Illuminating the Shadows: an Interview with Jean-Euphèle Milcé
Over the past three years, PEN American Center has worked closely with PEN Haiti to support its programming and to participate in an exchange with Haitian writers. PEN Haiti’s founder, Georges Anglade, was tragically killed in the 2010 earthquake, but the PEN center has since been rebuilt. The centerpiece of its renaissance is La Residence Georges Anglade, a beautiful house of literature in Port-au-Prince. We sat down with PEN Haiti’s visionary founder Jean-Euphèle Milcé to get his thoughts on free expression, the next generation of writers, and his new novel. A transcript in English follows below. Click here for the original French.
Translated from the French by Cassandra da Costa.
PEN AMERICA: I’m here today with Jean-Euphèle Milcé, president of PEN Haiti. Jean-Euphèle, please introduce yourself.
JEAN-EUPHÈLE MILCÉ: I’ve been writing for fifteen years in Haiti, and in 2010 I was elected president of PEN Haiti, replacing our late friend Georges Anglade, who died during the earthquake.
PEN: Could you describe the Résidence Georges Anglade?
MILCÉ: We offer a permanent home for young authors, Haitian authors, foreign authors, and we also welcome the public. It is a house of literature in Haiti—a house of freedom of expression where one can find a library, meeting rooms, a residence that can sleep eight people, and a small gift shop.
PEN: Could you explain the issues surrounding freedom of expression today in Haiti?
MILCÉ: Haiti has been an extremely fragile country that has never totally had democracy. We experienced 30 or so years of ferocious dictatorship. These dictatorships have attacked writers and journalists. Those writers fortunate enough to go into exile were among the few who were not killed. So there has been a large loss of human life and a weakening of the journalism and writing communities. After the dictatorship, we underwent a revolt where the military held power for a long time. Haiti has always been like this—a pretend-democracy. But during this period, writers and journalists still fought to make their way.
The current situation is that, in Haiti, the model of growth and development proposed by the government demands job creation. And for jobs to be created, we must change the constraints imposed on the country. But the government thinks that the act of questioning these policies could prevent investors from coming to Haiti. So, it’s an insidious little war against writers, but fortunately, the writers and journalists are strong enough to defend themselves. At the Residence we work like an observatory. Every time there is a little shift in attack by the government—and we have the ability to argue, discuss, to use media—we are very much alert, we watch closely, we wait, hoping that a disaster won’t occur.
PEN: Could you tell us what the future looks like for writers in Haiti? For example, young writers—what are the opportunities for them and the problems they face?
MILCÉ: We’ve had generations of writers who have been very militant and politically engaged, who have insisted on a kind of orthodoxy in terms of the themes they’ve explored. In the past, writers were members of the middle class with cultural capital who mastered several languages. They were also very politically engaged. They were, for the most part, leftists, anti-Duvalier, anti-military, and a bit anarchist. Now we have another generation of writers who are urban, fragile, cultivated, and venerable people who have lived through many things. These are writers who have always been in Haiti, and who have not known exile like those before them. These young writers write about women’s rights and justice, for example. It’s a localized literature that examines current subjects in a language that really enriches the Kreyol or the French that is used daily. It is a very beautiful generation of young, self-assured writers who need mentorship. They are slightly arrogant, but one hopes that they will continue the work of their elders because it’s been at least forty years since Haitian literature started to ask itself how it would create an interesting collection of work and how it would position itself in the international Francophone market. At PEN Haiti, we want to encourage this generation so that there won’t be any divisions, so that this literature will continue to stand up for Haitian thought and culture.
PEN: You personally just released a new book—could you give us a short summary?
MILCÉ: I’m developing a body of work that tries to defend the idea of utopia. Because, in Haiti, we are faced with a very harsh reality. It is a country in the midst of constructing a democracy, which means there is a lot of absurdity and complacency about power structures since we haven’t learned to challenge power in Haiti—we are not used to doing so. It’s an important situation for me as a writer. My novel Mes chères petites ombres (My Sweet Little Shadows), tries to link two subjects that are very popular in Haiti: political governance and contemporary art, which are very visible discourses that people can use to analyze events in the country. My new book imagines a group of friends who went to school together who are able to—from a very young age—assert a kind of power that leads to their own destruction. We are in a situation called the “politique de doublure,” or shadow politics, where a group of people who have always been linked in a kind of brotherhood decide to collectively assume power in the country. As a citizen and a writer, I believe that the people who truly run Haiti aren’t visible to the public, so we are really in a regime of shadow power. It’s these alliances made out of friendships—familial and special interest alliances with local and international interests—that assume power. That’s more or less the subject of my novel; I hope it won’t offend everyone. [laughs]
PEN: Last question—what’s your favorite team in the World Cup?
MILCÉ: Haiti isn’t in the World Cup! [laughs] I love the game of soccer, especially in countries where writers and journalists aren’t persecuted. So not Brazil, obviously… but if I must choose one team, it would be a country a bit more calm like France, the Netherlands, or Germany. So if I can take those three teams and combine them into one, that would be good enough for me. [laughs]