Novelist Edwidge Danticat has heard the question quite a few times since the publication of Haiti Noir in 2010: Just how negative is the label “noir” in connection with the word “Haiti”?
“People kept asking if I wasn’t contributing to a negative image of the country by editing a book filled with so many ‘dark’ stories about Haiti,” she writes in her introduction to the new collection Haiti Noir 2: The Classics, part of Akashic Books’ popular short story series.
Her conclusion? Though many people equate Haiti with natural and political catastrophes, particularly after the 2010 earthquake, there are still stories that need to be told — and not all of them are upbeat.
Danticat will talk about the anthology Wednesday at Books & Books with fellow writers Jessica Fievre and Marie Ketsia Theodore-Tharel, both of whom had stories in the original Haiti Noir collection.
“I feel first of all it’s naive to say, ‘Oh, Haiti is all roses and beaches,’ ” Danticat says. “One can’t tell the full truth about Haiti without telling some difficult stories. These are not the only stories. But the book is framed in a series of noir stories. The reader comes to that expecting a certain genre anyway. I don’t think it’s a slight on Haiti to show that this is a place from which great writers come and which great writers write about. That’s a plus rather than a minus.”
And so the works in Haiti Noir 2: The Classics cover a range of dark material, from the piercing and personally devastating Preface to the Life of a Bureaucrat, originally published in 1930 by Jacques Roumain, to Ben Fountain’s more modern Reve Haitien, narrated by an American observer in Port-au-Prince as violence escalates around him.
The collection juxtaposes traditional tales — such as the Vodou-tinged horror of A Strange Story from Ida Faubert, one of Haiti’s first published female writers — with the works of such up-and comers as Roxane Gay. Her harrowing tale of a kidnapping, Things I Know About Fairy Tales, has been expanded into the novel An Untamed State, which arrives later this spring. (“Shortly after I was freed, my mother told me there was nothing to be learned from what had happened to me. She told me to forget the entire incident because there was no moral to the story. Little Red Riding Hood didn’t see the danger she was facing until it was too late. She thought she was safe. She trusted. And then she wasn’t safe at all.”)
There is danger and regret and fear in these stories, as characters try to negotiate a complex and often confounding land. Managing its complications requires unexpected fortitude. As Emmelie Prophete writes in Remember One Day, one of three poems in the book: “Madness has become useful.”
The idea, Danticat says, was to “allow the reader to travel through time and explore all these different points of view and ages.
“ ‘Classics’ is a big label, and what we wanted was many seminal Haitian writers,” she says. “What was important to me was to have a kind of mix, a party where you would have these giants of Haitian literature with more contemporary writers. The definition of ‘classic’ was just as loose as the definition of noir. And the contemporary writers, we’re thinking they will be classics. I love the idea of all these stories in conversation with each other.”
The Noir series — versions have been published for numerous cities, including Miami, Havana, New York, Boston, Chicago, Toronto, Barcelona, Istanbul, Mumbai and many others, with Baghdad, Belfast and Beirut on the way — has been successful for Akashic, according to publisher and editor Johnny Temple. More than half a million copies have been sold.
When a particular book sells well, Akashic considers a sequel. With Haiti Noir selling about 10,000 copies, publishing Haiti Noir 2 was a no-brainer, he says — especially considering his interest in Caribbean writers.
“More than any other publisher in the United States, at least that I know of, we’re committed to publishing Caribbean literature,” Temple says ( Trinidad Noir 2 is also in the works). “We take it as part of our mission to make it more available to readers.”
Haiti Noir 2 also highlights one of the elements readers enjoy most about the series, he says.
“The hyper-localism is appealing. It’s commonly understood in the United States and around the world that anthologies don’t sell well. Talk to a French editor or a Chinese editor, and everyone will say the same thing. But we’ve developed a pretty good formula by adding a few layers of depth, and the local angle may be the most important. The stories aren’t just set in the place, but in different locations in the place. … It’s not just Haiti, it’s distinct places within Haiti,” including Kaliko Beach, Bonair and different neighborhoods around Port-au-Prince.
The new collection also allows readers to discover older Haitian work that has been unavailable for lack of translations, Danticat says.
“Haitian literature is so rich, but we need more translations,” Danticat says. “When I was approached to do this series, I saw it as a way to sneak in some translations. … plus, I hope it intrigues people to look at other works of these writers. Haitian literature is so crucial for people who think they know Haiti because they’ve seen it on the news or read about the disasters. But I think when they get to read our literature, it gives people pause. They get to see the place in a deeper way. … The literature is powerful and can really shake up what people think they know.”
Gay, who calls the inclusion of her story in the collection a “milestone,” says she understands the inclination to worry about the marriage of Haiti and noir. But like Danticat, she’s adamant that the work speaks for itself.
“My story and my novel are very dark and tell a rather singular story about Haiti,” she says. “There’s truth in the singular story, but there’s more to it. We try to bring out the complexities, what’s really going on. It’s a beautiful country. It’s home. But at the same time, home is broken and has been for quite some time. I understand that instinct to protect a country that’s already so fragile. But it’s a strong country. After the earthquake, I thought people would throw their hands up and give up, but most Haitian people were thankful and said, ‘Thank God we’re still alive.’ That’s why we have to continue to tell all the stories.”