Jean-Claude Charles is born in 1949 in Port-au-Prince, HaIti, he died in Paris in 2008. Writer, he has also collaborated in the daily newspaper 'Le Monde' where he writes travel stories. He was one of the contributors for the Revue Noire issue RN06-09 about Caribbean Islands
Writings : 'Le corps noir', Ed Hachette POL (1980), 'De si jolies petites plages', Ed Stock (1982), 'Bamboola Bamboche', Ed Barrault (1984), 'Manhattan Blues', Ed Barrault (1984), 'Ferdinand, je suis à Paris', Ed Barrault (1987), 'L’Odeur des putois dans la forêt', (1993).
In these Lands of Caribbean Childhood
[Original unpublished texts by Jean-Claude Charles written for Revue Noire
in the issues RN 06 and RN 09 in September 1992-June 1993, unpublished texts written in French translated by Sarah Downing and John Taylor]
1 – Dances of the Archipelago
In these lands of Caribbean childhood, between the cheerful and unjust Cuba of Batista and the island of social justice drifting towards the intolerable iron-hardness of the (now aging) « Barbu » (Bearded one) ; in a world where messianic ideals are collapsing, it was not, at first, from images but from sounds, that came the revelation of our common History. To the dances of the archipelago, reverberated, what in creole - whatever the variations - was consistently called the « Tipiko », the different musics of Cuba ; and this two-syllable word alone was enough to make us dream. The images came later : firstly photography and later television. Of course, there was Wilfredo Lam, but what about « foreign painting » ? In a country where local images were inflated to block out, almost completely, the pictures from outside. While an insane dictator, wearing the glasses and hat of Baron Samedi, tore bodies and souls into shreds ; terrifying the Anglo-cartesians in Washington and fascinating the Ethiopian Hailé Sélassié to the point of undertaking a voyage to a country not unlike his own, there were many of us to fantasize about an historic awakening instigated by the appearance of the heroes of the Sierre Maestra. And there, once again the pre-dominance of sounds : from the crystal sets to the big American apparatus that we watched as well as listened to, (some-gag-poking around at the back of the set to see if someone was there). Then, in the homes of certain privileged people, there was television. For me, literature came later : Nicolás Guillén, Guillermo Cabrera infante... even later, the sculptor Cardenas. And the writers José Lezama Lima, Severo Sarduy, Reinaldo Arenas...
2 – Caribbean - The Identity Cops
I have often wondered why the Caribbean Islands colonized by the British have never given birth to anything comparable to the Santèría of Cuba, the Voodoo of Haiti, the candomblé of Brazil. All these forms of worship imported from Africa, re-adapted once arrived. (Of course, “re-adaptation » is not the exact concept.) Digging into - as it is strangely put - the question of the Caribbean identity, one cannot avoid this dissimilarity. And that Jamaica has produced the Rasta movement has got nothing to do with it. And what signification should be given to the fact that Cuba (formerly colonized by the Spanish), Haiti (by the French), Brazil (by the Portuguese) form the parts of the three modern day Chinese puzzles : revolution, dictatorship, capitalism ?
And what on earth is Brazil doing in all that ? The writer René Depestre maintained that this country was part of the « Great Caribbean ». The academic who underlined this sent us an interesting study of ‘Juan Bobo, Jan Sòt, Ti Jan and Bad John’ (*), mythic figures from Cuba, Puerto-Rico, Haiti and the West Indies called « petites » (small) who are given a renewed, singularly rich treatment by modernity and their alter-ego in the Brazilian character of Pedro Malasarte. Reminder, if it is necessary, of the existence of a Caribbean identity, certainly incongruous, plural, complex but also coherent, alive.
This identity, more or less stable, more or less changeable, it is possible to grasp neither in terms of strict geo-maritime proximity - the 'kolé-séré' (squeezed tight creole dance) of what is called « the islands », nor in terms which are stupidly administratives : « your papers, please » . From Louisiana and Florida towards Guiana, the cultural circuit is both dangerous and rigorous, the slide towards the continental coast, towards Brazil as logical as it is crazy, never blurred. And what are these migrating peoples supposed to do with the questions of the customs officers, calculations about machinery equipment, the coast-guard watches, the immigration officials interrogations ? Nothing.
