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Professor Flore Zéphir (1958–2017)

Professor Flore Zéphir was a Haitian linguist, anthropologist and professor of French at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

The month of December 2017 has seen the passing of a litany of great Haitian minds. Among them, sadly, is Professor Flore Zéphir, Haitian linguist and anthropologist, professor of French at the University of Missouri-Columbia, USA. Professor Zéphir published three books on Haitian immigration and ethnic identity, as well as many articles, essays, and literary criticism.

Professor Zéphir was a great supporter of Haitian culture, language and literature. She showed a keen interest in my own work, starting with a very insightful review of my book Critique de la francophonie haïtienne for the journal French Review in 2008, in which she succinctly captures the essential elements and theses of the book. She was generous enough to devote another review to my latest book La Parole indomptée / Memwa Baboukèt for the Journal of Haitian Studies in 2017. The Haitian Studies Association was an organization Zéphir consistently supported and in whose works she was assiduously engaged. In this second review, again as the great literary critic she was, she laid out the most salient aspects of the book in a most careful and exquisite English prose.

Haitian linguistics, anthropology and letters have lost a great champion in the passing of Flore Zéphir. We offer our deep condolences to her family and friends, most particularly her daughter Ambre Zéphir and son-in-law Terrance Floyd; her mother France Garoute; her sister Dominique Zéphir and brother-in-law Roland Amoussouga; and her brothers Kalil Zéphir and Emmanuel Zéphir. May her great spirit rest in peace.

We reproduced below Professor Zéphir’s review of my second book, La Parole indomptée / Memwa Baboukèt:

La Parole indomptée/Pawòl an mawonnaj. Memwa baboukèt/ Mémoire de la muselière.

by Tontongi. Paris: L’Harmattan, 2015. ISBN 978-2-343-05393-6. 276 pp. 28 Euros.

—reviewed by Flore Zéphir (this review was first published in Journal of Haitian Studies, Fall 2016)

From the very beginning, the title of this collection of essays, which translates to English as “the untamed or unmuted word,” informs the reader that the author will speak straightforwardly about his preoccupations. Poet, essayist, and social critic Tontongi places Haiti in the context of a “universal human project” that seeks to restore to the oppressed their rightful position in humanity (245–264).1 La Parole indomptée is a condemnation of oppression and exclusion in all facets of Haitian society. As a member of the literary community, Tontongi sees his role and duty as a keeper of collective memory, which for him is the conscience or the moral compass of a people. This moral compass is there to underscore wrongdoings, injustices, and inequalities and to spur writers to rectify them through their work. In Tontongi’s own words: “Une œuvre littéraire qui n’exprime pas l’humanité souffrante et qui n’en rend pas compte est un échec ontologique cuisant.” (8).

One of the mechanisms of exclusion in Haitian society has been the traditional relegation of Haitian Creole, the language spoken by 100 percent of the population, to simply vernacular status. Tontongi strives to correct the subordinate position attributed to the Haitian language. By dividing his book into two sections—one written in French (La Parole indomptée, occupying pages 7–154) and the other in Creole (Memwa baboukèt, 155–269)—he sends an “untamed” message to his readership that Haitian Creole is a perfectly legitimate language fully equipped to handle such sophisticated subjects as literary criticism. In fact, in both sections he discusses several of the literary figures (Haitians and non-Haitians) that made a profound impact on his own thinking about issues of social justice, liberty, and equality. For example, he discusses the ideas of French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre significantly and eloquently in both French and Creole. This should put to rest the question of whether or not Creole can offer the academic repertoire necessary to engage in such serious and substantive conversations. Indeed, the essays in Memwa baboukèt offer a powerful rebuttal to such claims. In La Parole indomptée, Tontongi removes the baboukèt or muselière (muzzle) that has been placed on Haitian Creole for too long. As he states, “Pour ma part, pour aider à reverser la situation d’oppression où l’on a tenu la langue et la culture créoles en Haïti, j’essaie de produire tant que possible des œuvres en créole haïtien, certaines en édition bilingue ou plurilingue” (15). In so doing, he also removes the muzzle from the mouths of the Haitian people, who should be free to raise their unmuted voices without fear as they fight for their basic human rights: equality, justice, and freedom from discrimination and oppression.

