The Witch of Matongé is a suspenseful, at times comical, and often harrowing blend of mysticism, culture, and exploitation in relationships. The book follows an ensemble of characters with interlocking stories: Jaelle, a beautiful bartender; Jean-Robert, a morally questionable painter; Max, an American involved in illegal dealings; and Abu, a teenage Arab suicide bomber. Jaelle enjoys romantic encounters with each of the characters, but when Jean-Robert gets jealous and Abu’s suicide vest goes missing, dangerous consequences abound. Bell says that, in some ways, the book could be considered a rom-com, yet issues of terrorism and sexual abuse pervade the novel and anchor it in a serious tone.
From his literary debut, Washington Square Ensemble,to his award-winning trilogy on the Haitian Revolution, Madison Smartt Bell has been a critical and impactful figure in the literary world. Bell is the recipient of various awards including a Guggenheim Fellowship and the John Dos Passos Prize. He currently teaches at Goucher College with his wife, award-winning poet, Elizabeth Spires. Bell’s short stories have been published in popular American anthologies, and he has written for numerous esteemed publications including Harper’s and The New York Times.
I had the honor of speaking with Bell about his new book, The Witch of Matongé. We met at a hip, French cafe that fit the Parisian setting of his mystical new book. We discussed how his new novel demystifies prejudices and sets an example for cultural healing. Bell shared with me an article he had written, “Mumbo Gumbo,” a play on “mumbo jumbo,” a term whites used to belittle the language of “savages.” In the article, Bell posits various ways for us to recover as a culture. He cites intermarriage, immigration, and “Jes Grew,” (the joyful spreading of Black culture) as methods to combat and transcend racism. Bell, whose sparkling sense of humor permeated our chat, suggested that “laughter is a kind of exorcism.” Indeed, unified laughter over a book, song, or an interview, can provide temporary healing and alleviate cultural stress. Bell’s social consciousness and goodwill infused our interview as we discussed empathy, politics, race, and the complexities of his characters. As we parted, he extended his expertise in whimsical symbolism by complimenting me on my tattoos.
Liv Albright: In an article with Jeannie Vanasco in The New Yorker, you were talking about how certain rituals of Vodou are akin to a trance-like state, and that’s similar to your creative flow state. I was wondering what your experience was with Vodou and how you think it can be used as a type of cultural healing?
Madison Smartt Bell: When I first started going to Haiti, I had a sort of inadvertent possession experience, and I was interested in the Vodou religion anyway, so that became my kind of reason to go further, and to try to understand what had happened, grounded in the context of the religion. I went to Haiti through a period of years, just because of my work. And I did the first stage of initiation, it’s called “Lave Tet,” washing your head. Most religions have that in theresomewhere, possession. In other ways they’re also about unleashing the ego, getting the ego out of the saddle. Something that’s a little, shall we say, selfish, and I think that’s where you have the connection to cultural healing.
And I still practice – I do a little Vodou every day. It involves pouring a little water on the ground here and there – I’m not having to kill a chicken or anything, it’s not Hollywood Vodou. But I also regularly attend Quaker meetings, because the attraction for me there is Vodou without the excitement or the burden of exoticism. It’s quieter. But the idea is fundamentally the same: you get into a state of mind where your ego is gone and messages from the divine can come through, so the fundamental idea is the same. If everybody could get their head in that space at the same time, we would have better social situations.
Yeah, definitely. I think a lot of religions have common goals, just to connect with the divine and to have this community, but I think a lot of people see more of the separation than what’s similar.
Right. In Islam, where they’re self-abnegatory, one of the specific ways it’s expressed is in Sufism. The whole practice of The Turn, the form of the hypnotic that induces a trance state, is another example of the commonality of this. In the book, the character Abu is in this tense situation between one teacher who is a Sufi and another who is a terrorist. Again, most religions have a pernicious aspect in them, too.