Even less so, the creative artists. They are overflowing : from their origins, their biographic journeys, from national Histories. Jean-Michel Basquiat, from Brooklyn, New York moved up to Manhattan - originally from Haiti and Puerto Rico - dead before his time, alive for having painted his existence on every practicable surface, is there to prove it. You just have to open your eyes to the images.
In the same way, in the field of cinema in this end of century period, Raoul Peck, an ex-New York taxi driver, born in Port-au-Prince, young emigrant in Zaire and France, based in Berlin, returned to Paris. Lately reported to be filming in Santo Domingo, a celestial nomad, crossing countries in the same way Godard said cinema does, that is to say : a film can never be anything other than just one shot after another. He reinvented in ‘Haitian Corner’ the city where the richest country in the world meets the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, that crazy megapolis clinging onto the Atlantic, the mirror against which all kinds of wounded larks still come to hurl themselves against : Nouyòk, Nueva York…
The identity cops are going to get exasperated : they move everywhere, by necessity and… « for a laugh » ! It’s not different from what Jean Bernabé, Patrick Chamoiseau and Raphaël Confiant spoke about, adventuring into a perspective that only those who do not pay attention to the movement of people and ideas would find excessive. In their ‘Elogium to Creolis’ : « The child born and living in Beijing, of a German married to a Haitian will be torn between several languages, several histories, caught between the torrential ambiguity of an identity in mosaic. This child must, under the threat of death of creativity, think it through in all its complexity. » (**)
Visual arts and literature are already witnesses to this reality. Where should Kamau Brathwaite be placed ? In Jamaica where he lives and to which is bound his current image ? Or in Barbados where he comes from originally and which is an integral part of him ? The phenomenon of dispersion will certainly increase as it goes along and with it, will be born books, images without identity, carried along by the crossings, the journeys, the flow of signs without passports, the metaphors of dogs without collars in the hustle and bustle of the world and which will be rediscovered, nevertheless in the choice of creative artists, stubborn and yet open to the adventure of a new humanity.
(*) ‘Juan Bobo, Jan Sòt, Ti Jan and Bad John’ by Maximilien Laroche,H. Nigel Thomas, Euridice Figueiredo. Ed. Grelca, University Laval, Quebec, 1991.
(**) ‘Elogium of creolism’ by Jean Bernabé, Patrick Chamoiseau and Raphaël Confiant, Gallimard, 1989.
3 – Let’s Look for Mathilde, 26 Years Old
Face up to the striking figures. Let the world hurl the figures out. There are characters who disappear never to come back again.
Look for Mathilde, 26 years old, average build, curly lion’s mane, quite plump, quite beautiful, yes, you wouldn't have seen her by any chance ? Behind the plague suddenly there appear things that are ill-perceived, badly expressed. A hail of clichés : that the American marines had introduced homosexuality and the virus to Haiti in 1915 exactly – so Daddy says.
Before this date the 'Masisi' * did not exist. Which intellectual would dare to take on the burden of research into the leisure time of our slave societies ? Certain voodoo practices ? The fear of being ashamed to breathe confronted with the abject work of burdening the Negros with guilt by ideologists hiding behind the veil of Science finished by reaching our consciences. Thus no-ones dares to recall a widespread bisexuality throughout the Caribbean. Morals, unable to trust politics or social justice, rush towards the abysses where the Devil has always lurked. Only artists do not let themselves be intimidated. Well, many, not all. Often humour is involved : the painter Télémaque titled one of his works against AIDS : ’Import-Export’.
That reminds me of a brothel, wedged between the sea and a pathology laboratory under the coconut palms, that popular rumour snapped its fingers at ; I heard it said there that… ”even the coconut palms have AIDS”.
It was not far from the side of surprising sign : ’God’s Desire”.
4 – ”I Never Played With my Father”
I remember the women with or without « madras », with or without scarves ; encamped since the night of slavery and colonisation, in the middle of the days, in the middle of the nights ; standing there obstinately deaf to anything that tried to negate us or pretending to lower their eyes or otherwise...
At a respectable distance from a Europe that, through Engels, Wilhelm Reich and others, wished to develop a virulent anti-family critique through which the ideologists of the 60’s and 70’s would learn that institutions such as school, church etc... were « cells of ideological reproduction » ... Behind every Caribbean artist there is a mother against whom for better of for worse - no-one has ever thought of resisting.
Race blending has been inherited through her, languages (mother tongues - so aptly named), games...
