When I happen to read a book that I enjoy tremendously it ends up leaving its mark and will show up in one of my pieces in some way or other. When I read one that makes me want to scream in frustration, I usually never want to see another copy of that book ever again. However, when people appeal to me to read and review their written works it gets trickier. Yes, I write reviews occasionally - this is HIP's literary section after all - but I always remind authors that just because they send in their books does not mean I have to like them.
I applaud those who take initiative and make things happen, waiting for no one and marching to the beat of their own drum. I admire the writers who publish their own works and make sure they reach the public instead of waiting for a publisher to say "yes" to them. However, independent publishing does have its pitfalls. I do feel that the most successful writers go through the scary and hard process of sending manuscripts to publishers and facing rejection before success for one reason: they learn how to tap into what their readers really want and deal with the editing process. And if an author does decide to bypass the process of sending out manuscripts to publishers for approval, then it is their responsibility to really take the time to hone their skills and find an editor to make sure that what they put out there is the best reflection of their work. In the past months, I was sent two books published independently by their respective Haitian authors: Exile to Brooklyn by Don Clitandre and Body Snatchers by Rozè.
Here is an excerpt of Don Clitandre's Exile to Brooklyn, the story of his father's exile and tribulations during the 'Baby Doc' Duvalier regime:
My journey is that of death, beautiful sublime death. I have died a thousand times and so have you. Only to be resurrected out of the coffin of mediocrity. What is life and death but the constant flow of breath, I breathe in life and one day I will breathe out death. From the inception of my mortal birth I took my first dive into a world in which I must continuously die to survive. Every day I die unto love, I die unto hate, unto life and die daily unto the fallacies of life that usually come crashing into me... Some say ddeath comes like a thief in the night. But I say death bursts thunderously through the clouds, like the sun emanating over the ancient voided waters of planet earth. Well, I say the frequency of death goes beyond the cadaver lying still in his coffin. We are like the son on that cross; we die every night only to be reborn again. We are all born again sons.
That passage wasn't so bad, but only because it is a fusion I made from the first four pages. The writer tends to use the same words repetitively and the book seems unpolished and unedited. granted, every single published work has certain mistakes that have gone overlooked because nobody is perfect, however this one goes overboard. "I say", "they say" is used four times within the same page, "vultures" is used three times on another. There is an instance where "she" is used several times without naming the subject (p.13). The prose starts out poetic and inconsistently veers towards dry statements similar to that of a history book. There are times when the narrative dribbles into pointless statements that do not help the story along and fail to fit within the context:
From a military dictatorship point of view, you are guilty the minute you are captured, so Dad's demise was already recorded before his actual sentence. It was traditional to be sentenced to death. However at this time in the late 70s and early 80s the international community was paying close attention to Haiti. Mother's face turned pale, her body trembled as she began to panic. Tears began to drown her face...
Why interrupt the story of his father's capture with this sentence about how the international community was scrutinizing Haiti when it has no impact on his family's grief? This just stops the flow of the narrative and lets the reader break free from any emotion they were starting to feel. In the following passage, the description shows a prejudice that is not touched upon and the word "darkest" is gratitious and throws off an otherwise sweet memory:
Mazora was tough, eager to fight anyone at any time. She had an appetite for both laughter and a good fight. She was the darkest out of all us. She had the most beautiful smile with a mischievous laugh that was very contagious. She would hit you as she smiled and laugh at her own jokes. Auntie Mazora was always wonderful to be around.
The problem I have with Clitandre's Exile to Brooklyn is that the lack of editing gets in the way of the story and instead of showing us his own writing style, it feels as if the author got caught up in complicated images and too many clichés that shifts a reader's focus. The underlined line is the most visual to me and spoke to me the most in this book. It is at the beginning of the second chapter and feel the most honest and pure, but the line that precedes it is in no way connected to it or any of the passages that follow :
I remember one of my first encounters with the angel of death was when I was a young boy. Haiti! The land where my soul collected its skin, Haiti, the soil the Creator looked upon and said 'let there be light' and he breathed into me and I too became a living soul. I was born in a place called Port au prince, the capital of Haiti, a seaport and the commercial center of Haiti...
From there the following pages are about Haiti's history and its players: France, native Arawk Indians, Haiti's 1972 turn at the Olympics. So why mention the angel of death or complicate the simple sentiment of love for his country? The underlined sentiment is also my favorite because it is the author's and not his father's.
Body Snatchers is the tale of two twin brothers who leave a life of poverty and crime in Haiti after they kill a drug lord's son. They enter the U.S. illegally where they continue their crime sprees. This story is easier to read and more fluid than Clitandre's, however it is also way too simplistic.
Our bathroom was separate from the house, and since we didn't have indoor plumbing, we had to fill plastic barrels every day with water drawn from the well for bathing. We also had to purchase water for drinking. That's the customary way of life for most Haitians.
The house was dark because of a power outage. In Haiti, we didn't have a consistent power supply, so almost every night half the country lost power, unless you could afford a generator as a backup source.
While these are true to life in Haiti, the way the author continuously points out "in Haiti" makes it seem as if she is just repeating what others have told her about a country she doesn't really know. It has already been established that the characters are living in a town not too far from Jacmel so why keep reminding us of the location? The nest passage leads to further speculation that maybe the author is not that familiar with the country she chose as the setting for the first eight chapters or so. After all, how many girls from Cite Soleil wear suntan lotion?
I just ignored him and continued focusing all my attention on Fifi. After a couple of minutes trying to figure out my approach, I decided to wait until she was alone. As soon as I saw her cousin and her best friend go into the water, I intinctively made my move. As I walked in her direction, I notived her rubbing suntan lotion on her legs and knew this was the perfect opportunity.
The plot itself is ok, but the characters seem like caricatures. They aren't fleshed out enough and the notion that ever woman the twins meet want them is far-fetched and silly. The writing and dialogue are a bit too juvenile to really hold an adult's attention, but with more practice Rozè could make a good young adult author.
There are more and more Haitian authors putting their books on the market by publishing independently and that is commendable, but we also have to be discerning about the material being presented. Independent publishing eliminates the restrictions, regulations and editing that ordinary goes into turning manuscripts into a published works thus providing an even bigger challenge to authors to satisfy readers. I think that's a challenge they should look forward to meeting triumphantly.
- Shadine Ménard