In Omens of Adversity the anthropologist David Scott writes that the collapse of the 1983 Grenada revolution, and the subsequent U.S. invasion, “constitute a watershed event in the generational experience of time and history—a traumatic ending and an aftermath without end.” Sadly this acute sense of disappointment and exhaustion is not a unique event in Caribbean history, and each generation can locate their own trauma, from the aftermath of the Cuban Revolution to the Haitian revolt of 1804.
Martin Munro’s Tropical Apocalypse: Haiti and the Caribbean End Times is a study of the literary and cinematic works that take as their theme this “aftermath without end.” “The apocalyptic narrative,” Munro writes, “is generated as it were from the inside, as a means of understanding (and surviving) the particular movements of history that have created the disasters of the present.” These disasters can be the result of human agency, as in disastrous reign of the Duvaliers and Jean Bertrand Aristide, or the impersonal but no less catastrophic impact of natural disasters like the 2010 earthquake. Munro is a professor of French at Florida State University, as well as the editor of Edwidge Danticat: A Reader’s Guide and author of Different Drummers: Rhythm and Race in the Americas. We spoke about the relationship between Caribbean and other world literatures, how the Caribbean apocalypse grew out of religious and secular sources, and the role of the arts when political institutions fail.
Michael Schapira: I wanted to start with a biographical question and ask how you developed an interest and expertise in the Francophone Caribbean, having been educated in Scotland.
Martin Munro: It’s a question people ask quite often, and I never have a good answer! It’s hard to say how and more so why you develop an interest like this. In Aberdeen, I took a class on Francophone literature with Celia Britton and Michael Syrotinski, and I was hooked, especially by the Caribbean parts. We read Gouverneurs de la rosée, a classic Haitian peasant novel by Jacques Roumain, which I quite liked, but I really loved Le quatrième siècle, an epic, complex, historical novel by Edouard Glissant, about generations of families in Martinique. I liked the political elements in the works. On some level, I identified with a number of the issues raised, about history, language, and colonialism. It is tempting sometimes to read your own situation and thoughts into these works, to align yourself in that way. I felt at times that the history of the Highlands echoed in some ways that of the islands—migration, loss of culture and language, environmental decay, and the social damage that follows. At school, I knew next to nothing of Scottish literature, languages, or culture, as they were not extensively taught. But in truth that absence was also a kind of paradoxical liberation—not having or being aware of a national culture as such made me look outwards, so I studied the Russian Revolution rather than Scottish history, and learned French and Italian instead of Gaelic. National culture can be a burden, and I never had that. Instead I was able to look outwards, and to feel free. Ultimately I am interested in Caribbean writing for itself, on its own terms. I am interested in it because it is interesting.
You adapt “four riders” of the Caribbean Apocalypse from Zizek’s Living in the End Times. Some are different (he talks about the “biogenic revolution,” whereas you talk about the particular historical legacy of slavery and colonialism and the longtime scourge of criminality), but some are shared—ecological crisis and growing social divisions and exclusions. At the end of the book, after dealing in great detail with the Caribbean Apocalypse as conceived by filmmakers and novelists, you again talk about global points of convergence. Was insisting on these global comparisons something important for you from the origins of the project?
The book actually began as part of a broader project on Haitian writing after the earthquake. That project split into two, so that I published a book, Writing on the Fault Line, that deals exclusively with writing since the earthquake, while Tropical Apocalypse considers more or less exclusively material from before 2010, and is a kind of prologue to the other work. The global comparisons are important in so far as they help place Caribbean concerns in relation to what is happening elsewhere, but again my primary concern is to understand the Caribbean on its own terms.
Zizek also made me wonder whether there is comparative work on other regional literatures and the Caribbean, particularly Eastern Europe, which shares a legacy of subjugation to foreign powers, criminality, dictatorships, and catastrophe. As a novice I associate this Eastern European literature with an absurdist sensibility, but I’m curious whether you’ve done or know of comparative work (or whether there are potential pitfalls in such a project)?
That’s an interesting connection to make, though I am not aware of too much interaction between the Caribbean and Eastern Europe, apart from Milan Kundera’s readings of authors like Patrick Chamoiseau, Aimé Césaire, and René Depestre. In fact, there was probably more contact in the past, in the mid-twentieth century, when Caribbean authors tended to congregate in Paris, and authors like Depestre would spend time in Eastern Europe. Also, perhaps the Francophone Caribbean’s best-known work, Césaire’s poem Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (Notebook of a return to the native land), was inspired by a visit the poet made to Yugoslavia with his classmate Peter Guberina. The idea for the poem came to Césaire when they visited a place called Martinska, or St. Martin’s Island, which sparked thoughts of his homeland Martinique.