As for the men, they bivouaked in other fields ; of battle, sugar cane, in the middle of the silences or the futile discussions, of feelings of humiliation or arrogance. Sometimes protecting their own by an oblique presence from the cross-roads, in prison or as slaughterers, beggars or manufacturers of beggars - or attempting to reinvent absence.
A friend told me : « I never played with my father » . Familiar words in fathers’ mouths : « So go and ask your mother » ... I don’t claim that it was like this every where. I’m just saying that it prevailed.
* Masisi means faggots in Creole
5 – Letter To Vincent and To the Others
One leaves from Berlin. One leaves from Paris, to go to Fort-de-France. One stays a few days. One meets fascinating people. In Martinique I spoke about writing, cinema, love. And I remembered that Shœlcher was in the Panthéon. There were many of us to merit being in the Panthéon, I said. « All the same, it has to be a good speculation ».
Someone hurled laughing. Days and nights we spent talking.
We keep alog-book.
The man who has seen. For him, from now on, to tell what he saw. I am satisfied simply to relay it. Every man of woman in the Caribbean should have the courage to say one simple thing : I will not leave this world without having tried to throw some light on to one or two seemingly mysterious matters. Meeting by day, not far from la Savanne, with Patrick Chamoiseau.
At the bookshop where, I signed my books ; with Suzy Landau, at the initiative of the cinema festival images Caraïbes, who first winner was my friend from Berlin, Raoul Peck.
Without mentioning the bookseller, Philippe Vallée, a good natured man straight out of a Woody Allen film, an ink taster.
But by talking about those who have a name, one runs the risk of forgetting the anonymous people. It’s part of my character, I really like those people of whom Césaire said he was « the mouth ». If I recall correctly, « I am the mouth of those who have no mouth »...
Meeting by night. I remember the vagabonds who, seen from afar, were telling each other stories, one of them mimed the scoring of a goal and I thought it was a reconstruction of football match. Well, it wasn’t.
It was the story of a beed room scene : the Guy’s foot was a penis, the ball god knows what, in any case, it was a goal. (Later, walking about with Xavier Orville in the street of Stuttgart, we laughed about this way of telling stories).
There were also the near miss meeting. With Vincent Placoly ; he waited for me in the lobby of the hotel, la Batelière, and I was waiting for his call - I had told him that I would work in my room until his arrival downstairs and he should call me so I would go down straight away. We were supposed to have breakfast together. One of those absurd stories of writers mutually intimidated of absent - minded... Wherever you are, Vincent, up there of down there, in paradise or nowhere, greetings.
I realize that I am mixing up two different journeys. I might as well quote Césaire ; « At the end of the early morning... Go away, I said to him, cop mug, cow face, go away. I hate the flunkeys of order and the cockchafers of hope. Go away, bad luck 'gri-gri', bug of young whipper-snapper ». The first page of the Cahier (note book), when one rereads it, always leads to the last page : ...« The evil tongue of the night » ... Impossible to stop at a single word, one always raises on to what follows. Towards the rest, Towards the end. Half a century later (the first version was published in 1939, in Paris, in the review 'Volontés') : note book of a return to the native land » saved my life.
These thoughts come to me, in the warm air. As if I was walking around la Savanne. From my very first day in Martinique, I liked to wander around there. Chez Gaston, the only restaurant open in the city after a certain hour, is a blessing. From literature to rum, do we really change subjects ?