Something else I found interesting in The Witch of Matongé is the bowl the witch has, this device where she can see things that are going on in other present situations. Across traditions and religions, there is the reflective device of the bowl, and I noticed how you used reflective metaphors in the novel. A lot of characters would look at their reflections, like Abu, and The American, and have this experience where they saw maybe a different side of themselves.
Well, I had pretty much zero consciousness of any of that stuff, but I also believe that your observations are valid, because a lot of what gets done in fiction writing, and, you know, in any kind of imaginative art, is an unconscious process. It’s not that it’s not there, but that it comes from an unconscious part of the mind, which is the more creative part, which is accessed by getting into a flow state.
What can I say about the witch’s bowl? Well, there are a couple of things. It’s real specific in Haitian belief, and a difference between that and Judeo-Christian traditional beliefs, that the dead are not considered to depart, but they are sitting nearby. You just can’t see them. They’re called les invisibles or les partis, and so they’re always there, but where are they exactly? They’re considered to be beneath the sea in a parallel universe under water. Once you understand that, you start to understand why slaves jumping off of slave ships said that they’re going back to Heaven. The slave masters considered this to be a naive primitivism because they didn’t understand the metaphysical structure that made sense of it.
As for the witch’s bowl – in all the Vodou ceremonies I’ve ever been to they use these very ordinary objects that are temporarily invested with magical power status. When they’re done, everything turns back into what it was before, and I always thought that was touching – you know she’s not always using it to see into other people’s minds, she could use it for cookie dough.
I found that compelling, what you said about how the water represents the afterlife, because I always thought the slaves were jumping to their death as a last resort, but they were jumping into their afterlife, and that makes a lot of sense.
In the first world, we learn to be extremely afraid of anything that disrupts the hegemony of the ego. Dying definitely does that, so we construct beliefs in a way that the personal self persists. The basis of Vodou is African, and death is more of a state of translation rather than an absolute terminating event.
Abu, who is a suicide bomber, deals with his impending death. I was wondering if you could speak about Abu and his lack of agency?
I haven’t had the opportunity to study and observe the mentality of suicide bombers. But I think that they give up their agency. Abu doesn’t really like that, he never really gives up his agency, he’s never really committed to doing it. He’s also not sure that he won’t do it, but he has a Sufi who takes an interest in him, while Farouk the terrorist is somebody who dominates him. Abu has all these rhetorical tools that you can find in some of the Jihadi publications in French. I actually took some stuff to get the flavor of those messages. Osama Bin Laden’s original rhetorical screed, if you’ve ever read that – it’s about the length of the Gettysburg address. What interested me is his referring to First World Europeans as Crusaders. They’re still pissed off about that. And not only do they think it’s still going on, but it’s still part of the rhetoric that’s fed to suicide bombers and people recruited for violent acts. I mean, it’s a small sector.
This book isn’t coming out from a trade publisher. I’m not supposed to write about these people. I did my best to do it in good faith. I think Abu is a sympathetic character. He’s just a kid, confused, but also not stupid. One of my favorite scenes in the book is when he’s sitting next to these American girls in the cafe and eavesdropping on their conversation. They’re talking like anybody would in our world, but from his point of view it’s completely depraved. They say “oh my God” all the time, it’s blasphemy. Abu’s got camel toe coming through the wall of the madrasa; he’s in a sort of crazy salad of a culture. He has some difficulty orienting himself, but that’s what makes it interesting.
