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Legends of Haitian Literature: An Interview with Josaphat-Robert Large

Josaphat-Rober Large-portrait
Josaphat-Robert Large is one of the legends of Haitian literature. Known for his many French-language novels, Large has also been responsible for some major works in Creole. In 2006, he published Keep on Keepin’ On: Poems, a translation of a previously published collection Pè Tèt, translated into English by Jack Hirschman.The author was a founding member of Lire Haiti, a literary magazine.

His short story “Rosanna” was one of the most arresting short stories in the Edwidge Danticat-edited Haiti Noir, published by Akashaic Books. Large titillates the reader with a harrowing narrative of life among the upper class in Haiti, as a have-not conspires against one of the most well-to-do families in Port-au-Prince. Some readers have found themselves asking, is the character of Rosanna, a mere symbol, a stand-in of sort for Haiti, who is duped by the one she trusts the most? The allegory is not lost on some. Large practically leaves that question to debate. Perhaps some literary analysts will take on the question.

Speaking of literary analysts, Frantz-Antoine Leconte devoted an entire book to Large and his works: Josaphat-Robert Large: La fragmentation de l’être [The Fragments of the Self], published in 2008. The aforementioned inclusion of Large in the Haiti Noir anthology was one of the English-reader’s rare glimpse of his writings in English.

Large has also made his mark in theater. He is one of the founding members of Kouidor, or golden calabash, a theatrical troupe. His next work to be published will be a novel entitled Le Roman du Mississippi Blues [The Mississippi Blues Novel]. To the delight of many of our literature lovers, he agreed to an interview. He spoke about his childhood, the writer’s craft, and of course, his great love—Haiti.

Q & A

Do people call you Roro or Jojo as a nickname?
My nickname is Bobisson, a derivative of Bob. It is a nickname specially used by everyone from the town of Jérémie. In fact, when I was sixteen, I was a goalie and played for a team called Flamants Noirs—which was crowned best team of the years 1958-1959. As a result, at that time, every youngster who dreamed of being a good goalkeeper used to say, while playing: “I am Bobisson!”

We are all shaped by our childhoods. Do you remember any incidents in particular that you can never quite obliterate from your mind?
The incident that had the most impact in my youth, happened when I was about eighteen. I had a sister living in France, who invited me to join her, so I could finish my studies in the beautiful town of Nice. The Lycée de Nice had accepted my application, after a writing test over the mail. My parents had then made all preparations for my departure. My ticket was purchased, my trousseau was prepared, my passport obtained. And, all of a sudden, I was told I could not leave. My name did not descend from the National Palace. At the time, the dictatorship had to give sort of a green light to any individual trying to leave the country. “Name doesn’t descend from the Palace” meant: you are not granted an exit visa. Can you imagine what sort of a shock it was for a young man eager to complete his studies? So, this is how I lost the opportunity to obtain a PhD in French Literature, as planned. It is the reason why I get upset when I hear someone say that things were better under the Duvaliers.

What was it like living in Haiti in the 1950s and 1960s? The everyday life and stuff.
Young boys and girls whose parents were not part of the clan of the dictatorship simply had no access to universities, especially if they wanted to study medicine, pharmacy, law, and so on. These roads were blocked to all members of the opposition. Not to mention we did not have the right to express our thoughts, much less to criticize.

You left Haiti in 1963 after being arrested for being part of a student strike. What do you remember of the Haiti of that time?
Affected by the student strike, Duvalier’s reaction came as a big surprise: He gave limitless vacation to all students. And, in addition, said students were to stay home! Anyone caught walking in the streets was to be penalized. To defy this absurd order, my neighborhood friends and I, we decided to take to the streets. We were arrested in Pétionville and thrown in jail. Another terrible day under the dictatorship was the one where an attempt was made on the life of big Baby Doc Duvalier. At that moment, I was in the streets where I almost lost my life. I had to rush to a friend living in Ruelle Cameau to take refuge, for about three days. And, as my father didn’t see me coming home, he thought I had been killed. When I finally arrived at the house, I will never forget what my old man told me: “My son, it is time for you to leave the country!”

