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Saturday, September 23, 2023

Interview with renowned writer Carrol Coates

A CSMS Magazine exclusive

In continuing with our remembrance called Seven Years Later, CSMS Magazine has decided to republish a lengthy  interview Dr. Ardain Isma conducted with Professor Carrol Coates, who translated Compère Général Soleil. It’s been 7 years since our historic tribute to JSA (Jacques Stephen Alexis), one of Haiti’s famous thinkers. The interview is below along with a blub, introducing Carrol.

Carrol Coates (left in the picture) is without question one of the most important literary critiques in North America. But to many in academia and to many who have been following the Haitian literature, Carrol Coates is not simply a famous critique, he is a spokesperson, through his writings, for the Haitian literature—something he calls “a wealth of literature on Haitian history, religion, and other aspects of culture—along with many Haitian writers of tremendous talent and vision. »  Florence Alexis, the daughter of Jacques Stephen Alexis, Haiti’s most famous writer and thinker, has conveyed her gratitude toward Carrol Coates to CSMS Magazine. “While my father’s first novel “Compère Général Soleil” had already been translated in more than twenty languages, it wasn’t until Carrol Coates discovered it that it was able to be translated into English,” she said with an awesome smile. The English version is titled “General Sun, My Brother.” Carrol Coates, who teaches French and Comparative Literature at the Sate University of New York at Binghamton, has also translated other works by Haitian authors, among them “Le mât de cocagne” (The Festival of the Greasy Pole, 1990) by René Depestre. Carrol has an acute knowledge and understanding of several literatures worldwide, including French, Germain and, of course, Caribbean. Born in Oklahoma during the segregation period, Carrol never espoused such disgraceful form of racism; and early on he developed an avid passion for literature, especially a literature such as that of Haiti that many consider to be a literature of resistance. Last week Dr. Ardain Isma sat him for a one-on-one interview where he spoke about his growing-up in the south, his passion for literature and his future projects.   

 A. I.: It is a pleasure to have you at CSMS Magazine. To start it off, how long have you been writing, and what encouraged you to choose this path?

C.C.:  When I was still in high school, I conceived an admiration for Einstein and other physicists—I thought I would actually continue with physics.  When I reached the university, I quickly discovered that my head did not work that way.  I had begun studying Spanish at age 14, and I turned completely to the study of various languages—French, German, Spanish, Latin, and Hebrew—when I reached the university.

A. I.: Where were you born, and where did you grow up?

C.C.: I was born in Oklahoma City, went to public school there, and attended the University of Oklahoma.  I might add that, as I was going through school, Oklahoma belonged to the Deep South, not historically, but by its social values.  Oklahoma City, like the state, was completely segregated with separate schools (in the lower-income eastern section of the city) for African Americans.  I began my university studies at the critical moment when the movement for civil rights began at the University of Oklahoma.  If I remember correctly, two African-American students applied to the Law School in the spring of 1948.  At first, they were granted admission, but were seated in an alcove of the classroom.  An end was quickly put to that discrimination—African-American students were admitted by the fall of 1949, when I moved from home to live on campus.

A.I.: We know that you are a renowned writer, but to the academic community of the Caribbean, especially in Haiti, you are someone special. Why is that?

C.C.: I have to modify your characterization:  I guess I have some reputation as a translator and commentator of Haitian literature, but my early ambitions to write poetry and fiction were not realized.  I admire many writers—among them, La Fontaine, Molière, Flaubert, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Zola, and more recently, Hermann Hesse, Miguel Angel Asturias, Sergio Kokis (a Brazilian living in Montreal and writing in French), Alejo Carpentier, Jacques Roumain, Marie Chauvet, Jacques Stephen Alexis, and Edwidge Danticat.  A partial list of my preferred writers!

A.I.: We know that you have translated Jacques Stephen Alexis’ two important novels Compère Général Soleil (General Sun, My Brother) and L’ Espace D’un Cillement (In The Flicker Of An Eyelid). Are these the only books by a Haitian author that you have ever translated?

