- Reading (in the) Ruins: Kettly Mars’s Saisons Sauvages
One of the prevailing narratives spread by mainstream media and many nongovernmental organizations is that Haiti is a site of disaster. The devastation wrought by the earthquake only reinforced this clichéd depiction, especially as the ruined National Palace was read as an allegory for the country as a whole. This article examines the ways that contemporary Haitian literature complicates narratives of disaster. Beginning with the 2010 publication of Edwidge Danticat’s essay collection Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work, a number of texts published by Haitian writers in the wake of the earthquake adopt a more personal and critical stance in opposition to the symbolic representation of destruction.1 At the outset, I suggest that these writers, through varied forms and voices, attempt a “reconstruction” of landscapes historical, cultural and literary. The aim here is to examine how literature—encompassing both the texts themselves and the acts of reading and writing that give life to them—offers a vision for rebuilding from the ruins.
The writer’s awareness of history is central to this vision. Indeed, if there is a theme that resonates deeply in Haitian literature, it is that the rebuilding of the present must come to terms with the cyclical resurfacing of the past. Of several texts that could serve as primary sources for this study, I would like to focus on Kettly Mars’s 2010 novel Saisons sauvages, which was written before the earthquake but published shortly thereafter. Written at the intersection of the author’s own memory and history (Mars was born in 1958), Saisons sauvages is a terrifying story of the early years of the regime of François Duvalier. The political violence of the Duvalier dynasty (from father to son) continues to haunt Haiti today, in ways both imagined and real. One year after the earthquake, Jean-Claude Duvalier returned to Haiti, thus superimposing his ailing physical body onto the ghostly presence that had nourished neo-Duvalierist political discourse during his exile. [End Page 66]
In ways that Mars could never have imagined, the appearance of her novel between two separate tragedies mirrors the painful reflection on past and present that the text itself undertakes. Therefore, this article will also consider the novel’s uncanny similarities with realities outside, but which put pressure on, the frame of the story itself. I then address the work’s implications for responses to the earthquake, including its relation to Mars’s own call for renewed fellowship and to the figure of the “ruin-reader” proposed by Junot Diaz in an essay on the earthquakes in Haiti and Japan. These theoretical questions, along with a brief look ahead to Mars’s subsequent novel, Aux frontières de la soif, bring the article to a close by returning to the central idea of literature as a force of “reconstruction.”
Saisons sauvages is a work of fiction that thoroughly interrogates the cyclical aspects of Haitian history.2 Danticat observes in Create Dangerously that Haitians are keenly aware of the cycle of tragic and proud moments that have come to define the country since its founding. “Grappling with memory is,” she writes, “one of many complicated Haitian obsessions. We have, it seems, a collective agreement to remember our triumphs and gloss over our failures.”3 One place where this “agreement” plays out is in literature. Despite the collective nature of this reading, however, it could be argued that Haitians have struggled to coalesce around a unifying interpretation of the event that collected them: namely, the Haitian Revolution. A short three years after independence, Haiti split into Christophe’s kingdom in the north and Pétion’s republic in the south, and the scribes of these political icons immortalized this rift in a trove of writings that has recently been the subject of extensive scholarly exploration.4 These early documents, both historiographical and literary, constitute an archival record of division that helps to explain the kind of national obsession on which Danticat reflects.
Since the “scribal politics” of the early nineteenth century, Haitian literature has exhibited a self-reflexive awareness of the intersection of memory and history, and...