Josaphat Robert large-childhood photo
The historian Arthur Rouzier maintains how for much of its existence, the city of Jéremie, the part of Haiti where you were born, has always been a literary mecca of sort.
Rouzier is right. Because of its isolation—a geographical isolation supported by the mere fact that there was no road leading to Port-au-Prince—and also due to frequent unexpected climate changes—preventing aircraft landing for weeks—were factors that pushed a Jérémien to fall back on oneself and create a particular lifestyle. The beautiful side of this isolation is the outstanding splendor of nature surrounding the Department of Grand’Anse. In the middle of this lavish surrounding, the villagers were encouraged to write, and, with time, fantastic poets emerged from the town. Haitian literature took a turn, as all great literary movements in Haiti were dominated by Jérémiens. Etzer Vilaire, Emile Roumer, Edmond Laforêt, Jean Brierre, Regnor Bernard. They created a tradition kept by the following generations. Rene Belance, Paul Laraque, Serge Legagneur, Rene Philoctête, Raymond and Roland Chassagne, down to my generation, with Syto Cavé, Claude Pierre, Jean-Robert Leonidas, and so on.

“Rosanna” is a suspense story you wrote for the story collection Haiti Noir. Was it inspired by real events?
Certainly, the story was influenced by actual facts. Rosanna was a very pretty girl who worked for my mother. We had the same age and had developed a very good friendship. Once, as I was returning home late from a night outing and when I opened the door, I heard loud screams coming from a woman begging for help. I hasten to inside, only to see the guardian’s son trying to rape Rosanna. I rescued her as fast as I could. She kept crying for a while, and, of course, she could not find words to thank me, for saving her pride. It is this scene that inspired the one describing a rape in Haiti Noir. The rest of the narrative was influenced by a period where kidnapping was at its peak in Port-au-Prince. One day, I remember, ten people I knew were snatched. Strangely enough, it was a time I was trying to reestablish myself in Haiti. I like to also add that I wrote this story in English, with a revision from Danticat’s fine editing techniques. However, when the book came out in France, I wasn’t to impress by the translation of my piece made by a French lady.

Some of your works are written in French, some in Creole. But you are part of a generation that wasn’t particularly encouraged to embrace Creole. Were your parents the type who disapproved of your speaking Creole?
Of course, like other parents belonging to the bourgeoisie of that time, mine didn’t want the Creole language be spoken in front of them. But, this taboo reached its peak in the classrooms and even on the recreation grounds at the school of the Christian Brothers, in Jérémie. One got penalized for speaking Creole during school hours. What helped me discover the richness of Creole was my eagerness to listen at night, under the stars, to the contes [tales] and other fantastic stories coming from the imagination of one of the best storytellers I ever met: Estima Timèt, the [caretaker] of my grand-mother’s vacation home. He was so good that, some nights, other storytellers would come to his séance where they would try to surpass him, but, always in vain. Everyone in the house [gathered] around those storytellers at night, with me in the first row. All these tales helped me build a base of Creole treasures that I have nourished over the years.

How did you learn to write it?
I had already published some books in French when I decided to also have a production in the Haitian Creole language. And, as I wanted to accomplish so in a professional manner Meaning to have the same preoccupation as when writing in French. I joined a group called Sosyete Koukouy where most writers only write in Creole. It is there that I met Jean-Murray Mapou, a Creole language poet and Dr. Ernst Mirville, a linguist, a medical doctor and a specialist of Haitian culture. Those two guys taught me the basics I needed in order to start writing in Creole. In that same club, I had the opportunity to meet with Felix Morisseau-Leroy, the father of Creole poetry, who became a good friend of mine. In fact, I acted as his secretary as he needed someone to negotiate the publication of some of his books written in French, with the staff of Editions l’Harmattan. The task was easy for me, because I knew the owner of l’Harmattan who was, then and also, my publisher in France.

