Project 2: Historical fiction proposal set in nineteenth-century Haiti

December 20, 2018 |  Tagged , , , , , | Comments Off on Project 2: Historical fiction proposal set in nineteenth-century Haiti

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Introduction

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 There are many fascinating and relevant time periods that are little covered in the world of historical fiction, and the nineteenth century Caribbean is one of them. That is somewhat understandable, being that it lacks the cultural cachet and romance that such times such as the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, Victorian times, or the fifties, or that of England, France, Germany, India, or some other ‘civilized’ or ‘exotic’ clime. No, the Caribbean is seen as fraught with danger and brutality, the home of ‘banana republics,’ dictators, slavery, ‘Latin Lovers,’ sensual dancing, cannibalism, slavery, and outright barbarism. Thus, the Caribbean exists as a place to be conquered or escaped from (if they are not the same thing) by the Western writer and/or protagonist, something to enjoy or exploit for a brief moment of excitement, danger, or sex. I’m thinking of books like Diana Gabaldon’s Voyager, which takes the much-beloved and storm-tossed lovers of the Outlander universe, Claire Randall and Jamie Fraser, briefly to Hispaniola, and then to Jamaica. This book makes the Caribbean but an exotic pair of stops for the couple, where they meet a British ex-priest who has gone ‘native’ (i.e. ‘mad’), the horrors of the slave trade (they even buy a slave to free him later), the decadence of colonial aristocracy, and ‘exotic’ Afro-diasporic religion. Claire and Jamie, of course, eventually move on to colonial North America, leaving the Caribbean but a memory in their adventurous romance. This is how not to do a Caribbean history. Guy Endore’s Babouk is an overlooked, but important example of a Caribbean historical novel done well and conscientiously. Set at the end of the period of Saint-Domingue’s time as a colony, the story follows the slave Babouk (based on the real-life Dutty Boukman, one of the leaders of the Haitian Revolution), on the plantation, and then caught in the fury of the 1791 Revolution. It is a remarkable book, humanizing the revolting slaves at a time when most considered Haiti to be a land of cannibalistic, devil-worshiping savages, and even connecting slavery to the development of Euro-American capitalism (the first work to make the connection). Endore doesn’t exoticize his protagonists or Saint-Domingue/Haiti, but treats them with the utmost seriousness. He has an urgent story to tell, but still wants to captivate and engross the reader while unraveling a greater narrative.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 My own historical focus in the Caribbean would be the end of the Haitian Unification period (1822-44), which marked the end of Haiti’s comprising of the entire island of Hispaniola and the founding of the Dominican Republic. This period is little-known outside members of the Hispaniola diaspora, where it remains a contentious historical period among Dominicans, who regularly use it as justification for their fear and mistreatment of Haitians. This period is little-represented in Hispaniolist literature, with an outdated book by a Dominican scholar with racist baggage (Frank Moya Pons’ La dominación haitiana, 1822-1844) two books by Mimi Sheller (Democracy After Slavery: Black Publics and Peasant Radicalism in Haiti and Jamaica (2000) and Citizenship from Below: Erotic Agency and Caribbean Freedom (2012)), an MA thesis (Gustavo Antonio Pena’s “The Siblings of Hispaniola: Political Union and Separation of Haiti and Santo Domingo, 1822-1844” (2003)) being some of the sole examples of the literature of this period. What is so fascinating about the end of this period is that it is here that the relationships between upper and lower classes, political elite and working poor, mulatto and Black, Haitian and Dominican begin to become ossified in the social consciousness and political practice. With the fall of the autocratic Jean-Pierre Boyer in 1843, the economically depressed and politically limited Haitian government embarked on an attempt to increase democratic participation, access to education, citizenship to people of African and Amerindian descent, and all those who were disenfranchised across the island (women, of course, were more or less excluded). This was to be enshrined in a liberal constitution written at the end of 1843, but it would reneged by the Boyer-opponent Charles Rivière Hérard, who would be as autocratic as his predecessor. The country, especially the poor Black farmers in the South, rose up against him. The elite, Spanish-identifying elite of Santo Domingo, no longer content with the republican reforms of Haiti, the economic downturn, the loss of feudal prestige and property, and the mere idea that they would be political equals with the formerly enslaved, led their own revolt against the government, but to secede and form their own country, the Dominican Republic. It is against this backdrop of discontent, secession, and rights discourse that the piquets (so named after their long wooden pikes) rise up against Hérard and his ilk. Demanding access to politics, education, and land, they follow the righteous and charismatic Louis-Jacques Acaau in their protest against the excesses of the governing class. They coin the phrase “The rich black who can read and write is a mulatto; the poor mulatto who cannot read or write is black,” connecting race and class to access to knowledge and the possibilities of self-betterment. Outside observers called them “black communists,” calling for a fulfillment of the promises of the Haitian Revolution, and the final creation of a truly equal society. This revolt would be quashed by the forces of elite interests, and from then on powerful actors in Haitian society would try to save face by appeasing the lower classes to forestall revolt. The end of the Unification period, then, is full of broken promises, common struggle against an oppressive system, movement through the countryside, and commitment to a higher dream: all of which are elements of compelling drama and the makings of a historical fiction novel.

