Legends of Haitian Literature: An Interview with the Writer and Novelist Gary Klang

Don’t you dare doubt Gary Klang’s Haitianess, starting with his last name. Klang, it turns out, is as much French, and as much Haitian as, say, Cartier, Jean-Baptiste, and de Ronceray. Born in Port-au-Prince of a French father and a Haitian mother, Klang left Haiti in his late teens for France. Arriving Paris, he hit the books and earned several degrees, including a doctorate, at the world-renowned Sorbonne.

In the mid-1980s, the novelist-poet co-wrote Haiti! Haiti!: Roman [Haiti, Haiti! A Novel] with fellow Haitian writer Anthony Phelps. In the early 1990s, the publishing house Humanitas published a collection of his poetry Je veux chanter la mer [I Want to Sing the Sea] and Les fleurs ont la saveur de l’aube: poemes [The Flowers Have the Scent of Dawn: Poems] as one volume. The 2000s proved to be a most artistically fruitful decade for the writer. His pen yielded some of the most acclaimed works of his career, including Kafka M’a Dit [Kafka Told Me] and [A Lonely Man is Always in Bad Company].

Klang was among the nominees for the Haitian Grand Literary Prize in the mid-2000s, and was elected as the head of Conseil des Écrivains francophones d’Amérique [Council of French Language Authors in America] in 2007. His standing in French-language literature has earned him several other honors, including a national reading on Bastille Day (Klang was chosen by the French government for this honor). He is among the Association des Ecrivains Québécois (known by the acronym UNEQ), and is also an active member of the Association des Ecrivains de langue française, an organization for writers made up of people with French roots.

has been regarded as being the essence of Klang as a writer and poet. His undying romance with the written world has helped him produce works of literature that has brought him critical acclaim and personal satisfaction. He’s been living in Montreal, Canada since the late 1970s.

Q & A

Tell us about your childhood.
My childhood in Haiti was a very happy one; it was truly the good life. At the time, I was painting with my grandmother and painted alongside other painters of renown like Lazare. My greatest achievement was to have sold a cloth painting to the Spanish ambassador. But when I left Haiti for Paris in the early 1960s, I lost all desire to paint the minute I stepped on that airplane. I never understood this phenomenon so abrupt and mysterious. To think how much I loved painting, I lost all taste for this passion that was such a big part of my childhood and adolescent years.

You left Haiti in the 1960s. What can you tell us about this period?
I left Haiti under Duvalier, because of the dictatorship. It was a terrible time. Overnight, people, you thought to be normal, were transformed into bloodthirsty beasts—in Tontons Macoutes—who took pleasure in terrorizing and killing. Psychopaths gave free rein to their instincts and each day brought its share of corpses and bad news. Such and-such friend had died in the night; so-and-so had disappeared. I experienced the jails of this doctor, who, instead of healing, killed. In a short time, I knew what it felt like to be in prison and threatened to be killed by Macoutes. Once with a gun pointed at my chest. It was a time of hatred and evil.

Is there a story to the last name Klang? It’s rather rare.
The name comes from Klang Metz, Alsace-Lorraine. During the fall of France in 1870, my great-grandfather refused to become a German and preferred exile in Algeria, the birthplace of my grandfather who died in the Dominican Republic. I tell part of the fascinating history of my family in my novel, Island with Two Faces, I blend reality and fiction. To make a long story short, my grandfather worked for French Cables and was required to travel around the world. He met my grandmother in Brazil at the bottom of the Amazon, where he had many adventures and was even almost being eaten by piranhas. His horse disappeared before his eyes. At the end of his life, he moved to the Dominican Republic where there are my two aunts and many cousins. My father, he was born in Paramaribo. So I come from a family where adventures abound when you think that my uncle, Antonio Guzman, husband of my Aunt Renee, became president of the Dominican Republic in 1978 and drove the last remnants of the Trujillo dictatorship in the person of Balaguer. You understand now where are my hate dictators and my love of travel.

I was born in Haiti. I did all my schooling at St. Louis de Gonzague and then I went to Paris to study at the Sorbonne. On my mother’s side of the family, everyone was born in Haiti. The paternal side of the family lived, and still lives in the Dominican Republic. I repeat, I am a true and native Haitian who left the country when I was nineteen. I am a true, and native Haitian, fluent in Creole, adoring the language, but not knowing unfortunately how to write it much, because in my time, it was forbidden to speak Creole. This is why many writers from Haiti, around or about my age, do not write in Creole. Times have changed.

Do you sometimes long for those years you spent in Haiti?
For many years, I had a lot of nostalgia for my homeland thinking about my family, my friends, the good times spent together before the arrival of the tyrant. I lived alone in Paris so my agony was even greater. My poetry collection, Ex-ile, and some of those who followed were largely inspired by nostalgia. But gradually, I realized that this feeling was a prison and I had to get rid of it. My last two collections— [It is Time to Rekindle the Stars] and [All land is prison] – expressed this break. I continue to love my homeland, but I do not want to be a prisoner. I must harmonize patriotism and love of humanity. There are too many things to see in the world to be locked in one land. Always return to the yin and yang of the Chinese.

