by Elaine Kalman Naves
Engaged in Exile
EmileOllivier`s world is a plural,polyphonic place where all characters are immigrants
N THE NEARLY FOURDECADES SINCE Fran~ois Duvalier came to power in Haiti in 1957, more than onemillion Haitians, an estimated 20 per cent of the country`s population, fled"this bare rock, this mountainous island with its flinty stones and itsalluvial deposits, this land of lingering death." Some 50,000 have settledover the years in Montreal, one of them the author of the above stark depictionof his homeland.
A teacher, scholar, andprize-winning novelist, Emile Ollivier, at 55 and after nearly 30 yearsin Canada, says that he still feels "Haitian in all the corners of mybeing." But "home" for him now is a treelined street in thegenteel, primarily anglophone Montreal neighbourhood of Notre-Dame-de-Grace.Here his real and fictional worlds fuse. A visitor walking to his house fromSherbrooke Street is struck by the congruences with Passages (I`Hexagone,
1991),Ollivier`s most recent novel. As in the book, we are up the street from OldOrchard Ice Cream, Esposito Farms, the Collins Funeral parlour.
Inside the gracious, old-stylehome with its high ceilings and beautiful woodwork, Ollivier ensconces himselfin a leather wing-chair, ash tray at his side, cigarette in hand. He hascourtly, oldworld manners, a iich cello voice in which I can discem both the lilt of the Caribbean and thecadence of Paris, and a booming belly laugh often at odds with the seriousnessof his words.
He is a man ofconsequence, a deliberate thinker and writer. There are friends who take him totask for the long intervals between his books. But he can`t help himself. Hepolishes and chisels away at his sinuous prose, publishing only when he has"worked a book through to its end." That perfectionism has resultedin critical acclaim: Ollivier`s three novels are all prize winners. Mere Solitude (first published inParis by Albin Michel in 1983 and translated as Mother Solitude by David Lobdell for Oberon in 1989) took the Prix Jacques-Rournain in 1985; La Discorde aux cent voix (Albin Michel, 1986) earned theliterary prize of the Journal de MontrMl in 1987; and Passageswon the $10,000 Grand Prix Litteraire de Montr6al in 1991.
Ollivier is part of a long literary line. For,although Haiti is notorious for violence, poverty, and illiteracy, it also hasa significant literary tradition and reveres its writers. For well over acentury Haitian writers have been in the forefront of opposition to thecountry`s successive repressive regimes. And Haitian emigre writers have had amarked and direct influence on the development of Quebec nationalist ideologyduring the Quiet Revolution. To understand that influence, one has to backtrackto the Haiti of the 1940s and `50s
OLLIVIER WAS born inPort-au-Prince in 1940, the only child of a lawyer and a homemakerwith a great love of language. "The farthest I go back in my memories, itseems to me that my mother always favoured reading, literature, the metier of the intellectual. In addition, she madeenormous sacrifices to send me to one of the best schools of Port-au-Prince."His mother tongue was Creole (which in 1987 became one of the country`s twoofficial languages). "But my family was an educated one and so we alsospoke French. So already in the family home I was put in contact very earlywith the French language and culture."
From the age of 13 hewanted to be a writer, and was particularly affected by two seminal Haitianauthors. Of Jacques Roumain`s Gouverneursde la rosee (1944; translated into English as Masters of the Dew in 1947) he says,"this is how literature entered my life: a school pal passed this bookover to me in class. It was an enormous discovery for me, and I thought tomyself, if I ever do anything in life, it will be along the lines ofthis." (Masters of the Dew, a classic of Caribbeanliterature, has been translated into 17 languages; Roumain born into aprivileged mulatto family, was the founder of the Haitian Marxist party.)
In the mid- 1950s,when the dissident novelist Jacques Stephen Alexis returned to Haiti fromexile, Ollivier attached himself to him as a literary disciple and became ajunior member of a Port-au-Prince literary movement called HaitiLitteraire "We began at the time, like everyone else, by writing poetry,publishing short stories in little magazines. At the time there was a magazinecalled Semences (Seeds)," he chuckles self-deprecatingly, "butit gives you an idea. We were 17,18 years old. We met regularly, read our work,we debated - we were doing our apprenticeship, in effect! "
But the bubblingintellectual ferment, anti-colonialist rhetoric, and left-wingpolitical ideology of the group marked it for negative attention when theDuvaliers came to power. "And all of a sudden we noticed that the groundbeneath our feet was slippery. The horizon was blocked. So at that moment webegan that great adventure which is exile."
