Creole NOT Allowed Here:
An Interview with Jan Mapou, Haitian-Creole Advocate
Jan Mapou, whose legal name is Jean-Marie Willer Denis, was born in the southern city of Les Cayes, Haiti. He is a published poet, playwright, columnist and short story writer. Mapou was jailed by the government of Duvalier (Papa Doc) in 1969 for promoting the Haitian-Creole language. He migrated to New York in 1972; he later moved to Florida in 1984. His bookstore, Libreri Mapou, located in the heart of Little Haiti, in Miami, is also a cultural center, the home of the artists of the well-known Sosyete Koukouy.
The following interview, conducted by M.J. Fievre and Danielle Legros Georges, previously appeared in the anthology SO SPOKE THE EARTH in 2011.
M.J. FIEVRE: Jan Mapou, those who know you talk of you as one of the backbones of the Haitian culture in the Diaspora. You are the glue that keeps people together—particularly because you’ve been such an advocate of the Creole language. Would you tell me about the “Mouvman Kreyòl Ayisyen”—Haitian-Creole Movement—that you and your friends started in Haiti in 1965?
JAN MAPOU: As a young man living in Haiti, I strongly believed that Haitian-Creole needed more attention. Those who did advocate the use of the language were confronted with a lot of opposition. It was the mid-1960s, and most Haitians equaled Creole to pye poul—chicken feet—which don’t go on the table at Sunday dinners. They were against an education system in Creole; they wanted to keep that “bastard language” out of the schools, stating that it was holding our people back. After all, they said, there was no proper spelling in Creole, no proper grammar, no dictionary. It’s not even a language, they said. It’s a “patois.”
I wanted to prove them wrong. The language of a people is vital in their understanding of the world around them, vital in helping them prosper. In order for the Haitian students to fully grasp their history, their country, and their surroundings, to be able to think as Haitians, they needed to speak their own language. Their mother’s language. Yes, it was true: there weren’t any materials available in Creole, and one couldn’t condone a Haitian-Creole education if there weren’t textbooks in that language. But something else was also true: if the Creole language was still at its embryonic stage, it was because the Haitian intellectuals and the government had not done their part. And that could be changed.
In 1965, at the Haitian-American Institute, some friends and I attended a conference led by Professor Pradel Pompilus, who had studied linguistics in La Sorbonne, France. Professor Pompilus strongly criticized the Haitian curriculum, which primarily focused on European history and French literature. Our students knew everything about French writers and poets and French culture, but if you were to ask them about Felix Morriseau-Leroy, Emile Roumer, Emile Celestin-Megie, Frank Fouche or Frankétienne… they had a very limited knowledge or none at all of those Haitian literary figures. As for our historical heroes, most students would only be able to name Toussaint Louverture, Dessalines, Christophe and Petion. Professor Pompilus pointed out that Haiti was in need of an integral reform of its educational system; the curriculum should encourage young Haitians to love their country, to love themselves, and—above all!—appreciate their language and their culture.
After this conference, we realized that what was missing was some kind of organization that would promote and defend the Haitian-Creole language and would produce materials in that language. A group of friends and I met at the house of Marie-Lucie Bayas, nicknamed Idalina, for a meeting on the subject. On December 18, 1965, the Haitian-Creole Movement started—with Henri-Claude Daniel (Jan Tanbou), Dr. Ernst Mirville (Pyè Banbou), Emile Jules (Pyè Legba, who presently lives in Lantana, Florida), myself (Jean-Marie Willer Denis or Jan Mapou) and several others. We were reborn under new names called “non vanyan.”
FIEVRE: The Haitian-Creole Movement became an umbrella organization for all those who advocated the use of Haitian-Creole and who defended the Creole culture. How would you describe the activities the group was involved in?
MAPOU: Researchers and representatives from different disciplines joined our efforts in promoting both the Creole language and the Creole culture, which cannot be dissociated. Dr. Ernst Mirville developed our plan of action: a neo-indigenist deeply rooted in the methods by which we reclaimed the culture of our people as our main source of inspiration. We also worked with musicians, singers, dancers, actors and even visual artists to promote and defend the Haitian culture and the Haitian language. There was an understanding between us and other organizations such as: the Lambi Club, Etoile Caraibes, the Gombo Club, Karako Bleu, and many other cultural organizations that aimed at defending the Haitian culture.
Through several cultural presentations (dance shows, plays, songs) and classes, we taught our people where the Creole rhythms originated from and promoted Haitian folk culture. We gave them a new appreciation for Vodou, since our folklore rhythms, such as Ibo, Kongo, Nago, Dawomeyen, Yanvalou… all come from Vodou. We also embraced Haitian theater and educated the people on the different forms of theater, taking the Haitian Carnival as an example. We proved that our theater was as valid as Shakespearean theater, or that of Musset and Voltaire. Haitian life revolves around drama: just go to Marché-en-Bas and wait—soon a story emerges in front of your eyes. Lobèy! Zen! Deblozay! Two vendors start fighting; the crowd gathers; the police arrive… The actors and the audience explain what happened…That can last the whole day! By the same token, when there is a car accident on the street, it attracts the populace and everyone becomes an actor, part of the action… Our life is a “live theater,” a theater “in vivo.”
DANIELLE LEGROS GEORGES: You have been an advocate of the Creole language both in cultural and educational settings. You are also a huge proponent of it as a language of literature. Why?
MAPOU: After attending Professor Pradel Pompilus’ conference at the Haitian-American Institute, I came to understand that young Haitians needed to be educated in Creole—this was the only way for them to become well-rounded citizens. The current system had obviously failed them—millions of Haitian didn’t know how to read and write.
After founding the Haitian-Creole Movement, however, I discovered that one of the arguments against the uses of the Creole language in the public offices and the schools revolved around the fact that texts written in Haitian-Creole were very sparse at the time. Upon the realization that a stronger Creole literature would provide Creole with the respect it deserved, I became a proponent of it as a language of literature.
