Haitian Politics and Culture in Translation: “Once upon a time...Richard Brisson" (Tr. Laura Wagner)

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Haitian Politics and Culture in Translation 

Welcome to the first installment of our new H-Haiti Blog series: Haitian Politics and Culture in Translation. The goal of this series is to present in English translation short works of journalism, poetry, fiction, and other written materials from or about Haiti. While we often talk about the necessity of translating works into the native language of Haiti, Kreyòl, we discuss much less the necessity of bringing important works in Kreyòl and French originally published in Haiti to an Anglophone readership. The goal of this series, then, is twofold: to bring more attention to Haitian writers from Haiti, thus, making visible Haitian reactions and responses to not only political events inside Haiti, but to world affairs; and to continue to highlight the important cultural and political work of translation itself. If you have a short piece that you think deserves a wider audience and that you’d like to translate into English for H-Haiti, please use our contact form to let us know.


Kenbe la!


“Once upon a time...Richard Brisson" by Roody Edmé (Tr. Laura Wagner)

Translator's IntroductionThirty-five years ago this month, Richard Brisson -- poet, Radio Haiti journalist, actor, dreamer, provocateur -- and his comrades landed at Île de la Tortue, the island off the northern coast of Haiti.  The invasion, organized by Bernard Sansaricq, was intended to overthrow the Duvalier dictatorship. The young men were captured, executed, and disappeared; their bodies were never found.  Sansaricq did not participate in the invasion himself, and currently resides in Florida.  

The original French-language text first appeared in Le National on January 12, 2017  - LW     

"Once upon a Time...Richard Brisson" 

By Roody Edmé

Among the saffron flowers

It is there that they found

The somber, lifeless horse

Without its rider


One tragic night in January 1982, I watched as Michel Soukar arrived at the home of Victor Benoit, whom I was visiting.  With tears in his eyes, Michel announced that Richard Brisson, poet and journalist, had died.  A great emotion gripped us all.  What the devil had he come to seek in the belly of the beast?  Some minutes later, a television announcer, masking his emotion, relayed in the designated style of military communiqués that Richard had succumbed to his injuries following a clash with soldiers in Duvalier’s elite tactical unit, the Corps des Léopards.  

No longer willing to feed from the bitter fruit of exile or or live in banishment, the poet decided to participate in an expedition so risky that it verged on suicidal.  He landed at Île de la Tortue armed with his microphone, to be what is today known as an involved journalist.  A reporter in a conflict zone, supported by a military unit and sometimes wearing a military uniform himself, whose job it is to inform the public about the situation of combatants on the ground.

Rumor has it that Richard Brisson, one of the most talented journalists and radio hosts to emerge during those years of fire, had been tasked with installing a clandestine radio antenna on the newly-conquered island.  Is there anything we will not say?  And still that night the January wind sent chills through all those who loved the poet, the theater actor, the radio host, and set our hearts to weeping.  Photos published years later in the weekly Haïti Progrès show the poet alive, wounds upon his head, prisoner of his executioners.  He would suffer the same fate as the novelist Jacques Stephen Alexis, captured and disappeared under nearly the same conditions. Richard’s destiny, like that of Alexis, recalls the sad tale of those generations who sacrificed their poets, to parody the Russian linguist Roman Jakobson.

Richard was possessed with an edgy sensitivity, born to a family of scholars.  The grandson of a poet, he carried within his soul the glowing flame of revolution.  But not those revolutions so quickly reclaimed by apparatchiks and hardened like ice into frozen ideologies.  For a man of such passion, militant for the cause of human happiness, the revolution entailed a great upheaval in our way of life and what it means to be human.  An upheaval that could blaze the path into the future.  Richard was a tormented soul, too generous to live in the merciless world of the dictatorship. He was a friend of all the barefoot poor of the seaside slums; he was called, in certain conservative circles, “a mulatto who doesn’t know his place.”  Richard had no use for clichés, prejudices, or postures.  He believed in hard work, and could be found behind the wheel of a taxi on the streets of Port-au-Prince.

He was an artist in full blaze, a will-o’-the-wisp, an enchanted fire in a capital city where the nights were still greedy and festive.  Richard lived life to the fullest.  

The sum of his anguish is contained in the big question posed by philosopher and professor Judith Butler: “Can one lead a good life in a bad life?”  Like Judith Butler, he believed that a “good” life could not do away with political action. Éric Aeschimann of the Nouvel Observateur describes how Butler revisits her past work in her Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly, and demonstrates the notion of vulnerability.  To be gay in a social order that rejects homosexuality is to be vulnerable, as vulnerable as migrants deprived of their human rights or workers stripped of their employment, to say nothing of women denied social equity.

Reading Éric Aeschimann and his fascination with Judith Butler’s depth of thinking, I cannot help but think of Richard, talented interpreter of Nicolas Gogol’s Diary of a Madman.  

One night, as a matter of fact, at the Rex Théâtre, he played the role of Gogol’s madman.  And in his own life, he was that madman: in love with life, passionate about the human race and the promise of the “big day” that would announce the dawning a of brighter tomorrow.  

A close friend of the people, he had conceived of a Creole-language jazz program.  Young people had a special place in his broadcasts such as “Show Pourri” and “Musicorama.”  The studios of Radio Haïti-Inter, in downtown Port-au-Prince, were his second home.  Exile destroyed his microphone and tore him away from the affection of his audience.  

If only he had waited!

Richard Brisson could not stay still.  He chose instead to join a suicide mission, to die in his own land.  He did not wish to protest from afar, trapped in a country of snow.

Four years later, the Duvalier regime fell.  All his comrades, expelled in November 1980, returned from exile after February 7, 1986.  

Starry-eyed Richard was a passionate being who refused to rot away in the gloomy salons of the so-called revolutionaries. After his exile, something essential had broken within him.  He could not recover that lost part of himself, except by setting foot once again in that beloved land that had been snatched from him one fateful November day in 1980.  He preferred to plunge into the arms of an intrepid comrade in the “struggle” -- or let us say instead, a seller of false dreams, a peddler of criminal illusions.

Translated and hyperlinked by Laura Wagner, Radio Haiti project archivist, Duke University