Literature Is a Witness to Struggle

Haitian-born professor returns to his homeland to study Haitian literature

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Joubert Satyre

Joubert Satyre

When Prof. Joubert Satyre developed his research plans over a year ago, he had no idea that his work might be sidetracked by a natural disaster. He plans to travel to his homeland of Haiti this September. One priority is to visit with his family, who fortunately survived the disastrous earthquake that struck the country in January.

“They are okay, but they have lost everything,” Satyre says, a professor in U of G’s School of Languages and Literatures.

The second reason for his journey is to begin work on a research project funded by a three-year grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). But first he’ll need to find out what resources will be available to him when he arrives in Haiti.

“I have to see if the archives are still available,” he says. “So many things collapsed in the earthquake; at this point I just don’t know.”

Satyre has previously published articles and a book about Emilie Ollivier, a Haitian writer who lived in exile in Montreal until his death in 2002. Now Satyre will broaden the scope of his research in the hope of gaining new insights into the lives and the work of other writers born in Haiti.

“My proposal involves visiting three places to work with Haitian writers: Montreal, France and Haiti,” he says. “Literature is like a witness to the struggle. The stories told by these writers are exemplars, not just for the Haitian people, but for any people who have to struggle to survive. Every writer starts from the individual and moves to express what is universal.”

He sees particular power in the work of the writers who have emigrated from Haiti to other countries. “The writers in France, Canada and the United States don’t forget the culture in which they grew up. Whatever country the writer is living in, there is still the presence of Haiti. It lives in you, and you are aware of it, like a perfume. These writers try to capture that perfume, the essence of the country, and they try to express it to the world.”

After a year of travel, interviews and research in libraries, Satyre will return to Guelph to continue teaching as he refines his research material.

“I will be meeting with writers in Montreal, France and Haiti to talk to them and learn about how they perceive themselves,” he says. “I hope these discussions, and my library research, will help to give some validity to my hypotheses.”

As he explains in the summary of his SSHRC proposal, Satyre hopes to define the Baroque features in Haitian writing by analyzing about 20 novels published in the second half of the 20th century. He will also look for connections between the novels and the lives of the writers, especially those who were exiled. Satyre believes that being exiled can create a Baroque attitude towards life in general, and this will, in his words, “leave traces in the work of the writers.”

Satyre came to U of G in 2003 after earning his doctorate at the University of Montreal and teaching there for a short time. Now he teaches both French literature and Francophone literature from Caribbean and African countries.

“The number of people who speak French is really growing in some African Francophone countries,” he adds. “They have a population of young people educated in their national languages and in French who are producing an emerging body of literature.”

For Satyre, the earthquake in Haiti has added challenges to his research and travel plans, but he certainly doesn’t see them as insurmountable: “I may have to modify my plans a bit, but I will go. Definitely I will go.”