It was a time when speaking or writing in Creole could get you labeled as a communist and sent to Fort Dimanche, [Duvalier’s “living hell.”] But someone had to stand strong. The Haitian-Creole Movement— Etoile Caraibe, Caraco Bleu, the Lambi Club—all these organizations decided to defend the Creole language and use it as a tool for educating others; that meant supporting all those writing in Creole.
FIEVRE: I believe that many writers soon joined the movement, eager to publish their work in Haitian-Creole. Tell me about it.
MAPOU: Most poets met in Carrefour, at the Lambi Club, along with singers who performed in Haitian-Creole. A particular form of poetry, called wongòl, was born from these events in the 1960s. This poetry form has three or four pye, three of four lines. It goes ta-ta-ta-ta-ta / ta-ta-ta-ta-ta / ta-ta-ta-ta-ta/ ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-pa-w. You say three lines, and the fourth one carries a powerful message. And then the choir will sing a folkloric son called “wongòl.” This style of “pwezi andaki” (coded poetry) was created by a poet named Raoul Denis and another named Ti Tonton (Joe Tony), both members of Lanbi Klib. We started writing poetry, plays, short stories, novels; we published articles in Creole in newspapers and launched a radio program at one of the most popular radio stations in the country: Radio Caraibes.
FIEVRE: How was the general public made aware of the movement?
MAPOU: To encourage people—particularly the youth—to take part in our activities, as I mentioned, we launched a radio talk show at Radio Caraibes. At first, the show, Emisyon Solèy, only lasted 15 minutes. Before us, only one man had dared use something other than French at a radio station—his name was Zo (Theophile Salnave) and he aired commercials in Creole. In the 60s, radio hosts never spoke Creole unless they were interviewing peasants or vendors in the street. In 1965, Emisyon Solèy was the first cultural and literary show in Haitian-Creole. We spoke Creole, gave the news in Creole, invited guests who addressed the listeners in Creole and interviewed poets whose works were in Creole. It was a novelty! Later on, Jean Dominique brought Haitian-Creole to Radio Haiti, and soon the other radio stations followed.
FIEVRE: I imagine people had a lot to learn from you—you were studying at the Ethnology School of the University of Haiti then, and were well versed in Haiti’s cultural life. Also, Radio Caraibes was already a very popular radio station then, wasn’t it?
MAPOU: Oh, yes! Particularly on Sunday mornings. From seven to eight o’clock, everyone was tuned in—in Port-au-Prince, in Duvalierville, outside the city. Everywhere. The show became a sensation. First, it was original—people were happy to hear Creole, their language, spoken on the radio. But also, what contributed to the popularity of the show was the popularity of the bòlèt—lottery—at the time. Many were those who, having bought lottery tickets, awaited the announcements of the results, which were relayed on Radio Caraibes from Cuba and the Dominican Republic. On Sundays came the results for the Cuban and Dominican drawings. In the streets, you could see everyone walking around with a small battery-operated radio, expectant, while others milled around, selling tickets for the following day, yelling, “10-4-3,” “50-15-10.” Our show was just before the drawing. So everybody was tuned, listening to the Emisyon Solèy of the Haitian-Creole Movement. And I really mean everybody—including the jandam, the police, and the Tonton Macoutes stationed at the National Palace.
FIEVRE: The police and the Macoutes? I feel trouble coming… We’re in the 1960s, and the government frowned on the use of Haitian-Creole.
MAPOU: Haitian-Creole was the black sheep. It wasn’t allowed in the schools, for instance. There were often signs that read, “Creole NOT allowed on these premises.” As a student, if you dared disregard the sign, you faced severe corporal punishment. Only French was allowed. Can you imagine? A teacher grabbing you by the ear just because you’ve uttered a few words in Creole. One time, two students were fighting at my school, and amazed at their huge biceps, I whispered in Creole, “Those guys are mammoths.” I didn’t realize the teacher was standing behind me. I spent the remainder of the day standing on one foot in a corner; I was also ordered to write down the sentence, “I will not speak Creole” several thousand times.
When I myself became a middle school teacher, the principal would go up and down the halls, making sure that instructors were not using Creole in the classrooms. It was a very tense situation. The ones in charge were forcing the hatred of Haitian-Creole upon the children. Even at recess, kids were not allowed to speak their native tongue.
FIEVRE: So your radio show obviously angered some people. What happened?
MAPOU: On April 3rd, 1969, with a group of friends, students from the School of Ethnology and members of the Creole Mouvement, we decided to drive to Cap-Haïtien in the Northern part of the country to research the differences in the Creole spoken there. We wanted to understand why certain English words are found in the northern Creole, and why the accent there is different. On April 6, upon my return in Port-au-Prince, as the person in charge of the programming, I spent the whole night preparing the show for the next day, transcribing interviews, putting together everybody’s notes. On that Easter Sunday morning, we shared our findings with the listeners of Emisyon Solèy, and it was truly a beautiful reportage. In the background was playing “Cité du Cap-Haïtien,” the song by Septentrional.
The show had just ended at eight—the musical segment that concluded it every weekend was already playing—when I heard a brawl outside. People were running, others were yelling, car doors were banging. I was still in the studio when Dr. Mirville said, “Mapou, there are Macoutes in the yard. They’re everywhere.” I looked out the window, and it was a sea of green uniforms, dark glasses and heavy machine guns.
Next, we heard heavy steps on the stairs, and soon a group of Macoutes emerged in the cabin. “What are you doing here?” one of them asked. I told him about our weekly radio show. When he asked me for my name, I said, “I’m Jan Mapou.” He lunged a .45 revolver against my cheek. I heard a click. “Give me your real name, you bastard,” he said. I gave him my real name, told him the Denis family was from Les Cayes. He grunted something about Haitian-Creole being spoken on the air and that we were communists talking against the government.
