Evelyne Trouillot: An Interview with the Novelist
Evelyne Trouillot is the progeny of one of Haiti’s oldest literary families. Her uncle Hénock Trouillot was a novelist, sociologist and anthropologist and her brother the late Dr. Michel-Rolph Trouillot was a widely respected historian and thinking tank. Evelyne Trouillot herself has yielded literary critic and educator Nadève Menard and print magazine and web publishing entrepreneur Shadine Ménard.
Trouillot is the author of several books, some for the juvenile audience and she’s the creator of novels like Rosalie L’Infame [The Infamous Rosalie] a historical work set in pre-1804 Haiti. That novel struck a chord with many literary critics including Léon-François Hoffman, Professor Emeritus at Princeton University and the author of the book Essays on Haitian Literature. “I find it interesting and well-written,” he says of the novel. “I also think that the accumulation of torture scenes has a deadening rather than reinforcing effect. But that is a minor point.”
La chambre interdite [The Forbidden Room] was the literary world’s introduction to her work but her most recent work is Le Bleu de l’ile [Blue Island]. That literary project marked the first time Trouillot ventured into play-writing and she immediately struck gold and silver, becoming the recipient of the prestigious Beaumarchais Prize, a literary honor given to Caribbean playwrights. Trouillot has also written for the juvenile audience, among these works an illustrated children picture book L’Ile De Ti Jean [Little Jean’s Island].
Here she is discussing her family background, her literary works and the writing process itself. You were born into Haiti’s literary elite. Was every other visitor in your home writers and poets when you were growing up? I would say that it was more an intellectual environment, with a strong emphasis on history and law because my father was a lawyer and a history teacher. My grandfather also was a lawyer and my uncle was a historian. Therefore, the main subjects of conversation were centered around history, but on Sunday mornings, my father would receive his lawyer colleagues; some judges would be there as well. I had the task, and I loved it, to make coffee for the group. I kept the love of coffee and the challenge that comes with intellectual exchanges. I grew up with the love of sharing ideas. Also, my mother was a nurse with a strong sense of community. She helped tend the wounded during hurricane season, helped administer vaccines. I remember people and kids from the neighborhood coming to our house to get their shots. My interest in history as well as in social issues and education comes from my parents. It is the combination of all these childhood experiences that make me what I am today. the fact that I also use writing, poetry as a way to express my views of the world, of life, of human relations is my own choice.
What are some of the most cherished memories that you have of your childhood? At the family table, we children could talk and express our ideas and opinions on important matters. My parents would discuss with us and listen to our opinions. I think for the time my father was rather progressive as far as child rearing was concerned. I have memories of laughter and joy, tears and sadness over little matters, all that is part of childhood, but mostly I recall the love of my parents, of my siblings and my cousins who lived with us. Our home was an extended family where there was my aunt, my grand-mother, cousins who shared our everyday life. Now in Haiti and I guess in most countries, it is very difficult to have these types of big households. We lived in St Antoine and most people knew one another and adults had authority over all children. It was a community, with its weaknesses and its strengths, it was not perfect but it was a community and it gave me a sense of belonging.
Was there an epiphany-laced moment for you, when you thought, “Oh my goodness, I can write! And I’m quite good at it?” I don’t recall such a moment. I always loved writing and I was fortunate enough to be raised in a family where I had plenty of books to read and where I was surrounded by other people who also valued the written word. Like most kids or adolescents, I started with poetry. I also kept a journal. However, in high school I remember I had to write a vivid description as an assignment, and the teacher although he gave me a very good grade, wrote as a comment that I was too harsh with the character and that I had too much imagination. Luckily for me, I took it as a compliment.
Your novel Rosalie L’infâme takes place in Haiti before the Revolution of 1804. What was writing that novel like? Writing Rosalie L’infâme was a very intense experience. First of all, I had to research and document myself on the lives of slaves before the revolution. It not an easy task since most written testimonies originated from the former masters. Secondly, it was very distressing to delve into this time of our history, when women, children and men were treated like animals. I had to learn to control my emotions, to channel them and to find the best way to make the readers see the point of view of the enslaved. I wanted to give voice to the women, men, children, our ancestors who lived these terrible times. Therefore, I had to have details on their everyday lives. I did not want to write about the revolution itself despite its great significance in world history. What I wanted was to show what happened before, to talk about the “invisible” people, the ones who made 1804 possible. Women and men who refused to stay enslaved, who resisted any way they could, poisoning their masters, committing abortion or suicide, killing their infants to spare them life as slaves. While writing this novel, I learned to respect my ancestors, not only the heroes who are frequently portrayed in the history text books but the everyday women and men that they tend to forget, men and women who fought against slavery, who fought to keep their dignity and humanity.
With writing a novel, there are endless revisions, moments of writer’s block, and plot uncertainties. When you sit down to create a literary work, how do you know when it’s reached perfection, and when you’ve reached that moment of the end of revisions and rewrites? Writing is at once tedious work and a spur of spontaneity, at least for me. Sometimes, the words come like they were waiting to come out and they just flow on the paper. Other times it is a struggle until I find the right way, the perfect way to express what I want. Sometimes it is necessary to delete some pages, to delete and start over, to distance myself from the work and start something else until I find the right tone, the correct voice. Every writer has his or her own strategies, her own ritual to keep the creativity and nourish it. Even when a writer has moments of doubt, like creators sometimes do, it is important to keep working, going over the plot in your mind, talking with friends and family. I think that for most writers there is a fair amount of doubt when writing and I think it is healthy to have from time to time enough humility to question one’s choices in order to improve your work.