What inspired your first novel L’île aux deux visage?
In my novel, L’île aux deux visage [The Island with Two Faces], I wanted to write a thriller that was more than a thriller, telling the story of my family and also that of our island. Let us consider these three points. In addition to the classic authors I love—Rousseau, Hugo, Aragon, Césaire, Dostoyevsky—I have always admired the great writers of thrillers, detective stories and adventure novels, whom I respect as much as others, and I wanted to emulate them. This story technique tends to be more difficult because you have to say enough, but not too much, totally controlling the suspense. Among the masters: James Hadley Chase, Robert Ludlum, Alexandre Dumas, Michel Zévaco, Jean Bruce…there are others. I also wanted, as I said, to tell the story of my family and my island, so I mixed reality with fiction to the point where an American critic once told me he thought the Nazis I had described actually existed. I also told some of the history of invasions against Duvalier, one of the most glorious in the history of Haiti and unfortunately people don’t know. The name of my friend Gerard Lafontant must be remembered among others who had fought with the guerrillas and Haitians and foreigners against Haitian and Dominican fascism. He told me of many feats alongside not-so-well-known heroes, such as André Rivière, a brave Frenchman, among the brave who fought in Algeria. There was also the Dominican Arache Monte, another hero who was not afraid of anything. Gerard told me that he fought a shark with his bare hands, but I think that part is a little exaggerated. This fascinating period should be further explored and taught, because nowadays courageous politicians are hard to find. I get the feeling that I’m surrounded by people who are just tad bit cowardly—who are afraid of their own shadow.

Did your parents ever put any pressure on you to pursue a medical career? You actually ended up getting a doctorate degree from the prestigious Sorbonne in literature!
No, my parents never put pressure on me to become a doctor or otherwise, even if my grandfather, Dr. Waag, left his name to a street in capital [Port-au-Prince]. They always left that open. By the way, I would say that this is the best way to avoid problems with children. That parents stop wanting to tell them which way to go. If I have any advice to give them, it would be: Get out of your children’s way! They know what they want. I did all my literature studying at the Sorbonne, because it was the only thing that interested me in life: books and literature. This caused me a lot of problems from the standpoint of employment. I never wanted to teach, but I did what I loved and I became what I wanted to be: a writer. I’m invited around the world through my work. What more can I ask for in life?

left: Woy gade li! Little Gary Klang as a tot in Haiti.

When was the last time you went to Haiti?
The last time I was in Haiti was in 2012, as part of a trip organized by the PEN Club branch of the country, led by Jean-Euphèle Milce and his wife, Emmelie Prophet, both well-known writers. It was an exciting journey; I was surrounded by so many of my friends Josaphat-Robert Large, Rodney Saint-Eloi, Georges Castera, Lyonel Trouillot, Louis-Philippe Dalembert, Evelyne Trouillot, Christophe Charles, Verly Dabel, Deji Olukotun Bonel Augustus. Unfortunately, I saw the unspeakable damage of the earthquake—this monster emerged from the bowels of the earth at four o’clock in the afternoon, destroying most of Port-au-Prince, my childhood neighborhood in Bourdon; my school St. Louis de Gonzague gone; The death and destruction…

After you left Haiti in the 1960s, When was the first time you returned to Haiti? What’d you think of it then?
In spite of Duvalier, and in spite of the risks, I went back to see my parents and my maternal grandmother in Haiti. It was a matter of pride and honor, I have always said that the country does not belong to the Duvalier. It belongs to all of us. As simple as that. They could have stopped me of course, but they could not stop me from returning.

The great rupture was made by Duvalier, who I believe has destroyed Haiti. With him, it is as if the floodgates of murder and hatred had opened. Duvalier was the absolute opposite of Mandela—the Tonton Macoutes being the symbol of Evil. I will never forget these men in black with dark glasses who thought only to kill and terrorize weaker ones. As a teenager, without valid reason, I was arrested two times and I was robbed two other times—once with a revolver pointing to my chest. This over the course of less than three years! The country has never regained its balance after Duvalier.

You write . Is the novel your favorite literature form?
I love all genres that I undertake: novels, poetry, short story, drama, essay.

At which point, did you learn how to write Creole?
As I have already pointed out, speaking Creole was forbidden in the classroom at schools in the 1940s and 1950s. We were punished for it. That explains why I never learned to read or write Creole. But that did not prevent me from talking it—and from loving—this language. I repeat: I am a natif natal, a true Haitian even if I don’t write Creole!