FIEVRE: Who else was arrested on that day?
MAPOU: Twelve of us were loaded on that Jeep. They took everyone they found, except for the two young women who were with us at the station. Six of us were members of the Haitian-Creole Movement. Three others were curious bystanders who’d come to watch us do the show. One man had stopped by to get music dedicated to his daughter on her birthday. Another was a pastor whose radio show was scheduled to be aired that morning. Another one was the tech, the “operator.” The last was a young man who lived next door to Radio Caraibes and was on his way home. This one had a scholarship to go to Germany the next day. He lost it. When the radio station director, Mr. Brown, tried to intervene, they pushed him back, telling him to mind his own business.
Somehow all twelve of us fit in the vehicle. My legs were hanging out of the Jeep. The Macoutes, holding their gigantic machine guns, took us to Fort Dimanche and threw us in a cell. No questioning. No reading of the accusations.
FIEVRE: So you were jailed by the government of Papa Doc just for promoting Haitian-Creole? I’m afraid to imagine what you went through…
MAPOU: For days we remained in that cell. No counsel. No judge. Some of us got sick. Some only remained in Fort Dimanche for two or three weeks. I had no friend in the government, so they kept me locked up for more than four months. Dr. Mirville was kept for six months. He was the last one to be released. I think it’s a miracle we are even alive today.
I am a believer; a Catholic. I believe in the power of Sainte Claire. As a teenager, I often went to Marchand-Dessalines with my cousin. Every year, on August 13, I joined the celebration of the Feast of Sainte Claire and listened to the numerous stories of her miracles. On August 12, 1969, in Fort Dimanche, I spent the whole night praying to Saint Claire. “Sainte Claire,” please help me.”
Believe me or not—on August 13, at exactly noon, an officer (Delva) and two other police officers (Plop-Plop and Louis) opened up my cell. A voice asked, “Who is Willer Denis?” I stood up and identified myself. “Come with me,” the officer said. “The President said we should let you go.” At the lobby of the Fort Dimanche building (“salle de garde”), Officer Delva said to me: “Go home, young man. You are lucky you made it alive. For your own good, don’t you tell anybody what you saw or heard in this place.” He never told me why I’d gotten arrested in the first place.
After trying several times to get a visa to migrate to the U.S., finally, on December 8, 1971, I was on a plane for New York.
LEGROS GEORGES: How do you see Creole and French differing as literary tools, beyond how they operate within the political and socio-economic contexts of Haiti? Are there things in Creole that can’t be said in French?
MAPOU: There’s no denying it—one’s first language is the best education tool. UNESCO experts recognize this fact; that’s why we celebrate International Mother Language Day. Whether you’re dealing with children or adults, the use of the mother tongue is the most effective tool for their education and is, in fact, necessary to a society on all levels.
Now—some say that there are scientific words in English and French that do not have their equivalent in Creole. The same is true in many languages; yet they’re still fully acknowledged as languages. In scientific French, there are many loanwords from English; there are also many hyphenated words used to translate English words. And vice-versa.
Maybe the detractors of the use of Creole in the various scientific fields should listen to Dr. Angelo Gousse’s talk show. On the radio, this medical doctor discusses the field of urology. When he talks about prostate cancer, for instance, he never uses French words. He speaks Creole. Loud and clear. So clear, in fact, that even those who don’t speak Creole will understand. Never does he rely on English terms to communicate with his listeners. Yet everyone understands what he’s saying. The Haitian Association of Medical Doctors also has a talk show in Miami—these professionals cover all kinds of topics, discuss all kinds of diseases. They address their audience in nothing else but Creole.
In Creole, if a word doesn’t exist, it’s easily made up. The new word comes out naturally, and every Creole speaker grasps its meaning. Also, one thing that makes Creole very easy to use is the fact that whenever there’s no word for something, the Creole language simply uses the definition in lieu of the actual term.
LEGROS GEORGES: Does Creole carry a different cosmology than French?
MAPOU: Ninety percent of the Creole vocabulary comes from French, which is understandable, when we consider the origins of the Creole language. The study of the times of slavery and French colonialism—three centuries of it!—shows a need for the slaves to properly communicate with their masters. The slaves needed to understand their masters as a way to follow directions properly, thus avoiding physical abuse. They listened to the French sounds and included French words in their own vocabulary, sometimes mixing the new words with those of their African languages. That’s how Creole came to be. Some Spanish words were also included. Native American, Portuguese, and English words as well. African slaves also needed to understand each other, as they often came from different tribes and spoke different dialects. They made up words, mixing different dialects; these words also became part of Creole.
Creole and French are very different languages, however. Today’s Creole language has its own vocabulary and even its own alphabet. There are letters that exist in French and do not exist in Creole. The letter /c/ for instance doesn’t exist in Creole. The letter /k/ is used instead. In French, in order to get the /k/ sound, you can use /c/, /q/, /qu/, or /ch/. In Creole, we only have the one / k/. The letter C is only found in a combination /ch/or /ʃ/. As in chef.
At a structural level, the Creole alphabet is phonetic. In Creole, the nasal [e(n)], for instance, is always written “en,” no matter the word. In French, however, that same sound can be spelled in numerous ways, including “ain” (pain), “in” (moulin), “ein” (sein), and so on. In French, you have multiple ways to write down a sound because French uses an etymological spelling; the spelling of the word depends on its roots—Latin or Greek. Which explains why French is such a complex language and why educating people in Haiti—people who do not speak French as a first language—has been so difficult. Most Haitian students do not speak French at home; they have a hard time communicating. Creole remains the first language of the majority; it is spoken fluently by all.