It is interesting, and I think that’s their culture, their perspective, and looking at things like the Trump presidency from their perspective, I can see how anybody would dislike Americans. And you have the character, Jean-Marie Le Pen…
Marine also, the daughter, who at this point is a lot scarier. I mean, she took 40% of the vote in the last presidential election, and that’s after some work on her image. But the racism and xenophobia that was a very overt part of her father’s program, you know, the National Front, basically “skinheads are us” – they weren’t shy about that. Marine is so much more so than the MAGA people have had to be. Patriotism prevents me from saying that France is a more civilized country right now, but they do have the same problems. They have massive immigration issues, which have challenged the idea of French citizenship, which was invented in the French Revolution. It has been a very powerful tool for racial difference, but it’s actually been unable to absorb the huge return from the former French colonies, and that produces the anxiety that the National Front fed on. Forty percent of the people are, if they’re not a hundred percent racist and xenophobic themselves, they’re willing to support politicians who are. That’s true over most of Europe. When Obama got elected here, I felt like everything was going to be copacetic from now on: we’re going to move toward democratic reform of at least the western world and as much of the rest of it as we can reach with persuasion rather than force, and the backlash was a whole lot bigger than anybody anticipated.
I think with Obama people thought it was a post-racial situation where we didn’t have to worry about race anymore. It’s definitely quite the opposite. Speaking of immigration, in the book, the witch talks about how she originated from the Roma people, and she demystifies some things about how the people have these prejudices against them, how they don’t take care of their children. I was wondering how you think that relates to how we view prejudices in the US and how we can use this as an example.
Whenever I write fiction (with one exception), I’m trying to make a piece of art, not send a message. Social concerns – since I’m doing representation, realism – are going to leak into it unless it’s completely shallow. In the 1980s, I was driving around listening to AM radio, which is all I had in my car – this is the David Duke period. David Duke was this dude who, in the late 70s early 80s, sort of like Marine le Pen, tried to cosmeticize the KKK so they could be a regular old political party. He was this glib sort of clean cut, blonde, blue-eyed – you know, he wasn’t some thug in a pick-up truck, smelly armpits and a shotgun on the gun rack in the back. He was this presentable dude. You wouldn’t mind him dating your daughter based on his appearance and kind of manner. So it wasn’t him, but it was this other guy who was cast in the same mold. I heard him on the radio doing the same rhetoric. This guy is pretending to speak for me because I’m a white Southerner, and I don’t like that. I’m going to write something, so I wrote a book called Soldier’s Joy. It was set during the Vietnam War period, but that’s the only book I’ve ever written that began with an explicit political motive. Normally I don’t have this motive, so I would have to read it the way you’re reading it – like, is there something here? I’m not sure.
This is where I paraphrase Flaubert a little bit, La sorcière, c’est moi!. The witch is me, the witch is the artifice. She’s the one that’s making this story. But the story of the Roma people – you asked the question and yup, this is true, I’m sure this was in the back of my mind all along – is that they’re quintessential outsiders from the beginning. Somebody did tell me a story that has some aspects of the witch in it. The next thing I probably had in mind was this image of the attacks on Roma camps in France, which is fictionalized in the book.
The Roma people are a group who, even more so than the Jews, are omnipresent in the Western world without being able or willing to assimilate, probably some combination of the two. Thanks to that, they had a special emblem in the concentration camps. The funny thing is, they actually are more Aryan than the Germans. They were considered to be a class, like “these are people who can never be us, they’ll always be other, let’s exterminate them.”
In terms of the #ownvoices factor that’s in literary culture right now, I’d be told, No, you shouldn’t be doing that, you have to let them write their own story. I used the materials I could find for the purpose and tried to use them in good faith.
I think you did a great job. I really liked the story, and you gave a really empathetic portrayal of the Roma people.
As with Abu, I think you could make an argument I have no business doing it, and I would even support that argument in a lot of cases, because, extreme Tanto – if you do it in bad faith, if you do caricatures, stereotypes – you really shouldn’t be doing that. There’s also this: every time somebody else tells a story of some other group, they’re depriving members of that identity group of an opportunity to do that. I can’t just ignore that, that’s a fairly strong argument. On the flip side, this is what I try to teach fiction writers, and they’re all drenched in this rhetoric before they ever get to me. The ability to imagine the interior experience of other people is what makes empathy possible. If empathy isn’t possible, then you can’t have any cultural healing, to use your term. You have to be able to understand the person, you have to be able to understand the rhetoric from the inside. That means we have to be sympathetic and understand what it’s like to be Donald Trump, which is something I really don’t want to do, but it’s a hard case. That is what’s required of you if you’re going to go all the way out in the direction of cultural healing – you don’t have to like it, but you do have to try to understand it. Or, as with QAnon people, it doesn’t work to just say they’re crazy, they’re a threat, because the next thing is, let’s exterminate them – but then, they feel the same way about us.