Easy enough now, in thesecurity of his Canadian home, to talk of exile as a great adventure. But 30years ago when Duvalier had declared himself president for life, what Ollivierhad felt was an overwhelming sensation of entrapment. On the last page of Mother Solitude, Ollivier`s youngprotagonist Narces Morelli gives voice to the author`s despair and fear:
I live in a dementedworld, a world of turbulence, chaos and fire. In vain do I peer into thedarkness, I can see no sign of the dawn. In vain do I listen, my straining earscannot detect the faint notes of the long-awaited festivities. I am 20years of age. How am I to shake off the night, to perceive in the distance thevertiginous, white aura of the dawn? It is essential to shake off the night,like a limb suffering gangrene. Trapped in this prison, this murky half-isle,it is essential to break free. But how? The Caribbean is stained with blood. Itis essential to break free but there is no boat, no Boeing airplane to carry usto freedom. When the wood pigeons set out upon the long route of their annualmigration, their bodies are all too often swallowed up by the sea.
Ollivier, newly marriedand with a baby daughter, spent a year studying in Paris at the Sorbonne beforerelocating in Quebec. He tells a wonderfully funny story about his arrival inAmos, in the northern Abitibi region, where he first found aj ob teachingpsychology and pedagogy at the local classical college.
"I had no idea howdistant it was from Montreal. I`m not very good at geography. On the way to theAbitibi, I saw places like Val David, Val Morin [about an hour`s drive north ofMontreal]. They had told me Amos was near Val D`Or,`` he laughs heartily."I thought it was a in alphabetical order. When we got to Val Morin, Ithought "M, N 0," it can`t be far now." But he loved his time inAmos. "Coming from Paris, I found a great welcome ... perhaps in Montrealit would have been very different. Because in Amos there was no Haitiancommunity. So I was forced to learn the code of the society, to go amongpeople."
When a student of hisinvited him to attend a speech by "untype de Montr~al,"
I Ollivier found it themost natural thing to go along. The Montreal type" turned out to be PierreBourgault, founder of the RIN theRassemblement pour I`Independance Nationale, the first serious Quebec separatistparry. "There were not a lot of people there, maybe 12 in the room,"he says with a smile, but also with evident pride. "And I was there. It`sa beautiful memory because Bourgault was a marvellous speaker. That was how I had my first contact with theindependence movement."
By 1968, Ollivier himselfwas teaching and studying in Montreal. Several members of Haiti Litteraire -including Ollivier`s friends, the poets Anthony Phelps, Roland Morrisseau, andSerge Legagneur - had relocated in Montreal and were beginning to put iton the map as a literary centre of the Haitian diaspora second only to Paris,which it remains to this day.
In the heady atmosphereof the Quiet Revolution, they connected with Quebec nationalist poets likeGaston Miron, Jacques Godbout, and Paul Chamberland, establishing a two-wayexchange. The Haitians brought with them the seminal influence of AimeCesaire`s Cahier d"un Retour au Pays Natal (1947; translated intoEnglish as Return to My Native Land in 1969), which breathedthe fire of Caribbean revolt. In turn, they discovered an emerging Qu6b6coisliterature.
"We were just youngwriters, we had written these little books in our own country," Ollivierrecalls wrily today. "But they fact that we were welcomed by these writers here meant that we were in stepwith them because these writers were very engaged at the time in the nationalmovement. This was the time when [Pierre] Vallieres brought out The White Niggers of America, we felt there was a kind of coalescence goingon."
Ollivier adds pensivelythat these were also days well before "the pain of the October Crisis Sincewe believed in the self-determination of peoples, we could only hesympathetic to the nationalist cause in Quebec. At that time, it was very clearthat this francophone island in North America - it was important topreserve it. And we who were also francophones, we who [in Haiti] had knownindependence since 1804, we understood their struggle." At the same time,Ollivier says that they were well aware that `Ve ourselves were not Quebecois
Still, that seemed ofsecondary importance because they expected their exile to be very brief. Thatit has not has resulted in ambiguities and surprises. What seemed so clear toOllivier 25 years ago is not so clear now. Yet he equivocates when 1 ask himhow, with a referendum on the horizon, he sees the matter today.