The Creole language has its own structural form, its own grammar, its own sayings, expressions and proverbs. The orthography was more or less stabilized in September 1979, when a group of researchers—GREKA (Gwoup Rechèch sou Kreyòl Ayisyen)—presented an official orthography to the Haitian Congress.
LEGROS GEORGES: Does Creole carry a different aesthetic sensibility?
MAPOU: All languages carry their own esthetic sensibility. What is special about Creole is the way the language itself brings you back to your roots. One word—and your mind’s eye sees it all: the Vodou ceremony, the singing of the women dressed in white, the papa and his baton. Zaka and his halfò. The sensibility comes from the fact that the topics, the images, the sounds, the symbols, all resonate with the reality at home. Creole makes Haitians vibrate; that’s why our literature needs to be in Creole. You might be deeply moved by literature in French, but not as much as a French-speaking reader would be—and also not as much as you would be touched by a text in Creole.
We should also consider the fact that certain literary forms have a deeper emotional appeal for certain groups of readers. As a reader—what touches you the most? Is it a French sonnet or an Alexandrine? Or is it a areyito by Emile Celestin Megie involving a dialogue between the poet and someone else? Maybe a lomeyans, an ode to nature, or to an individual, a place, an object. Haitians have a special affinity for the zwing-zwing style, reminiscent of our oral tradition, when a caricature is drawn. Or a fantasy style to tease someone or some political leaders…
Anatòl monte sou tòl
L’al keyi korosòl,
Yon gèp panyòl,
Mòde l’ nan dyòl.
Some forms of poetry are typical to the Haitian audience; they are not found in other languages. In Haiti, the wongòl, a three/four-line poem, might bring to mind the Chinese haiku. We can’t call these poems haikus, however, because although the form might be slightly similar, the goal is different: the last few syllables contain a message, a zwing. The wongòl is ours; it resonates mostly with Haitians. The form first emerged with poet Raoul Denis at the Lambi Club in the 1960s, during the Macoutes’ reign of terror. These short poems, an daki, were included at the end of songs’ couplets. The choral would sing, and suddenly the poet would speak three lines of poetry, zwing! The wongòl carries a sensibility that is typically Haitian.
Haitian literature has its roots in an environment that is better understood by Haitian people—in the lakou, where little boys run barefoot on the earth, almost naked, and the girls in short skirts play with marbles and toupi, and gather mangos and kenèp. The Creole sensibility comes from this way of life that is ours. The other day, a poet told me, “Mapou, I don’t get this. I’ve been in the U.S. for fifteen years now, and yet, whenever I dream, I do so in Creole. I dream about Les Cayes in Haiti, about the savannah there, about the sea and the people who live by the water. My subconscious brings me back in time—I am a child again, going to school in Haiti.” I told him, “Your country will always be part of you. Your language will always be part of you. Nothing can uproot your culture from within you. When you fall asleep, dreams awaken the true you, bring you back to your roots, to your culture.” I told him, “When you wake up in the morning after such powerful dreams, grab your pencil and get to work. Because that’s where the sensibility will come from.”
“Your country will always be part of you. Your language will always be part of you. Nothing can uproot your culture from within you. When you fall asleep, dreams awaken the true you, bring you back to your roots, to your culture.” Jan Mapou
LEGROS GEORGES: Have you ever considered writing in English?
MAPOU: I do have a poem in English about the Haitian flag. It was written five years ago, upon the request of a school celebrating Flag Day. I also write in French—upon request. One of my poems in French is on the wall of Le P’Tit Resto, written in the context of National Poetry Month. I don’t usually write in English and French, however. My inspiration comes in Creole. Paul Laraque, the Director of the Haitian Writers Organization in Haiti, listed me once as the only Haitian author writing exclusively in Creole. At the time, it was true. My literary work was exclusively in Creole, until I moved to Florida and the requests came for English and French poems. I did write some articles in French for Le Nouveau Monde, but under a pen name, Ti Jean. I also wrote articles in French for a magazine titled Le Football Haïtien—still under a pen name.
Anything signed by Jan Mapou, however, was in Creole. There’s a reason for this—I’m usually addressing an audience whose first language is Creole. My family, my friends, my compatriots—they are Creole speakers. There are the ones I want to touch. I don’t mind having my texts translated—enlarging my scope. Morisseau-Leroy stuck to Creole; later he was translated in many languages. The same can be said about Franketienne, Dany Laferriere, and Edwidge Danticat, whose texts are available in many languages. Once your work becomes universal, it doesn’t matter which language it’s originally written in—someone will just translate it.
FIEVRE: You were forced to migrate to New York in 1972. But this certainly wasn’t the end of the Creole Movement.
MAPOU: In New York, I found out that Creole was taboo within the Haitian community. Most Haitian immigrants, in an effort to rapidly assimilate, rejected both their culture and their language. It was very frustrating to realize that many of our Haitian kids in New York were unable to communicate with visiting grandparents, for instance. The children didn’t speak Creole, and Grandma didn’t speak English: strangers under the same roof. I couldn’t understand why a Haitian family wouldn’t at least teach the basics of the language to their children. When I mentioned it to the parents, they said, “That bastard language? Why would I teach it to my child?” This both intrigued and upset me. I contacted some Haitian New Yorkers who might be interested in continuing the Haitian-Creole movement that we had started in Haiti in 1965.
FIEVRE: So you founded Sosyete Koukouy of New York, a Haitian, multi-disciplinary arts company committed to preserving the Haitian culture traditions and rituals.
MAPOU: Sosyete Koukouy stands for Society of Fireflies. We bring the light of culture in our country’s darkness. Its immediate mission is to build bridges and increase dialogue and understanding between ethnic groups. We presented many wonderful plays, such as Tatalolo, Anba Tonèl, Bouki nan Nouyòk, at the Clara Barton Auditorium in Brooklyn and in Queens. They conveyed the message: Haitians should be proud of their roots, of their culture, of their identity, of their language. We hosted book signings and poetry nights in Creole.