There are as you say potential pitfalls in equating too closely one place’s experiences with those of another. As I have said, I think you need to take each place on its own terms and not project your own concerns and issues onto it. For example, I think Zizek misreads and appropriates Haitian history in his brief engagements with it, in an attempt to make a broader point about global revolutionary struggle. The history of non-Caribbean engagements with Caribbean history and culture is full of such misreading. I am not immune to this either.
I’m a big admirer of David Scott’s work, and get a sense that he’s had a big influence on post-colonial studies in shifting the generic pre-occupation from romance to tragedy, and in so doing drawing far more attention to time and temporality. In Omens of Adversity he consistently uses the language of catastrophe, and I’m wondering whether, aside from the religious connotations and the temporality of an “end time,” apocalypse is doing work that catastrophe cannot achieve on its own?
I agree on Scott’s work and its importance. I guess the fundamental difference is that he writes primarily of the Anglophone Caribbean, and the “tragic” turn it appears to have taken since independence in the 1960s, while I am writing mainly of Haiti, which has been independent since 1804, and therefore has a quite different, and far longer, history of independence and the issues it brings. What they share is the catastrophic history of slavery, the plantation, and colonialism. For a while, there was a sense that history could be overcome in some ways, and that the catastrophe of modern Caribbean history could be reinterpreted as the birth of something new, but now that has faded somewhat, and there is the sense of an impasse, which itself implies stasis, time standing still, or ending in some senses.
I guess one of the particular functions of apocalypse relates to the meaning of the Ancient Greek term apocálypsis, which refers to a revelation, the uncovering of something hidden. One needs to take care with using the term apocalypse in this context, as it is of course an ideologically charged concept, related to longstanding conceptions of Haiti as a failed, ill-starred nation, for example in political or religious discourse, where it may be used to justify Western economic, military, and political interventions. In some cases, Haitian authors refute these representations of Haiti and present distinctly anti-apocalyptic narratives of time, place, and nature. More commonly, however, the apocalyptic narrative is generated as it were from the inside, as a means of understanding (and surviving) the particular movements of history that have created the disasters of the present. History seems to create a particular relationship with death that is expressed in the Haitian proverb “Nou mouri déjà, nou pa pè santi”—we are already dead, we don’t fear the odor of death. In a sense, the world and life came to enslaved Africans through death, the deadening non-existence of the plantation. Such a conception of death (and life) is not that far removed from the apocalyptic thought of modern day evangelicals and explains to some extent the stoic fatalism—often interpreted as innate “resilience”—that underlies much of the history of the Haitian people, and in particular their reactions to the 2010 earthquake. It is this polyvalent quality that characterizes Haitian apocalyptic narratives, and that distinguish them from, for example, the “southern apocalyptic imaginary,” defined in a recent work as “a field of reference, drawn from the cosmology of southern evangelical Protestantism, that maps the apocalyptic possibilities of cataclysm, judgment, deliverance, and even revolution onto the landscape of the region.” While, as the book shows, evangelical Protestantism is a significant element in propagating an apocalyptic imaginary in contemporary Haiti, the book also demonstrates the polyvalence and complexity of Haiti’s apocalyptic imaginary, and shows that the Haitian and Caribbean apocalypse has its own particular meanings and paradoxes, for instance in the ways in which the state functions (or does not function), and most notably in the sense that the apocalypse has endured for centuries, and that the end times have no apparent end. I think finally apocalyptic interpretations of time and history indicate powerlessness, a sense that a society has lost control of its own destiny.
You write very eloquently on apocalyptic memory—“a recollection of a time that was marked by endings.” There is great difficulty in uncovering these memories after the abuses of the Duvalier and Aristide regimes in Haiti, but as you say they are not necessarily generative memories in that they are not reminding us of periods where possibilities were open and plentiful. Nonetheless, you say that in the absence of a truth commission on these eras (especially the Duvalier era), “Haitian arts and especially literature take on important memorial and testimonial functions.” Do you think this memory work can eventually find its way back into political channels, or does the apocalyptic character of the intervening years mean that the arts will likely continue to play a leading role?
The Catch-22 situation as far as politics goes is the apparent inability of the state to intervene in any meaningful way in the lives of its people. There is little trust in the state, so it remains powerless and without resources, though without a proper functioning state the nation cannot take full control of its own economic, political, and social destiny.
The Haitian sociologist Laënnec Hurbon writes of a condition of “permanent catastrophe” in Haiti. Recognizing the apparent contradiction in the term, Hurbon writes that if every disaster supposes a rupture in time and experience, one should also be aware of the “before and after of the catastrophe.” Disasters strike so often in Haiti—from the floods in Gonaïves in 2004 to the 2010 earthquake to the cholera epidemic to hurricanes Sandy and Isaac in 2012—that the population “risks taking as natural every calamity.” One effect of living in permanent catastrophe is that the memory of the most deadly of these events, the 2010 earthquake, fades quickly and the event loses its distinctiveness. One has the impression, Hurbon writes in 2012, that nothing happened on 12 January 2010, and that a “leap has been skillfully made beyond that date.” The constant denial and annulment of the disaster leads to the general “permanent installation in catastrophe.”