C.C.: My first translation of a Haitian work was René Depestre’s first novel, Le mât de cocagne (The Festival of the Greasy Pole, 1990).  I particularly appreciated Depestre’s satirical presentation of the Papa Doc regime although I have to confess that I have enjoyed some of Depestre’s erotic writing, particularly in his first collection of stories, Alleluja pour une femme-jardin, three of which I have translated for publication in journals and anthologies.  At the invitation of Charles H. Rowell, the editor-in-chief of Callaloo, I helped put together two special issues of the journal (Vol. 15, Nos. 2 and 3, 1992) focused on Haitian literature.  We included as wide a selection of contemporary Haitian writers as possible (poets, novelists, dramatists) as well as articles on other aspects of Haitian culture—for example, an article by Albert Mangones on the Citadel.  I translated about half of the materials (all genres) in these issues and in other numbers of the journal more recently.

A.I.: What made you interested in Alexis?

C.C.: I don’t remember exactly when I first read Alexis—probably sometime in the mid eighties.  Working on the Depestre translation in 1988-1989 naturally led me to read all of Alexis’s fiction, however.  Alexis, Depestre, Gérald Bloncourt and other students banded together to protest President Elie Lescot’s continued abuse of presidential power in late 1945, leading to his dechoukaj in January 1946.  Alexis’s grasp of history was much deeper and more extensive than was that of Depestre, however, and I lost interest in Depestre’s later work.  What I saw, intuitively at first, was that Alexis combined a broad grasp of history (somewhat from a communist perspective, of course) with a deep knowledge and respect for his own Haitian culture in its Caribbean context.  At the same time, he demonstrated a sense of scene, character, and construction in the composition of his novels. 

A.I.: When you were growing up, were reading and writing a part of your life? 

C.C.: I was an avid reader from age 9, at least.  I found copies of my mother’s girlhood novels in an old trunk at her parents’ farm:  I took home Little Prudy, Elsie Dinsmore (both short novels for adolescent young ladies of the Victorian era!), and more importantly Alice Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll.  I have never lost my taste for Carroll’s whimsical play with logic and existential reality in the adventures of Alice.  I kept reading—an uncle who came to visit in 1939 gave me two dollars—with which I preceded to buy four titles of the new “Pocket Books” series, at twenty-five cents each.  I read the Three Musketeers at age nine with no idea of the background in seventeenth-century French history nor of the sexual intrigues of the nobility.  The first time when I recall making some effort to write creative fiction and poetry was when I spent a year in France with a Fulbright scholarship and later during my military service.  I never got any of those poems or stories published.  Maybe after I retire…

A.I.: Did anyone in your household give you the moral support needed to succeed?

C.C.: Well, my parents certainly encouraged and supported me through high school and up to the moment I finished my M.A. at the University of Oklahoma.  Neither of my parents had much literary background, although my father read Hugo’s Les misérables (in translation) in his teens, to my amazement.

A.I.: Who were your earliest influences and why?

C.C.: My reading influences were Lewis Carroll, first, and later Hermann Hesse, Franz Kafka, Blaise Pascal, and Dostoevsky (an incongruous assortment of authors, right?)  My first Spanish teacher, whose name has faded, must have been a great teacher and disciplinarian:  I was fourteen and it was during that year that I began to understand how language was put together.  Earlier courses in English did not have much conscious impact.  My primary high school math teacher was the person who took a personal interest while I was still in school and in guiding me toward the choice of a good university.  Three of the professors at the University of Oklahoma had a lasting influence on my thinking—the philosophy professor, a German-speaking Swiss, my first French professor, and the German professor who directed my M.A. thesis on the 20th-century French novelist, Georges Bernanos.  They are all dead now and it saddens me to think I will never see them again.

A.I.: What role if any that multiculturalism plays in your works?

C.C.: When I moved to the International House at the University of Oklahoma, beginning with my second year in college, I roomed with a Hindu engineering student from India.  In spite of his technical and mathematical orientation, he was very philosophically inclined and we became close friends.  I still treasure a copy of the Baghavat Gita that he gave me.  An erudite rabbi from Oklahoma City gave courses in modern Hebrew at the University.  I worked intensely on Hebrew for one year and, the following year, graded papers for Rabbi Chodos, in order to maintain the knowledge I had acquired.  Unfortunately, I did not continue to use it and have forgotten most of the language.