Theatre is a big part of you. You actually co-founded Théâtre Kouidor, a theatrical troupe. How did that come about?
It was a very important period in my career as a writer. In this first epoch of exile in New York, what seemed to be of most importance was to learn the English language in order to find descent work and support yourself and your family. Doing so, the beautiful culture inherited from Haiti was of course slowly losing some of its grips. But, chance knocked at my door, when I met with two friends of mine with whom I used to explore intellectual questions in Haiti, before we went into exile. An incredible luck! Three friends from the town of Jérémie met in the streets of New York and decided to go back to the roots of their culture, by way of poetry and theater. Syto Cavé, Jacques Charlier and I, as we started meeting on weekends to recite poetry and do little exercise in the field of theater, we finally created the Troupe Kouidor. And it was during a meeting on a Saturday night that Cecile Corvington—Mrs. Jacques Charlier—came up with the name Kouidor. Not long after, we met with the stage producer Herve Denis and with poet George Castera who became a major writer for Kouidor. Then, came actors like Max Kenol, Eddy Guerrier, the Vieux sisters and the Jean-Julien sisters. And there came an invitation from the great Aimé Cesaire to participate in the Fort-de-France Theater Festival. With our performance in Martinique, we practically revolutionized the way theater was conceived in the French Antilles. We also owe a lot to the great French stage producer Jean-Marie Serreau, who taught us useful techniques.

Any productions by this troupe that stands out to you?
The most beautiful one, according to me, was a masterpiece where Kouidor had reached its peak in theater performance. The name was “Telcid ak Direnan” in which two old ladies walking on the stage as if they were cripple, telling pieces of stories as actors came on the same stage to play around them, the same stories they were telling. Written in two languages, the [play’s dialogue] conquered the heart of the public, to the point that we had to double the number of performances in Martinique, at the Festival of that year. It was wonderful!

One of your literary works Les terres entourées de larmes [The Lands Laden with Tears] won the Caribbean Literary Prize [Prix littéraire des Caraïbes]. Do you remember what you were doing the day you found out that you had won?
There is an incident tied to that day I like to talk about. When I am in Paris, I always find a day to go sit on a bench in a little park next to Notre-Dame, alongside the River Seine. There, there is a bridge call Le Pont de l’Eveche under which boats glide to pass and follow the path of the river. I usually stay close to four hours admiring the scene. I was dreaming on my bench one day while I noticed on another bench not far from mine, a group of young nuns probably from a monastery not far from the church.

I was dreaming as I said, when I heard someone said “Monsieur, vous avez un problème?” [Sir, is something wrong?]

When I turned around, I noticed it was one of the [nuns] asking me if I had a problem! “No”, I said, “I am a poet and I always come here to dream and look at the boats going under this bridge, when I am in Paris”.

“Oh”, she said, “Apollinaire had a bridge called Le Pont Mirabeau and you, you adopted Le Pont de l’Évêché.”

“Yes,” I said! But, when she noticed that the conversation was turning away from any religious point of view, she again started asking if I had problems, coming maybe from a sick member of my family? “No,” I said! At this point, as the other nuns were getting curious about her behaving, she told me: “Anyway, monsieur, I promised that I will pray for you every day, and, you will see, beautiful things will happen in your life”.

“Thank you”, I said!

Believe it or not, as I was leaving my hotel the next day, I got a call from my publisher announcing that I had won the Prix littéraire des Caraïbes! I couldn’t help but think about my miraculous nun and went back to the park twice, hoping to see her and thank her again. She never reappeared! Was she an angel, a real person? I found the coincidence bizarre, to say the least.

La voix du Bisaïeul, a work you wrote received a theatrical treatment. Were you involved with the production?
Yes indeed! It all started with a montage made by stage producer Max Kenol, a montage with texts from one of my novel Les Récoltes de la folie [Harvests of Madness]. Due to the success he encountered after the show, he had asked me to write on the same subject, enough scenes that could last for close to two hours. I actively participate in the stage production of the new version and even in the choice of uniforms for the actors. Unfortunately, the good actress we had enrolled for an important role had to leave New York, which is the reason why we didn’t kept the play alive, by taking it to other cities with a large Haitian population. Also in Canada and Martinique.

And were you happy with the end results?
Very much so! But, as I said, we couldn’t take the play around, as we lost an important actor. In fact, I had to leave New York myself, for personal reasons.
josaphat robert large-book cover

Your most recent work was Le Domic’île, a collection of poems. Is there a poem in the collection that holds particular significance for you?
Le Domic’île is a reproduction of a collection of verses called Écho en fuite [Echo in Flight] published in Paris in 2010. Where themes influenced by the unforgettable 2010 earthquake were too obvious. Looking back at the text some months after, I had decided to republish it, after eliminating the text directly connected to the catastrophe. To alleviate, I replaced those with poems where love was the main theme, in order to establish sort of a balance.

