NEA Literature Fellowships

Mariana F. Past

Back to NEA Literature Fellowships
(2014 - Translation)

Excerpt from Ti difé boulé sou istoua Ayiti by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

[translated from the French]

Chapter 1: I’ll hold a gathering

I’ll hold
a gathering
to know what happened
to my brothers and sisters
oh yes!

The night sprawled itself over the back of the mountains. A mournful little wind was blowing, but the children didn’t stop playing. Sédènié was running behind Aséfi1, his belly bloated from saturated fats, his wee-wee dangling in the darkness. Up in the sky, the moon was beginning to peek underneath the petticoat of the stars, but nearby, by the fence, three lightning bugs were playing hide and seek with misery.

Lamèsi stoked the fire, threw on a piece of wood, and then she said:

-- Children, stop!

All the adults raised their heads. Lamèsi looked at them. They were so many, she couldn’t count them all. Tipous was there, Roro was there, Fifi was there… Voklin had even come with his drum. Timari brought coffee. Néréstan had a few stalks of sugar cane that he cut in very small pieces so everyone could have some.

Lamèsi said: 

-- Family members, we called this gathering because Grinn Prominnin2 has returned. Since the time of President Tibab, we sent Grinn Prominnin to seek out the limits of our suffering. We sent him to find out which spirit of death killed the Emperor3, which spirit of death killed Tipiè, Séfanm and Marilis… which spirit of the dead has been plaguing the family up to this very day that I’m speaking. We gave him drink, we gave him food. We gave him good clothes to make the trip easier. Days went by, water under the bridge, my late father had departed this life. Some folks started saying that Grinn Prominnin was already dead. Other folks thought he had given up. And then this morning, I was really surprised, I was bathing upstream, and who did I see? Grinn Prominnin! His age was starting to show, his face looked tired, and… it was like…(that didn’t make me happy at all) he looked like a city slicker. But a weight lifted from my heart when he kissed me on both cheeks and said: “Sister Lamèsi, courage, you can assemble the gathering. We’ll find out what happened to our families.”

-- So where is he? Make him talk then!

Lamèsi glanced backwards; she looked at the candelabra thicket. The candelabra thicket opened up. A man came forward, head lowered.

-- My family, I say: Honor.

-- Respect, Grinn Prominnin.4

The sorrowful little breeze stopped blowing. The man rolled up his pant legs and sat down on a trunk between Tisè and Fanfan.

-- Brothers and sisters, I bring news. Since the time of President Tibab, I’ve done nothing but travel. I saw mountains, I saw rivers. I saw savannahs, I saw the sea. I set my eyes on other countries, I learned to speak languages… But when I finally reached the yard of the olden days, I knew that if we really wanted to locate the limits of our illness, we must turn and look backwards… We must confront all the crises that happened in the family, we must search for marks that they left in our souls.


1. In Haitian Creole “Sédènié” [dènye in current Haitian Creole spelling] means, literally, “the last” or “the youngest.” “Aséfi” [Asefi in current Haitian Creole spelling] translates as “enough girls” or “no more girls.” While some of the characters’ names in this text are derived from intuition or personal descriptions, others may reflect the Christian tradition or the specialized work performed by that individual. Lamèsi means “Mercy,” “Tipous” is “little sprout”, “Tipiè” is “little Peter,” “Tisè” is “little sister,” and so on.

2. Grinn Prominnin, or Grennpwonmennen, is a central figure in Haitian folklore. Maximilien Laroche calls him the “conscience” of the Haitian people: with Bwapiwo, his side-kick, Grenpronmennen “sees, hears, and thus advises us before we speak.” (Teke, Port-au-Prince: Ed. Mémoire, p. 45). Grennpronmennen is represented as a wandering storyteller who travels through space and time, bringing a wealth of stories and historical knowledge (as in the case of Ti difé boulé) to the people of Haiti.

3. Written as “Lanprè” in the Kreyòl text, the “Emperor” is Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who fought alongside Toussaint Louverture in the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804). After the death of Toussaint, Dessalines led the struggle through its final stages, ultimately proclaiming Haiti independent from France and himself Emperor on January 1, 1804. His rule was brief: Dessalines was ambushed and killed at Pont-Rouge in 1806.

