Migrant Revolutions: Haitian Literature, Globalization, and US Imperialism

By Hallward, Peter | Journal of Haitian Studies, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Migrant Revolutions: Haitian Literature, Globalization, and US Imperialism


Hallward, Peter, Journal of Haitian Studies


Migrant Revolutions: Haitian Literature, Globalization, and US Imperialism. By Valerie Kaussen. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2008. ISBN 978-07391-1636-4. 245 pp. $75.00 cloth.

The central chapter of Valerie Kaussen's book deals with the engaged, militant writings of the Marxist political activists Jacques Roumain and Jacques-Stephen Alexis, published in the middle decades of the twentieth century. This exceptionally fertile period in Haitian literature was marked by a modernist fidelity to the country's inaugural emancipatory project, an effort to renew or at least re-write the revolutionary prise de conscience in a context shaped by newly transnational forms of neo-colonial oppression and anti-colonial resistance. Kaussen makes a thoroughly compelling case for the enduring political and literary significance of novels like Roumain's Gouverneurs de la rosée (1944) and Alexis's Compère Général Soleil (1955), broadly along the lines defended, around the same time, in C.L.R. James's landmark study, The Black Jacobins (1938). The rest of Kaussen's book is organized by her determination to extend a similar interpretation of Haitian literature both back in time to the indigénisme of the 1920s, and forward to the more recent "postmodern" fictions of Marie Chauvet and Edwidge Danticat.

There is a great deal to be said in favor of this interpretation, starting with its point of departure. The whole of Kaussen's book privileges the practical and theoretical primacy of the Haitian Revolution as a fundamental and thoroughly contemporary event of modern political history. From the beginning, her book stands as a rebuke to the jaded, cynical tone of much recent work in literary (and political) theory, informed by the presumed futility of any revolutionary or "utopian" project. Kaussen recognizes, in effect, as some recent historians of the French Revolution have also done, that the most pressing question to ask of the Haitian Revolution is not how to understand its peculiar and limited historical moment so much as to ask how best to continue or "universalize" it. Today no less than during these revolutions themselves, the key dividing line is between those who seek to end the revolution and those who seek to extend it.

Kaussen has chosen the revolutionary and anti-imperialist camp, and she makes no bones about it. Every chapter of Migrant Revolutions is marked by a keen and sympathetic appreciation of the myriad difficulties faced by peasant farmers, migrant workers, political activists, and transcultural exiles struggling to improve the conditions of life on the margins of Empire, on the assumption that modern Haitian literature as a whole "is best understood within this tradition of transnational resistance to capitalism, US colonialism, and racism."

Kaussen's insistence that the Haitian Revolution should be understood as central to our global modernity (rather than as a dated and peripheral struggle between European modernity and a "primitive" outpost of Africa) serves as the organizing principle for her historical contextualization of twentieth-century Haitian literature. Informed by a coherent set of theoretical points of reference ranging from Emmanuel Wallerstein to Aníbal Quijano, Migrant Revolutions offers some of the most effective syntheses of historical and literary analysis I have ever read. Along with recent work by international scholars like Nick Nesbitt, Sibylle Fischer, and Charles Forsdick, to cite a few names from a much longer list, its publication provides further evidence of a marked and welcome historicalpolitical turn in the field still known as "postcolonial literary studies."

Kaussen's first two chapters are exemplary here. After providing a detailed reconstruction of the situation that confronted Haitian farmers and workers after the U.S. invasion in 1915 and the development of new U.S.-owned plantations in Cuba and the Dominican Republic, her first chapter offers a reading of 1920s indigéniste writing as a "hybrid urban literature that sought to identify emergent forms of resistance in the mass migrations" provoked by these events.

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