This condition of permanent disaster has important political dimensions, for as Hurbon argues at the heart of the situation “the leaders of the State seem to worry only about how to stay in power.” Disasters are moreover “godsends” for those in power in that they give the politicians a source of legitimacy, which otherwise they would not have. There is even a “desire for disasters” in government, as these events allow the leaders to present themselves as victims to the international community, and to discharge their responsibilities in the economic, social, cultural, and political life of Haiti. To live in a state of permanent disaster means that individual events are not memorialized in a way that would consign them to the past and allow a sense of time other than that characterized by catastrophe: people live, Hurbon says, “without a perceptible future” and in “in the condition of being superfluous (floating between life and death).” Hurbon points out that the government has no interest in a memorial for the 2010 earthquake, and as such the disaster is not considered past, but part of the catastrophic present. This in turn has serious consequences for notions of reconstruction, as to be in a permanent state of catastrophe is to forget any time in which disaster was not a daily reality, and to lose awareness of what was there before to be reconstructed. As Hurbon puts it, the causes of permanent disaster are as much political as environmental. Indeed, the various signs of environmental degradation—deforestation, pollution, etc.—can be read as “the expression of the failure of the Haitian State”. It follows that the arts, and literature in particular, have important memorial functions, and one finds since the earthquake a number of chronicles and other works that relate testimonies of various kinds.
Through an odd set of circumstances I recently was flown down to Anguilla to write a story about a luxury resort, and as I was there I couldn’t help but think that tourism is another aspect of the Caribbean’s apocalyptic vision (an interminable end time that offers little promise of redemption). Has tourism ever been a theme of the authors you work on or a site in this literature?
Certainly in the broader Caribbean tourism features as an important theme in literary, political, economic, and environmental discourse. I remember one time walking along a beach in Barbados and coming across an abandoned resort, Cunard I think it was, or one of those big companies. It was a really atmospheric place, ghostly, all those empty hotel rooms, the rusty chairs round the empty pool. Nature was reclaiming the place, slowly moving in. I actually think tourism should be nationalized in some way, run efficiently for the benefit of the nation and the people. Otherwise, the money runs out of the country and tourism becomes part of the Caribbean poverty trap.
In Haiti, however, because there is so little tourism, it is rarely presented as a theme in literature. There is an interest in relations between Haitians and outsiders, in particular in addressing the misconceptions foreigners often (inevitably) have of the nation and its people. The author Lyonel Trouillot often sets up these kinds of relationships, dialogues between insiders and outsiders, and between country people and those who live in the city.
In Norman Cohn’s classic study of “revolutionary messianism” in medieval Europe he claims that millenarian groups within Christianity can help explain the social psychology of 20th century totalitarian movements, particularly in the division of humanity into opposing camps whose ultimate value would be demonstrated in a final struggle. In Haiti you focus on the chimères (and to some extent the Tonton Macoutes) as the anti-heroes of the Caribbean apocalypse, and they are notably different in that they muddy this strict distinction of the world into the camps of good and evil. The historical interval is far less than medieval Europe to the 20th century, but do you also think that these figures explain a particular social psychology that is in some sense revelatory of a persistent strain in the Caribbean that will continue to have explanatory power over time?
It is important to remember that the so-called chimères are real people, and products of particular historical, social, and economic circumstances. In Haitian literature, they are often presented as the gang members who seem to find their only sense of living on the very precipice of death, and whose very name suggests they are hybrid, ghostly creatures, mythical revenants produced by history who at times threaten to overrun the country. In Edwidge Danticat’s Claire of the Sea Light (2013), the ongoing ecological disaster in Haiti is intimately connected to the human disaster of the gangs, an almost inevitable and in some ways “natural” consequence of the conditions in which the community survives. In that novel, the gang members themselves are those whose lives most closely resemble a form of death, which is reflected in the name given to them. These gang figures were originally street children who were later co-opted by business owners and politicians to swell the ranks of political demonstrations and to spread fear when required. The chimères live in effect through death, through creating a sense of chaos that leads one character to reflects that “Life had become so cheap that you could give anyone a few dollars to snuff it out,” and the country had entered “the age of assassins” (186). So yes, there is something here in the intimate imbrication of power, poverty, crime, masculinity, and death that is something of a historical legacy, and that creates these kinds of figures across the Caribbean.
Michael Schapira is the Interviews Editor of Full Stop.