6 – Life Jazzes Like That
When the situation of the slave changed, an essential factor played its part in this change : the traditional relationship that African societies have with death. This relationship was preserved by slaves torn from their native lands. It does not belong to any one ethnic group in particular, nor to an Africa perceived through a hallucinatory impetus set in motion by literary production, the chronicles of travellers, the observations of navigators (vague space, blurred, laying itself open to a globalizing narration, space without history, without a pluralized anchorage point). A place strange and foreign. This relationship comes from the respect of a world order where the individual and ancestors, land and the celestial powers, participate in a harmonious entirety. It was just as much – in different guises – Yoruba (Nigeria, Benin) as Congo (Zaïre, Congo, Angola) or Mandingo (Mali, Guinea, Senegal). Formulated on the Black Continent, transferred to the Americas, this relationship with death was to undergo transformations determined by the specific histories of the social formulations. Beyond it is an imaginary edifice which is in question. It shows what an active re-appropriation of myths is capable of. The forms of the struggle of the slaves cannot be understood in any other way: from suicide (« to return Guinea ») to the warrior attacks which so marked the French armies in Santo Domingo (« the canon balls are made of dust »). From the time of negro-spirituals and blues to modern jazz, black mythologies reverberate, with these double ideas : memory and invention : « The hammers keep ringing on somebody's coffin... / The hearse wheels ringing on somebody's graveyard… »
There is, amongst the Gwo'Ka in Guadaloupe, the same insistence in grappling, in a single movement, with both life and death. Go listen and see Guy Konkèc one evening shaking them up. Gwo'ka. A mass of agitated histories. Konkèt's performances always have their origins in esthetic rebellion. The man is seized by the rigor of seven rhythms : Mindé, Tumblack, Léroz, Kaladja, Roulé, Graj and Padjembel. And life jazzes like that. Rural music anchored in urban daily life but the myth is never faraway : « Pot-la té fémin... The door was cfosed / How on earth did you get in ? » As Jean Vautrin said, « a music to answer to. » Music of humour and challenge, but also of dash, of extreme tenderness. Both war and peace, Guy Konkèt likes to say.
The son of woman who works in the sugar cane fields in Guadaloupe, he keeps alive a tradition that was forbidden at the time of slavery and bivouacs in the future : to the secular dialogue between the boula (solo drum), Konkèt adds drums, a piano, a bass guitar -whatever he wants. He's the boss. And as Guadaloupe is not the only one to dream about changing the dream, he travels with pleasure to Haïti for the repertory and to the Black Americans for some harmonies, refusing to replace « doudou » by « comrade », to shout out slogans, manifestos. If this music is one of revote, that is in the energy itself. When distress becomes the creative emotion. The joyous energy of despair which livens you up in double quick time : « a Ka, it's a Ka, it's not anything else ».
7 – Diaspora
« Negros gathering into insurgent groups must immediately be dispersed by means of staffs and clubs... », Xavier de Charlevoix, Saint-Domingue, 1731.
A little later, in 1764, « the Minister, having been informed of the disturbances occasioned, in France, by Negros and Mulattos, whose great numbers are increasing daily, orders each and every one of them to return to the colonies whence they came... », Gazette de Saint-Domingue.
Towards the end of the next century, they still gather into insurgent groups : « In the evening, when strolling through the countryside, one could hear the joyous cries they made whilst dancing a few disorderly quadrilles, as well as the harsh sounds of their orchestra... »
A century later, in Paris, in London, at noon or at midnight, more of less anywhere and everywhere in the city, in those mauve-colored of neon-flagellated places, take a good look, listen carefully. They gather into insurgent groups, and the public applauds.
8 – Blues
Here’s the alphabet of our love affairs
others will come to pass
they will never be decomposed
there will never be enough room
for our love affairs
There are also assassinations
I will always remember assassinations
I remember the assassination of
Michael Smith in a cemetery in Kingston
stoned to death
let my mouth be in peace
imagine Mutaruka stoned to death
At the beginning Africa
this by no means implies
a return to
the mythical Origin
here’s the cross of your father
here’s the cross of your mother
I have seen the boat people
I have seen wandering
between the Bahamas Porto Rico Miami
I have seen dogs wandering
children of the Revolution and of the Dictatorship
I have seen flowers growing on the dung heaps
of America and other dung heaps
One day I saw the Caribbean Islands
in the Ivory Coast
in Agni country
on the banks of the river
I saw Basquiat
lying on the lawn
his face turned upwards to the sky
portrait of Basquiat
I have seen coups d’état
don’t feel like speaking
about coup d’état
By speaking and speaking about Creole-ness
we end up pleonasming
one day someone told me
that I was a naive writer
naive my ass
The model of Kapitalism
is in Brazil
are there any questions ?
I dreamed of raising pigs
I dreamed of being Henri Christophe
a monarch attached
to the rites of the Master
of being Dessalines proclaimed Emperor
Get through the night of servitude
Every Caribbean creative artist knows
there is a day when the hand trembles
drawing a line by hand
becomes hard becomes hell
a day comes
the line of celestial rectitude
What does exile teach ?
That a child a woman a man
and so what if the order is conventional
capable of leaving his or her country behind
is of redoubtable strength
I remember Max Frisch, a Swiss,
would say :
« Does one have a country only when one loves it ?