In 1984, when I moved to Miami for my job, I brought the movement with me to Florida. Other members like Kaptenn Koukouwouj (Emmanuel Eugène) brought it to Canada. Others, like Pascale Millien, brought it to Connecticut. Jean Dorcelly Dede went back to Haiti and continued the movement there, in the area of Santo, Port-au-Prince. Gary Daniel opened a branch in Tampa Bay and Max Manigat took over the branch in New York. So Sosyete Koukouy currently has chapters in Canada, Connecticut, New York, Tampa Bay, Miami, Homestead and Haiti.Our mission remains the same: promote and defend the Haitian-Creole language and Haitian culture; produce materials in Haitian-Creole, and encourage the people to like and respect their language.
Sosyete Koukouy stands for Society of Fireflies.
LEGROS GEORGES: Would you discuss collaboration with other Creole-writing poets? Have you worked with FML, Jean-Claude Martineau, Frankétienne?
MAPOU: Collaboration is quite extensive. As an organization, Sosyete Koukouy includes numerous poets amongst its members—not only in Miami, but also in Connecticut, in New Jersey, in Canada and Haiti as well. The majority of the members are writers—poets, prose writers, and playwrights. The writers of Sosyete Koukouy regard me as an elder; they respect me and often seek my advice. My editing skills are often requested and I encourage these writers to look deeper, within themselves, for the true reasons pushing them to write. I teach them to show, not tell, and to give layers to their texts. I explain to them that images, symbols, and metaphors work better than including real names in a poem, for instance. Many writers, in Miami and other parts of the globe, seek my expertise.
As a writer for Haïti Observateur in the early 1980s and later for Haïti en Marche in 1987, I wrote countless articles about various Haiti-related topics. Many of these articles were about poetry and many poets still use them as guidelines to sharpen their poetic style. Poets are particularly intrigued by the articles I wrote about pwezigram, and they often contact me for more guidance. The zwig style is also of interest to many writers, along with sacred poetry—Vodou poems. I get many calls and visits about wongòl and what it takes to perfect this form of poetry. Jean Dorcely Dede, in charge of Sosyete Koukouy in Haiti has written many wongòl poems under my guidance. I prefaced a book by Josaphat-Robert Large (Pè Sèt). Locally, there’s Lochard Noel, whose work I used to read and comment on before publication. Wanègès (Yvette Leroy) are also collaborators. Kiki Wainwright and I exchange poems and other literary work all the time. I write a lot of musicals—what we call “all-inclusive theater”in Creole (Teyat total). These plays include music, along with poetic monologues and dialogues. Kiki and I collaborate on many plays, as Kiki’s forte is the writing of lyrical poetry. He brings music and rhythm to the plays.
When I lived in New York, Jean-Claude Martino lived in Boston. We worked very closely. When I produced my play, Tata Lolo, Martino agreed to perform in it and his poem, “Flè Dizè,” was included in it. I edited his first book of poetry, you know. We still have a very good relationship.
I maintain an open literary dialogue with Dr. Ernst Mirville and Jean Dorcelly Dede, in Haiti. I used to be in touch with Tiwawa Boulo, a formidable poet who passed away recently. I have read all of his original manuscripts, all of his wongòl poems. I’m also in touch with Emile Celestin-Megie, one of the greatest Creole poets; whom I consider to be one of the fathers of Haitian-Creole. He wrote thousands of Creole articles in the ONEC, ONNAC newspaper and Le Petit Samedi Soir. He’s written and published Creole poems in different forms—sonnet, Alexandrine. Even though he’s now blind, and lives in Jacksonville , Florida, he’s developed a new form called aryetos, which is a kind of pwezigram but with two voices.
Most people don’t know that I’ve edited many works by Felix Morisseau-Leroy. I spent a few months proofreading and editing his book, Vil Bonè, before publication. He asked me for my help because he’d spent so much time in Africa that he wasn’t sure that his Creole vocabulary was still “up to date.” The Creole language had undergone many changes since he’d left the American continent. I consider FML the father of all Haitian poets of this generation. Sosyete Koukouy was very affected by his passing. Pantaleon Guilbaud, Marcel Alexis, Yolande Thomas, and I were his closest friends during his last days at the nursing home.
I haven’t worked directly with Frankétienne. At the Caleb Center, in Miami, Sosyete Koukouy did produce his play, Pelen Tèt, in which he played the part of Latour (Polidò). We also facilitated two book signings at Libreri Mapou. Frankétienne and Jean-Claude Fignolé are the founders of Spiralism, a school of literature in Haiti. Frankétienne’s poems are very complex—some might even say convoluted—but his plays are very direct. I love his style. I love the play Pelen Tèt. One time, in Haiti, after Pèlen Tèt was performed, a flash manifestation formed outside the theater and a protest ensued against those in power. This goes to show you the power of Frankétienne’s writing. The power of the Creole language. I visited his house in Port-au-Prince and was amazed to discover that he’s also an exquisite painter. His house is a real museum.
There’s definitely collaboration between other poets and me. Sosyete Koukouy is presently working on the publication of the third volume of Pawòl Kreyòl, a literary review that includes many articles about the direction that Creole literature is taking nowadays.
FIEVRE: I’m sure that Creole has made huge progress since 1965. Tell me about that.
MAPOU: Since 1965, formidable changes have taken place. In the late 1970s, the Haitian government, seeking to establish an official Creole orthography, enrolled the help of professional linguists who organized themselves under the name of GREKA (Gwoup Rechèch sou Kreyòl Ayisyen). These linguists believed that the Creole language already had its own grammar and lexicon—it had everything a language needed. It was up to the linguists to discover and enunciate the rules of that grammar. It became obvious that those who stated that Creole wasn’t a language because it had no grammar were wrong; the grammar exists within the language. You say, “I’m eating today.” You can’t say, “Eating am today I,” can you? The grammar was there all along. All it would take was to agree on a standard position of the words.
