is spoken fluently by only ten percent of the population. French has traditionally been, since colonial times, the language of business, the language of learning, the exclusionary language of the elite. Today French is still the choice of polite society, but English is employed increasingly in business. Creole is now taught in schools, a change that acknowledges it as the language of the people but one that presents new problems for the rickety educational system of a nation where at least 85 percent of the citizens are illiterate. Texts required for many academic subjects do not yet exist in Creole. Because of its low status in Haitian society, Creole has until now remained primarily a spoken language for which a widely accepted, phonetically based writing system did not even exist until the 1940s.
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 Ha#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."
The playwright had been planning the Paris trip and had even set the date. He had problems securing airline tickets for his actors, whom he felt should get diplomatic discounts because they would be representing Haiti abroad.
"At six o'clock in the morning on the day we were supposed to leave, one of Duvalier's secretaries came to me and said, 'The president wants to talk to you,'" Morisseau relates, his gaze fixed on the ceiling. "I knew him very well, he was a friend of mine, this I will tell you. So I went to the palace and he said to me that he knew that I wanted to go to Paris and he would help me. He said, 'I talked to the director of Pan Am, everything is all right for you. Did you come in your car?'
"I said, 'No, you sent for me.' He called his assistant and said, 'Get Mr. Morisseau the Number One' A that was the presidential car. So I sat behind the driver in the Number One and we went to the office of Pan Am. The director had gotten out of bed and come to the office. The chauffeur knocked on the door and said, 'The president has sent Mr. Morisseau-Leroy for the tickets.' And he said 'Yes, the tickets are ready.' I didn't say anything, because I had nothing to say.
"I went back home and told everyone I was leaving," he continues quietly, nervously stroking his hair. "So I went."
"I knew that I was in exile. I knew that I was not going back to Haiti."
Morisseau stayed in Paris after the performance of Antigone, unsure of what to do next. He applied for a job teaching in Africa and was sent to a college in Nigeria as a professor of French. From there he was invited to give a lecture in Ghana, where he presented his ideas about popular theater, based on his successful experience with Antigone. He was subsequently hired to work for that nation's arts council.
Five years passed before Morisseau learned what had happened to his family. Any letters they sent him were intercepted, he says. Once, on a business trip to Moscow, he met a Haitian friend who told him that Renee and his children had been in jail but had been freed. Soon after that a letter from Renee arrived. One at a time, his family joined him in Africa.
"We tried our best to live. . . ." he murmurs.
He is quiet for a moment.
The leftist government in Ghana was overthrown in 1966, but Morisseau was able to get another job in Senegal, where he and his family would live for fourteen years. (His son Jean is still there). There, as in Ghana, he was a cultural diplomat, working for the government as technical advisor for the Senegalese Federation of People's Theater, for which he staged his own plays as well as those of prominent African playwrights.
In 1981, at the age of 69, Morisseau retired. At the urging of his son Axel, a computer technician who lives in Kendall with his family, he and Renee moved to Miami.
"Don't expect to find me dying," Morisseau shouts into the phone with a laugh. I'm still here!"
Morisseau is propped up on a cot in his living room, having undergone an operation in late March to remove a tumor from his colon. A second surgery is imminent. He has cajoled his doctor into letting him return home in the meantime instead of going to a rehab center.
The patient is confined to his living room and patio but is in exuberant spirits. His wife is tired. She has had to restrict visitors; there are just too many people calling.
Morisseau is no longer an exile. He first returned to Haiti in 1986. Last year, in the wake of Aristide's reascendance and the American military invasion, Morisseau traveled to Jacmel with his good friend Katharine Kean, a New York filmmaker who documented the events following the 1991 coup in her movie Haiti: Killing the Dream. Kean will feature the poet in a new film about present-day Haiti that she is currently editing.
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"Morisseau's work is universal," says Kean, who frequently gives copies of Haitiad & Oddities, his book of poems in English translation, as gifts. "He shouldn't be known only to Haitians."
Although Haiti will always be home to Morisseau, at the end of his life he has found another Haiti in Miami. He has become the elder statesman of the local community of Haitian immigrants. One local group, the Haitian Cultural Arts Alliance, recently created a scholarship fund in his name.
"Morisseau-Leroy is the leading encyclopedia of Haitian history and culture for the young and old," says Jan Mapou, a member of the alliance who owns the Libreri Mapou bookstore in Little Haiti's Caribbean market on NE Second Avenue. A mural painted on a wall outside the shop depicts Morisseau telling stories to a group of children gathered under a mapou tree, the legendary home of Vodou spirits and the Haitian tree of knowledge. The bookstore carries several of Morisseau's Creole publications and recordings, as well as Haitiad & Oddities. "I consider him as a hero in our literature. He is like our Dante, our Shakespeare, our Voltaire."
At the bar in the South Beach Haitian restaurant Tap Tap, Jan Sebon, a poet, artist, and musician who leads the Miami-based Vodou jazz band Koleksyon Kazak, puts his name on a list to reserve a copy of Les Djons D'Ha#ti Tonma, expected to arrive any day from Paris. "Morisseau is what we call a monument," Sebon says. "He will never die, because of what he has left the Haitian people.