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L'Embarquement pour L'Isle-de-France © Edouard Duval-Carré
L'Embarquement pour L'Isle-de-France © Edouard Duval-Carré

First Chapters: From 'Dance On The Volcano' By Haitian Novelist Marie Vieux-Chauvet

Picture of Michael Barron
Books and Digest Editor
Updated: 27 January 2017
Marie Vieux-Chauvet’s newly-translated novel is a powerful meditation on the race divisions of Saint Domingue, in what is now Haiti, telling the story of a black singer whose voice is celebrated but skin color is detested. First published in 1957, Dance on the Volcano is only now making its English-language debut, in a shimmering translation by Africana studies academic Kaiama L. Glover. The publisher Archipelago Books has generously allowed us to post its first chapter.

Cover courtesy of Archipelago Books

Cover courtesy of Archipelago Books

On that June day, all of Port-au-Prince was at the harbor, joyously anticipating the arrival of the new Governor.

For the past two hours, armed soldiers had been keeping order among an immense crowd of men, women, and children of all sorts. The mulatto and Negro women were gathered a certain distance away, as was the custom; they had pulled out all the stops to rival the elegance of the white Creole and European ladies. Occasionally the freed-women’s calico skirts, striped or flowered, brazenly brushed up against the white women’s heavy taffeta skirts and diaphanous muslin gaules. Everywhere you looked, breasts barely covered by flimsy, see-through bodices attracted the delighted gaze of the men who, despite the horrendous heat of that summer morning, were dressed in velvet, with ruffled blouses, fitted coats, and vests. Beneath their curly wigs they were sweating more than the slaves. What bliss for them, then, whenever the ladies played flirtatiously with their fans! The jewels adorning the toes of the mulatto women — whom a new law had banned from wearing proper shoes — just made them all the more fascinating and desirable. Seeing their diamond-shod feet, the white women regretted having called for the new regulation directed at “those creatures” who had dared to imitate their clothing and hairstyles. Having complained to the Governor about the inexcusable offense, they had called for justice — without admitting, of course, that their real desire was to punish and humiliate these rivals who had become far too appealing to their own husbands and lovers. As always, society’s laws were powerful. The white women had easily won their case against the freedwomen, products of the despised slave caste.

However, doubtless to get their revenge, at present “those creatures” were decorating their feet with the jewels their white lovers had given them. This was the height of insolence. No one could deny that they were utterly charming, coquettish, and captivating. They were without equal in the art of showing off their arched waistlines, the uniquely provocative curve of their breasts, their generous and supple hips. The combination of the two so vastly different blood strains had created the most prodigious beauty in these women. So in this regard, nature herself was responsible.

The officers in their sparkling uniforms — desired by all the women, be they white or mulatto — made no attempt to hide the lustful looks they were giving to the beautiful Negresses with their hair done up in madras scarves as sparkling with jewels as their feet. Their breasts half exposed, they smiled, and their perfect teeth traced a flash of light across their dark faces. From time to time, they broke out in great cascading bursts of laughter. But this noisy gaiety was by no means sincere, for their eyes were full of contempt, hatred, and provocation.

Among the women of Saint-Dominique, the rivalry had produced a fight to the death that was in fact at the heart of all relations in the colony: rivalry between white colonists and low-class Whites; between the officers and the government officials, between the nouveaux riches, with neither name nor titles, and the great nobles from France; rivalry also between the white planters and the freedmen planters, between the domestic slaves and the fieldworkers. This state of affairs, combined with the discontent of the freedmen and the silent protestation of the African Negroes who were treated little better than animals, had created a state of perpetual tension that produced a strange heaviness in the atmosphere.

Because of all of this, and despite the vibrancy, the laughter, and the elegant clothing and wigs, a sort of menace hung in the air. Yet, nothing was visible on the surface. As with all such days of great public celebration, rows of six-horse carriages, covered wagons, and closed carriages lined the road. The officers and colonists’ opulent get-ups, the gold-trimmed cars, the women’s elaborate hairstyles, make-up, gloves, and flowers — together with the trees, the insolent blue of the sky, and the radiant sun — created a marvelous tableau. People lingered, laughing, in front of the jewelers’ and the perfumers’ windows, and the women gave suggestive looks as they accepted gifts from the men. Groups of slaves in chains passed by, led by their master, and from time to time one could hear the snap of a whip lashing a naked torso.

