Nadine Magloire: An Interview with the Groundbreaking Novelist
More than four decades after she first published her debut novel Le Mal de Vivre [The Agony of Living], Nadine Magloire remains a literary enigma to many. Literary analyst and critic Dr. Myriam J.A. Chancy’s book Framing the Silence: Revolutionary Novels by Haitian Women was many an English speaker’s introduction to this trailblazing writer. Magloire who was born in the early 1930s in Haiti, studied in Port-au-Prince, then London, Paris, and Montreal. These days she lives in the latter city, having made it her home since the late 1970s. For those of us who are curious as to what it was the literary scene was like in Haiti in the late 1960s, and what it was like writing as a woman in Haitian society, Magloire is the person to look to.
Many literary critics agree that Magloire broke ground in Haitian literature, and is a model of feminism in 1960s and 1970s Haiti. In her writings, Magloire is bold, sassy and unflinching. In interviews, she doesn’t hold back. Here is what she had to say about her work, Haitian literature, and being regarded as one of Haiti’s literary pioneers.
Do you remember the first work of literature that you wrote? My first work is Le Mal de Vivre, the first version. I wrote it very quickly, almost without stopping. I was afraid of not getting to that point with it, in other words [the point] where the text is substantial enough to be considered, say, for publication. I had aborted a couple of drafts, just as I mentioned in my “mini-novel”: “This time around will I go beyond a first chapter?” I did worry about it. I wrote the way one walks, not knowing where I’m going. If the path leads nowhere, too bad. I’m used to it. For some time I forgot all about this writing thing, but it just wouldn’t die in me. I quickly released the first draft, a little too fast—in October or November 1967. After a rather praise-filled critical appraisal from Roger Gaillard, I thought I had not been clear enough. I expanded this first version a bit and I published the new text in 1968. This is the one we know. I suppose there are some copies in some libraries.
What do you remember of your childhood? In the 2009 title Autopsie in Vivo, I say: “My childhood has never left me.” I’m not going to mention it here. I spoke about it at length in my book. Even at the ripe old age of 80 years, I still see my childhood in my dreams. It is curious, my dreams are for a distant past.
You’re a writer, and so is the protagonist in your first novel. Your name is Nadine, and your protagonist’s name in your novel is Claudine. Is the –dine ending just a coincidence—-after all that’s a popular suffix in girls’ names in Haitian culture, or is the novel autobiographical? I’ll tell you a secret. My heroine in the beginning was called Annie. I changed her name to “Claudine” in order to use the nickname “Dinou” for her that my lover at the time gave me.
Your mother Carmen Brouard was a musical artist. Do you think that when you came on Haiti’s literary scene, the fact that your mother had been a cultural intrepid of sort, made it easier for people to accept the candor of your first novel? Not at all. My mother, young, returning from Paris shocked Port-au-Prince. My book too. The first person I met after the release of Le Mal de Vivre told me, “Your novel exploded like a bomb!” People were shocked because no Haitian writer had talked about sex as freely as I did and I was a woman. In addition, I had a chapter that criticized the young bourgeois, while I chose to sign my book in the most exclusive club in Port-au-Prince: Le Cercle Bellevue. Members of my family were shocked. In 1975, Le Sexe Mythique was a scandal too.
You wrote your first novel in 1968. Your second novel was published in 1975. Your next literary work was not published until 2009. During that interval, did you give up on writing? As a matter of fact, I started writing part of the manuscript for Autopsie in Vivo in 1973. I finished it in 1981. I wrote very irregularly. Le Sexe Mythique [The Mythyical Sex] that I published in 1975 had the subtitle Autopsie in Vivo [Live Autopsy]. As I explain in the introduction to my novel in 2009, Le Sexe Mythiqueshould be included. This text was written by my fictional heroine Annie, who wanted to be a writer. As it was independent of the rest, I wanted to publish it before returning to Montreal. In fact, it is from August 1973, when I arrived in Canada as a “landed immigrant.” For some time, I did the back and forth thing. It wasn’t until 1979 that I stopped going back to Haiti. I had Canadian citizenship in 1980. So Le Sexe Mythique should be part Autopsie en Vivo. But eventually I let it stand on its own. And as I wrote: Le Mal de Vivre and Le Sexe Mythique can be considered as a painter sketches before the big picture.