A.I.: As an American, it is impressive to see how fluent you are in French. Where did you learn the language?

C.C.: Because I came from the “wrong” side of the river in Oklahoma City, language study was a last priority.  I began French as a first-year college student and immediately declared it as a major—not because I had definitely decided to teach, but because I was determined to learn the language.  After completing my Ph.D. and teaching for several years, I participated in a faculty-exchange program with the Université de Provence, at Aix-en-Provence.  The three years I spent there were critical—I made a number of friends, but I also went into a personal mode of learning to communicate with the French in stores, the markets, and the street.  I was tired of being recognized as an “American,” and I think I succeeded to some extent in my efforts to be able to switch language codes.

A.I.: You are very well aware of social injustices that the Haitian people have been subjected to. How do you interpret the injustice that was done to Haiti over the last eighty years, from the US occupation to the Duvalier dynasty to the Aristide era?

C.C. : I deplore the foreign policy of the United States going back to the Monroe Doctrine !  The racism of Washington was apparent from the early years of the Republic of Haiti, along with U.S. determination to dominate the western hemisphere.  We can trace this right on through all the conflicts—the Spanish American War and our assumption of control over Cuba,  Puerto Rico, and the Philippine Islands, the invasion of Haiti and the Dominican Republic a bit later, our lack of support for Aristide at the moment of the Cedras coup, and Washington’s ineffectual policy toward Haiti since.  The support of the Duvaliers, father and son, is only one reflection of our general support of dictators in South America, Africa, southeast Asia, and Asia Minor—in the declared defense of ‘American interests’.

A.I. : Critics say that Haitians are excellent writers, but lack the connections or the tools to offer their work to a worldwide audience. Do you agree to that ?

C.C. : I would not want to make such a broad statement.  I can think of several different groups of writers.  All Haitians have read ‘L’alarme’ by Massillon Coicou (I think !).  Coicou was known and admired in Paris at the end of the 19th century.  His summary execution put an end to a career that might have made of him one of the first internationally recognized Haitian poets !  Some of the young African and Caribbean intellectuals in Paris in the thirties and forties knew the work of Jean Price-Mars, especially Ainsi parla l’oncle.  The virtual exile of Jacques Stephen Alexis gave him the opportunity to get acquainted with the Afro-Caribbean ferment that was going on in Paris, and to get his first (and subsequent) work published by the most prestigious French publisher, Editions Gallimard.  Later, Marie Chauvet published Amour, colere, folie with Gallimard also.  When he left Cuba and was given a position in Paris with UNESCO (1979, I believe), Depestre also made connections and his fiction was published by Gallimard.  In the past thirty years, at least, a number of Haitian writers have been published in France.  There is another group who either migrated to or lived in Québec, where they have become well-known on the literary scene.  Dany Laferrière had  the greatest success following the publication of his Comment faire l’amour avec un Nègre sans se fatiguer, but many others have known varying degrees of literary success in Canada—including Stanley Pean, Anthony Phelps, Roland Morisseau, Joël Des Rosiers, the late Emile Olivier, to name only a small number.  We cannot forget the younger generation of Haitians who have chosen to write in English—you think of Edwidge Danticat, immediately, but there are also Myriam Chancy, Ardain Isma, Max Manigat, Jean Mapou, Paul Laraque, Jean Metellus and a number of others whose names escape me at the moment.  Since this is getting too long, I am also skipping the Haitian migration that left Haiti to settle in West Africa for some years, including the late Félix Morisseau-Leroi, Ghislaine Charlier, and others.  Haitians who have remained in Haiti through thick and thin have had more problems in making international connections.  Some excellent writers have chosen to self-publish, through necessity or fear of exploitation by French or Canadian publishers and this choice has meant that they have not received anything close to adequate recognition outside of Haiti.  Franketienne is the most notable case—his work is known in France, in Canada, and in the United States, to some extent, doctoral theses have been written on him, and yet he remains only remotely visible on  the international literary scene.