All of a sudden, an immense clamor arose from the crowd; the longawaited royal vessel had just appeared. Immediately, the bells rang out, the cannons resounded. The clergy, bearing banners and crosses, ornaments and incense burners, waited beneath a dais for the Governor, newly appointed by the King.

A hundred men went out in rowboats to greet him. Upon his arrival, the crowd applauded with cries of “Long live his majesty the King of France,” and accompanied him to the church. Curious young children struggled with those trying to push them out of the way. A few of them protested loudly. The women seized the opportunity to shout insults at their rivals. A young mulatto woman met the gaze of an officer who had been looking her over. There was a blonde woman on his arm, totally absorbed by the spectacle of the Governor’s welcome. The mulatto woman took a bouquet of flowers from her bodice and threw it to the man, who caught it smilingly. The blonde turned around immediately.

“Foul Negress,” she screamed, “if you’re looking for something to cool your fire, I’m sure there are some slaves who’d be more than happy to oblige you!”

Without responding, the mulatto woman turned her head toward the soldiers.

With all those uniformed men surrounding her, there was no way she could return the insult to that white wench! Ah, if only there hadn’t been so many soldiers, she would have gouged out her eyes. After giving it some thought, she decided it was best to shrug her shoulders with an impertinent smile.

She wore a long white cotton skirt trimmed with red flowers and, gathered tight at the waist, a chambray bodice so transparent her breasts were all but exposed. A light wrap thrown carelessly over her shoulders came to a point on her back and revealed the low neckline of the bodice. Her madras scarf, adorned with costume jewels that sparkled in the sun, was set high atop her head, half covering her right eyebrow. With a slow, steady gait, in harmony with the swing of her hips, she went off in the direction of the crowd, sending flirtatious and seductive glances as she passed.

Someone shouted out to her, calling her “Kiss-Me-Lips.” She smiled, turned around and, with a sweeping hand gesture, shouted in Creole: “But where are you? What, I can’t see you any more?”

A man joined her — a white man in a jacket and cotton pants, wearing neither wig nor shoes with buckles.

“You’re still being cuckolded, and yet you’re not looking for a shoulder to cry on?” she asked, bursting into laughter.

“I’m resigned to being cuckolded,” responded the man, taking her arm. “Come, ‘Kiss-Me-Lips,’ let’s have a drink at the nearest cabaret. I know someone who makes a perfect rum punch…”

“Rum punch…if that’s all you’ve got to offer!…”

“All right, come on — you can choose whatever you like.”

“A sweet Bordeaux, that’s what I want.”

They went off in the direction of the central square as the crowd dispersed. In the streets, carriages manned by Negroes rolled along to the noisy clip-clop of hooves.

Two little girls, one twelve and the other ten, walked along holding hands. Shabbily dressed in faded calico skirts and bodices modestly held together with pins, they were barefoot and their hair was left loose. With their golden skin and long tresses, they looked at first like two little “poor white” girls. But upon closer inspection, one could see that they were in fact “mixed-bloods,” for their black blood had added that extra spice — that slight note of originality — that any white person could detect at first glance. The elder one in particular, with her sensuous lips, her black eyes pulled slightly toward the temples, and her rebellious locks, was a perfect specimen of the mestive. They walked holding hands with a modest air that contradicted the gleam of curiosity in their eyes.

“Hey, Minette,” a heavyset colored woman carrying a large basket of foodstuffs cried suddenly in Creole, “where are you and your little sister headed? Go back home or your mother will be cross with you…”

Barely had she finished her sentence before Minette took off at top speed, dragging her sister behind her. They passed right by the shops and the tents of the circus performers just arrived from France without so much as a look, and arrived breathless at the corner of Traversière Street. Then, hands pressed to their heart, they looked at each other, laughing. The market-women had set up their merchandise there and were calling out to the passersby to attract their attention. The two girls managed to carve a path through this chaos and made their way to a modest little house with spindly, whitewashed posts.

“Minette, Lise, where were you two?”

