Marie-Thérèse Labossière Thomas on her Novel Clerise of Haiti
History has taught us that whenever a woman goes outside the scope of what’s expected of her in society, she is bound to suffer. And pay dearly—usually both. Clerise, the protagonist of Marie-Thérèse Labossière Thomas’ book Clerise of Haiti, is one such woman. She knows that there is a hefty price to pay for being a social maverick, but she wants to play with fire, in spite of that knowledge.
Clerise is brave, and her tendency to be intrepid, also comes with a headstrong determination to succeed in life. She is haughty when some expect her to walk with her head down. She is stubborn when it comes with dabbling with forbidden fruit. Clerise’s story takes place in Aux Cayes, a city that isn’t visited enough in Haitian literature. Read on as Labossière Thomas gives more details concerning her book. Why did you choose the city of Aux Cayes as the setting for a great portion of the book? You’re from there, actually. Did you have any anxiety about people who are from that area of Haiti reading the book, and perhaps thinking that some of the characters are based on people they know? Clerise of Haiti has been called a historical novel, since the date on each chapter relates to actual events which happened in Haiti. I began to write the story one of those breezy late-summer days so reminiscent of Les Cayes, as I returned home from our neighborhood playground with my daughter and her friend. The children had a lot of fun, which made me think of other little girls robbed of their childhood who had little chance to play. The poem now at the end of the book spontaneously emerged with Clerise’s character, the child who would grow to join the many struggling women that I met in life. In the flow of memories from my childhood, the story took a life of its own, and over the years Clerise was often casually mentioned in my household and among some family members. While the actual names of historical figures have been used throughout the story, all other characters are the fruit of my imagination or used fictitiously. Readers from areas other than Les Cayes have commented upon the similarity with their own Haitian experience; bibliographical references are also provided at the end of the story.
If Clerise was living in the 21st Century as opposed to the 20th, do you think her actions would have been perceived the same? While the book is written in a historical and local context, some of the issues are timeless. Fraught with inter-generational, social, and political tension, Clerise’s story may be as actual today in Haiti as it was in the 20th century, especially in terms of the economic degradation and recent catastrophes. In the midst of this 21st century, women still face somewhat similar realities throughout the world. Did you craft any of the characters based on people you actually knew? The book is made of composite characters who developed with the story. Not being a blank slate, an author draws from personal experience as well as background knowledge. That insider’s view of my hometown is at the root of Clerise’s story.
Clerise of Haiti is quite a novel. How long did it take you to write it? About 25 years, between bursts of intense activity and long pauses—including one that lasted about 10 years.
Did you visit Haiti to help the flow of the writing go better? In my mind, I have a picture of the Les Cayes that I knew, including the streets, landmarks, and houses where people lived. Clerise’s story occurred in that reality, now virtual and yet clearly alive in my memory. Shared comments and recollections from family members and friends also helped in the process. To use a cyberspace analogy, I would refer to that original memory of Les Cayes as a “Saved” version, as compared to subsequent “Saved As…” changes that I keep separately.
Class divisions is a big theme in the book. Yet it also touches upon current realities. Devoted to her prominent urban employers, Clerise, a young domestic worker, progressively renounces the traditional values of her rural background. When she marries and opens a small business, class conflict and divided loyalties develop amid the terror of the Duvalier regime, and she is ultimately caught in the escalation of violence. Clerise’s story illustrates the personal, social, and cultural relationships in a changing society. Her unique perspective into the upper classes and the world of the poor highlights the socioeconomic and political forces at play in Haiti, and explores the complexities of life in a provincial town.
What are you working on next? The French version of the book, Clérise d’Haïti has since been published. In addition to occasional articles, I am currently working on a couple of projects still in the preliminary stages. I will keep you informed as they progress.