Interview With Dr. Marlene Daut, Author of Tropics of Haiti,

Academia leader Dr. Marlene Daut wrote Tropics of Haiti: Race and the Literary History of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World, 1789-1865, a book the critic Anna Brickhouse praised as the “first exhaustive study of the transatlantic print culture of the Haitian Revolution”. Did her degrees make writing her book a breeze? Like most authors, is she already thinking about her next book? Let’s find out.

Kreyolicious: How did your educational background help in the writing of this book?
I would have to say that my education—a B.A. in English and French from Loyola Marymount University and a PhD. from the University of Notre Dame—were absolutely essential to me in researching and then writing Tropics of Haiti. I was very lucky to have some wonderful mentors in the French department, in particular, at LMU. I also had a really great team of advisors in graduate school, who really taught me how to research and write like an academic. I actually had to unlearn a lot of what I had been doing as a creative writer though. You know, that’s the biggest difference, to be a creative writer, you don’t really need the kind of schooling that I had. You need a lot of discipline, creativity, and stellar writing skills, but academic writing requires the ability to amass (mostly, in your head), synthesize, and explain vast amounts of information. Creative writing has its own difficulties. You need to be interesting! In some ways, literary historians have it easier…as long as we can find an interesting subject to explore, we can usually be interesting in our monographs.

Kreyolicious: While on the subject of educational background, did your parents support your initial attraction to academia?
Oh, yes, my parents were wonderfully supportive. They were so proud when I got my [doctorate]. But, knowing how I loved to read as a child and a teenager, and then how I continued on with that tradition in my higher education, I think they really wanted me to publish a book. So, they were just elated when Tropics of Haiti was published. My mother still asks me when I’m going to write a novel though….

Kreyolicious: What was it like researching your book?
Researching for and then writing this book is one of the hardest things I have ever done. I think it was so hard because there was just so much that was unexpected. No one in my family has ever written a monograph, so I had to learn how to do everything, and I sometimes felt a bit lost in the archives. There was just so much material that had been written on the Haitian Revolution in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries–it was shocking. I began to curse the day I ever got it into my head to write a literary history! But once I started to really complete some chapters (you know, there are twelve of them!), I gained more confidence, and I was certain that I was going to finish. I also had what I thought was a really good research question—“why and how was the Haitian Revolution racialized by those who wrote about it in the eighteenth and and nineteenth centuries?” I have to say, this research took me to some pretty ugly places. It’s hard to read racist words all day and not have it affect you. Many of the people who wrote about the Revolution in the early days, circa 1791-1802, for example, were cruelly genocidal, which I have written about. I almost didn’t believe it myself. In some ways it is really unbelievable to find out that an actual colonial women living in colonial Saint-Domingue, a mother herself, wanted to sterilize all free children of color….. Anyway, I wrote the bulk of this book from 2011-2013, and those two dates mark the birth years of my two sons. I jokingly say that they are baby warriors to survive that, because revolutions and wars, violence, and virulent racism, was pretty much all I ever thought about when I was carrying them.

Kreyolicious: Are you already working on your next one?
I actually have a couple of book-length projects in the works. The first, is a monograph about the Haitian writer Baron de Vastey (1781-1820). He fought during the Haitian Revolution, but he is more immediately known as King Henry Christophe’s most important secretary. He was in Christophe’s inner circle, so he provides a real wealth of information about early Haiti. In fact, he published over a dozen books and pamphlets, and also edited for a time the official newspaper, the Gazette Royale d’Hayti. Another project is actually related to Tropics of Haiti, and it is going to be an anthology of many of the fictions of the Haitian Revolution that I discuss in my first book. This will allow a broad range of people to finally have access to over 150 fictional representations of the Haitian Revolution, which they would otherwise not be able to read. I have , which contains a bibliography of many of the works.

Kreyolicious: Do you visit Haiti frequently?
I should visit more! I’d like to teach one day at the State University of Haiti. I think one of the worst things that can happen to a country is that specialists like doctors, lawyers, nurses, teachers, historians, librarians, as well as people who perform essential functions like mechanics, plumbers, electricians, bus drivers, cooks, managers, etc., leave and don’t come back. These are the kind of people who can more easily (although, it is always difficult), harness the kind of resources necessary to leave the country, in the first place. It is because they have paying jobs. My grandmother was a seamstress, for instance, and this is what allowed her to have any money at all. People tend to call this the migration of skilled workers like my grandmother, “brain drain.” I’m not sure I like that term, but I also don’t like the idea that once people learn a transferable skill, they leave. I understand why it happens. Opportunity. The same opportunity that my grandmother sought and had and gave to my mother, who then passed it on to me, but it seems to me, then, like I owe Haiti something. Haiti has given me so much. What I mean is that I often feel badly that the majority of Haitian people can’t read my writing. So, yes, I’d like to go back one day, I’d like to give back.

Kreyolicious: What advice would you give to Marlene, the high school graduate?
Hmm…well, I think I would tell a high school graduate to follow their dreams, even if those dreams change over time and become unrecognizable. It might be cliché, but, you know, when I look back at my life, I can honestly say that I have very few big regrets. I mean, everybody has little regrets. A phone call not made, a hand not held, a keepsake not kept. But I guess I just always feel like, with respect to the big decisions in life, if I don’t like the direction my life is heading in, I can change that. It might not be easy, but I can always choose something else. A character from one of my favorite novels, Frédéric Marcelin’s Marilisse, sums my feelings up perfectly: “Je pourrais en être désespéré,” he says, “Je ne le suis pas, ce qui prouve que mes souvenirs sont bons et me défendre contre cette chose inutile, qui ne sert à rien, de regretter ce qu’on a fait”—[which means] “I could be feeling hopeless, but I’m not, which proves that I can remember and defend myself against this useless thing, which is to regret things we did.”]. So, I guess that is the advice I’d ultimately give is if you make a mistake, or you don’t want what you think you wanted, not to despair. Do everything. Regret nothing.


Last Updated on November 10, 2023 by kreyolicious

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