The literary critic Joëlle Vitiello labels you as a feminist. Do you consider yourself one? Certainly. Le Sexe Mythique is altogether a feminist work. Men did not like it. Same thing with the sequel Autopsie en Vivo. In the first one, I mocked men a bit and their worship of the male genitalia. In the second book, they weren’t depicted in a good light. My heroine is ruthless in describing their shortcomings. She falls in love at first, then she she becomes lucid, and does not mince her words.
Were there other Haitian women writers before you that you admired? For a long time, books by Haitian authors were not available. They were not reprinted. I read the first edition of Gouverneur de la Rosée [Governor of the Dew]. As well as the collection of poems by [René] Dépestre Gerbes de Sang that I have in my library. In Haiti, I never came across [books by] women writers who preceded me. Fils de Misère by Marie-Thérèse Colimon was published simultaneously with Le Sexe Mythique in 1975. While I was signing my book at the bookstore, she came to La Pléiade to buy my book. I asked her to sit besides me and to sign hers. I say this because I was very sorry to see the rivalry between writers. I think it’s not petty. Among current novelists I read and loved are Jan J. Dominique, Yanick Lahens, Ketly Mars and Myriam Chancy, who is unfortunately not translated into French. Myriam Chancy is for me a great writer. I have not yet had the opportunity to read Edwige Danticat.
In the late 1970s, you moved to Canada for good. Was it because you felt artistically stifled in Haiti? I always wanted to live abroad, in a large city with an interesting cultural life: concerts, theater, ballet, radio, museums and so on.
According to Joëlle Vitiello in an article for Ile en Ile, practically all the members of your family were artistic types, and people who at one time or another were the center of Haiti’s intellectual scene. Your uncle was the renowned poet Carl Brouard; your dad was Jean Magloire, a government official and a journalist; your paternal grandfather Auguste Magloire was a historian;and your maternal grandfather Raphaël Brouard was one of the backing sponsors of Les Griots, a major literary magazine of the 1930s. How did it feel growing up around those people? Knowing that you were part of this literary and intellectual elite, that you were their seed? It was natural for me. It was not as if I had been transplanted from one environment to another. I lived amongst [people like] Jean Price Mars during my teenage years and until my departure for Paris. My mother was a friend of Clara Mars and I was a friend of their daughter Marie-Madeleine. There were books in my family. I loved to read. I loved the rosy romance novels at the library at [the school] St. Rose de Lima. Later on, [I read the major] literary works. I was introduced to music early. My mother taught piano and composing. We had all these records. During my adolescence, I loved Wagner, Mahler, Puccini, having discovered [them] in 78s [an ancestor of the CD]. I also liked French singers, Léo Ferré, Serge Gainsbourg, Guy Béart, Juliette Greco, Catherine Sauvage.
At some point, you have studied radio and television broadcasting in France. In 1955, before leaving for Paris with my mother, I spent some time at Radio Commerce. I don’t remember the name of its director. He gave me a letter of introduction to someone in French radio and television. That’s how I came to enroll at RTF [Radio Diffusion Télé Française]. We were supposed to learn to write for radio. Our scripts for television were to be free of [aspects of] cinema. In principle. We first learned how to do [professional] photography. I would wander in the streets of Paris with a friend and would click and click really fast. I still have a lot of black and white photographs that I developed but never had time to put on paper. We had an internship at Honfleur in Normandy. The professor had a camera; the only student who had one was Claude Lelouch. I must tell you that all these students had turned to television, having been unable to enter IDHEC, the film school in Paris. They were film buffs. In my case, I stopped after a year. I was not planning on returning to Haiti. I knew I had no chance to work in radio and French television. I do not know if some of my colleagues went on to work in the television [industry]. Lelouch went on to become a famous filmmaker. Upon my return to Haiti, I worked in the radio [industry]. I had radio show for women that was aired for years. My program for women [aired] from 1965 to 1973 first on Radio Haïti, then at MBC—Magloire Broadcasting corporation [owned by] my father’s cousin—[then on] Radio Métropole—which still exists and another [station]—I’ve forgotten the name.
