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 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.