Although living in virtual exile since the 1940s, to many René Dépestre the soul of Haiti. Dépestre was born in the city of Jacmel in 1926, and upon the death of his father when he was barely ten, he went to live with his maternal grandmother, growing in surroundings that was to feed his fertile imagination.
In mid-1945, he joined others on the Haitian literary and social change scene like Jacques Stephen Alexis, and Gérald Bloncourt to form one of Haiti’s most influential literary and intellectual thought magazine La Ruche. The journal was eventually shut down by President Dumarsais Estimé for fostering insubordinate views. Dépestre has been cited by many historians of Haitian history as one of the orchrestrators of the Haitian student protest movement that brought down the presidency of Estimé’s predecessor Elie Lescot.
Dépestre’s rebellious views and maverick ways got him imprisoned, and then exiled. He first went to France, then afterwards to Prague in the Czech Republic. Denied stay in both countries, the poet eventually went to Cuba, then it was basically country tag for him, as he moved from Austria, to Chile, and finally to Brazil, where he joined writers and thinkers Pablo Neruda et Jorge Amado in the hottest social movements of the time.
Dépestre has been called Haiti’s greatest poet, and at times the country’s greatest poets/novelists. Dépestre’s body of literary works has drawn much awe, and his works a great deal of different interpretations. In his book Exile and Post-1946 Haitian Literature, literary critic Martin Monroe says:
“Dépestre’s images of fragmented Haiti suggests his own split subjectivity: Haiti’s ruptures manifest themselves in his own personal crisis, even if he is spatially separated from Haiti.
Many thought that Dépestre had hit his apogee in the 1950s, but no, in 1980 he released the award-winning book Alléluia pour une femme jardin (Hallelujah for the Woman of the Fields). In 1988 he published the novel Hadriana Dans Tous Mes Rêves (Hadriana in all my Dreams), a work that was to bring him international literary fame, winning him such distinguished prizes as. In 2006, still living in the countryside in France, he published L’oeillet ensorcelé (The Enchanted Carnation), marking his 60+ years of a literary career that started with the publication of his poem “Etincelles” when he was barely 19.
Image Credit: Gradhiva