And if it does not love you ? »
My friend Frankétienne
tells crazy stories
this country is finished
he says so and he’s there
in this country
My friend Michael Dash
bites his tongue seven times
I’m a Jamaican
I’m a Haitian
I’m a Trinidadian
I’m from London
at the end I don’t really know
My friend Télémaque
ah should I really speak
about Télémaque ?
As to Basquiat
the dead man who returns
the dead always return hey
9 – Playing Bones
What to do
with these six
but are they your
sweet little goat
that into heaven
where the devil’s the six
the front side’s up
the back side’s up
you’re farce yourself
come on now get upset
stupid little baby-goat
so where’s the six
come on now here’s an S
here’s an I
but you’re missin’an S
you sweet little bitch
(Kazoo hey poem)
10 – Rivers and streams
you go away
on the road
all kinds of people
all kinds of
what do you do
to a stream
what do you do
to a river
The Ancestors' Ship On Fire
– But this Caribbean so choke with the dead
that when I would melt in emerald water,
whose ceiling rippled like a silk tent,
I saw them corals : brain, fire, sea Jam,
dead-men's-fingers, and then, the dead men.
[Derek Walcott, in 'The Shoener Flight']
It would be a story in which cockfights would be included, superposed on images of offended virgins in thieves' dens, offerings to uncertain gods, between rivers and forests, under not permanently extinct volcanos, blue skies laced with clouds heavy with ravaging cyclones, and disarming gestures of tenderness, set to bolero tunes rising from verandas hidden behind the hibiscus clumps, with the scene of lilac and jasmine on Concordia Street, in Ponce, and uncontrollable fits of rage, flashbacks, strange lapses of memory, and one could go on talking like this , on and on, until the day dawns.
It would be a story, as if the day were nor dawning, with news releases. Cuba : « Economic collapse of the island between now and July, according to a supposedly confidential document. » Haiti : « Everything has failed. » Jamaica : « The National People's Parry (in power) won the early legislative elections yesterday with 61 % of the vote. Violent confrontations have taken place in the capital… » The backdrop : a mountain of deaths in Kingston, the city of all the dangers, as has always been said. As if a city without danger were not a misunderstanding.
It would be a story with the cold rhetoric of news releases, with fragments of tales taken from school textbooks or from travelogues, or from not arial acts, and full of private drama, of pains perhaps to the creative artist 's advantage and thus compensated for – perhaps. Revolution, dictatorship , capitalism, efforts towards democratization, advances, regressions, a step forward , a step backward, the main figures of the Caribbean political arena would (or would not ) stand up to the brush, the chisel, the lens, the sentence . It doesn't matter.
They would be things (call them works of art, if you're in the mood) : a painting, a sculpture, a photograph , a film, a text. These creative artists did not wait for the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, the Berlin wall, ideologies, the whole kit and caboodle, to make these things that carry out an elementary function of breathing , for themselves as for others.
It would be a simple story in which anything could happen, even the exile returning to his native land, and in the morning the ducks make a terrible racker, and the children run after hoops, brandish water pistols, fly kites, and the adults ride in cars, run as well, between impossible parentheses, after balloons, wearing bandages on their wounds from too far away, stories of boats from across the sea, of horses, of iron chains linking up heels, of iron balls dragged, of iron balls smashing into faces or dragged, of iron balls thrown at, and eventually rum does the talking ; and when no one knows whether the country exists anymore, that is when all together painters, musicians , writers step in to say : yes, these lands exist, and in them, beyond them, here is the singular honor of our artistic forms.
They would be tales full of laughter and tears, full of ups and downs, and languages would get tangled up in order to untangle the inextricable. A story noisy with the chirping of birds from everywhere : nightingales from Dahomey, woodcocks from India, strange animals such as elephants from Spain, crocodiles from Gaul, dragons from England, cicadas from Portugal, ants from Lebanon. And the beautiful 'Walcott tree', in the Star-Apple Kingdom *, folding out the map of the Caribbean, sees more islands there, man, than peas on a tin plate, all differents size, one thousand in the Bahamas alone… *
It would be a story in which the Caribbean would find a symbol in the assembling of singularities, in which the same ship would hold the historic and the daily, the collective and the private, in which strange codes and modern contracts, plotted out by the ancestors, would be negociated . And in which the ship of the ancestors would be set on fire.