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Michèle Voltaire Marcelin: An Interview with the Multifaceted Artist

Written by Kat with 1 Comment

The hyphenated word multi-faceted was made for people like Michèle Voltaire Marcelin. Voltaire-Marcelin has written short stories, as in the short narratives that have been highly anthologized. And then there are the paintings that have been exhibited everywhere from Port-au-Prince to D.C. to New York. The acting bug bites religiously and Voltaire-Marcelin has had roles in such films as Raoul Peck’s L’homme Sur Les Quais and Patricia Benoit’s Se Mèt Kò.

She’s most prolific as a poet. Voltaire Marcelin’s pen has churned out two volumes of poetry: Lost and Found and Amours et Bagatelles. “Stones Don’t Bleed”, one of her poetic pieces, is an unmistakeable tribute to the often-touted resilience of the long-suffering women of Haiti:

I know not the beginning nor the ending
but pain is eternal and speaks in multiple voices
Need I add mine to the chorus
when death comes and finds me alone
When I am turned to stone and bone
I will bleed a red thread in the ground

“In Defiance” pays tribute to the intrepid women over the course of the history of Haiti, who have rebelled and gone against the odds as a reaction to their turbulent world. For some reason, in reading the poem, I thought of Yvonne Hakeem-Rimpel, a Haitian feminist from the 1950s, who had been beaten and left for dead, whom I had first heard of when I read Elizabeth Abbott’s book Haiti: The Duvaliers and Their Legacy. Michèle Voltaire Marcelin obviously has women’s causes close to her heart, as seen not only by her feminism-driven work, but her choice of projects when performing. She once had a one-woman show based on Walking on Fire, Beverly Bell’s anthology of stories about the lives of Haitian women in Haiti, and in a staging of Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues”.

Q&A

Do you think that the fact that you were born with that last name automatically made you a born writer?
That would be too easy- and at the same time paralyzing! Both Voltaire and Marcelin are the names of very talented writers. The French philosopher was one of the most intriguing and influential thinkers of the Age of Enlightenment and the Marcelin brothers, Pierre and Phillipe-Thoby, were Haitian poets and novelists whose work offered valuable insight into all levels of Haitian society. They were also founders of “La Revue Indigène” which motivated Haitian intellectuals to seek their inspiration from their African heritage. Writing is a gift that came very late to me and I have not the arrogance to think that what I write will have that kind of impact. But when I was an adolescent, books saved me from despair so I can only hope that my writing resonates with the reader and makes them feel less alone.  Frida Kahlo wrote: “I used to think I was the strangest person in the world but then I thought there are so many people in the world, there must be someone just like me who feels bizarre and flawed in the same ways I do. I would imagine her, and imagine that she must be out there thinking of me too. Well, I hope that if you are out there and read this and know that, yes, it’s true I’m here, and I’m just as strange as you.” So, here’s to the one who will experience my writing and say, as a reader once did: “You are telling my story.”  

You spent some time in Chile. How’d you land there? How was that experience? Is there a large community of Haitians in Chile?
I always had a difficult love affair with Haiti- I loved her but she suffocated me. The society in Port-au-Prince was so rigidly codified, the air so rarified; it was difficult to breathe.  But even when you feel like you will die if you stay, it’s bittersweet to leave what you are familiar with at 16.  Like many important experiences and events in my life, it was purely accidental that I reached Santiago during that time. I owe that to the kindness of a brother who invited me to live with him. When I think of Chile, Violeta Parra comes to mind. Violeta who sang “Gracias a la vida que me ha dado tanto”, a song of gratitude, of reverence towards life and its many gifts. I think of Victor Jarra who was tortured by the military and whose hands were broken to stop him from playing his guitar – and still he sang “Venceremos!” (We will triumph). I remember the Liceo #7, the all girls’ school I attended in my navy and white uniform. I remember the theaters and museums and learning to speak Spanish by going to the cinema daily to watch dubbed films. I was in awe of the freedom Santiago offered me. Our Haitian community was so small, we knew each other by name. There were very few blacks at that time and passersby would stroke my arm and caress my Afro for luck. I left Chile in 1973 after the violent USA backed coup that overthrew Salvador Allende.  My brother and I had been detained in the infamous National Stadium, used as a detention and torture center for those suspected of sympathizing with the regime. I was one of the fortunate ones who was released unscathed. Nearly 40 years have passed. I have not returned since. 

