An interview of Kettly Mars by her translator Jeanine Herman
Kettly Mars was born in 1958 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where she resides today. After winnning the 1996 Jacques Stéphen Alexis Prize, her first major collection of poetry and short stories, Un parfum d'encens, was published in 1999. Since then, she has written several novels, including L'heure hybride (Vents d'ailleurs, 2005), Aux Frontières de la soif (Mercure de France, 2013), and Je suis vivant (Mercure de France, 2015). Savage Seasons (Saisons sauvages), translated by Jeanine Herman and published by University of Nebraska Press in 2015, marks her English language debut.
Kettly Mars was invited by the Book Department for a tour in the US as part of a series called FrancophonInk. She was interviewed by her translator Jeanine Herman.
I found this book to be very cinematic, with vivid descriptions and short chapters—a kind of headlong rush. Did you think about the cinematic aspects of this book at all as you were writing? Did you see it as movie?
Many readers have expressed the same impression of a cinematic construction of the novel. It was not intentional. I usually like to write short chapters in my books because this is the kind of writer I am, a sprinter, not a marathoner. The short chapters allow me to control the pace, introduce feedback, increase or decrease the intensity of my story by switching from one scene to the other, from one set of emotions to another.
The cinematic quality was helpful, because this is actually quite a harrowing book, which deals with a time of darkness and violence in Haiti. Did you have to practice a kind of detachment while writing it? Or, how do you write about violence?
Yes, I had to detach myself from the story to be able to move on with the writing while staying close to the reality of this time in our history. As I was writing, I was asking myself how far I could go. This is a disturbing question. At times, I could not help but think about the end product, reaction of the potential readers, knowing the Haitian milieu and the mentalities. But surprisingly, the harshest criticism came from France for the book’s violence. Writing about violence, whether physical or psychological is not easy, the challenge is to stay true to oneself and to literature.
Along with the darkness, there is light. In the character of Solange, for example, the priestess/prostitute, there is a saltiness, an earthiness, and a salt-of-the-earthiness. There was humor in the description of her becoming a priestess, and a kind of gravity in the scene when she gives Nirvah the cleansing bath in the badji and Nirvah enters a kind of trance state, which turns out to be very healing. Is there a character you feel a kinship with?
I usually feel a kind of kinship with all my characters. Nirvah and Solange are the ones I became really friends with. The level of affinity varies from one character to another. Some characters do not let me enter their world easily. It is probably due to my own weaknesses or lack of confidence when entering certain human territories. But it is a wonderful process when the characters become slowly autonomous, and real, and convincing.
Haiti is practically a character in the book. Are most of your books set there?
Yes, Haïti is at the center of my creation. I like talking about my country, making the readers discover its people, its streets, its daily life, its culture, its history, its beauties and hardships. From there I can dart towards the rest of the world. But mostly, my passions are literature and writing. Haïti is also a pretext for my relationship with words, my fondness for narration and exploration of the human soul. When you are born a writer, I think you can write from any place, be it a desert or a prison cell.
A while back, I translated an excerpt of Kasalé for Bomb magazine. The character in that story was different from Nirvah in Savage Seasons, but do they have anything in common?
Yes, they have in common the rage to survive. They accept themselves and learn from their mistakes.
In Le Monde, the reviewer of Savage Seasons compared the sprinkling of Haitian words throughout the book to beauty marks (grains de beauté). I thought that was lovely. Do you have any favorite Haitian Creole words?
I don’t. Creole is my native language, I’d say my first language. I spoke my first words in Creole whereas I learned to master French at school. Of course, there are some creole words and mostly some creole sayings that are particularly savory and philosophical. Such as: Yon sèl dwèt pa manje kalalou (One cannot eat okra with only one finger).
Because I imagined it as a movie, I cast it. The person I kept seeing as Nirvah was Halle Berry. Is there anyone you thought of when writing Nirvah? Is there an actor you could see playing her or any of the characters?
Very Funny! I approve of the choice of Halle Berry. Of course there is a woman I thought of when building this character. Because Savage Seasons is inspired by real facts. This situation happened more than once during the twenty-nine years of Duvalier’s dictatorship and often, after the book was published, people would come to me asking me to confirm if the story concerned such or such family. But speaking about movies, I could see Kerry Washington playing Nirvah and Viola Davis as a great Solange. Idriss Elba could be my Secretary of State. But of course, there are also young Haitian actresses and actors that could play these roles; I am thinking about the talented Jessica Geneus or Lovely Fifi…
How many novels have you written?
I am in the process of writing my eighth novel. I have also written four serialized novels for a local magazine.
Are there classic Haitian works of literature that everyone should know about?
I would recommend firsthand “Gouverneurs de la rosée » (Master of the Dew) by Jacques Roumain “Amour, colère, folie” by Marie Vieux Chauvet and “L”espace d’un cillement” by Jacques Stephen Alexis. There are many more.
There is a scene in the book when the kids are watching a Betty Boop cartoon on television. Did you know Betty Boop was actually based on a Cotton Club singer named Esther Jones? Just thought that was interesting!
No, I didn’t know. Interesting indeed !