Writer to Writer is a guest blog project from Girls' Club writer in residence Jan Becker that focuses on local writers and their perceptions of how femininity and self-proliferation figure into their work.
Fabienne Josaphat was born and raised in Haiti. Her first novel, Dancing in the Baron’s Shadow, published this year by Unnamed Press, is on The Root’s list of “Books by Black Authors to Look Out For in 2016.” The story of two brothers and their quest to escape Haiti’s notorious prison, Fort Dimanche, Edwidge Danticat says of Dancing in the Baron’s Shadow, “Filled with life, suspense, and humor, this powerful first novel is an irresistible read about the nature of good and evil, terror and injustice, and ultimately triumph and love.” In addition to fiction, Josaphat writes non-fiction and poetry, as well as screenplays. Her work has been featured in The Master’s Review, Grist Journal, Damselfly, Hinchas de Poesia, Off the Coast Journal and The Caribbean Writer. Her poems have been anthologized in Eight Miami Poets, a Jai-Alai Books publication. Fabienne Josaphat lives in Miami.
Josaphat will be one of the authors reading at the Catalogue Launch at Girls’ Club, Saturday, June 25th at 7pm.
For this interview, Girls’ Club writer-in-residence, Jan Becker, talked with Josaphat about the history of Haiti, how grown-up talk inspires children who become writers, and how her writing is affected by landscape and location. An excerpt of Dancing in the Baron’s Shadow follows the interview.
JB: Fabienne, your new novel, Dancing in the Baron’s Shadow, takes place in Haiti in the 1960s. Throughout her history, Haiti has had to reinvent herself many times in response to revolution and regime. It seems a writer looking at the country might not ever run out of stories that could be told. For this book, you focused on Haiti under François Duvalier’s rule. Why the Haiti of Papa Doc?
FJ: I think Papa Doc’s era is intriguing to me because it is least explored. People have a tendency to think of Baby Doc, because the reign of the Duvaliers ended with him and his wife being ousted and the affair was made public, exposed to the entire world. The international community has a story about a dictator and his wife who broke and ruined a country and had to pay the consequences of their actions.
But Papa Doc’s era, although extremely brutal, isn’t really talked about as much. Part of me suspects that the international community was in some ways complicit, with the US, for example, looking the other way and ignoring many of Papa Doc’s transgressions because of his promise to keep a strategic barrier between the Americans and communism. That story intrigues me. It is meaningful because this era was most disastrous, because Papa Doc was hell bent on eradicating not just his political enemies, but in eradicated ideas, and because I am a writer, perhaps I take this personally and wonder what would have become of me had I grown up in the sixties, writing fiction, allowing people to escape in novels the way Jacques Stephen Alexis did. Would he had have disposed of me as he did so many people who, in his paranoid dictator’s mind, went up against him?
JB: Which other eras or events from history, not only in Haiti, but elsewhere, do you feel drawn to?
FJ: I also have a fascination with the sixties and seventies as a period, overall. I don’t know why that is, but when I was growing up I remember responding to music from that era, as if I had already heard them before. I love the clothing, the cars, the nostalgia brought forth by vintage postcards. I became obsessed with this period when I was writing.
I am also interested in the revolution that gained Haiti’s independence in 1804, and in the American occupation, and in the mass exodus of Jewish migrants to the Caribbean (Haiti included). I would like to someday write about all these things. And contemporary history is also on my radar: the recent tensions between Haiti and the Dominican Republic interest me, as well. And nowadays, I’m drawn to the history outside of Haiti. American history fascinates me.
JB: Starting from childhood, many writers seem to take a special interest in hearing the stories of elders. Were you one of those kids?
FJ: Yes. In fact, I wonder, now that I think of it, if I didn’t become a writer because I was forbidden to sit in those conversations. Haitian elders have stories they tell children and stories they tell each other as adults, and when they partake in the latter, they chide you away so you don’t listen. It’s what they call “Pawòl Granmoun” (grownup talk) and listening in is almost criminal, the implication almost being that you, the child, were going to be cursed. But of course what this causes is eavesdropping. I did that a lot. And this set my mind down the path of wild imaginings. Those were so much more interesting than fairytales.
JB: Much of oral storytelling never makes its way into “official” history, or evolves into different, or taller tales, through retelling. I’m wondering if there was any difference between what you heard as a child about Haiti under Duvalier, and what you discovered while researching.
FJ: Interestingly enough, what I was discovering was that none of those stories were really tall tales. They were true. I don’t think Haitians know how to tell those tall tales. Even when they embellish, the story itself is true. For example, there was a story about one of Duvalier’s close associates, Clément Barbot, who was accused, after years of serving Duvalier, of attempting to kill him. Barbot managed to get away, and Duvalier set out on a manhunt to find him. Barbot was believed to be a mystical man, who dabbled in the occult (like Papa Doc) and it was said that he had the ability to shift his physical appearance and transform into animals (his patronus, if I can use a J.K. Rowling reference, here, was that of a black dog). Sounds unbelievable, right? Well, not to Papa Doc, because the story was so true that Duvalier decreed, in his haste to find Barbot, that all black dogs in Haiti should be put to death. This is true. It happened.
The true surprise, while writing this novel, is not that those atrocities happened. It’s that the world allowed them to happen. And I don’t know why this surprises me. I don’t know why we expect others to intervene, in every situation. Perhaps it’s unrealistic.
JB: During one of his talks in Miami, the Zimbabwean writer, Chenjerai Hove used a metaphor of a burning building to describe Zimbabwe, and how writing from exile gave him a different perspective on the situation in his homeland. He described writing in the west as sitting in a meadow of flowers while the building burned in the distance—so, he could see the full extent of the fire, but not be burned by its heat. You aren’t in the same situation of political exile as Hove, but his metaphor seems apt for any writer in a diaspora. How has your perspective of Haiti been altered by living in Miami?
FJ: I feel I didn’t really know Haiti when I was living in it. You could have asked me questions and I would have told you what I knew from the perspective of a privileged young girl who rarely left her home, or never left, really. There is a popular Haitian anthem song that says, “Haiti, darling Haiti, there is no greater country than you, I had to leave you to understand how valuable you are.” So now I understand it. Everything about Haiti, I had to reassess and I realized Haiti is extremely dear to me, but extremely complicated, and there is so much that I still don’t know and want to explore. So when things happen in Haiti, part of me wishes I was there in order to understand them and write about them better. I do feel like a stranger, like I’m alienated. I’m a foreigner here, but also a foreigner when I go back to Haiti, and that’s a very strange position to be in.
JB: Is the writing you produce from the United States different than what you’ve written when you’re physically in Haiti (if you write when you’re in Haiti at all)?
FJ: I do write when I go to Haiti. Like a madwoman. Possibly because there are long hours when I do nothing. And when I don’t write, I take in my surroundings, and it’s crazy. Being on Haitian soil fuels me with this mystical writer juice, and I absorb images and poetry through my skin. I don’t know that I could have done all this had I stayed in Haiti. But also, being in America, I write differently. Or at least, I used to. I used to hold back, restrain myself, abstain from using the ornate prose and the cultural references that stamp work with unique identity. These days, I don’t care anymore. I am re-educating myself to let go and just let the writing be infused with Haitian-ness and Blackness as it needs to be.
JB: How does landscape inform your writing? I’m curious to know if you find yourself writing differently in different settings, but also, how does landscape work its way into scenes in your writing?
FJ: Landscape is canvas. That is the way I see it and explain it when I teach writing. Landscape informs writing, absolutely, but it takes practice for me to learn to write in different landscapes. I am much better at absorbing the landscape first, like a travel writer would, and then returning to sit at a desk to write about it. When I do, it becomes a backdrop for my characters, and it builds the characters, too. The interaction is inevitable, and it comes out in the language and speech of my characters, in their attitudes, their physicality, and all that. I’m working on something right now that challenges me because the landscape is unfamiliar territory for me, and this is hard because the language is hard to pin down, but I am even more determined to conquer that obstacle.
