Born in 1926 in Jacmel, René Depestre is one of Haiti’s finest and most prolific writers. In 1988 he published in his native French Hadriana dans Tous mes Rêves, a slim and beautiful novel about death, sex, and Haitian myth. Hadriana is the daughter of white colonialists who dies on her wedding day to a black Haitian man. Despite her catholic priest’s wishes, a carnival is held during her wake, and the next morning, she’s disappeared from her grave. What follows is a dreamlike novel that blends eye-witness testimony to the possible zombification of Hadriana with the villagers’ erotic and fanciful half-memories of Haiti’s thorny history.
This May, the novel was introduced to the English-speaking world for the first time via a translation by Kaiama L. Glover, a translator of multiple Haitian novels and an Associate Professor of French and Africana Studies at Barnard College. She writes in her “translator’s note” that one of the biggest challenges she encountered while translating the book (Hadriana in All my Dreams in English) was finding enough English words that mean human genitalia. French has many more.
Glover’s note illuminates just one of the many strategic and artistic decisions that translators make during the course of a translation project. Such work is difficult and requires more than a strong grasp of a second language—a good translator must also possess a keen ear for poetry. Glover certainly has one, and Hadriana in All my Dreams should be read by fans of both Haitian literature and works in translation. But then, so should many works of literature in translation.
To that end, I asked Glover to recommend some of her favorites. Here are her recommendations in no particular order: three works translated into English (two of which she translated herself), and a fourth that remains a dream translation project. All descriptions were written by Glover.
Ready to Burst by Frankétienne (Archipelago Books, 2014)
“Published in French in the explosive year of 1968, this dynamic novel by writer-philosopher-physicist-playwright-painter Frankétienne tells the whole wide world from within the space of Haiti. The novel focuses on the life of a disaffected young man struggling toward freedom in a context of quotidian political and social oppression. At once a literary manifesto, a revolutionary narrative, and a story of unrequited love, Ready to Burst is a reminder of the many pressure points––and of the many dreams––that mark our common humanity, despite differences of culture and place.”
Dance on the Volcano by Marie Vieux-Chauvet (Archipelago Books, 2016)
“Generally speaking, war is a man’s game. In Chauvet’s extraordinary work of historical fiction, however, women––one woman, in particular––are the prism through which Haiti’s 1804 war of independence comes to life. The novel tells the story of real-life, mixed-race opera singer “Minette,” whose rise to celebrity in French colonial Saint-Domingue parallels the rise of revolutionary ideas at the tail-end of the eighteenth century. Dance presents a young woman’s coming to political consciousness in a time of proto-national crisis, immersing the reader in the very most intimate dimensions of human liberationist struggle.”
Eve out of Her Ruins by Ananda Devi (Deep Vellum, 2016)
“Ruins are everywhere in Devi’s devastating triumph of a novel––in the bleak neighborhoods of Port Louis, Mauritius where the story takes place, and in the hearts and bodies of the troubled souls who live there. And yet, both the landscape and its inhabitants bear witness to beauty. The island can, if only precariously, be unbound by the imagination. And this refusal to be bound––this possibility of dreaming beyond and elsewhere––is the light within the ruins Devi has built. Rooting for the tale’s troubled anti-heroes Eve, Saad, Savita, and Clélio, the reader can only believe or hope they will manage somehow to outrun, outsmart, or outlive the violence that surrounds them.”
Aube Tranquille by Jean-Claude Fignolé (Éditions du Seuil, 1989)
“A terrifyingly perverse historical rendering of the dramatic years leading up to Haiti’s revolution, Aube Tranquille chronicles the life of Sonja Biemme de Valembrun LeBrun, the beautiful young Breton wife of a powerful Swiss planter caught up in the perverted ethos of New World plantation community. Consumed by a self-indulgent passion for a man of color, “savage” Other and subordinate to her legitimate spouse, Sonja Biemme indulges in the promiscuity and twisted intimacy of the colonial world. With increasingly unrestrained sadism, she seizes every erotic possibility afforded by her absolute authority over the black bodies she owns. The result is a daring meditation on the unspeakable corruptions of slavery––for both enslavers and enslaved. If any novel is overdue for translation into English…”
Kaiama L. Glover is a translator and an Associate Professor of French and Africana Studies at Barnard College. She is the author of Haiti Unbound: A Spiralist Challenge to the Postcolonial Canon and has published articles in The French Review, Small Axe, Research in African Literatures, The Journal of Postcolonial Writings, and The Journal of Haitian Studies, among others.
René Depestre is the author of more than twenty-five novels, short-story and essay collections, and works of poetry. Born in Jacmel, Haiti, Depestre is also known for his political activism and has been published in multiple countries, including the United States, the former Soviet Union, France, Germany, Italy, Cuba, Peru, Brazil, Vietnam, Argentina, and Mexico. His short novel Hadriana dans Tous mes Rêves was originally published in 1988 in French and was published for the first time in English in May 2017.
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