A mulatto woman, between about thirty-five and forty years old with thin, wearied features that nevertheless had retained some of their original beauty, rose from a small chair in front of the door and walked toward the little girls.

“Come on now, answer me. Where’d you run off to — so dirty, so badly dressed, and barefoot?”

She walked heavily, as if exhausted. Everything about her seemed dulled: her gaze, her voice, even her smile. Minette let go of her sister’s hand, ran to her mother and circled her waist with both arms.

“We went to see the ‘General,’ who just arrived. Oh, Mama, it was beautiful — just beautiful. We saw all the most elegant gentlemen and ladies, we saw the sailors singing…”

“Like that, in that state?” interrupted her mother. “It’s a miracle you weren’t taken for a couple of maroons!”

“Us, Mama, oh no!” responded Minette with such conviction that her mother could not help but smile.

She brought the girls into the house and, chattering softly, served them a dish of red beans and rice that she had saved for their midday meal.

“Well, too bad for you, your food’s cold,” she said to them as she headed back outside.

They swallowed everything down with a hearty appetite and then, after rinsing their plate and cup, sat down with their mother amongst the colorful madras scarves, the trinkets, the soaps and cheap perfumes. They joined their voice to those of the other market-women: “Hey mister, hey lady — pretty handkerchiefs, ‘smell-good’ soaps — come have a look!…”

Their very first memories were of this place. Their first relationships were those they had formed here, on Traversière Street. Everyone they knew sold little odds and ends — pacotilles — just like their mother. There was nothing for them to worry about there. From their very first looks at the world, they had learned how to tell colored children from white children, rich colonists from the low-class Whites, slaves from the class of freedmen, to which they belonged. From their very first steps they had understood that there were places they would never be allowed to go; in the church, they had seen that there was a section for the Whites and another for the Blacks. They had seen, not without longing, the white children go to school, while they were obliged to learn to read in secret. Their mother had been their first teacher and, at night, by the light of a little lamp that barely illuminated their syllabary, she had taught them to write the letters of the alphabet. That was the extent of her own knowledge — and she deeply regretted it, as she had greater ambitions for her daughters. Without the means to pay a “poor white” to take the risk of teaching them, she patiently looked among the freedmen for a clandestine tutor, who would surely be less costly.

In the meantime, Minette and Lise grew up without any education, like all the other children of the neighborhood. These included a beautiful fourteen-year-old mulatto girl everyone called “Crazy Girl” because of her shameless behavior: she let the boys kiss her right in the middle of the street. But as Jasmine often reminded her daughters, Nicolette had neither mother nor father to watch over her. “Ah, po’ motherless chile,” exclaimed the neighborhood women in their languid Creole, “she surely gon’ be lost.” There was also a little mestif boy with curly locks and a delicate little mouth, who had been given the name Pitchoun by a white woman named Madame Guiole. In fact, no one knew of any other name for him, because although his father lived with his mother, the mulatto woman Ursule, he found him too dark-skinned to claim as his legitimate son. Pitchoun liked watching the soldiers march by and dreamed of becoming one eventually. He admired their uniforms: blue nankeen for the freedmen and white and red for the Whites. He made sabers for himself out of cardboard or wood, and sang battle hymns his tutor taught him. For, being one of the more privileged freedmen, he had a white tutor and was learning the goldsmith trade with Mme Guiole. Monsieur Sabès, although he did not much care for his son, had ceded to Ursule’s entreaties. However, the latter was so sweet-natured and fearful that she did not dare protest whenever M Sabès hit the child for no reason, calling him a little nigger boy. The mother and son adored one another. It was their only consolation. Sometimes, when he saw his mother crying, Pitchoun ran out of his own home to the little house on Traversière Street, where Minette and Lise happily welcomed him like a brother. His greatest joy was to listen to them sing. If they needed coaxing, like a good little charmer he took out handfuls of candy from his pockets and found thousands of ways to flatter them.

“Oh come on, sing something for me and when I grow up I’ll marry one of you.”