In the vein of understanding different cultural motifs, I was really interested in the information that you sent me on the Hanged Man symbol. The document discussed how, in the 15th and 16th century, criminals would get painted on the outside of jails if they didn’t get adequately punished by the justice system. This marked them publicly.
Yeah, I think that stuff is really cool.
Yeah, it was so cool, and in the book Jaelle, after something horrible happens, draws the Hanged Man symbol on Jean Robert’s easel to mark him. I thought that was really powerful.
For her, it’s a kind of totem, like a power sign almost, but I did it without particularly knowing what it meant. It just somehow felt right, and the reason I had the phallus, I thought maybe I should know what this actually means aside from the tarot card interpretation. I found out the meaning from all that stuff I sent to you: It’s not just the shame paintings, but also the Norse gods’ discovery of power through hanging inversion. It’s very rich, but it has in many different contexts an association with the externalized shame of criminalized people.
I found that fascinating. Speaking of Jean-Robert, I was curious how you came up with the dynamic between Jean-Robert and The American.
I wrote the first seven or eight chapters in French, and I realized it was not going to be sustainable. I think I maybe just switched to English, and at a certain point, I had to go back and translate it. That was a real pain. I still think the first few chapters are a little stiff because of that, because they’re actually translations. I tried to do it flexibly, but I’m starting with a French text, even though I’m the one who wrote it. Later on, we’ll talk about code switching, because you have a question about that.
The first idea for the book began with the bar called The Zone Gris. It actually exists in that position, or it did – I haven’t been there in a long time. If I was taking a train there, I would stop in this place. So one day I walked in there. It was on the early side, a little before noon. I walked up to the zinc and asked for a beer. The barmaid, a strikingly beautiful girl, says, Vous n’avez pas dit bonjour! – which is a “thing,” you just don’t start without saying bonjour. Anybody you do that to will dress you down for it, and it’s not the first time that had happened. I came up with the line Je n’ose pas dire bonjour à une belle [I don’t dare say hello to a beautiful woman], and there was this other guy, Jean-Robert, and he laughed and she kind of smiled and went to the back and got my beer and everybody felt okay. So, like two years later I thought, well maybe I could run with that. That’s where it started. The best I remember of the physical appearance of the guy was pretty much Jean-Robert – he was probably just a regular French dude, a French person of color, but I thought okay, for my purposes I’ll make him be Haitian, I’ll make him be from Paris, from the 10-20 percent wealthy upper-crust Haitian class, sometimes called the Morally Repugnant Elite, but he won’t have that money, he’ll be having to work to sustain a lifestyle. I don’t think he’s completely unsympathetic. He does do some very bad things, particularly one very bad thing, but he also gets quite a major punishment for it.
In a certain way this book is a romantic comedy – the tone of it isn’t quite that, the tone isn’t telling you you’re supposed to be laughing, but a lot of the situations are funny, and to a certain extent—you know, there are these various triangles. A lot of what goes on between The American and Jean-Robert is about a quarrel over a girl, and then there’s this other triangle with Abu, Jaelle, and Jean-Robert, it’s sort of in the past, or at least as far as Jean-Robert is concerned it’s in the past, but it still keeps influencing how people act. That little bit of history is considered to be not very serious, but it established a few habits that persist.