Is it a privilege in life to write?
To write should be a right, but it is a privilege because in too many places, knowledge is withheld from a category of people. Depending on which country I was born in and my social class, I could be now be working day-in, day-out, from sun-up to sun-down on some back-breaking job. I might not have been taught to read or write. It would also be a privilege to breathe, to live, to have running water and electricity, to have legal recourse and access to education and healthcare. Any creative work would seem a blessing. Nevertheless, creative people are compelled to create and I don’t know if they view their compulsion as privilege. My experience with writing varies from feeling exalted at the moment of inspiration to doubtful and demoralized when advancing on the laborious, time-consuming work of revision. Ah, the time spent on editing…It reminds me of an Oscar Wilde quote: “I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again. I do not feel entrapped in the act of writing as it is only one of the creative activities I engage in; I am as shaped and defined by being a painter or an actress. I am an artist. It’s not a pretentious term. It is how I define myself. If I were a dressmaker or a cook, I would use these words.  I am an artist, and hopefully a decent human being.

You played the role of Madame Janvier, a big meanie in Raoul Peck’s film L’homme Sur Les Quais. How did you and Mr. Peck hook up? How did you prepare for the role? Would you play a villainess again?
As an actor, you do not label your character. You work from within – as if you were the character. You see, no one in life thinks they are the villain – they always have extenuating or mitigating circumstances to explain their actions; always pleading “Not guilty, your Honor” or  “Guilty with an explanation”!
Complex characters who make difficult life choices are fascinating. They also have better lines and I enjoy witty and sharp dialogue. It’s great fun!  I gravitate toward characters who seem unlikeable and the challenge is to make them human.  It’s not about creating a caricature but rather finding in each character the part that allows you to say – had this been me in this particular situation, perhaps I would have acted this way… It’s finding the truth in the moment – one of the multiple truths we face. To this day, people come to me and tell me how accurately I portrayed Madame Janvier.  I also played a brief part in Peck’s first feature Haitian Corner a few years before where I ended on the cutting room floor, so we knew each other. He called me and described the character he wanted me to play. Raoul has a very precise vision for his characters – what they should look like, how they should behave – even their intonation. The film was shot in San Pedro de Marcoris in the Dominican Republic. There were some scenes that were cut – one in particular where the character was caught with her lover in a compromising position in a Church’s confessional.

So you’re a poet, writer, performer and actress. How do you deal with creativity overload?
What a luxury it would be to have a creativity overload! I can imagine this cartoon character in a frenzy of action, a whirl of energy painting, writing, acting and pulling her hair out at the same time!  But unfortunately, the human brain only does one thing at a time. Distract it, overload it, do too many things at once, and creativity suffers. So I take frequent pauses to allow my wondrously inventive brain to renew itself. I love to cook and walk and laugh and spend time with my loved ones. That keeps me a very happy Mimi.

You wrote La Desenchantée, a novel. What inspired it?
La Désenchantée is a tale woven of childhood memories colored by lies and secrets. The background is Duvalier’s Port-au-Prince. The book guides us through the life journey of the narrator, an old woman who retraces her path, recalling details that provoked the characters’ loss of innocence. “All art is autobiographical; the pearl is the oyster’s autobiography”,  Federico Fellini said.  The image that inspired the writing was the photograph of my mother who was so beautiful, she made men swoon. My father saw this image at a friend’s house and said “This is the woman I will marry.” He stole the picture and met the woman who would become the love of his life. Isn’t that passion inspiring?

What are you currently working on?
I wrote several texts inspired by the earthquake that struck Haiti in January 2010 and its aftermath. They were very unlike the celebratory sensual poems of Lost and Found and Amours et Bagatelles. They were emotionally difficult pieces that I performed frequently throughout that year. I was overwrought reliving these events and it made me sick each time and last year after performances to commemorate the anniversary of the catastrophe that caused more than 200 thousand deaths – I decided to create a compilation of these poems. I want to write again from a place of love about what it means to live in the world, in all the difficulties and struggles of the world, amid the chaos of the world and still remain a decent human being.

In terms of your paintings, where do you find the inspiration for them?
Art is inspiring. I started painting because one day, I saw Rufino Tamayo’s paintings in a Mexican museum. It was a moment of epiphany. I was blown away! Beauty is inspiring – so is music. Sometimes, I’m inspired by a serendipitous collision of images, sounds, emotions – something that hits you accidentally as you turn the corner and will be translated in colors and textures on a canvas.

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