The Art of “Tonbe-Leve”: Frankétienne’s “Dézafi,” Translated from Haitian Creole by Asselin Charles

By Nathan Dize


In a 1975 interview, journalist Jean Léopold Dominique praised Frankétienne’s publication of Dézafi, meaning “cockfight,” because it provided a polysemic analogy for Haitian life, at once a metaphor as well as a depiction of reality. The cockfight in the novel takes place both in the actual cockfighting ring, but also in the lives of its numerous characters, the inhabitants of Bouanèf and Ravin Sèch, villages cut off from the hustle and bustle of life in the capital of Port-au-Prince. Beyond the literal definition of dezafi[1] as a cockfight, it implies a host of other meanings –– to open the wrong door only to open the right one, to actively struggle in the face of adverse circumstances, and tonbe-leve, to fall only to get right back up again. In Dézafi, translated by Asselin Charles and published by the University of Virginia Press, Frankétienne invites readers into the heart of rural Haitian communities, to join in their adversity, to stumble through a story that at times feels intentionally vague and intensely intimate, to fall down along with the characters and to pick themselves back up again as the narrative progresses.

Dézafi is a culminating event in the Haitian literary project called Spiralism (Spiralisme), at the time just over a decade in the making, and the first novel published in Haitian Creole. Spiralism takes the image of the spiral as its inspiration and deploys it as an aesthetic mode of storytelling that overlaps and repeats itself in form while constantly modifying or reaffirming what has been said or has taken place. Along with Haitian authors Jean-Claude Fignolé (Aube tranquille, 1990) and René Philoctète (Massacre River, Trans. Linda Cloverdale, New Directions 2008), the three writers established a manifesto-less literary movement in Haiti under the successive totalitarian regimes of François “Papa Doc” and Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier (1957-1986) that sought to maximize creative freedom under the constraints of extreme physical confinement.[2] By remaining in Haiti through the father-son dictatorship, Frankétienne and his peers were able to engage with local Haitian struggles and challenges both literally and metaphorically in their writing practice. In doing so, the Spiralists not only found a new perspective from which to grasp the social reality of Haitians living under repression, but they developed a unique aesthetic tool for how to represent it as well.

The novel begins at a rhetorical crossroads, “The dézafi is in full swing/The band strikes up a tune/ We’re wondering on which foot we should dance,” thrusting the reader into a story already in medias res (3). Caught between the role of a participant, an onlooker, or an active listener, the narrative voice in these first pages alternates between a second-person and a third-person narration while simultaneously shifting between multiple fonts and font sizes as well as bold and italic typeface. The words on the page oscillate between narrative prose, diptych poetry, and prose poetry, further drawing the reader into the eclectic realm of the narrative spiral. If you are already dizzy, stop and take a breather before diving back into the novel––consider this the participatory element of Dézafi, the perpetual act of tonbe-leve.

Frankétienne’s style is complex and the concentric swirl of images of cockfights, vignettes from Haitian peasant life, and scenes from Vodou ceremonies he throws at the reader form the beginnings of many narrative threads without the usual trappings of plot-based fiction. The disintegration of plot is a key aspect of Spiralism, which as many critics have noted is also a key characteristic of post-modern literature, especially the French New Novel. Since the dissolution of plot is one of the many potentially challenging aspects of the novel, translator Asselin Charles carefully inserts footnotes into the text, providing crucial landmarks for readers who either feel contextually or stylistically unmoored. Without overburdening the aesthetic quality of Frankétienne’s novel, notes provide readers who have fallen down with the chance to pick themselves back up again by holding onto the explanation of a Haitian proverb or a contextual precision regarding the social frame of Haiti in Dézafi. Explanatory footnotes about acronyms like SHADA (translated from the French as the “Haitian American Agricultural Development Company”) or about the MacDonald Company (an American corporation that operated railroads and banana plantations in Haiti) help to ground the reader in the widespread rural dispossession still gripping the communities of Bouanèf and Ravin Sèch (27, 21). The dezafi continues.