Abu and Jaelle, they’re an interesting couple of characters. They have that history, but they’re kind of described as these doubles. They could be twins, and Jaelle, when she takes the suicide vest from him to protect herself reminds me of the self-preservation of Freud and the ego. You were talking earlier about the ego. Were you thinking about Freud or did you have other ideas?
[laughs] There’s a particular Freudian thing you mentioned, which I don’t even know what it is – I’m more of a Jungian basically. The only Freudian idea that still works is sublimation. I believe in sublimation wholeheartedly. I really don’t think in terms of Freud at all, but the double thing: do I even know why I did that? It turned out to be convenient, because to me, it was interesting for them to resemble each other so much. Yet their comportment in situations is so different that nobody would ever notice this, because she’s the beautiful girl behind the bar and he’s this scruffy Arab kid taking out the trash. Nobody’s gonna see that unless something happens to turn it up, which does happen a couple of times. For a fiction writer, that’s like, you know, grist for the mill, but as far as all the Narcissus stuff, that’s just space trash in my brain. There may be a pattern that’s legitimate that my unconscious mind put together, but I certainly wasn’t planning anything other than easily available reference.
No, I get that, it was really interesting though, as an English major, everything I can, you know, pull out of it. You also focus on visual arts in the novel. I was really curious about the reoccurring Death of Marat Painting?
I’ve spent a lot of time staring at that painting.
The one in the Louvre?
The one in the Louvre is a copy, it turns out, and the real one, I think, is in Switzerland. What fascinates me about the painting is the black, the blackness of it, which is basically most of the canvas. It’s a painting attributed to a martyr, but Marat was a super creep – he was not a nice person, he was vindictive, he was cruel. The only way Charlotte Corday was able to get to him was because he liked young women like that, so that event happened because each of them was looking for a different opportunity, and hers worked out. At the same time, he’s sort of an icon of the French Revolution and also The Terror. He was an instrument of The Terror, and she came from a more modern branch of French politics of the day. He was causing her friends and relatives to be guillotined, and so she thought, if I kill this guy, maybe I can cut the head off a snake. It didn’t work immediately, but The Terror did wind down. I mean, the terrorists definitely became terrified.
Who could have predicted her? That she could kill Marat – we’re totally vulnerable anyway – just some girl with a kitchen knife. How do you protect yourself against that? If you had to do it over again, don’t let her in. But there’s going to be other situations that are slightly different. For Abu, this obvious context, his political mission, if he chooses to accept it, is about striking at the inimical power at the cost of your own life, which is pretty much what happened for Charlotte Corday. That’s fairly obvious, but the painting, the blackness of the painting, is like the void. For me, the black surfaces expressed the raid on terrorists that were really horrific and just happened to happen while I was writing the book. I had written most of it before that occurred, and I was like, okay here’s my meaning. When I first saw it, I thought I would wear a black bag over my head for a week because I was so disturbed and depressed, but then of course I got over that. I thought I can make art out of this.
Art is something that is prominent throughout the novel. Jean-Robert paints these pornographic images.
They’re commissions. He’s got these rich British vulgarians he works for that want these saucy pictures, boudoir-type pictures to decorate their homes. So, in a way, it’s hack work, but he’s actually pretty talented. I did not think about this while writing the book, but talking about it, there’s a book called Edie, a biography of Edie Sedgewick. She’s a Warhol figure. It’s a cool book, told in the form of an oral history, with these short clips of people who were interviewed. One of the people had this unforgettable line about Warhol, which was roughly that everything he did was because he was afraid of the talent he had, which makes a kind of sense if you think about it. Jean-Robert is the same. He has tremendous facility as a visual artist, but he does these commissions and then he paints these paintings to sell around Paris, and he makes these photographs.
