Haitian Sacred Arts as Public Education: Antoine Innocent’s “Mimola, or the Story of a Casket,” translated from French and Haitian Creole by Susan Kalter


By Nathan Dize


Mimola or the Story of a CasketMimola, or the Story of a Casket begins with an obituary, an homage to the family matriarch who survived the Middle Passage and who built and sustained a family, now two generations in the making. Antoine Innocent’s novel blends the urbane journalistic qualities of Port-au-Prince with the rich folk tradition of the countryside to tell a story of spiritual and intellectual becoming. The author himself was no stranger to the pages of the Haitian press at the turn of the twentieth century, having taken centerstage in the lead role of numerous plays celebrating the centenary of Haitian independence in the years preceding and following 1904. Besides his theatrical career, Innocent was a key figure in the “Génération de La Ronde” (Generation of La Ronde), named after the periodical in which many of the brightest young Haitian literati published their latest creations, and worked as a journalist long after he left the stage. Innocent is recognized today as one of the first Haitian writers to mention Haitian lwa Gede, the spirit of dead, in a written work.

When Innocent first published Mimola, he dedicated the book to his friends Vendenesse Éstapha Ducasse, Duraciné Vaval, and Massillon Coicou, who all believed, like the author, that theater, literature, the arts, and cultural translation could help bridge the urban/rural divide in Haiti and serve as a mode of public education. Susan Kalter’s translation of Mimola continues in the same vein of the arts as education by providing modern readers with a robust critical edition of this routinely overlooked 1906 text. For the author in his time and the translator’s in ours, Mimola, or the Story of a Casket (Downstate Legacies, 2018) is an integral work to Haitian imaginings of Vodou, the beliefs of its practitioners, and the views of even its most progressively minded detractors. Since the 2012 community-driven decision to change the Library of Congress subject heading from “Voodooism” to “Vodou,” works in translation from Haiti have played a key role in educating Anglophone readers about the Haitian religious practice. Susan Kalter’s translation succeeds in framing Antoine Innocent’s early twentieth-century novel for twenty-first century readers, in presenting a polyphonic Haitian text to an audience in need of more Haitian stories, sacred and profane.

Mimola, or the Story of a Casket is told in two parts, which both point to the origins of the novel’s title. The first recounts the final days of Tante Rosalie, a woman from Dahomey who was captured and sold in to slavery in the years before the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804), who is widely understood to be the pillar of the community and also Mimola’s grandmother. Before Tante Rosalie dies, she makes her daughter Julie (also known as Madame Georges) promise to throw her casket into the sea, so that her body may once again return to the Gold Coast from which she was taken. The years go by and Julie’s husband, along with six of her seven children, follow Tante Rosalie to the grave, leaving her with only her youngest daughter Mimola (also known as Lala). A mysterious character whose name “probably came from the country of Africa,” Mimola eventually develops a condition where she “appear[s] in the grip of some inner thought, of occult forces imposing their will on her little being” (10-11). Worried by her daughter’s state of mental and emotional crisis, Julie takes Mimola to see the local bocors (bòkò), Vodou priests, for guidance.[1] With no cure in sight, Julie begins saving her money and preparing to take Mimola on the annual pilgrimage to Saut d’Eau to cleanse her daughter in the healing waters of the revered, eponymous waterfall.

Prior to the start of the second part of the novel, Innocent introduces Léon Dajobert and Albert Deltan who will, in what remains of the story, ruminate on and analyze the social function of Vodou from the vantage point of the educated Haitian elite. The two men attended university in Paris and returned to Haiti to “advance the country forward,” which for Léon means to “break entirely with the past, [to] rebuild on the ruins, after having destroyed everything, overturned everything” (43). While Albert’s intentions are less radical, he believes that Haitians must reject the idea of Vodou as a “social wound” or superstition, and endeavor to convince the rest of the world that Haitians’ worship of the ancestors is no more different than the Greeks’ or the Romans’ reverence for the ancients or Christianity (43). Léon, his mother Madame Dajobert, and Albert eventually join the pilgrimage to Saut d’Eau, serving as the socio-critical lens through which Innocent presents Vodou, its practitioners, and its detractors for the rest of the novel.

While these philosophical debates may seem out of place to modern readers, Kalter explains in her afterword that in many ways, Mimola is a novel about the next revolution of Haiti, the one that would strike down cultural, economic, racial, and social oppression and bridge the divide between educated elites and the peasantry. Haitian readers at the time of its publication had much to learn of rural life, Massillon Coicou mentions himself in the frontmatter to the first edition that he knows nothing of Saut d’Eau and its traditions. Along with critiques of pseudo-progressive beliefs about the future directions of Haitian politics and sovereignty, Mimola began its instruction from the outset. Many Haitian novels of the fin-de-siècle through the end of the first United States occupation of Haiti (1915-1934) also tend to feature characters who illustrate parallels between the fictional realm of the novel and the lived Haitian reality, such as in Fernand Hibbert’s 1923 novel Les Simulacres (The Pretenders, trans. Matthew Robertshaw, Deux Voiliers, 2018).