Do you have a favorite writer? I have many writers whose work I admire. And through the years I keep on adding names to the list. I read constantly, but there are so many good writers around the world, I wish I could have time to read more. There are some poets whose poetry helps me through tough times, whose poetry keeps me going by reminding me of the beauty that words can create; the beauty that is around us and that art and poetry can make visible to us. I will name two poets who unfortunately are dead: René Philoctète, a Haitian poet, and Mahmoud Darwich, a Palestinian poet, but there are many, many more.
Some writers love to write about the lives of their characters, and reveal themselves through their characters. Of all the characters you’ve created in your books, which one—or even ones—are most like you? Mostly, I use what I see around me, the feelings and emotions and the way people express them. Writers are very observant people. I use what I see, but sometimes for some characters, I use traits from people close to me. Like in Rosalie L’infâme,Lisette the female protagonist is a mixture of my two daughters and one of my nieces. I created in my mind Lisette with their features all mixed and intertwined. To answer your question, I don’t think any one of my characters is totally like me. Some are the total opposite of me, and I see it as a challenge to try to create characters that are not mere reproductions of myself, but who are authentic and complex and show a broader or finer view of humanity.
Do you think that literary talent is something that can be inherited? I tend to believe in the power of the environment. I think when one grows up surrounded by people who value books and intellectual work, it is not a coincidence if that person chooses to pursue a liberal career or wants to be a writer. But what I consider the most important, is the personal intake of that individual, how he works to maximize the capital he inherited. This is a personal responsibility, the decision to work with what you received and make it go further.
Plidetwal is a poetry collection that you published in the mid-2000s. Some poets have stated sometimes it’s harder to write a poem than it is to write a novel. Do you share the same view? I will agree. Fiction is important and requires imagination, sensitivity, the capacity to organize the plot, to build credible characters, to tell the stories in a powerful and original way. I enjoy writing short stories because for me it is like chiseling a jewel. I love writing novels and feel myself getting caught in the story I am creating. But poetry is different, and I will say that indeed it is harder. It is like digging into your most complicated and profound thoughts, digging to find a way to express them beautifully. It is also like finding meaning in the most trivial events. Poetry is the ultimate beauty, beauty of ideas and of words. It can be painful to write until one finds the right words, the images that fit the ideas, the ideas that best convey human feelings and thoughts. I just finished working on a book of poems in French and it was very demanding work, the kind that you cannot get out of your mind, that keeps you awake, that makes you hurry to put down the images that you think are just what you were looking for. Yes, writing poetry is much harder but it brings such joy and peace, it can comfort and stimulate; it can make you feel so much alive when you read it.
From L’oiseau Mirage [Mirage Bird] to Ma maison en dentelle de bois[My House of Wood Fiber] you certainly haven’t neglected the juvenile audience. What do you think can be done to encourage kids to read more? Like I said before, I think the environment plays a crucial role in kids’ desire to read or to write. However, I don’t think there is a recipe to create writers. Of course, to encourage creativity, to help youth better appreciate their literary and cultural heritage, I strongly believe in giving them access to libraries, to a rich and diversified cultural environment. I am sure the sum of these conditions will provoke the desire to write, to create among youth. But it is not a recipe. I think what triggers the desire to write is a mixture of individual and environmental factors. One does not always know when it is going to emerge. After the earthquake, my siblings and I created the Anne-Marie Morisset Cultural Center—my mother’s maiden name. This is a place where we hope to receive more and more kids and youth, to give them access to cultural resources that they do not have at home. We have a small library for the neighborhood school children and youth, we show documentaries, movies, have conferences and debates, writing workshops and poetry workshops. And it is amazing to see how open children can be towards poetry. I think this type of cultural environment can make a huge difference in the way kids perceive their community, their country and their role in its development. There are many out there with ideas for novels, for all sorts of books who never get seem to get down to the actual writing. What advice do you have for such individuals? Like I said before, writing is a lot of work and sometimes, an idea is not enough. It is a starting point but there are so many people writing in the world that one has to find not only original ideas but unique ways to express them. If you want to write, your writing has to make a difference, otherwise why do it? And to do that, you have to have something to say, you have to be determined to work hard, not to be too easily satisfied and continue despite obstacles you will certainly find in your way.
As far as you can see, do you think that with time more and more writers are going to write in Kreyòl? Or do you feel that the language ratio when it comes to writings from writers of Haitian descent will remain virtually the same: a rough percentage of 40% English 55% French and 5% Kreyòl? More Haitians write in Creole now than they did twenty, even ten years ago. And it is a sign of overture for the language, a sign of acceptance of one’s linguistic diversity, a sign of empowering for the Creole speakers and readers. I wish that at the State level there were the appropriate and necessary actions to give Creole its lawful and legitimate place. First, Creole should be properly taught and learned at the school level, its use will allow a more democratic spread of knowledge. Education should allow young Haitians to be true bilinguals; it is not an impossible task. For too long, French has been used to discriminate against and keep certain social categories away from social, political and economic spheres. Also, writing in Creole, translating classic masterpieces in Creole, is a sure way to promote the language. More Haitian writers are writing in Creole now and it is a good thing. Creole and French are the two official languages of Haiti and writers should be able to choose in what language they want to write. Writers of Haitian descent who live outside of Haiti will evidently write in the language of the “new land” terre d’accueil—whether it is English, Spanish or German.
What must everyone who wants to become a writer know? Writing is not an easy task; it does not necessarily bring fame and money. People who want to become writers should do it because of a passion for writing, a desire to express something that cannot be held inside. People who want to become writers should be ready to fail and to continue; to doubt themselves and nevertheless fight against all odds. However, the mere act of writing should bring joy and satisfaction to the writer, a feeling of being oneself in a rewarding way. Even before one thinks about publishing, the mere fact of creating a plot, of building characters should bring a feeling of accomplishment. A desire to be all you can be as a writer, as a poet.