You asked if there was a racial dimension there, the white guy putting down the black guy. Possibly, but what they both are aware of is something a little bit different, which is the historical Haitian-American relationship. This doesn’t become very overt, but one of the things in The American’s background is that he was part of what was sometimes called the intervention in 1994 [the UN invaded Haiti, with mostly US troops, to reverse a military coup]. Before that there was the Marine occupation in Haiti, which was a lot nastier, overtly racist, and tended to restore conditions of slavery and all those dynamics. Haitians still resent that for good reason. It was longer ago, but Islamic people are still unhappy about the Crusade. They think the Crusaders should have stayed home, and I can see their point. The background of The American is that he was in one of these very small Special Forces groups up in the northwest of Haiti; that was how he first got to Haiti. We later find out he married a Haitian woman and had a daughter, and they both died, but all that is pretty deep in the backstory. It’s only in the scene where they have the physical conflict, because The American is pissed off because Jean-Robert hurt Jaelle. He finds out what happened, and he’s a very controlled person, but he’s not completely in control in that moment. They talk about – if not in that scene, in a different scene – how this does reflect Haitian-American power dynamics, because it does. There are other reasons for that to happen, but that aspect is also there.
The four central characters are immigrants, yet you translate a lot of your sentences in French, and then you write at one point, “In Haiti, to speak French properly is a matter of class, privilege.”
The simple answer to your question is that the book happens in Paris, and it’s written from a Francophone sensibility to the point where I actually tried to write it in French. So, I ended up doing that in a fairly conventional way where you drop down some familiar words and phrases, or every now and then a sentence, to remind the reader the conversations are generally happening in French. All these people are immigrants, but they’re in a Francophone country, so they speak French. That’s the language of the society that they’re in, including The American, although he’s an Anglophone. It’s fairly simple and also fairly conventional. Going back to the 19th century, you see people doing that. Russian novelists, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, have long passages of French in their novels because they assume that all their readers would know it since Peter the Great educated the Russians and they spoke French, go figure.
To me, the most interesting aspect of it is code switching. I became much more conscious of code switching when I was working with my copy editor on the book. She’s a good copy editor, and she would ask your question every time, why are you doing this, should you be doing this? That’s what a good copy editor does, but she drove me crazy. That’s her job. I had to think much more consciously about code switching in the book. That connects to what I said previously about empathy and being able to understand people from their side. If you want to understand people from the inside, you have to think about them in the language they would use to think about themselves. To my mind, your identity, particularly the part the ego is in charge of, is a linguistic construct. If you take away the language, most of the identity will go with it.
Code switching is kind of a popular trope right now. I’m not into every popular trope, but I think code switching is a good word for a thing that’s been around forever because it’s precise, and the significance is that everybody knows one code. They know one language because they stay within a single group that speaks the same language they do. I don’t just mean English, or, as the French would say, American. It’s all about where you’re looking at it from. Subgroups of Americans speak these different languages. They use different codes that have to do with religion, social class, race, ethnicity, a million things, so there are all these different kinds of codes. The more that you gain the capacity to code switch, the better you can understand and get along with other kinds of people.
I just was having fun with this dialogue between The American and Jean-Robert in their earlier encounters, when they’re feeling each other out. In Haitian Creole, the vocabulary comes from France, but the syntax is not French syntax at all, it’s way simpler. Jean-Robert is a native speaker. The American has some Haitian Creole – he knows Haitian Creole as I do, you might say – so it’s a way of feeling each other out. Does your personality change when you move to a different language? In fact, normally it does. I had fun playing around with that stuff, the cultural healing that you talk about. For better communication to happen we have to learn each other’s codes.
One of the more startling experiences of my life occurred when I was in New Haven on some other mission, and I happened to run into a former student from Goucher. He was a brilliant guy, in a Yale grad program, and he had an African American parent and a Jewish parent. Clearly, from the way our system works, he was a Black guy, but he talked like President Obama, basically, when he was in school. He was super smart, huge vocabulary. He spoke more fluently in the language of academia than I did, just seemed perfectly comfortable in it. I thought that was the whole guy, that I knew him pretty well. So, then I run into him on the street near Yale by accident, and we go into a coffee shop and sit outside on the terrace. We’re talking, and some Black people walk by. They start talking to him. He reels off a couple of paragraphs in Ebonics, and they leave. He turns to me, and I’m pulling my foot out of my mouth, and he says, all my white friends do that. I thought, okay, I didn’t know this. Again, you think about the person, he all the time has to function, and the possibility of needing to code switch is always there for him.
This is something you hear about a lot more – any time we’re in your world, we have to exist on your terms using your language. That’s a big part of the issue, not only for Black Americans but for Hispanic Americans, Kurdish Americans. You can pick any immigrant group. The First World conventions say implicitly and often explicitly that you spend your childhood and youth building a self, and the rest of your life is defending the self that you’ve constructed. When you’re making moral or ethical decisions, for example, are you being true to yourself? In everything you do, you’re defending the idea of yourself you have built. In the First World, that’s the way to be successful. If you generalize this down to MAGA people, I think Trump voters, most of them, whether they would say it or not, or basically, well, at this point, we can say Trumpism, I think they’re basically defending white supremacy. The reason they’re doing that is they believe it supports their socioeconomic position, but it also supports the sense of self that they have.
Let’s not forget Marjorie Taylor Greene [laughs], but you know it’s a particular sense of self that’s engaged with the larger identity group that is seen to be under attack, to be threatened. It’s this bristled defensive attitude. The connection I’m trying to make is that we are taught to think of our individual selves as entities that need to be defended, and you make yourself impermeable, and it makes it really hard to understand anybody who’s different from you.
I also think what you were saying, how African Americans live with this double consciousness, they internalize the white gaze and that becomes part of their self, so how do you have a self if you’re sharing the view of the oppressor as yourself?
Right, and you incorporate that into your sense of who you are.
It made me think of an article I read about the economic exploitation of Haiti, and how it wasn’t taught in French schools, and we’re doing the same thing. Lawmakers are trying to push for a sanitized version of Black history in the US.
Yeah, in France there’s still a lot of discussion about not only that, but also the Haitian Revolution itself. I blundered on the topic in 1983, I think. At the time, I was like, how is it I don’t know about this, because nobody was teaching it. Black Americans knew about it, but white people didn’t, so I thought, okay, I can tell this story to my tribe, the dominant white culture, because they don’t know it and it would probably be good for them to know it. I spent like 20 years doing that. During that time there were a couple of early specialists who were doing research on the Haitian Revolution and training grad students to do it, so by the time my book came out, it was floating on this wave of scholarship that continued for another fifteen years. Then the field became overcrowded from the academic point of view. That’s about the time my daughter was in high school, and there were two whole pages about the Haitian Revolution in her textbook. In a little country town near where I grew up in Tennessee, there is a cemetery called Toussaint Louverture Cemetery. Obviously, those people knew the story, but I had no idea what that was.
I think I learned everything later on. I don’t think I was taught it in school either. When you’re young and you’re forming a concept of yourself, you’re not taking in other groups that have suffered. It doesn’t make us good people, I think, to not learn the history.
Well, the problem with that is, and this is a recent insight I’ve had, you always think that the goal of history is to tell the whole truth. So, you think, then, what is that? Depending on your point of view, you may think that’s like Howard Zinn – like all the stuff that’s left out, there’s the truth. You can’t get everything into a story because it won’t fit. So basically, most of history, which is, of course, a narrative, is created by leaving things out or choosing what to put in that fits your ideas, whatever they are.
It’s people putting them in, it’s not objective history.
Objective history, that could possibly be done by Martians, but human beings will never do it. They can try, they can want to, which is something, because that’s not always the case, but you can’t ever succeed. You just try.
Liv Albright is a writer and visual artist based in Baltimore Maryland. She formerly served as the fiction editor for Grub Street Literary Magazine (vol. 71). Her work can be found in Ligeia Magazine and Chicago Review of Books (forthcoming). She studies English at Towson University.