"At this moment aswe are speaking, 1 don`t know how 1 stand. 1 have to think about the wholematter. Because now we are living in this state of extreme tension -"he brings his hands together and clenches them on his knee. "This is thetension of our times. 1 mean the resurgence of national identities and, at thesame time, the geo-political, geo-economic, and geographic recomposition of the globe. And onedoesn`t really know how things will evolve."
If Ollivier talks like asociologist, that is because he has become one. Twenty-five years ago heabandoned his studies in psychology and obtained degrees in education from theUniversity of Ottawa and in sociology from the Universite de Montrdal. Today he is a specialist inthe sociology of adult education at the U de M, and his academic interest in immigration and theeducation of immigrant adults dovetails neatly with his fiction and his life.
His grand theme isexile. Mother Solitude (with 40,000 copiessold, the most commercially successful of his novels and the only one so far tobe translated into English, although a German translation of Passages is in the works) brings its Haitianprotagonist only to the brink of exile. But in Passages allthe characters are immi-does not exist on the map - I try to find, grantsand exiles and the book stands on I have not yet found, the name of this city
three geographical legs:Haiti, from where that I want to create, an imaginary city that
miserable boat peopleseek to escape; is all the othercities." Miami, which some of them actually Ollivier observes that heinitially expe reach; and Montreal, where a species of rienced exile as"a great wound" but has new identity is being forged. learned to weather it positively over the years.When the Duvaliers fell from power Ollivier`s writing. Alternate narrators recount both Passages andMother Solitude, sometimeswith disorienting
effect on the reader -which is part of Ollivier`s design.
"I have noticedthat really modem stories are polyphonic," he observes thought fully."There`s a friend of mine who is a psychoanalyst who has called voodoo `a
space for voices.` Inthe universe from which I come, people can divide themselves. They can talk tothemselves in the third person, they can `tutoi` themselves. "In my culture, voices are inthe plural. Reality is plural. Which is to say that when you take an object inHaiti, that object is no longer purely functional. The object has differentlevels of significance. A stick can be for hitting someone, but it can serve asthe lock on a door, and it can also serve as a spirit that bars evil fromentering. It seemed to me that in such a universe, polyphony is there. So thatI couldn`t see another way of rendering that universe."
There are other puzzlesembedded in his poetic, challenging, often surreal novels.
MotherSolitude is set in a city calledTrou Bordet, which clearly is Port-au-Prince.
Why did he not give itits real name? In the days when Haiti was still a French
colony, Ollivierreplies, the original name for Port-au-Prince was Trou-Bordet.But
there`s a more subtlesecond answer to the question as well.
"I do the best Ican not to create a regional literature. In my oeuvre TrouBordet is any Caribbean city. Like the great writers who create an imaginary country,Faulkner for example, or Garcfa Mdrquez and his Macondo - Macondo in 1986, he at first thought he wouldsplit his time half and half between Montreal and Port-au-Prince.He did in fact make several trips back between `86 and `88 and spent a six-monthsabbatical during the era of failed elections under the generals Namphy and AvrilAsked if he plans to return now, after the reinstatement of Aristide, he smilesenigmatically. "Yes and no," he says. "I think there issomething very fertile that can be drawn from there. And, as an intellectual,one feels responsible to play one`s part in rebuilding things."
But although a permanentreturn, he says, is still a possibility, there`s another reality to consider aswell. His daughter, who was a baby when he and his wife came to Quebec, isfirmly rooted in Montreal and has no interest whatsoever in living in Haiti. Hesmiles fondly when he talks of his I 10-year-old granddaughter.
"Often she`ll ask,`And when are we going to HaifiT Often we say that the third generation iscompletely integrated [in the new homeland]. But with the resurgence ofcommunities in the host country, I ask you if there will not remain in them fora long time traces of their origins, even when they are apparently comfortablysocialized in their new lands?"
These are questions thatEmile Ollivier ponders, then shrugs off. The most important thing is to keep onwriting. As for his public, he says he writes for his "companions inimmigration; the people in Haiti who read; and the Qu6b6cois and intemationalreadership. But in my head I don`t really hold a real audience in mind. It`slike a bottle in the sea."