What do you wish someone had told you about being a novelist? Nothing. I took literature writing courses at the University of Quebec in Montreal in 1985. I couldn’t write anymore. I was experiencing a nervous breakdown. I had to write texts that the teacher and other students read and evaluated. This stimulated me. That’s it. I wrote a few short stories.
At one point, you founded a literary magazine in Haiti called Le Fil D’Ariane. A friend who had a small advertising agency Publigestion asked me to start a literary magazine with her. She would take care of the advertising and I would take care of the writing. Later down the line, she dropped the project. She probably estimated that a monthly magazine would not rake in much. But the idea had already taken root in me; I did not want to give up. When I was working in the radio and I had to find my own advertising. I hated it. I did not want to start having to solicit advertising from customers. A girlfriend of mine assured me that she would get me advertising. So I started in the business. It was a passion for me to prepare my magazine. I did just about everything. The young man who initially did the layout [dropped out of the project] after the first issue. I could not afford to pay a professional for the job. Most of the money that we got from advertising went to editorial and the printing of the magazine. I chose a good printing house—Deschamps. For the articles, I had some voluntary collaborators: Michaële Lafontant Médard, Junie Magloire, Odette Roy Fombrun, Ghislaine Charlier-Rey, Marcus of Radio Métropole, Liliane Devieux-Dehoux, Maximilien Laroche, Myrna Magloire Theodore, Claude Dauphin Andrée Naudé. Lucien Rivière made cartoons for eight issues. Claude Demesmin was the photographer. I wrote a lot.
I was fascinated to this magazine, but it was a constant struggle with the house Deschamps for text composition and printing of each issue. While all the money from the advertising were going to them, they had other projects that were more lucrative than my magazine. It was supposed to be a monthly, but two or three months could pass without [an issue being released]. I wanted to be able to pay employees one day. But I lost advertising. I realized that there was a time that would come when we wouldn’t be able to publish the magazine any longer. I decided to leave for Montreal where meanwhile my mother and my daughter had gone for the latter’s piano lessons. She had enrolled at the University of Ottawa where the piano teacher she wanted was teaching. She eventually earned her Master’s degree from the University of Montreal.
What inspired that title? It is of course the thread in Greek mythology that guided Theseus through the labyrinth of Crete where he had gone to kill the Minotaur. My magazine held a thread out to readers, numerous sections guided them in various fields. Here is the summary of the first issue: Mes propos [Editor’s Letter], Un pays à découvrir [A Country to Be Discovered], Visages de Port-au-Prince Hier [Past Faces of Port-au-Prince], Visages de Port-au-Prince Aujourd’hui [Contemporary Faces of Port-au-Prince], Notre Amérique [Our America], Parlons française [Let’s Speak French], Livres et auteurs haïtiens [Books by Haitian Authors], Ironie du sort (Irony of Sorts—personal bits about myself), Education [Education], De la musique avant toute chose [Music Before Everything Else], Métier: artiste [Career: artist], Trois Petits Tours et puis s’en vont [Three Little Tours and They’re Gone], Grand Écran [Big Screen], Votre corps et vous [You and Your Body], Pour gourmets seulement [Gourmets Only], Port-au-Prince la nuit [Port-au-Prince at Night], Exploration dans les abysses [Exploring the Abyss], Les Potins d’Ariane [Ariane’s Scoops], A Belles Dents [With Pretty Teeth].
Was it the only one of its kind in Haiti at the time? I think it is.
How was the literary scene in Haiti in the late 1960s and up to the late 1970s? Other people other myself can tell you. I find no interest in it.