A.I. : Most literary critics say that the Haitian literature is a literature of resistance crafted from the never-ending horrible plight of the Haitian people.  How do you view this?

C.C. :  A number of Haitian writers have described the misery and, sometimes, the resistance of the Haitian people, but there have also been writers who have simply chosen to present scenes of daily life or images of the legendary past.  Alexis’s volume of short stories, Romancero aux étoiles (his last book before his assassination in 1961), has several stories that belong to this category—including ‘Anacaona’, which evokes the Taino princess at the moment of the Spanish conquest.  Alexis, Marie Chauvet, Laferriere, Ghislaine Charlier, and many others evoke scenes of rural and traditional life even in the novels where the background scene is that of the Duvalier dictatorship or the colonial period (both Chauvet, in Danse sur le volcan, and Charlier’s Juliette Maurer, I forget the complete title at the moment, both depict daily life, not always happy, toward the end of the French colonization).

I.A. : Are you also interested in poetry ? If yes, which style in this literary genre do you prefer ?  

C.C. : I am certainly interested in poetry and I translated a number of Haitian poets for the Haitian issues of Callaloo .   I have not often focused on the study of Haitian poetry because I became more focused on the novel, both for critical study and translation.  I have sincerely been moved by the intensity of the few poems we have of Virginie Sampeur, some of Coicou’s poetry, and then of a number of 20th-century poets, including Anthony Phelps, Roland Morisseau, Joël Des Rosiers, Robert Berrouët-Oriol, and many others.  My most important poetic focus has been on the Fables of La Fontaine, which are often appreciated for the wrong reasons, rather than as poetry in their own right.  Here, I want to mention the Kreyòl fables by Georges Sylvain, Kric ? krac !  I have thought for some time of sitting down to read these seriously—not an easy matter for me because of my inadequate command of Kreyòl, first of all, and because of the personal orthography used by Sylvain.  I am convinced that these fables are far from being mere translations of La Fontaine, and that Sylvain gave a fascinating view of peasant life at the end of the 19th century.  I may still get there one of these days.

A.I. : Has there ever been a time when you simply wanted to quit? If there was such a time, how did you fight off such instincts?

C.C. : More than once, and for different reasons.  I suppose that the antidote has been, first, that I still enjoy working with intelligent students who are eager to learn and, second, that I still think I have some insights into certain writers that I would like to set down on paper.

A.I. : People in the media like to portray sacrifice as the only road to rise to the top. Do you buy into that? If so, what do you consider as acceptable sacrifices?

C.C. : In a sense, I agree.  There have probably been writers who have managed to produce a certain amount of literary work while leading an exciting or adventurous life.  As a teacher and an intellectual seriously interested in understanding certain writers (philosophers as well as creative writers at times), I have only been able to work seriously by pushing aside distractions and entertainment in order to focus intensely on the works I want to write about, to understand, and, sometimes, to translate.  Literary translation, to me, is a sort of monastic undertaking, not to be undertaken lightly or as a sideline.

A.I. :What question you are asked the most when you give interviews?

C.C. : ‘How did you get interested in Haitian literature ?’  My stock answer is that I read a historical novel, by a U.S. historical writer, set at the time of the Haitian Revolution—this was Lydia Bailey by Kenneth Roberts.  I was about 18 when I first read it and I was fascinated by Roberts’s evocation of the landscapes and events.  It provoked an interest in Haiti that I pursued only occasionally until I turned seriously to the reading, teaching, and translation of Haitian literature.

A.I. : What kind of advice you would give to someone who would want to embark upon the same task?

C.C. : I can’t imagine that anyone would want to follow precisely my path, but, addressing myself specifically to students of Haitian origin, I know that there are a certain number who would be interested in exploring more of their own culture.  There is a wealth of literature on Haitian history, religion, and other aspects of culture—along with many Haitian writers of tremendous talent and vision.  An important caution would be that, like Jacques Stephen Alexis, these students need to expand their horizon across the entire world in order to gain an appreciation of the phenomenon of Haiti in the Caribbean and the international scene.