Do you go to Haiti often?
Very often. In 2012 alone, eight times!

What were your impressions?
I was in Haiti last November. And I have to admit that the situation has gotten worse. But, to turn away from being negative, I’d rather talk about some good things I noticed being done. I myself led an Atelier d’Écriture et de théâtre [a workshop in Writing and Theater] at L’École Normale d’Instituteurs de Marfranc, a school well-administrated in the small town of Marfranc. I was there for more than a week. In the same domain, there is a lady call Micka de Verteuil who put together a group of schools disseminated in the region of Abricots, where lunches are served to the students, on a daily basis. She found another volunteer person, a pedagogic expert call Jocelyne Bonnefil, who comes to Haiti twice a year to insure the formation of the teachers. So you see, there are people going in the right direction in Haiti.

When did you first return?
I returned to Haiti, one day after the overthrown of Jean-Claude Duvalier, in 1986.

As someone who’s written plays, novels and poems, which has had a hand in all forms of literature, what advice do you have for aspiring writers?
I work with a lot of young Haitian writers. In fact, I am an advisor for Editions Rupture led by two young poets: Jean-Mino Paul and Jean-Watson Charles. Two talented writers. However, I noticed that most of the young Haitian writers seem to be in a hurry to succeed. They do not wish to follow the normal path where a writer goes from point A to point Z. They want to jump over some of the steps and reach, or even get ahead of writers that have been sweating for close to a half century. My advice to them would be: Be patient, your turn will come!

Do you wish you had done some things differently in your life?
The only regret is tied to the disillusion of not going to France to complete my studies. That s all! However, I should not complain too much. It could have been worst!

How long did it take for you to write your first novel Les sentiers de l’enfer? [The Paths of Hell]
About four years, due to the fact that I was using a manual typewriter [back] then.

What inspired it?
It was my first novel: sort of an exorcism to get rid of the frustration built in me by the craziness of the dictatorship. It took a while for me to forget that I almost lost my life twice.

With each work you create, what is your aim? Do you hope to inspire, to change people, or to entertain?
I am really looking for recognition! Not glory, not fame, just recognition from readers connected to my literary production. As an example, the fact that you talk about my short story “Rosanna” in Haiti Noir, I place you somewhere in my inventory of readers. My novel in Haitian Creole call Rete Kote Lamèsi? [Wait, Where is Lamèsi] is utilized for Creole courses at Brown University, Duke University and also at classes given at the world organization UNESCO. All these students are nourishing the recognition I am talking about. I also discovered a forum on the net, at a website call Sweet Coconuts, where, in a section call “Haitian Creole”, some readers had held sort of a debate around the same novel Rete Kote Lamèsi? For a writer, there isn’t any better source of satisfaction.

Photos: From the author’s collection: Large, now; Large as a child in Haiti and the cover of one of his books Rete, Kote Lamèsi?

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4 Comments to “Legends of Haitian Literature: An Interview with Josaphat-Robert Large”

  1. Gerald Large says:

    C’est vraiment Bobisson qui apparait dans cette photo. Ce que l’histoire n’a pas retenu cependant est que en choisissant ce surnom (ti nom) j’avais ete influence par un livre sur Robinson Crusoe, livre qu’a l’epoque je lisais apres avoir epuise la collection de la Contesse de Segur. Au fait ou se trouve cette entrevue et la traduction en question?

  2. Caroline S Lazarus says:

    Beautiful Interview. Wonderful Website

  3. Marjory mannion says:

    I have been very moved by Mr. Large’s literary skills. He has helped me imagine what it must have been like to grow up in Jeremie under a dictatorial regime. It is hard for us to appreciate our level of gratitude when we are citizens born into the United States of America. Large is brilliant in his ability to carve a double edge sword. He keeps the beauty of Haitian culture while allowing us to take refuge in the “heated” climate of the past and present.

  4. Herve Large says:

    Congratulations Robert! I and my entire family is very proud of you.

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