Some intellectuals believed that we should stick to an etymological spelling, since 90% of Creole words came from the French. This way, we, Haitians, would be closer to the French… But it created something very messy. Ultimately, GREKA proposed a standardized system to help resolve the orthography situation. In September 1979, the proposed orthography was approved by the Haitian Congress. It was a first and giant step. The spelling was still not set in stone; it wasn’t perfect, but it was a good starting point.
Today, in Haiti, the Constitution of 1987 recognizes Haitian-Creole as one of the official languages. We don’t have anything against French; French is a language that is universal and very literary. Personally, I love it. But it remains an inherited language. The language of my father and mother is Creole. No question about it. Whatever I say in Creole, other Haitians around me will understand. Kreyòl pale, Kreyòl konprann. It’s our best communication tool. The fact that the Constitution of 1987 recognizes the language is a victory.
Creole has entered our schools in Haiti. With a program entitled Lekòl Fondamantal, the children start off learning in their native tongue and are later exposed to French. When taking the state exams, you’re allowed to work on certain topics in Creole. Essays, for instance, can be written in Creole, which would have created a scandal in the past. In France as well, students are allowed to use Creole from Martinique or Guadeloupe—which is the result of the impact of the Haitian-Creole language. In Miami, Creole is the third official language after English and Spanish. Most of local government materials are translated into Creole. Creole is one of the official languages in New York.
The government, in conjunction with the State University of Haiti, is now working on putting into place a Creole Academy, which would allow for the simplification of the language, and encourage research and creativity.
Most political figures in Haiti address the nation in Creole now. François Duvalier would never have allowed the members of the Senate to express themselves in anything other than French. Now, when the people protest in the streets, they do it in Creole. The graffiti on Port-au-Prince walls are in Creole. At the State University of Haiti, students study Creole.
FIEVRE: What about on an international level?
MAPOU: Oh, many American and French universities offer Creole studies. Kansas University has published the most complete Creole dictionary edited by Bryan Freeman. Indiana University has published many Creole grammar textbooks and dictionaries; they have an institute that studies the language. Boston University also offers Creole studies. FIU (Florida International University) and Miami Dade College have classes in Kreyòl. All these schools and universities are so interested in the Creole language that they often send students to do internships in Haiti and deepen their understanding of Creole.
You wouldn’t believe how often I am contacted by people who want to learn the language. Last year, fifty students from different states travelled to Miami to research Haitian culture and language. They spent three days at the Mapou Cultural Center reading books about Creole, Vodou and Haitian Literature. People are interested in learning about our culture, our history, our language, and our religion. In the 1980s, other nations saw us as savages; we were associated with AIDS and people were denigrated because of Vodou. Many of the stigmata still exist, but they have weakened, thanks to the work of community leaders via an education in Haitian-Creole.
Creole is now considered an official language by UNESCO, a branch of the United Nations. When Pope Jean XXIII visited Haiti in the 1980s, he learned a few Haitian-Creole words before landing at the Port-au-Prince airport. The phonetic aspect of the language made it easy for him to pronounce these words. If the Pope speaks Creole, and he’s a representative of God, I’m sure even God speaks Creole. (He laughs). We, Haitians, talk to God in Creole when in difficulty: “Papa Bondye, sove m’.” We chat in Creole. We make love in Creole. That language is an integral part of our lives—as a people.
There’s still a lot of discrimination against Haitian-Creole, both in Haiti and abroad—most of it coming from Haitians themselves. In Haiti, many believe that you’re only an intellectual if you speak proper French. If you speak French, you’re special; you’ve climbed the ladder; you’re no longer lower class. This way of thinking doesn’t change with immigration. In the Diaspora, many are those who advocate a total immersion, who only want their children to speak English. This is a mistake. How will a kid understand his roots, the symbols inherent to his identity, if he doesn’t speak the language of his parents? Fortunately, things are changing right now. I believe that the new generation will more readily embrace Haitian-Creole as their own.
LEGROS GEORGES: Do you recall your first Creole poem, and the context in which it was written?
MAPOU: The first poem I ever wrote was addressed to my mother. It was 1968 and Sosyete Koukouy had organized a poetry contest on the theme of motherhood; the best pieces would be published in our first anthology. I didn’t consider myself a poet just yet, but at the insistence of the other members, I decided to write a piece about my mother. The thing is, though—many women have raised me. Only when I was 57 did I meet my biological mother. After giving birth to me in Haiti, she moved back to Cuba, where she was born and raised, leaving me with my paternal grandmother, Grann Moyiz. A few years after the passing of Grann Moyiz, my father got remarried. I was a teenager then, and my step-mother started taking care of me, becoming yet another mother to me which is another story of my life.
The poem, “Soufrans youn Pitit,” was addressed to my grandmother, who died of Alzheimer’s disease. At the time—in the 1950s and 1960s—people in Les Cayes, Haiti, didn’t know much about the disease; they thought Grandma was crazy. She became forgetful and very agitated; she often packed her belongings in plastic bags and threatened to leave the house. She was put on watch and often had to be restrained, by the family, by the neighbors. I didn’t know then that she was suffering from a disease called Alzheimer’s. I, myself, thought she was crazy. One day, after a particular violent episode, she had to be bound to a chair and transported to the hospital. That same night, she passed away. Whenever I think about Grann Moyiz, I still cry over the last few years of her life, and over her sudden death.
The poem, written before the language was codified, is about the emptiness left by my Grann Moyiz. It was included in Sosyete Koukouy’s anthology in 1968, but also in 1974, in my first book of poetry, titled Bajou Kasé.