A.I. : Between fiction and nonfiction, which one is the hardest to accomplish?

C.C. : I couldn’t possibly answer that !  First of all, a person who sets out to write history or biography has a tremendous task of research and ordering of materials that has to precede writing.  The writer of fiction must also do historical and cultural research.  I won’t speak of lyric poetry that does not openly deal with social or historical reality.  I would note that translation, specifically, involves (to my mind, at least !) a complex process of getting to know and to understand the writer one intends to translate—I have said elsewhere that I virtually live the novel or the poem, in many cases.

A.I. : We don’t know how fluent you are in Creole, but most Haitians who read your translation in General Sun, My Brother are very impressed by your mastery in interpreting Alexis’ Creole. You even have a glossary in the book to guide readers into better understanding the story. Where did you learn Creole ?

C.C. : Unfortunately, I feel hampered in that I have never taken a formal course in Kreyòl (I prefer to use the Kreyòl orthography) nor have I lived in Haiti for a long enough period to gain a conversational knowledge.  Through dictionaries and a number of manuals (some written by Haitian friends), I have gained a knowledge of basic Kreyòl phonetics, word formation, and a superficial idea of the syntax.  This has enabled me to deal with Kreyòl words and expressions used by Haitian writers, but I still refer to knowledgeable Haitian friends when I run into a more extensive text where I run the risk of missing the nuances of a Kreyòl speaker.

A.I. : Besides Creole, French and English that you speak, are there any other languages that you speak?

C.C. : I mentioned already that I studied German, Spanish, Latin, and Hebrew at the University of Oklahoma.  When I was drafted into the U.S. Army for two years, I reenlisted for a third year in order to go to the Army Language School in Monterery, California.  That gave me 11 months of intensive study of Russian and I came out with near-fluency in both the spoken  and written language.  Unfortunately, that was not sufficient to allow me to continue the work of Dostoevsky and Gogol !

A.I. : Have you ever been to Haiti ? If so, when was the last time were you there ?

C.C. : I went to Haiti the first time in 1996, toward the end of Aristide’s return to the presidency.  At that time, I was translating a work published under Aristide’s name (Dignité/Dignity) and I hoped to be able to interview the president.  Unfortunately, legislative elections were going on and there were a number of foreign observers and U.S. officials—so I never got through the protective wall of secretaries and advisers.  I have been back when the Haitian Studies Association met in Haiti (first in Montrouis, then in Port-au-Prince).  Unfortunately, my dream of being able to set out on my own (or with a Haitian friend) to explore the entire country, from the Cap to Jérémie and beyond has not been and may never be realized !

A.I. : Who are your best North Americans writers ? Why ?

C.C. : I’m probably the wrong person to answer such a question, because my reading in North American literature has been sporadic and unsystematic.  At one point, however, I became fascinated with U.S. poetry of the forties and fifties—I read a lot of Robinson Jeffers, and then became attracted to Gregory Corso, Kenneth Rexroth and the writers of the Beat Generation.  Some humorists livened up my adolescent and young adult years—Mark Twain, Robert Benchley, James Thurber, and others now forgotten.  By the time I got to the university, I was off in an internationl literary world—French first of all, but later German, Spanish, Russian and, more recently, Turkish !  Although many Turks do not like him, Orhan Pamuk has made a name for himself on the international literary scene and later won the Nobel Prize for literature.

A.I. : Latin America has produced great writers, like Gabriel Garcia Marques and Eduardo Galeano. Do you follow the South American literature ?

C.C. : I took courses on Spanish and Latin American (both Caribbean and South American) as an undergraduate.  Later, I did Caribbean poetry in Spanish with Roberto Fernandez-Retamar, who later became minister of culture (maybe also education) under Castro.  He was a brilliant teacher and interpreter of literature.  Unfortunately, there remain many Latin American writers who interest me without my having found time to read them.  (This includes Asturias, Marques, Dario, Cortazar, and many others—where I have read only bits and pieces.)