In his strong desire to inscribe Haiti in a universal human project, Tontongi presents an overview of the authors he admires and respects the most for who they are (were) and for the level or “ideological comfort” that unites him with those authors (14). For example, he eulogizes Sartre for his stance against human oppression and imperialist domination and exploitation as well as for his support of revolutionary leaders (Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, among others) in their struggle for liberation throughout the Third World. According to Tontongi, if Sartre were alive today, he would have stood in solidarity with all the oppressed of the earth, including the Haitian people, in their arduous fight for the dismantling of an oppressive system that marginalizes them and takes away their human dignity (40–56).

Tontongi, of course, understands that a literary critic cannot honor Jean-Paul Sartre without honoring his life companion, Simone de Beauvoir. In the Creole section of the book, he calls de Beauvoir “yon fanm vanyan total-kapital” (190). He considers her to be one of the greatest bearers of the collective memory or the post-World War II era in France. Moreover, he admires her greatly for her work on feminism, especially the stance she took against sexism and the domination and exploitation of women. Just like Sartre, de Beauvoir was a social activist with an “unmuted” voice.

In a similar fashion, Haitian writer Paul Laraque, internationally known for his poetry and militancy, receives significant coverage in La Parole indomptée (51–79, 119–125). Laraque, who started writing in Haiti, was deeply troubled by the deplorable conditions in which a large segment of the Haitian population was living (and still lives). Poetry became his weapon of choice to speak out against the people’s misery and exclusion from social participation. Eventually, Laraque had to leave Haiti following the Duvalier crackdown on dissidents of his dictatorial regime. He migrated to the United States in 1961 and lived in New York until his death in March 2007. Tontongi met Laraque in 1977, and a profound friendship developed between the two compatriots. In La Parole indomptée, he admires how Laraque was a poète engagé, whose writings demonstrated an unwavering commitment to social justice and political freedom. Moreover, he applauds Laraque for having written several of his poems in Creole (some excerpts are reproduced in the Creole section) and thus sharing his own understanding that the language spoken by the entire Haitian population deserves the same respect as French. As Tontongi asserts, Laraque’s commitment was first and foremost to the people, their frustrations, their aspirations, their struggles, and their hopes (73).

Tontongi also mentions Paul Laraque’s brother, Franck Laraque, in La Parole indomptée, calling him “l’autre Laraque” (119). Like his brother, Franck spoke out against the subhuman conditions in which the masses of Haitian people live. For Tontongi, the Laraque brothers are the embodiment of a Haitian conscience and of collective memory, as they witnessed a great many devastating political events in Haiti—including the US Occupation—before going into exile in New York. They were, indeed, as Tontongi puts it “des intellectuels en marronnage” (109). This explains the ideological affinity he has with the two brothers, as they—just like him—are “unmuted” speakers or La Parole indomptée.

Before the Laraque brothers, there was, of course, Jacques Roumain. Tontongi chooses to recognize him by recalling the international colloquium organized by the State University of Haiti from November 28 to December 9, 2007, the year that marked the hundredth anniversary of Roumain’s birth (227–244). Tontongi tells the reader about presentations that described Roumain as a “literary genius” (228). At the same time, he hastens to add several papers focused on Roumain’s activism, particularly that against the US Occupation of Haiti. Others discussed his establishment of the Haitian Communist Party, whose objectives were profound changes to the political structures of the country. By including Roumain in his book, Tontongi furthers the objectives of the symposium, which sought to “remove Roumain from oblivion and silence” (236). He wants his readership to rediscover Roumain, “revizite zèv li, zaksyon li e panse li, se reatrape yon pati enpòtan nan noumenm, nan istwa nou, nan kilti nou, nan idantite nou, yon pati enpòtan nan imanite” (236–237). In short, Roumain is part of the Haitian collective memory that Tontongi endeavors to preserve.

Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat also receives special attention in La Parole indomptée. As Tontongi explains to the reader, Danticat addresses many problems that afflict Haitian society: poverty, repression, and foreign (and domestic) domination (250). He focuses on Danticat’s 2010 book, Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work, in which she reflects personally on her own development as an immigrant writer and realizes that it is her duty to relate the tragic events she knows about or witnessed personally. These range from the imprisonment and execution of Haitian political dissidents under the Duvalier dictatorship to the 2010 earthquake that ravaged Port-au-Prince and the surrounding areas. By recounting these stories in this particular work (and others), Danticat gives a voice to the voiceless and exposes the sociopolitical ills of the country. In consequence, she contributes to the creation of historical memory, an endeavor so dear to Tontongi, who sees literature as an integral part of his broader opus about Haiti as a universal human project.