In Mimola, Vodou is one of the most tender subjects, the one that best illustrates the rift between the educated and the uneducated, urban and rural culture, and the elite and the popular. Even though Albert mounts a defense of Vodou as a social tradition throughout the novel in the face of Léon’s vehemence, he too holds a great deal of contempt for Haitian syncretic religious practice, arguing that it makes Haitians seem infantile and un(der)developed as a people. When Léon asks if Haitians are “condemned to flounder all [their] lives in Vodou,” Albert replies that “Infant races are like little girls. They attach themselves to their beliefs with the same ardor, the same love as that these [girls] feel for their dolls” (134).[2] Through the use of careful footnotes and paratextual materials (a translator’s note and an afterword) Kalter, a scholar of Osage literature and spiritual texts, assists readers in parsing Innocent’s reverence for Vodou and his Vodouizan (Vodou practicing) characters with Albert and Léon’s veiled and overt contempt for popular Haitian religious practice. Here is one of Kalter’s greatest pedagogical and translational achievements since many Haitian novels in English translation continue to cloud readers’ knowledge of Vodou practice, most often by mistranslating Vodou as “voodoo.”[3]

Since the translation of Mimola features many layers of paratextual matter to help contextualize Innocent’s at times enigmatic novel, Susan Kalter has prepared a translator’s note, textual annotations, an afterword, a section on the historical contexts of the novel, and a bibliography. While casual readers might find this approach slightly heavy-handed, teachers, academics, and Haitian Studies scholars will appreciate the wealth of material Kalter provides, which, along with the novel itself, is available in an open-access PDF via Illinois State University’s institutional repository.  In her translator’s note, Kalter writes that “they say that one never learns something more intimately than when they teach it,” revealing not only her personal relation to the text, but allowing other readers and teachers to work with Mimola in a variety of pedagogical modes (vii). The notes section is carefully prepared and offers explanations of both French and Haitian Creole phrases along with an expert analysis of the two French language editions of Innocent’s novel published in 1906 (Imprimerie E. Malval) and 1981 (Éditions Fardin).

Kalter’s afterword presents a deft summary of the novel and helps to reframe Innocent’s work more than a century after its initial publication. The historical contexts section, however ambitious, is lacking in a few respects. For instance, there are passages in the novel where characters express anti-Levantine and Islamophobic sentiments, which I believe deserve further consideration in Kalter’s paratext. Since Mimola is an accurate snapshot of anti-Syrian politics in Haiti at the beginning of the twentieth century, modern readers serve to benefit from a discussion of this flash-point of Caribbean Islamophobia. Additionally, the historical context(s) section relies heavily on David Nicholls thesis on race and politics in Haiti from his 1979 text From Dessalines to Duvalier: Race, Colour and National Independence in Haiti, which has been thoroughly revised by scholars in the field.[4] The limitations of these materials do not, however, detract from the narrative force of the novel and Kalter’s careful translation. The paratextual materials, as well as the thoughtfully translated novel and annotated source text, will assist in the teaching of Innocent’s novel, which has been overdue for translation for quite some time.

 

Innocent, Antoine. Mimola or the Story of a Casket. Translated by Susan Kalter. Downstate Legacies, Illinois State University, 2018.


[1] Vodou priests can also be referred to as manbo (a female Vodou priest) and oungan (a male Vodou priest). The term bòkò can also imply malevolence whereas manbo and oungan are neutral terms.

[2] In his 1955 Discourse on Colonialism, the Martinican writer Aimé Césaire ultimately explained this mode of thinking as a set of “dishonest equations” whereby “Christianity=civilized” and “paganism=savagery,” Césaire, Aimé. “Discourse on Colonialism.” Trans. Joan Pinkham. in Colonial Discourse and Postcolonial Theory, A Reader. Eds. Patrick Williams & Laura Chrisman. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994, p. 173.

[3] Two examples of novels that feature mistranslations of Vodou are Moonbath by Yanick Lahens (Trans. Emily Gogolak, Deep Vellum 2017) and Savage Seasons (Trans. Jeannine Herman, University of Nebraska Press 2015).

[4] See: Daut, Marlene L. Tropics of Haiti: Race and the Literary History of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World, 1789-1865. Liverpool University Press, 2015.; Stieber, Chelsea. “Beyond Mentions: New Approaches to Comparative Studies of Haiti.” Early American Literature. 53.3 (2018): 961-975.

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Reading in Translation

Translations Reviewed by Translators

Christiana Hills

French>English Translator

brouillonjournal.wordpress.com/

Brouillon – the French word for draft – is a place for translators of all languages to explore and examine those endlessly fascinating and infinitely frustrating words, phrases, and motifs that seem impossible to translate. Brouillon is a collection of these moments. Comments and discussion are encouraged.

ELTNA

Emerging Literary Translators' Network in America

immanent occasions

Translations Reviewed by Translators

Linguist Blog

Translations Reviewed by Translators

Transfiction

Translations Reviewed by Translators

HMH Literature in Translation

Translations Reviewed by Translators

ArabLit

Arabic Literature and Translation

Brave New Words

Translations Reviewed by Translators

Translations Reviewed by Translators

Brett Alan Sanders

"Truth is often concealed beneath the surface of an absurdity."

Thoughts On Translation

The translation industry and becoming a translator

a discount ticket to everywhere

thoughts on books, reading and translation

Madam Mayo

Translations Reviewed by Translators

Waiting for Nobel

meanwhile, let's talk about books...

Biblioteca del Instituto Cervantes de Chicago

Blog de la Biblioteca del Instituto Cervantes de Chicago

Translations Reviewed by Translators

%d bloggers like this: