Breaking Taboos and Caregiving in Kettly Mars’s “I Am Alive,” translated from French by Nathan H. Dize

Reviewed by Laëtitia Saint-Loubert

In many contemporary societies, mental illness continues to remain stigmatized, despite the spread of public discourse around diversity, equity and inclusion. Haitian writer Kettly Mars decided to confront readers with the silence surrounding mental illness in her novel Je suis vivant, originally published in 2015 in France, by Mercure de France, and translated into English with the title I Am Alive by Nathan H. Dize (University of Virginia Press, 2022).

Set in the immediate aftermath of the 2010 earthquake and told from multiple viewpoints, the novel plunges us into the secluded world of the Berniers, a bourgeois family living in Fleur-de-Chêne. The family ecosystem is perturbed when Alexandre returns home after decades in a local psychiatric facility. As he himself observes early on in the novel, if the “Institution was left standing” in the wake of the earthquake (3), “[it] wasn’t the same anymore. […] it was fractured from within. The routine of our lives had fractured” (33). And so too will the routine of the Bernier household, when Alexandre returns to the family home. This sense of fracture is further echoed through the polyvocal narrative that Mars opted for and that the reader is exposed to, as each section is told from a different perspective for which the speaker is never introduced. As Dize explains in his Translator’s Note, this was part of Mars’s intention to “have [the reader] pay attention, to account for who is speaking on any given page. She wanted the reader to be aware that they have entered the private space of one middle-class Haitian family in the days, weeks, and months after the earthquake that struck Haiti on January 12, 2010” (133). Dize’s translation equally allows readers to experience this sense of disorientation as they go through each section of the book.

As is often the case in Caribbean fiction, ancillary and marginalized figures, including the help, the disabled, and the ill tend to cast a very lucid glance on our unequal societies. I Am Alive is no exception in that regard. As one of the seemingly minor characters – Anna Suphète, a servant – observes at the end of the novel, although Monsieur Alexandre is a “bourgeois man,” “he doesn’t really distinguish between different people and social classes. [He is] Someone who accepts us without effusiveness, but without any ulterior motives. If we were all a bit crazier, the world would be a better place” (125). The reappraisal by an ancillary figure of the schizophrenic main character, whose unexpected psychotic episodes are feared by most in the novel, brings into sharper focus the relationship between in/sanity and in/justice, revealing cracks in the veneer of our normative contemporary societies.

Tellingly, the site from which societal norms are revisited in the text is “la cour,” or “the courtyard.” Dize provides further explanation as to the specificities of the term and how it resonates with other works by Haitian writers in his note: “In the Haitian context, the French word resonates strongly with the Haitian Creole term lakou, which is used to designate an ancestral and often sacred site of filiation and kinship. The word lakou has a virtual or diasporic significance as a “relational space” that provides a social network in the absence of physical space (Désir 281)” (134). For this novel, however, Dize felt that the English “courtyard” was more appropriate to describe “la cour,” and by extension, the family home, as a space of confinement, rather than lakou, which would have anchored the novel in the Vodou tradition.

That said, the translation makes a point of having key Kreyòl words and expressions appear on the page, even when they were seemingly absent in the original. This strategy can be read as an act of caring on the part of the translator, whose work as a practitioner, researcher and instructor contributes to lending more visibility to Haitian literature, including from emerging writers. Dize’s translation helps recreate a transnational space of kinship and solidarity for the Haitian community through careful attention to the innermost recesses of Mars’s original text. This is especially true of the breaks and silences where references to the Duvalier regime are concerned. As the matriarch of the family, Eliane Bernier, observes:

We had to learn how to live, in spite of everything, in the dignity of silent refusal and denial. Silence and dignity were our only fragile defenses against the arbitrary. There weren’t many heroes in those days. […] Exile was a better choice than death. All the disappearances, the summary executions—these tortures broke our spirits, they plunged households into mourning. So many families left, no longer able to endure the anxiety. (81)

The use of the em-dash in this example operates as a textual marker of fracture, creating a break in the syntax that allows the unspeakable to resurface onto the page. Here, translation does not just amount to caring – which may include self-care and developing defense mechanisms when dealing with the translation of trauma – it involves caregiving too. Not a caregiving that aims to sanitize the original, far from it, but that aims to nurture and render it in such a way that its immediate environment is preserved and its connections and relationships with other texts and the reader are maintained. In his Translator’s Note, for example, Dize establishes such connections through pan-Caribbean references to works by Haitian and Jamaican writers.

If translation is about caring and caregiving, it will be up to each reader to determine how alive they feel after putting down Mars’s novel. Surely alive enough to pass on the baton and help break more taboos.

Mars, Kettly. I Am Alive. Translatedby Nathan H. Dize. University of Virginia Press, 2022.

Laëtitia Saint-Loubert is a Caribbeanist and literary translator. After completing a PhD in Caribbean Studies at the University of Warwick and a two-year Irish Research Council postdoctoral project at University College Dublin, she joined Nantes Université where she teaches translation and Translation Studies. She is the author of The Caribbean in Translation. Remapping Thresholds of Dislocation (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2020) and has translated works by Caribbean writers Michelle Cliff, Elizabeth Nunez, Gisèle Pineau and Roger Parsemain. She is currently working on a collaborative English translation of Un monstre est là, derrière la porte by Reunionese writer Gaëlle Bélem (Gallimard, 2020).

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