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5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Plot

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 This ideal novel would take place starting in 1842, in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake, in one of the towns that would currently be on the borderlands between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. This is a key location due to the contemporary conflicts over the border and the migration across it; this story would be a challenge to claims of cultural superiority and separation, being that it takes place in this area when the whole island was known as “Haiti.” The protagonist would be a machann, or merchant woman, a member of an essential subclass of people (on account of their being women) who are essential to the functioning of the national economy through their business. This machann would be struggling to rebuild her connections and informal trade networks in the wake of the earthquake, allowing me to explore the functioning of Haitian mutual aid societies and communal working groups that allow so many people to live and work in the countryside. The commons were and remain an integral part of Haitian society and the Haitian worldview regarding property and peoples’ relation to it; it is a sort of proto-communist, if not outright anarchist (without the self-definition as either) view of the outright good that working together and taking care of everyone around them is essential for the continuance and functioning of society. Wrapped in all this is the cosmology and ethics of Vodou, the religion of the Haitian people that is a blend of African and Amerindian beliefs with those of the European colonizers, which values a connection with the ancestors and the maintenance of balance between all things for a healthy society. One’s ability to interact and please the lwa, or spirits, is contingent on one’s performance of duties personal, social, and religious in a manner according to accepted values. This varies, of course, from region to region, but it is not unlike the idea of karma.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 This machann would, while navigating these quotidian forces, also have to contend with the overthrow of Boyer (which was ultimately effected by a mob of angry women– perhaps our machann is involved?) and the effect that would have on her ability to do commerce. As news spreads of the promises of the incoming constitution, she is elated, as are the people around her, who honestly believe that they will be able to finally get their due and better their lives, as well as those of the children. Unfortunately, they hear the truth about those responsible for the constitution and are incensed– they have been double-crossed by the elite once again! ‘First Dessalines, and now they are betrayed by the mulattoes and their self-interest!’ some would say. Others would clarify that the rich and powerful of any color would defend their own, and that the poor must then fight for what they need. They begin to discuss these matters in gatherings of the mutual aid groups, with many voicing their dreams for the future, an ideal Hispaniola that could be– just for everyone, and where all would live up to the sacrifices of the Revolution. As news of the rebellion in Santo Domingo reaches the machann’s town, people discuss the repercussions of this on them, and whether they should side with Haiti, which has freed them from slavery, or the Dominicans fighting against a government that betrayed them. Some leave to fight with the Dominicans, others stay, hoping for a change in the near future. The machann stays, believing in Haiti and the people like her and her neighbors that hold it up. Acaau and the Army of Sufferers pass near the town, and some of the people, including the machann, attend the gathering where he speaks of the mission of the peasant in Haitian society and all that they are due, and how they must stand up to the elite to win what they should have in the first place, to create a better Haiti that truly believes in equality and freedom, as the rebels in the Revolution died fighting for.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 At some point after, however, Dominican forces would overtake the area, claiming it as their own, leading to disagreements and strife between the residents of the town, as they try to come to terms with where they stand in this power struggle. They ask: Are we Haitian or Dominican? What does either mean? What are we living for? Through our lives, what are we fighting for? Are we standing true to our Revolution? The book ends with a looming confrontation between the Dominicans occupying the town and Haitian troops under Hérard’s successor, Philippe Guerrier, come to quell their separatist movement; it is uncertain who will win, but to the machann, it is of little consequence. What matters is the day-to-day revolutions lived by her and the people around her, not the larger political forces that squabble over lines in the dirt, who pass through and leave, but make little changes for them.

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10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Rationale and proposal

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 This area is my historical expertise, and so getting ahold of basic information, and fleshing out the details of this period, as well as finding the necessary secondary resources will be easy enough or already done. I already have two historical explorations of the period completed, one on a broader scale, and one more particular (regarding popular notions of citizenship and belonging) for my capstone; that part is done. Further research would involve visits to the Island to get a better feel of the land, its contours and weather, and local practices and beliefs. My family is from that island (namely, the Dominican side), and I visit every couple of years, so getting access to people and places won’t be overly difficult. However, my Kreyòl is poor, and I will have to take lessons to strengthen my skills in order to communicate with Haitians with ease. As well, the access to primary source documents outside the Island is difficult, so personal visits to archives on the Island, as well as imperial archives in France, Spain, Britain, and the United States is imperative, being that these countries took copious notes on the development of Haiti, in the event that they could snatch it up. Many of these documents may be digitized, and whatever ones may be of interest could potentially be requested as a scan, but visits may also be helpful. In order to successfully fulfill these research goals, as well as the writing process itself, I will apply for a grant for creative and/or historical writing from a United States organization or even a Dominican one (albeit with slightly disguised intent). This funding will allow me to work and travel for the creation of this book. I will keep myself to a schedule based on the book’s progress and the grant deadline to finish it (or at least most of it) at a reasonable date.


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