In his discussion of writers who “believe in literature with a conscience,” Tontongi devotes a couple of pages to African-American writer Toni Morrison, recipient of a Nobel Prize in literature in 1993 (197–200). In his view, Morrison consistently highlights issues that arc fundamental to the African-American community. Those include daily struggles for survival in an oppressive sociopolitical system as well as challenges caused by the sociohistorical past (198). Since earning the Nobel Prize, Morrison has continued to speak out on issues of racial injustice, including the recent shootings of young Black men by the police. It is fair to say that Tontongi, who had always hoped that Morrison would use the great honor bestowed upon her to serve the cause of liberty and equality for oppressed people, chose to include her as an untamed writer with a conscience (199)—as, indeed, she is.

Tontongi includes other Haitian-American writers in his book. For example, he mentions Patrick Sylvain, who writes some of his poetry in Creole (205–206). The excerpts that he presents persuasively underscore Sylvain’s cry for social justice. In Sylvain’s words: “Kouraj, chemen lajistis va louvri” (206). As Tontongi asserts, Sylvain uses his poetic language as a “combat weapon,” “a militant tool” to express his indignation at an oppressive sociopolitical system (206). He also applauds Danielle Legros-Georges for “jan li kesyone sa k alantou l” and for the “tension” in her words, which reveals the liberty that she claims for herself and for all people (217). A measure of the admiration that Tontongi has for Legros-Georges can be seen in the fact that he translated several of her poems originally written in English under the title Maroon into Creole. Obviously, he wants all his readers to know that Legros-Georges is a poète en marronnage.

It is interesting to note that Tontongi also includes in La Parole indomptée musician Emmanuel Charlemagne, known to all Haitians as “Manno” (80–86). This choice is not surprising, as Manno is a political activist who wrote most of his songs in Creole. His compositions are songs of protest that denounce the dictatorial regime of the Duvaliers (father and son) and the subhuman conditions to which the masses of the Haitian people were relegated. Manno, in many ways, represents the musical conscience of Haiti, and his songs tell the story of the misery of a people that live in fear but have the power to free itself from this cycle of misery. Manno is undoubtedly a militant musician; this explains the “ideological comfort” that Tontongi finds in him.

Tontongi ends his book with a poem written in Haitian Creole in memory of seven “extraordinary, political and literary great men and women” who died between 2012 and 2014 and had a profound influence on their times (265). Their names, he writes, “still resonate in the memory of all people: Nelson Mandela, Hugo Chavez, Amiri Baraka, Jayne Cortez, Pete Seeger, Maya Angelou, and Gabriel García-Márquez” (265). They represent for him legendary heroes of the freedom of the mind, who have an absolute knowledge of the human existence. He goes on to say that they exist in our collective memory and arc still with us (269).

Yet it should be noted that Tontongi included in his book two Haitian authors whose work he finds ideologically troubling. They are René Depestre and Dany Laferrière. Tontongi severely criticizes the former for the disdain he manifested toward Haitian Creole, which in his view, was “un simple patois inférieur” (117). Although Depestre might be considered a great writer, especially due to the lyrical beauty of his works, for Tontongi he will remain “minuscule” since he never articulated any vision that could move the country forward (118). In a similar vein, Tontongi reflects on what he calls “les implications malheureuses de Dany Laferrière à l’Académie française” (126–150). He worries about what contributions Laferrière, as a promoter of the French language, will make to advance the cause of educating all Haitians in the language that they all speak: Haitian Creole, not French. His strong criticisms of these two Haitian writers reflect his conviction that the Haitian Creole language “ne peut vérifier et démontrer son autonomie que si elle est intégrée dans la littérature écrite du pays”(15).

Overall, in La Parole indomptée, Tontongi expresses his solidarity with the dominated segments of society. For him, literature should reflect civic engagement, in its broadest sense. The overwhelming majority of the authors discussed in this book are selected for the humanist quality of their works. Tontongi’s preoccupation with the human condition did not begin with the publication of La Parole indomptée: in fact, several of the essays that appear here were published separately elsewhere between 1984 and 2014. As such, this compilation is the culmination of a long literary journey that gives shape to his human universal project, in which Haiti is at the center. La Parole indomptée is truly the untamed cry of the conscience of Tontongi, l’écrivain indompté.

—Flore Zéphir, professor of French and Creole studies at University of Missouri
This review was first published in Journal of Haitian Studies, Fall 2016, Volume 22, Number 2


1. All English translations of quotes are mine.

The book can be purchased from Les Éditions L’Harmattan and Trilingual Press.

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