Into the splendour of ruins

6 months ago 88

Jean D’Amérique’s poems and the novel A Sun to Be Sewn are the first of this young Haitian writer’s books to appear in English. Both translations pulse with vitality, though they are equally marked by the brutality of the author’s birthplace – a “living hell”, as the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights said earlier this year. D’Amérique was twenty years old in 2015, when he published his first collection; his second, No Way in the Skin Without This Bloody Embrace, appeared in 2017 and has won or been nominated for literary prizes in France, where he now spends much of his time.

V. S. Naipaul, speaking of his youth on another Caribbean island, said its nature was “fertile, swift and violent”: all apt descriptors of D’Amérique’s poems. Rimbaud, the surrealists and Aimé Césaire, with their vivid colours, neck-snapping changes of direction and splotches of imagery (the verbal equivalent of abstract expressionist painting), are here too. Towards the book’s end the fury is softened by a Walcottian sensuousness (“I am a shipwreck, flying my song with no sail / my voice escapes the calm flame of the islands /… I am the storm’s seed”). Some poems are manifestos:

slipshod phalanges
I toss my phrases with abandon
into the splendor of ruins
my inkwell
a lurching boat extending them passage
burning the periods
so that sense is suspended
so that their staggering ends well

It cannot have been easy to translate these poems; most have ambiguities of syntax and diction that the translator, Conor Bracken, will have had to work to preserve. Readers will appreciate the volume’s bilingual presentation, as well as the translator’s note, with its invitation to second-guess Bracken’s solutions while also respecting “the core mystery at the heart of a poem and a person”.

A twelve-year-old girl narrates A Sun to Be Sewn (published in French as Soleil à coudre in 2021), which is set in Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital. Her life is so harsh that one is hard put to believe she could survive, let alone make it through with her spirit intact. Her mother, who works as a prostitute, tries to instil a respect for cleanliness in a place where water is a disputed resource; “Papa”, the stepfather (“What have I done with my human light? That is his wound”), is a hitman for a political boss; “Cracked Head” herself, whose name is “a poem about the end of the world”, is raped at gunpoint after hours in the school office. She has two dreams: to flee her violent birthplace and to become a writer. “I grab the white papers and the pen and retreat to a corner”, she says. “If only I could find the words to burn this void.” She drafts and redrafts a love letter to a classmate who has fled to New York. Time – “a few years” – passes in a torrent of metaphors:

Here I am, a tale of the abyss in search of an asylum at the end of the letters. A saying lives in me like a clot of blood helping me to die, to die in silence, in the broken echo of lightning.

At last, “alone in the dark night”, the adolescent somehow finds herself aboard “a coffin boat” en route to “the American dream”. She has become one of

the desperate people who claim to be fleeing poverty … loaded like tired donkeys … useless items, bowls containing rice and chicken thighs […] We aren’t on a journey, we’re bodies perched on a destiny of dust from which only a great miracle will tear us away.

Convincingly translated into English by Thierry Kehou, A Sun to Be Sewn is remarkable for its stubbornly hopeful portrait of a young person coming of age in a desperately precarious place. After the tumult of most of the book the relative calm of its final pages – “two, three days tied up in eternity” as the adolescent sets off for the American continent – is almost lyrical. Sickened by the cruelty of the novel’s universe, moved by the resilience and mental balance of its heroine, A Sun to Be Sewn’s readers will be tempted to take this departure as permission to imagine a happy ending.

Beverley Bie Brahic is a poet and translator

Browse the books from this week’s edition of the TLS here

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