Excerpt from Dancing in the Baron’s Shadow (Unnamed Press; 2016) By Fabienne Josaphat:
A scream pierced the eerie silence. He listened. Someone was shouting for help, and a familiar dread crawled under Raymond’s skin. Then a shot rang out somewhere, probably inside the convenience store.
“Screw this,” Raymond muttered. He was reaching for the keys in the ignition when a fist pounded against his window. Once again, he jumped and peered through the glass. Outside, a man, haggard, his eyes stretched wide, beat a wet palm against the glass.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing, man? Get away from my car!” Raymond shooed the man like he would a stray animal. “Go on!”
“Help me, brother! Please.”
The man’s breath fogged the window. Raymond faltered at the sight of those bulging eyes, wide with terror, staring into his. Pleading. This was the face of despair. The man looked over his shoulder, and Raymond saw a woman on the curb in a housedress and slippers. She was rocking a child in her arms, her hair loose under a turban. Raymond shook his head and averted his eyes as he turned the ignition and the old Datsun started up. “I’m off duty, friend, and there’s a curfew.”
“They’re going to kill us.”
Raymond noticed the man’s shirt had been torn loose at the shoulder. Something wasn’t right.
“I—I don’t want any trouble,” Raymond stammered.
“My wife,” the man shouted, pointing at her. “My baby. They are innocent. Sove nou!”
Raymond’s fingers burned as he squeezed the steering wheel. The hot air was suffocating. From down the narrow street, he heard the Macoutes yelling as they spilled out of the convenience store. They were headed his way, clubbing the men and women who fled in fear, shoving them into the gutters, firing their revolvers in all directions.
The man slapped his palm against Raymond’s window once more. The woman squealed. “They’re coming. In the name of God, brother!” the man implored.
Raymond’s eyes went to the Macoutes. They’d paused to terrorize a woman on the sidewalk, but one of them was staring at his taxi. Suddenly, the man shouted, pointing directly toward Raymond, and the other thugs snapped to attention.
Raymond’s hand went to the clutch. He looked again at the window and saw large beads of sweat running down the man’s face. Saw the fear in the woman’s eyes. Saw the photograph of his own children smiling back at him on the visor.
What kind of man was he?
A cold calm settled inside him, and without another thought, he swung his arm around and unlocked the back door. “Get in!”
About Writer in Residence Jan Becker
Jan Becker, local writer and poet, has been selected as Girls’ Club 2015/2016 writer-in-residence. Becker will work collaboratively with Girls’ Club to present various public programs and contribute writings in conjunction with the exhibition Self-Proliferation, curated by Micaela Giovannotti.
Jan Becker was born in a small coal-mining town in Northeastern Pennsylvania, and subsequently grew up in a Marine Corps family on military bases all over the United States. She completed her BA in English, Creative Writing and Rhetoric with a concentration in Global Cultures at SUNY Binghamton, where she was awarded the Andrew Bergman Prize in Creative Writing, and the Alfred Bendixen Award for her creative honors thesis.
She is currently an MFA candidate at Florida International University, where she is focusing on creative nonfiction for her thesis. At FIU, she's taught courses in composition, technical writing, creative writing and poetry. She has also taught poetry and nonfiction workshops with Reading Queer and First Draft with the Center at MDC.
In 2015, she won an AWP Intro Journals Project Award for creative nonfiction. Her work has appeared in the Florida Book Review, WLRN, Emerge, Sliver of Stone, and Circus Book, among other places, and is forthcoming in the Colorado Review. She has also been a regular contributor to the online photography and writing project Selfies in Ink, and is a freelance copywriter and editor.
Photo by Fabrice Josaphat