I remember I was crying over the paper:
SOUFRANS YOUN PITIT
Manman kote-ou, kote-ou manman
Depi mwen ti katkat m’ ap rele-ou
Depi mwen ti Zobrit m’ ap soufri
Manmit kote-ou, kote-ou ti cheri mwen
Manman, w’ ale nèt; mezanmi!
M’ ap chache-w nèt ou disparèt!
Chache-w toupatou, adye Bon Dye!
Sou tout bitasyon, nan tout peyi.
Ou te soufri anpil, yo di mwen
Anpil ou te kriye kriye kou ti bebe
Lòt ti katkat, san kazak, san kanson
Zo ak po, se latristès marinèt
Manman kote-w, kote-w cheri
Si ou te la, m’ ta karese-ou
Si ou te la, ou ta dòlote mouin}
Ti karès manman, se bibon konsolasyon pitit
Vini Manmit, vini non, tanpri
Fè piti gason-ou ouè-ou
Ouè-ou, youn sèl foua, Man-an…
Souple, koute priyè pitit ou
FIEVRE: Everything you write under the name Jan Mapou is in Haitian-Creole. You write a special type of poetry—pwezigram. How would you describe it?
MAPOU: I started writing pwezigram in the 1980s while in exile in New York. The political situation in Haiti was still marked by violence. The government was still persecuting writers and poets, who were afraid to write and were maintained in a state of paranoia; even friends and family members couldn’t be trusted not to report literary activities to the Macoutes. If politically oriented literature was found on a street, everyone on that street risked being arrested and brutalized and killed at the jail. Writers started masking their messages behind convoluted forms of poetry. They were writing in “daki” (coded language). In the meantime, in the United States, a new appreciation for the freedom of speech was growing. I decided to un-mask these messages, to free them from their cocoon, put them into a new form and send them back to these poets in Haiti.
Poems written by Haitians overseas couldn’t be censored. So I did the blunt talking for those writers whose mouths were gagged by the Macoutes. The form is very similar to that of a telegram. That’s why I call it a pwezigram—a poem-gram. I dissect your poem and send it back to you as a telegram. It’s a kind of poetic dialogue. Many other poets adopted this form while Baby Doc was still in power.
LEGROS GEORGES: The pwezigram is an interesting construction. You decoded the poems of other writers, who were writing an daki in Haiti. Would you speak more about this? Whose work did you decode? Did anything surprise you in this enterprise? What did those writers think of your uncoded messages?
MAPOU: The pwezigram poems were well received by the original writers. Maurice Jean-Baptiste is one of those who sent me a thank-you note after reading the one addressed to him. He replied vehemently, “Wi, Mapou…. Fòk kabrit la kòche. Sètase!” The writers got the message, and proved it to me in letters back to me. Emile Celestin Megie from his castle in Marigot made copies and passed them along to friends and family members. In the second edition of the book, I published all the letters that I received from these writers. The poets were thrilled when they realized I had perfectly understood their messages an daki, at a time when the government was on a witch hunt. In the 1960s, young men were being arrested by the Macoutes just for hanging out together. Never to be heard from again, perhaps. A militant could leave pamphlets in the street and cause everyone on that street to get arrested. While I was in Fort Dimanche, I met a fourteen-year-old boy from Arcahaie. He’d gotten arrested simply for being a stranger. An eleven-year-old in Forth Dimanche! The situation was terrible. It was no joke.
The Americans were using Duvalier as their pawn to identify young men with socialist tendencies and eliminate them as soon as possible; they feared Haiti would become the new Cuba in the Caribbean. Many young men were, in fact, conducting serious “communist activities.” They really believed in the communist ideology and were taking it upon themselves to help the country get rid of Duvalier’s dictatorship. Some of them went to Cuba. Other traveled to Mexico. Others went to East Germany. Some of them went to the Soviet Union. The CIA, who had infiltrated the whole area, including Haiti, was watching these young men and women very closely. They arrested them at the airport, as soon as they returned. They usually also arrested the rest of the family. Everyone lived in fear.
You know, when I left Haiti for New York, I kept thinking about the fate of those writers I left behind—those who kept on writing despite the threats made against intellectuals. They knew they could get arrested at any time. Yet they kept pushing for the use of Haitian-Creole; they never ceased to organize Creole conferences and continued writing in Creole and promoting Haitian culture. Namely the the members of ASCONA: Togiram, Frankétienne, Jean Dominique… In fact, Henry-Claude Daniel (Jan Tanbou), one of the founders of the Haitian-Creole Mouvement, was later killed in Fort Dimanche.
I sent pwezigrams to Emile-Celestin Megie, to Pastor Maurice Jean-Baptiste, and to many others. In my poems, I rephrased the messages found in their poems, warned them against the Macoutes, and shared my own ideas about the situation in Haiti. The message I got from them, I interpreted it, explained it, and also sent a reply. A pwezigram is not a translation—it’s an interpretation based on the circumstances of these writers in Haiti. All the original poems—the ones my pwezigrams are based on—are located in my personal library.
The first pwezigrams were published in the early 1980s. At first, I was the only one using the form. Later on, some other poets adopted the same style, including Emmanuel Eugene, Kesler Brezault, who live in Canada. Kiki Wainwright also writes poems that are heavily dialogue-based, reminiscent of pwezigram. These poems are not based on other poems an daki, however. They are simply direct dialogues between two speakers, sometimes between the poet himself and another person. Kiki has one in which he addresses Haiti. Keslerbrezo also writes poems in dialogue. Those are mostly lomeyansgram—odes in dialogues or Togiram (Areyitos)
These modern poems do not necessarily relate to politics. They might be socially-oriented or even sentimental. You can use pwezigrams in any circumstance—it’s a dialogue. In the 1980s the topic was politics. But now it can be nature, love, anything. As a matter of fact, I spent three months exchanging pwezigrams with an anonymous poet. Several poems every day. The lady seemed to know who I was, and her poems addressed topics I’d written about, although not an daki. My own poems would be a request for her to reveal her identity. I considered her the “unknown lover”…One day she simply disappeared. I never found out who she was. Never heard from her since.
