The Haitian Short Story: An Overview

By Nzengou-Tayo, Marie-Jose | Journal of Caribbean Literatures, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

The Haitian Short Story: An Overview


Nzengou-Tayo, Marie-Jose, Journal of Caribbean Literatures


In a 1999 interview in Boutures, Yanick Lahens noted the Haitian writers' 'reluctance' toward the short-story. Indeed, the short story genre would have remained the best kept secret of Haitian literary history hadn't it been for Pierre-Raymond Dumas. He painstakingly compiled two anthologies of stories scattered in numerous Haitian journals/newspapers published from the end of the nineteenth century to 1991 (1) and played a key role in re-publishing several short-story collections which were out of print for many decades. In a seminal article published in a special issue of Notre Librairie dedicated to Haitian literature (2) he tried to establish the main features of the Haitian short-story. This was not an easy task since the genre, whose origin is found in the oral tradition of folk-tales, has no fixed canon and leaves itself open for experimentation. According to him, the main difficulty in presenting the Haitian short-story laid in the diversity and the mixing of narrative techniques and strategies, hence an ambiguous genre (Dumas 101). In this paper, we will first give an overview of the genre based on the stories assembled in the two-volume anthology edited by Dumas and in a second section, we will introduce two contemporary novelists whom I consider the masters of the genre. One is Gary Victor, the very popular author of more than a hundred stories; the other is Yanick Lahens, an established literary critic who turned to creative fiction in the nineties, during the troubled political period of 1991-1994.

The Short Story in Haitian Literature: An Overview.

The Haitian short story proceeds from a double tradition: on the one hand, the French literary tradition which goes far back into the sixteenth century and beyond to the Greek and Latin tradition; on the other hand, the African oral tradition of story-telling. One cannot subscribe to Dumas's statement that ambiguity is 'unique' to the Haitian short-story (101). Indeed, from its inception in the Western literary tradition, the short-story never had a fixed canon. Because of its short length, it never had a need for the thematic and chronological consistency required in a novel. In addition, it did not need to bring a sense of closure and sometimes excelled at surprising the reader with an unexpected and inconclusive ending. As a result, the short-story offers greater flexibility than the novel to experiment with narrative techniques; hence, the polymorphous nature of the genre. In Haiti, the genre emerged at the turn of the 19th century and the influence of the French masters of the short-story on the Haitian writers can easily be identified. (3)

Haitian short-stories cover a broad range of themes, from social criticism to personal and sentimental testimony. All subgenres of the novel are also explored in the short-story: history, crime fiction, supernatural, speculative fiction, existential mal-etre. Vodou mythology offers a wealth of material for stories and from the early days of Haitian literature till today, writers have been mining the Vodou imagination for their fiction. Gary Victor is a contemporary example of this use and we will look more closely at his work in the second part of this paper. In line with the political commitment of Haitian literature, short-stories are often used for political criticism and quite surprisingly managed to find their way into journals which would not have taken the risk of publishing a non-fiction piece on the same topic for fear of reprisal. Gary Victor is again an excellent case in point. He published in Le Nouvelliste a speculative fiction piece entitled "Faim derniere" (a literal translation in English would be "Last Hunger," though it misses the pun on 'Hunger' and 'Ending', present in the French title). The story, re-printed in 1981 in a collection entitled Symphoniepour demain [A Symphony for Tomorrow], was published during the days of Jean-Claude Duvalier's dictatorship and was anticipating a time when the city would be overpopulated and where food and water would be so scarce that access to these basic supplies would be controlled by the state and only the lucky few would have access to daily rations. …

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