4. “Honor – Respect” are greetings made by Haitians when they enter a friend’s property or to express mutual consideration publically. In Haitian storytelling the narrator often begins a session by addressing the listeners with the word “Honor,” to which they reply, “Respect.” This exchange is akin to the call and response “Cric” / “Crac,” used in many oral traditions in the Caribbean.

Excerpt in French

About Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Michel-Rolph Trouillot (1949-2012) was an acclaimed Haitianist scholar whose critical work in anthropology and history helped transform the fields of Caribbean and Haitian Studies. Born in Haiti, Trouillot emigrated to the United States in 1969 to escape the Jean-Claude Duvalier dictatorship. Ti difé boulé sou istoua Ayiti [Controversial Issues in Haitian History] (1977), a popular revisionist history of the Haitian Revolution, was his first publication. This book provides incisive analysis on the underappreciated role of the Haitian slave masses in the revolution, the historical foundation of the modern Haitian state, and the awe-inspiring culture that flourishes in Haiti. By writing in Haitian Creole, the language accessible to all Haitians, and drawing from Haiti’s rich oral tradition, Trouillot seeks to help bridge the gap between elite and popular Haiti. His best-known publications include Haiti, State Against Nation: the Origins and Legacy of Duvalierism (1990) and Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995). Trouillot received the Franz Fanon Lifetime Achievement Award from the Caribbean Philosophical Association in 2011.

Mariana F. Past (PhD, Duke University, 2006) is an associate professor of Spanish and Latin American, Latino, and Caribbean Studies at Dickinson College. She is co-translating Michel-Rolph Trouillot's (1977) Ti difé boulé sou istoua Ayiti from Haitian Creole to English with Benjamin Hebblethwaite, an assistant professor of French and linguistics at the University of Florida, who specializes in Haitian Kreyòl and has published several book-length translations (Kreyòl to English), including Vodou Songs in Haitian Creole and English. Past has published translations of poetry and prose in Sirena: poesía, arte y crítica (in English and Spanish), Metamorphoses (French to English), and Transition (Kreyòl to English), as well as critical essays about 20th-century representations of the Haitian Revolution and Haitian-Dominican relations in the Revista de la Casa de las Américas, the Global South, the Journal of Haitian Studies, PALARA, and Del Caribe.

Photo by Carl Sander Socolow

Translator's Statement

I discovered the work of Michel-Rolph Trouillot during my graduate studies, which focused upon Francophone and Spanish Caribbean literature. I had the good fortune to study Haitian Creole intensively with Jean Jonassaint and at Florida International University’s Haitian Summer Institute; subsequently, I translated the first part of Trouillot’s Ti difé boulé sou istoua Ayiti [Controversial Issues in Haitian History] (1977) to English for an independent-study course, marveling that this book had not previously been translated.

Wrestling with Creole proverbs, rhetorical flourishes and word plays was wonderful. I also loved how each chapter opens with a few lines of verse that draw the reader or listener into the story by creating the sense of an informal narrative or oral performance. Another captivating feature of the text was that instead of following the epic tradition of glorifying the heroes of the Haitian Revolution (1791-1803), Trouillot creatively and provocatively critiqued these figures while re-examining the underappreciated contributions of the Haitian slave masses in the revolution.

Trouillot granted me permission to formally translate the rest of Ti difé boulé, and I joined forces with my colleague Benjamin Hebblethwaite to carry out the project. Sadly, Trouillot passed away in July 2012. Benjamin and I are honored to be collaborating on this translation, which will render Trouillot’s early masterpiece accessible to a wide audience for the first time.  It is our hope that readers of the English translation will come to appreciate Haiti and its exemplary revolutionary history in a new, more complex light. Contemporary media images do not do justice to Haiti, particularly in the wake of the devastating January 2010 earthquake. The lack of adequate Creole translation by foreign aid workers during reconstruction unfortunately left many capable Haitians out of the process. Bridging cultures, languages, and socio-economic groups was at the heart of Trouillot’s enterprise, from his activist days in the Haitian Diaspora to his later contributions as a groundbreaking anthropologist and political scientist. The generous support of the NEA Translation Fellowship will allow Benjamin and me to help readers better understand the roots of Trouillot’s exceptional legacy.