LEGROS GEORGES: How did you send the poems back? Wouldn’t receipt of these “new” and political messages endanger the recipients?
MAPOU: Yes, it was dangerous, but the poets’ burning desire was for someone to get the message they were trying to send; they were willing to deal with the risks, and it fell upon me to show them that the message wasn’t lost.
My own poems were sent to them in two ways. First, through Haïti Observateur, which was well read at the time, the one newspaper by the Opposition to reach Haiti. As a member of the staff, I published excerpts from my book of pwezigram. I sometimes also printed these excerpts and smuggled them with friends traveling to Haiti. Everyone to whom the book was addressed got copies of it. According to Dr. Ernst Mirville, when the book became difficult to find, the members of the Haitian-Creole Movement made copies of it and shared it among them.
LEGROS GEORGES: As a bookstore owner, you have a large library of Haitian texts. Who are the Haitian poets whose work deserves attention, in your opinion?
MAPOU: In Haitian literature, there are two literary currents. The “classical” poets include writers like Roumer, Briere, Laraque, and Morisseau-Leroy. L. Trouillot, G. Castera, Frankétienne, along with members of a new generation including Kiki Wainwright, Manno Eugene, Michel-Ange Hyppolite, Frantz Benjamin, Wanègès, Andre Fouad, Lochard Noel… can be considered “modern” poets. A self-respecting poet, one who does solid research and reads actively, should be open to everything. Once you’re well-read, it’s easier to decide for yourself what body of work deserves your attention. I personally love anthologies, as they offer an array of poets. Editors classify these poets too—“This one is a realist; this one a surrealist; this one a spiralist or surplus-realist.” Speaking of suplus-realism, I highly recommend St. John Kauss. He has an amazing imagination. A great poet (writing in French).
FIEVRE: Tell us about Sosyete Koukouy in Miami.
MAPOU: Sosyete Koukouy has become a bridge between our community and the others. We were able to gain some respect from others because they could get to know us. The Haitians within the community are also encouraged to become more creative and more productive in Creole. Sosyete Koukouy often presents plays at the Miami-Dade County Auditorium, the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts, and the Joseph Caleb Center Auditorium. Many foreigners come to these events, particularly since we offer simultaneous translations. The play might be in Creole, but it is translated right away for the audience. That’s a beautiful thing! We recently presented Mèt Lawouze, an inspiration of the Jacques Rouman’s novel Gouverneurs de la Rosée (Masters of the Dew) at the Miami-Dade County auditorium. The foreigners were the most excited; they could not only see the play, they could also understand it. This opened a new door into our culture and allowed for non-Haitians to understand us better.
Sosyete Koukouy hosts two radio programs on education and culture on WLRN Public Radio and on Radio Mega.We publish Pawòl Kreyòl, with the collaboration of the members of Sosyete Koukouy. Pawòl Kreyòl is the first revi literè in the Haitian-Creole literature.
LEGROS GEORGES: What is your poetic work now? What are your themes, visions?
MAPOU: I mostly focus on theater today. My plays always include poetic dialogues and monologues—sonnets, Alexandrines. Poetry and music. My plays are teyat total (the type called Musical), a style established by Robert Beauduy (lokobasiye) in the 1960s.
LEGROS GEORGES: How do you see Creole literature, poetry in particular, moving into the twenty-first century?
MAPOU: We need to define Creole poetry, along with its trajectory. We need to focus on questions such as: What poetic forms are appropriate for the Creole language? French or American forms? Or do we have our own forms?
Some poets have already started pondering the foundations of Creole poetry—and what makes it different from other kinds of poetry. Michel-Ange Hyppolite, koukouy from Canada published a book on poetry outlining most of the form already in use; Dr. Ernst Mirville gives some guidance in RECHÈCH; in Pè Sèt of Jozaphat Large I gave some great ideas on the the direction of the Creole poetry. Frantz Benjamin, who lives in Canada, is one of the greatest Haitian poets of our time. He’s the author of Tan Lapli. He uses the pwezigram style on CD. He underlines the beauty and richness of Haitian poetry.
The beauty of Creole poetry is all around us—in the peristile, in the Vodou rites and rhythms, in the carnival, in the konbit, in everyday chats, in the samba and the raras, in our krik-krak, tim-tim bwa chèch, in the mache, in the day-to-day of Haitian life… That’s where we find our poetry.
Jan Mapou has received several recognitions from the City of Miami, Miami-Dade County Commissioners, especially from former Commissioner Barbara Carey, late commissioner Arthur Teele, Mayor Alex Penelas and the School Board. Several local organizations have recognized his contributions to our society. He received the MAXIE Award, the highest award an artist/promoter may receive in Miami, and the Governor of Florida Charlie Crist recently honored him in Tallahassee. He was the recipient of the 2007 Folk Life Award from the State of Florida. In June 2011, Mapou was a special guest of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C, where he recorded for history and humanity his life and realizations.
Mapou is married, has four children and five grandchildren. Retired from his job at Miami-International Airport after 27 years as the General Manager of the parking operations, he is editing several of his books in Creole, including an autobiography and an anthology of Sosyete Koukouy writers. His presentation at the US Library of Congress is on webcam. He is the owner of Libreri Mapou & translation services, a cultural center located in the heart of Little Haiti since 1990. Jan Mapou has written/produced several plays, including Chaloska, Maryaj Daso, Libète ou Lanmò, Anba tonèl, Anba Lakay, Tatalolo, and Mèt Lawouze.
Meet Mapou at the 2016 Miami Book Fair! The ReadCaribbean program was created in partnership with Sosyete Koukouy.