The Saturday Profile
A Prolific Father of Haitian Letters, Busier Than Ever
Frankétienne has had prophecies of death (his own) and destruction (Haiti’s).
The earthquake that wrecked this country in January 2010? It was foreseen, said Frankétienne, the man known as the father of Haitian letters, in his play “The Trap.” It was written two months before the disaster and depicts two men in a postapocalyptic landscape, now a familiar sight in his Delmas neighborhood here.
“The voice of God spoke to me,” said Frankétienne, 75, later noting he had also long dwelt on the ecological ruin he believes the planet is hurtling toward. As for his death, that will come in nine years, in 2020, he says, at age 84. He is not sick, he says, but he has learned to “listen to the divine music in all of us.”
And so the prolific novelist, poet and painter — often all three in a single work — hears his coda. He is vowing to complete a multivolume memoir “before I leave, physically,” while keeping up an increasingly busy schedule of exhibitions and conferences.
“I am going to talk about everything I have seen from age 5 or 6,” he said recently at his house-cum-museum and gallery. “And stuff that hasn’t happened yet because I am a prophet.”
Eccentric. Abstract. A “spiralist,” who rejects realism and embraces disorder. Frankétienne — he combined his first and last names years ago — embraces chaos as a style he believes befits a country with a long, tumultuous history birthed in a slave revolt more than 200 years ago and scarred by a cascade of natural and man-made disasters.
In chaos he finds order.
“I am not afraid of chaos because chaos is the womb of light and life,” he said, his baritone voice rising as it does when he gets worked up over a point. “What I don’t like is nonmanagement of chaos. The reason why Haiti looks more chaotic is because of nonmanagement. In other countries it is managed better. Haiti, they should take as reference for what could happen in the rest of world.”
Scholars widely view Frankétienne as Haiti’s most important writer. He wrote what many consider the first modern novel entirely in Haitian Creole, “Dezafi,” in 1975, and a play well known here that challenged political oppression, “Pelin Tet.” It is a biting work from 1978 that is aimed, not so subtly, at Jean-Claude Duvalier, the son of the dictator François Duvalier and himself a former dictator known as Baby Doc, who returned here from exile in January.
Although not well known in the English-speaking world, Frankétienne has star status in French- and Creole-speaking countries and was rumored to be on the short list for a Nobel Prize in Literature in 2009.
After the quake, his works gained more international attention, particularly in Canada and France. “The Trap” debuted in March 2010 at a Unesco forum in Paris that named him an artist for peace; galleries in New York have organized shows featuring his artwork. Still, he also holds informal Sunday workshops with young artists in Haiti to talk about and critique their work.
“He is not only a major Haitian writer, he is probably the major Haitian writer, forever,” said Jean Jonassaint, a Haitian literature scholar at Syracuse University.
Frankétienne’s output, about 40 written works and, by his count, 2,000 paintings and sketches, comprises dense, baroque affairs. He invents new words, blending French and Haitian Creole. Long digressions are de rigueur. His paintings, which he says are selling particularly well these days, blur swirling blacks, blues and reds, often covered with poems.
He admires James Joyce, and it shows. “ ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ was like a crazy book, just like I write crazy books,” he said.
Still, the Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat said Frankétienne remained popular among Haitians, in part because some of his plays had been videotaped and passed around in Haiti and in immigrant communities in the United States.
“Pelin Tet,” in which the grim life of two Haitian immigrants in New York deliberately echoes the oppression of the Duvalier era on the island, is a touchstone for many Haitians, said Ms. Danticat, who grew up in the same neighborhood as Frankétienne and was, in part, inspired to write by his rise to the top.
“His work can speak to the most intellectual person in the society as well as the most humble,” she said. “It’s a very generous kind of genius he has, one I can’t imagine Haitian literature ever existing without.”
Frankétienne was born as Franck Étienne on April 12, 1936, and raised in the Bel-Air neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, the son of a Haitian farmworker and an American businessman, who later abandoned her.
Frankétienne’s mother worked as a street vendor — selling cigarettes, charcoal, candies, moonshine — while raising eight children.
“Since I was 5 or 6 I was smoking or drinking, but my mother never knew,” he recalled. He was the oldest, and she strove to send him to school (he, in turn, tutored his younger siblings, leading him to establish his own school).
The school he attended was French-speaking. Frankétienne initially did not know a word of French, but angered at being teased by other students, he set about mastering the language and developing an affinity for words and artistic expression.
His best-known works came in the 1960s and ’70s, and he ranks his novel “Dezafi” as one of his most cherished. Set in a rural Haitian village, it weaves cockfighting, zombification, the history of slavery and other themes into an allegory of the country’s pain and suffering.
“It is the challenge of finding the light to liberate everyone,” he said. He wrote it in Creole, he said, because that was the voice of the characters he imagined.
But Frankétienne also felt a need to assert his Haitian identity, as people often look at his fair skin, blue eyes and white hair and doubt he is from this predominantly black country.
“They might think I am white or mulatto or whatever, but I am not,” he said. “I have black features, Negro features. My mother was an illiterate peasant and she had me when she was 16. She was taken in by an American, a very rich American. The American was 63 and my mother was 16 at the time.”
Switching from Creole to English, which he is usually too timid to speak, he added, “You understand who I am now?”
After completing “Dezafi,” he was frustrated that so few of his compatriots could read it, with nearly half the adult population illiterate. He switched to plays, even if that meant irritating the dictatorship.
“Dictators are mean but not necessarily stupid, so they knew I didn’t have any readers,” Frankétienne said. “What really gave them a problem was when I started with plays.”
Other writers and artists left Haiti during the dictatorship, but he stayed as his reputation grew outside the country and human rights groups closely followed him, providing, he believes, some cover from Mr. Duvalier.
Later, he joined other intellectuals in denouncing Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the first democratically elected president after Jean-Claude Duvalier was overthrown. Mr. Aristide, he said, became fixated on power and tolerated corruption and thuggery in his administration.
“He is a ghost, too,” Frankétienne said of Mr. Aristide’s return in March after seven years in exile.
His only regret, he said, is that his work is not widely translated and better known. If he knew Chinese, Japanese, Italian or other languages, he said, he would put them in his works.
“Everything is interconnected,” he said. “We are connected to everything, everyone.”
Frankétienne added, “The only thing not chaotic is death.”