Even though Frankétienne collapses certain novelistic elements in on themselves, there are storylines, threads, and traces of characters that by the end of the story accumulate into a powerful commentary on the aftershocks of US imperialism in Haiti or the austere squalor of a country nearly two decades into a dictatorship. One of these threads is the story of Gaston, a young man from Bouanèf with dreams of life in the capital city. When Gaston arrives in Port-au-Prince he thrusts himself headlong into the fast life of the city to the point that he feels at once dizzy and homesick, assaulted by the ostentatiousness of the city, its carnivalesque sights and sounds. Gaston, like the reader once more, is caught in the process of tonbe-leve. Gaston works odd-jobs, he hustles, he witnesses beggars and bystanders being beaten by police officers for their hunger and desperation, he wishes that he could afford to go back to Bouanèf and so do his relatives. While waiting for a day job at a factory to open up, Gaston laments, “I, Gaston, really thought Port-au-Prince was a paradise […] What can I do for a living?” (64-65). A woman sitting next to him under the shade of an acacia tree replies, “Grit your teeth, tighten your belt, get ready to light and feed a fire in hell,” as if to say that life is just one perpetual dezafi (65).

Haitian Creole is a deeply expressive language, grounded in local episteme and realities. This is the invaluable contribution of Asselin Charles’ translation to Haitian literature available in English since proverbs are routinely, but not exhaustingly clarified, either with a translator’s note or an idiomatic English equivalent. The choice to retain the Haitian Creole spelling of zonbi is also particularly important because, in doing so, the translator side-steps the Anglophone world’s fixation on zombie culture by rooting the text in the Haitian understanding of the concept.

What is more, Charles and Jean Jonaissant, in their respective introduction and afterword to Dézafi, provide readers with a comprehensive assessment of the novel and its themes while also explaining the complex linguistic history of Haitian Creole and the circumstances that led to Frankétienne writing the first novel in the language. Readers may wish to alternate between the paratext and the novel to manage the pull of the Spiralist style; however, the novel itself is where I recommend readers begin. It is here where readers will learn about the literary history of the novel, its adaptation Les Affres d’un défi, and its 2002 re-edition with the updated Haitian Creole orthography.

There is, though, an awkward tension regarding the presentation of Charles’s translation (of the 1975 text) as Jonaissant explains that “[it] is Anglophone readers’ good fortune, therefore, thanks to Charles’s translation, to be able to access, even indirectly, the 1975 text” (180). The way the sentence is written makes it seem as though Jonaissant is offering a tepid version of “something is always lost in translation,” which feels bizarre coming from the afterword to the translation itself. A richer engagement with the myriad choices Charles makes in his translation in the afterword would have, admittedly, alleviated this tension by giving readers a sense of the stakes of translating from Haitian Creole to English. For instance, how does “the land where everyone goes hatless” alter the meaning of “peyi san chapo,” (literally, “land without a hat”) as it relates to the afterlife or the heavens (49)?[3]

In the aforementioned interview with Frankétienne, we learn, as well as readers will in Jonaissant’s afterword, that Dominique had challenged the author to write a novel uniquely in Haitian Creole. Engrained in the very circumstances of the novel’s production is the idea of a worthwhile competition, a desire to make the most of struggle, and the need to get right up after stumbling. Already an established literary innovator by 1975, the publication of Dézafi grants Frankétienne a particular status in Haitian letters. The New York Times once called Frankétienne “the father of Haitian letters,” and even though he was absolutely preceded by women and men of powerful literary stature, the English translation of Dézafi demonstrates his devotion to the poetics of the Haitian quotidian in the language of the Haitian people.

Frankétienne, DézafiTranslated from Haitian Creole by Asselin Charles. University of Virginia Press, 2018.  (Also available by Frankétienne in English is Ready to Burst. Translated by Kaiama L. Glover. Archipelago Books, 2014.)

[1] The title, Dézafi, reflects Haitian Creole (Kreyòl) orthography in 1975 when it was first published. My use of the spelling “dezafi” is to remain consistent with current Haitian Creole orthography.

[2] See Glover, Kaiama. Haiti Unbound: The Spiralist Challenge to the Postcolonial Canon. Liverpool University Press, 2010.

[3] In the 1975, “peyi san chapo” appears as “peyi-san-chapo,” and in the 2002 all as one word, “peyisanchapo” (Dézafi, Éditions Fardin 96; Dézafi, Vents d’ailleurs 95).

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