“You’re too young,” replied Minette disdainfully. “We’ll be young ladies and you’ll still be nothing but a little fart.” At which point he stood up to show off his strong build, puffing up his chest and brandishing his sword while loudly singing battle hymns…

On that day, when the new Governor had been set up in his palace and the crowd had deserted the streets, several people had headed out to the cabarets and restaurants. The bells and cannons were silent. The only sounds were the crack of the whips and the horses’ hooves hammering the ground. Fat clouds of dust rose up, hiding the pedestrians who prudently stood to the side to let the carriages pass. Because people of color were forbidden to walk through the King’s Garden and along certain other streets, they turned instead onto the narrow sidestreets where flimsy, whitewashed structures had been erected. Pitchoun, back from the popular demonstrations, arrived at Traversière Street accompanied by several friends. They made a showy entrance, pacing up and down the street, sabers drawn and singing a march. Once they had exhausted their repertoire, they surrounded Jasmine’s stand, cheered on by the delighted market-women.

“Sing us something, my golden chickadees,” Pitchoun said to Jasmine’s daughters affectionately.

“We’re tired. Go on, get out of here,” protested Minette.

Pitchoun pulled a stalk of barley sugar out of his pocket and passed it under their noses. Minette grabbed it, laughing.

“A song, a song…”

A little crowd began to form. Some of the vendors gathered round, abandoning their stands.

“Jasmine’s girls are going to sing…”

Minette raised her hand to keep the rhythm and give the signal to her sister. Immediately, their voices rose with surprising fullness and purity. They sang one of those many French ballads made popular in Saint Domingue by the sailors from the Metropolis who spilled out onto the island from the hundreds of boats that docked there over the course of any given year, along with the continuous flow of merchandise and adventurers.

“My Lord, do they sing beautifully!” exclaimed a poor, elderly white lady dressed in rags and powdered like a Harlequin. “True little prodigies…”

She opened her mouth in a circle, held out her hand and pointed with a deformed index finger: “I’m one to judge — I was a singer at the Royal Comédie.” She leaned toward Jasmine: “I’m telling you, my dear, you should be proud…”

The girls’ mother looked at her girls without smiling. Yes, they were gifted, but so what! Her staring eyes, opened wide, seemed to pierce right through them. Everything around her faded away. She was suddenly back in the past. This had been happening to her quite often lately. An unhealthy obsession kept her on a sort of leash, bringing her thoughts back to her very worst memories. She had visions of the large shack she had lived in as a child, of the market where she had been sold, the red-hot iron that had branded her right breast, the lashes of the whip that day she had been caught learning to read with an old slave, the eyes of her master on the night he had desired her, the hatred of her mistress and the numerous punishments it had earned her…She shivered without changing position and saw once again the birth of her daughters and, finally, the will that, upon the death of her master, made her a free woman.

Noticing her mother’s fixed and unhappy stare, Minette abruptly stopped singing, let out a little cry, and went to bury her head in the folds of her mother’s camisole. At twelve, she already understood many things. She accepted them as inevitable, yet questioned them all the same. Why? Why were things this way and not another? Why were some people rich and others poor? Why did people beat their slaves? Why were some masters kind and others cruel, some priests good and others evil? Why did catechism teach the things it did and why did the priests act the way they did? They said: we are all brothers, but then they bought slaves and beat or otherwise tortured them. Why should she have to hide herself in order to learn to read? Why had Rosélia, one of the neighborhood vendors, been imprisoned for hiding a runaway slave? And above all, why — knowing what could happen — had she hidden that slave, who she did not even know? Minette had the feeling her mother really did not want to answer whenever she posed these sorts of troubling questions. She had figured out on her own that money could buy everything: beautiful dresses, plantations, slaves, and carriages. Thinking like a true freedwoman, she thanked God she had not been born a slave; she made a point — following her mother’s advice — always to speak French, so as to give the impression of refinement, and though she lamented the slaves’ condition, she considered them an inferior and pitiable class. She was, however, unconsciously sensitive to the injustice of their situation, though she was still at the age where one easily confuses revolt with pity. And so it was not insignificant, she realized instinctively, that her mother’s hand trembled in hers on market days when slaves were being sold. Still, she did not know everything about her mother’s terrible past.

by Marie Vieux-Chauvet
translated by Kaiama L. Glover
Archipelago Books | 496 pp. | $18.00