A.I. : You have worked with Edwidge Danticat in one of your translations. Which one is that ? Why did you choose Danticat ?

C.C. : I think I first met Edwidge some years ago at a meeting of the Haitian Studies Association, but she also came to Binghamton on a tour of bookstores, after the publication of Krik ? Krak !, if my memory is correct.  I admired and have followed her writing from the first.  I stand in awe of her vision and of her talent as a writer.  When I was getting ready to propose the translation of Alexis’s Espace d’un cillement to the University Press of Virginia, I knew that Edwidge had expressed her appreciation of the novel and I sent her a message asking if she would be interested in collaborating on the translation.  I knew that she was busy and in much demand as a speaker as well as spokesperson  for many Haitian causes.  There was another fear—I did not want simply to take advantage of her fame for the specific marketing of the translation, but there was no way to avoid that.  My primary reason for asking her to assist was that I knew she appreciated the novel and that I was particularly interesting in having the collaboration of a Haitian woman who could contribute a sense of the personal style of the heroine of the novel.  With her characteristic generosity, Edwidge accepted.  The collaboration was a bit difficult since she was constantly on the move, but through e-mail and the U.S. postal services, we worked it out.

A.I. : Do you have children?  If so, are they part of your inspiration? How do you  feel when you are away from them?

C.C. : Yes, I have two daughters in college now.  In the earlier years, they used to cry and ask why I was leaving when I went to national and international meetings.  Regular gifts, like little Haitian dresses when I returned from Haiti, helped soften the pain of the father’s absence.  The girls and my wife have always inspired me, not through specific interest in my literary preoccupations, but because they gave me a sense of being needed by someone and the necessity of continuing to work even at moments of discouragement or fatigue.

A.I. : Are you the only child of your family?

C.C. : I have a younger sister who shared my interest in music.  She did more with it than I did by becoming a church pianist, organist and a teacher of piano and voice.

A.I. : What is your dream city you would want to visit, but one that you would never like to live in a permanent basis?

C.C. : There are many—I would like to see all the cities and villages of Haiti that I know only through Alexis and other Haitian writers.  There are the Andes in South America and the Himalayas, but I doubt I will ever visit either.  More recently, my contact with Turkish students in Binghamton has provoked my interest in Turkey and, beyond that, in the historical development of  Sufism, the migrations of the Kurdish people, the Ottoman Empire, and beyond !

A.I. : What’s next?

C.C. : I have already published one chapter from Alexis’s other novel, Les arbres musiciens, and another chapter (ch. 1) is forthcoming in Callaloo this year (2006).  These two excerpts are evidence of my intention to translate the entire novel, which is a kind of equivalent to  Compère Général Soleil in that Alexis chooses a specific period of modern Haitian history and combines the presentation of the life of the people (city and country) with a clear and knowledgeable exposé of the machinations of the Catholic Church and the government.  In Compère Général Soleil, the focus was on the Vincent government and the catastrophe of the ‘Dominican Vespers’.  In Les arbres musiciens, the focus is 1941-1942, the time just preceding and following President Lescot’s declaration of war on the European Axis, hours before Franklin Roosevelt’s own declaration.  Alexis centers his plot around a Haitian storekeeper and her three sons—each following a career that demonstrates major careers in Haiti at that time :  one son is an officer and aide to President Lescot, another is a priest, and the third is a cynical lawyer, the only one who understands the scandal of the government, but who eventually sells out by marrying a wealthy bourgeois woman and becoming a diplomat.  The scandal is that the Lescot government is colluding with the Church in the expropriation of peasant lands in order to allow the U.S. to experiment with planting cryptostegia grandiflora, an Australian weed from which they hoped to make rubber for the U.S. war effort.  The Church was trying to suppress the practice of Vodou, of course.  Many peasants lost their land, the rubber experiment was a monumental failure, and some ounfò were destroyed, but the effort to suppress Vodou failed.

A.I. : Thank you so much for taking some time out of your precious schedule to Speak to CSMS Magazine.

C.C. : Kenbe djanm ! (Hold firm)

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