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Spirit of Haiti

by Myriam J. A. Chancy
294 pages,
ISBN: 190229419X


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Brief Review. Fiction
by Irene D'Souza

The Winnipeg-based, Haitian born, Myriam Chancy's first work of fiction begins with The Myth of King Christophe and the Citadelle. The opening sequence draws the reader into the brutal birth of Haiti, that weird twilit place where the dead are believed to walk the streets and where voodoo spirituality is practiced. Spirit of Haiti is one of the most in-your-face attempts to deconstruct the nation's mosaic and expose the dire predicament of Haitians for contemporary readers. In doing so, Ms. Chancy paints a picture of a nation that is tiny but crippled by insurmountable problems. It is a nation where optimism is unimaginable.
This accomplished and haunting debut, published first in England and nominated for a Commonwealth Prize last year as best first novel in the Canadian/ Caribbean category, is a surreal tour de force set in Haiti during the 1990s. Chancy's Haiti is stark and forbidding, hemmed in by the corruption of the Duvalier regime and debilitated by its history of slavery and racism. AIDS and economic depravity add to the misery. Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. It is as if the very DNA of Haitians is imprinted with grief.
In Chancy's Haiti, violence, political corruption, petty theft, organised crime and prostitution are all connected at the base. Haitians grapple with poverty and all that is crooked in the midst of their communities. There is no social safety net. Only wealth ensures survival. To her credit, Chancy shows us Haiti's seamy underworld without making it gratuitously bleak. Her poetically inspired sentences create a fine historical backdrop as well as a sense of immediacy. Lively but deeply moving, her prose resonates long after the story is over.
Strung together with lyrical and breathtaking colourful scenes, the narrative starts out in the lives of four individuals who share a childhood friendship and a bond that carries over to adulthood. They grow up during the military rule of the Duvalier Regime. Alexis and Phillipe are best friends, although Alexis is hostile to Phillipe's homosexuality. Phillipe sells his body to earn enough for himself and his grandmother; his only option is to prostitute himself to foreigners vacationing in Haiti. AIDS is beginning to take a toll on him physically, but he clings to his sense of dignity. Alexis, the artist, has fled north in order to save himself. He relies on his art as way of escaping from the omnipresent misery, and struggles through his daily routine, trying not to think of his friend Phillipe. Leah, the blind one, is more sighted than everyone else. She conjures up the spirit world and hears the voices of ancestors. She is a threat to those in power because she's fearless, exposing lies and liars around her. Finally, there is Carmen, who has grown up in Canada. Pregnant, she returns to Haiti as if drawn by the siren's song. Her goal is to assist in restoring order to this land of chaos, regardless of the cost to herself and the child she is carrying.
The Spirit of Haiti is filled with ghosts, coincidences, chance meetings, and an eerie, mystical atmosphere. Ms. Chancy is a writer who cares about words and pacing; she tells her story in deft strokes. The characters are well developed and evoke the stark reality of life in Haiti. Chancy has an ingenious way of connecting the past and present, deploying unexpected descriptive details to help the story pick up momentum and work its way to a climax that is frightening but realistic, considering the actual documented brutality of the regime.
Although the story is steeped in mysticism, it is a serious and honest critique of the consequences of slavery and colonialism, political corruption, and the lack of regard shown by other countries for weak nations like Haiti, whose populace bears the brunt of its endemic problems. This is a sensitive portrait of a people whose spirit is sorely tested but not diminished.
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