When you wrote Le Mal de Vivre and Autopsie en Vivo, and when you sit and write any other novel, do you usually want to pass a message across? I’ve always thought that a Haitian writer couldn’t do art for the sake of art. There are too many horrendous things in the country that should be stigmatized. It seems to be that I am part of the tradition of the novelists of the past. Which has been lost to certain Haitians. It so happens that the release of my novels coincided with the earthquake in Haiti. It seems that because of this terrible occurrence that’s happened to them, it’s all over sudden forbidden to criticize Haitians. Some in Quebec think the same thing. My novel finished in 1981. It laid dormant in a drawer for 28 years. And its realities are more than ever true. There’s no point in blinding oneself to [the truth]. How can one heal if one refuses a live autopsy? That’s what I wanted to do around the time I wrote my novel. Things, far from improving, have gotten even worse.
You were one of the very few Haitian women writers who were writing novels in the 1960s and 1970s. Why do you think that was the case? I don’t know. The number of writers, men and women, has increased surprisingly. Maybe all those dark years that the country has experienced partly explains this. Those gifted turned to art or to write. It was a refuge. And then what happens elsewhere is quickly known. Minds are open. Another thing I was surprised. People read. And they read the books written by Haitians. This was definitely not the case when I left the country in 1979. Despite this bias to the Creole language, the language of instruction, the literary language of Haiti, Haitian writers write well in French. It is rather paradoxical.
The author and literary critic [Dr.] Myriam J.A. Chancy summed up your book Le Mal de Vivre this way: “Magloire’s novel ultimately reveals that Claudine’s inability to survive is also a function of the fact that to be a woman in the Haitian context is to be denied a privilege; it is for that reason that Claudine clings so fiercely to those privileges that only class can provide.” Quebec novelist and playwright Michel Tremblay, whose works have attracted many academics, said he has never understood scholarly theses. I think academics write for their peers. I do not see on what [Dr.] Myriam Chancy based her evaluation that Claudine clings to her social privileges. [Her analysis] states that [the character Claudine] has no compassion for those less fortunate than her. This is a very superficial analysis of my heroine. As I already said, I consider Myriam Chancy a great novelist. But she applied this scholarly grid—she cites theorists—that does not fit Claudine. This was was a character sketch in a very short book. I hope that my heroine Annie’s two novels Autopsie in Vivo and In Vivo are less ambiguous. It is true that the reader is involved in reading and brings her own personality into her interpretation of a novel and its characters. The reader has a partial role as creator. That’s the way it is.
What was the publishing process like in Haiti at the time that you ventured into publishing your book? Autopsie in Vivo is a novel I finished in 1981. As I explained in the introduction: Based in Montreal, I had lost my natural readership. I didn’t think a publisher in Québec would care to publish me. At the end of 2008, I was 77. I had two cancers. I wanted to leave behind a work to Haitian literature and to the Quebecois if it would be well-received. A friend had self-published his own book. I thought I could do it too. After all, in Haiti, I had been my own publisher: Éditions du Verseau. Obviously, here it would be much more expensive. I tried it under the names of Éditions du Verseau and Frantz Voltaire’s Éditions CIDCHA, a publishing house based in Montreal. The manuscript was bulky. I first published it under the title Autopsie in Vivo. It cost me a lot of money. A year later, in 2010, I fared better. I had a little more experience. The second volume, although it has roughly the same number of pages, was not too expensive. It was suggested that I give it another title as it could be read without [a reader] knowing the previous one. But for me, the two volumes were one. Its title is Autopsie in Vivo—La Suite.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to become a writer? I will refer you to [a passage] that I wrote in Le Mal de Vivre “I thought that my talent had to expand, my personality had to mature. My experience was insufficient and I wanted to cultivate my future.” Towards the beginning, having the gift [of writing] is necessary. Some experience too; you must have something to say. And it is essential to read a lot in order to master the language of writing. Writing a diary is good practice.
Do you have any regrets? I regret that Haitians refuse to be lucid. I regret that they do not understand that it is not those who flatter them who truly care about them. I regret this hatred that continues to separate them. Nothing is built with hatred. No progress without solidarity. One is condemned to not progress or to even sink.