The Art of "Tonbe-Leve": Frankétienne's "Dézafi," Translated from Haitian Creole by Asselin Charles (review by Nathan DIZE)

Nathan Dize Discussion


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.

Continue reading at Reading in Translation

[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.