L’Immigrant, a theater piece you wrote, ended up being adapted for television.
This play was commissioned for television. I wrote it over the course of a week, while working full-time. I had just arrived in Quebec and life was very difficult for me as an immigrant with young children. But I liked to work on commission because [that’s when] our imagination is fully mobilized. It was the first time that I wrote for the theater and I loved the experience. Seeing my paper character become fleshed out was an extremely intense pleasure, as if I was putting a child into the world. The only thing that had irritated me was that the director wanted to interpret my piece in his head in a way that was not always satisfactory from my point of view. Sometimes he’d do a funny scene out of a passage I had intended to be serious, and vice versa. But as I had sold the piece—a very good price at the time—I had to accept all the terms. Ultimately, I took extreme pleasure to see my work on a TV show that had a Sunday night primetime showing. I dream of one day repeating the experience.

By some accounts, there is a big literary Canadian-Haitian community.
There are many good writers from Haiti to Canada, particularly in Montreal. This is probably one of the places in the world where Haitian literature is doing best and in various genres: poetry, novel, essay…To cite just one example: Rodney Saint-Eloi, writer and poet, has established a publishing house, , which is only ten years old, but already stands out around the world.

In terms of the writing process, story structure, and other aspects of creating literature, what advice would you like to give to writers?
Generally, I don’t give advice because this is didactic. Each one has to find his own style, his way and voice. If one does not find one’s voice, then one is not a writer. Being a writer is to have the tone that makes one unique. A line from any of these authors Rousseau, Césaire or Rimbaud is enough to identify any of these authors. This is what it means to be a writer. You should also know the pitfalls—avoiding clichés like the abuse of adverbs, adjectives. The bad writer abuses clichés because he doesn’t know the art of style. He mistakenly thinks that just writing correctly is enough. But to become a writer and go beyond the stage of writing, as Barthes said, you must have understood many things. We must give the talent—if one has it—time to hatch. At its own pace. For some, like Rimbaud, the genius comes out of nowhere, but for others, we must be humble and work hard.

From all the literary works that you’ve created, is there one that you hold close to your heart, that is especially a favorite?
I like everything I’ve written to varying degrees. That said, my first collection of poems, Ex-iles, without playing favorites, is for me a lucky charm. This was my first book, the one who got me started and gave me a lot of joy, a literary prize in France in 1988. It was also a bestseller that has sold 3,000 copies in one year, a record for poetry.

What message would you like to give out to this generation, and generations that will come after?
I don’t really like the word ‘message’, being neither a wise man nor a prophet. But since I have to answer this question, I will say this: Do not expect anything from others. They don’t really have a message to convey to you. It’s up to everyone to find their own way. That said, you can admire some people and they can inspire you. From Nelson Mandela, for example, you will learn two key things: never be afraid and do not hate others. But it is a lesson that is also found in the Gospels and in Gandhi. It seems to me that in life the rule of thumb is never to hurt others. Ever! Never humiliate, never hurt, never belittle anyone!

Klang walking on the Great Wall of China during a trip there.

In the early 1970s, you left France for Montreal, where you’ve been living ever since. What changes have you witnesses in the Haitian community in Canada over the course of the decades?
I came to live in Montreal because I wanted to live “in French” and because the city put me halfway between France and Haiti. France, where the parents of my wife lived and Haiti, where mine lived. Today there are many more Haitians in Quebec and they are, I think, well integrated. Despite all the difficulties of life at the moment, I feel that we are much better here than elsewhere.

Where do you find inspiration for your poetry?
Inspiration is something quite mysterious. It comes from nowhere, or rather from the depths of the unconscious. I used to say that the gods of Olympus send it to us, because without inspiration there is no poetry. The first verse is given and it is up to us to find the others.

You and Anthony Phelps another legend of Haitian literature teamed up together to create Haïti! Haïti! How was that collaboration?
It was a great experience. At first, we thought we would write each of our parts separately but it was impossible because the details [in the narrative] wouldn’t add up. Finally, we got together. It [the book that resulted] is an indictment of the Duvalier dictatorship. We knew that after the publication of the novel we could not return to Haiti, but we accepted our fate. Fortunately, the dictator had the good grace to ​​fall nine months after the book’s publication, like a birth. Haiti! Haiti! has somehow announced the end of a tyranny which had oppressed the people of Haiti for thirty years.

Do you have any regrets?
Yes, I regret some things. Currently, my biggest regret is not having asked some questions of people who are now dead. When you’re young, you do not think about it. But at a certain age you realize – too late – that there are things you would like to know or clarify. So I have some questions that remain unanswered, unfortunately. But other than that, I have no major regrets, because I accomplished almost everything I wanted to. I wanted to be a writer and I became one. I wanted to have children and grandchildren and I have had them—eight in all. Life even gave me more than I expected. For example, when I first started to write, I never thought that one day I would be asked to do readings of my poems around the world: China, Africa, Latin America…That is a great gift from life.

Last Updated on November 10, 2023 by kreyolicious

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