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Wednesday, 5 November 2014

The Colour of Dawn - Yanick Lahens (translated by Alison Layland)

On Monday Haitian writer Yanick Lahens was awarded the Prix Femina, by an all-female jury, for her 2000 work “Bain de lune”. Lahens currently lives in Haiti, born in Port au Prince she moved to France to study at the Sorbonne. As a Professor of Literature she dedicates a large part of her time to a foundation set up to train you Haitians in sustainable development.  This novel was originally published as “La Coleur de l’aube” it won the RFO award in 2009, the Prix Millepages in 2008 and the Priz litteraire Richelieu de la Francophonie in 2009.

Published in 2013 by Seren Books, as part of their “discoveries” series, “The Colour of Dawn” has two narrators, sisters Angelique and Joyeuse. We start with Angelique Meracin waking to discover that her brother Fignole has not returned home, nor slept in his bed.

It’s precisely half past four…This moment, between darkness and light, is my favourite time. The time when my thoughts can turn freely to those who occupy this house, to all those whose whereabouts are lost to me, or who are too far away. The hour of my accumulated resentments, the hour of my numerous hatred, my expectations ranged before me, my hardships that are enough to make me cry with rage. Resentments, hatreds, hardships – I will soon have gathered them all, without exception, like a gaggle of chattering gossips. I carry inside myself so many other women, strangers who dog my footsteps, who live in my shadow, restless in my skin. Not one of them will be deaf to the call of this young woman, not yet thirty, on whom time has left its mark. A young woman struck down some years ago who pretends to carry on living as if nothing had happened.

So on our second page we are already understanding that this is a novel of hardships, resentments and hatred, the modern Haiti. Quite soon after Angelique’s introduction the narration switches to her sister Joyeuse and we begin to understand the family relationships, the views of the hardships from a different angle and the “other side” of our story:

Angelique is already outside preparing Gabriel’s meal. She often chooses this uncertain hour, away from our scrutiny, to unravel the knots of kindness, reason and wisdom that hold together this gloomy, remote life of hers. Angelique’s life is lived at a low level, barely taking off from the ground. Angelique skims the foam of the days. I can’t remember the last time she laughed so the sun danced in her eyes. Truly, I can’t remember.
Since Gabriel was born, Angelique’s eyes have lost their ability to ensnare. Her body has laid down its arms. She keeps all her happiness tightly bound in a severe bun at the nape of her neck. I have difficulty coming to terms with this new Angelique; I find it hard to let go of the other Angelique who was lively and full of laughter, blazing under the sun. A notion of pure joy, of abstract happiness remains at the sound of her name. How I miss my sister, whose happiness and contagious bliss always went before her, who made me believe that the sun of my childhood would never set, who made every day a delicious flow of honey – despite the days when we went hungry, the days of pretence from just above the bottom end of the scale, the very bottom. We were always prepared to pretend, as if we went to bed sated, our thirst quenched. As if our clothes were not held together by Mother’s ingenuity and mending skills. As if we were not always a hair’s breadth away from being expelled from school. As if, indeed, we hadn’t sometimes been expelled. As if, as if…

The story takes place over a single day and night, where the two sisters alternate their tales of their lost brother Fignole, their searching for him, for his meaning, for what went wrong, for what happened to their homeland. A tale of memory of their own lives lost, the lack of opportunity, of what happened to their mother, to their own lives, to their country…

When he returned home at the end of the afternoon, a television set carried on his head, I laid into him. A flood of reprimands gushed from my breast. My anger had such a minimal effect on him that it ended up working itself out. And as my anger calmed, I looked at Fignole with an admiration that surprised even me. Deep inside, a strange fire suddenly ignited and began to crackle. And I felt that it was crackling because I approved of him. Yes, I approved of him. I understood on that day that there is no wrong in turning malicious when you are enslaved. When there is no point to your life, nor to the lives of all those like you since the beginning of the world, and one day a moment will come when a man will show you the way out. And that way will be so narrow, so low, so dark, that it will swallow you whole, your head down. And I lowered my head. And perhaps I would do it again. Who knows?

As our search continues we learn (from only one sister) of the hidden gun that Fignole owned, we learn (from another) of his passion for music, his marijuana smoking, his loves, our non-present character is slowly formed through the eyes of his sisters.

Angelique works in a under resourced hospital:

The injured boy’s mother is shaken by convulsions. It takes two assistant nurses to get her under control and lead her out for a moment. The moans of the youth then become louder than before. They no longer come from his throat, but are scraped out from deep in his belly, shorn of that last modesty to which he has been clinging. He cries without holding back at all. The sobs and moans of a young man of eighteen are more terrible than the Apocalypse. But the Apocalypse has already happened so many times on this ward, so many times in this city, on this island. And so many times the world has continued on its way, impassive.

Haiti may be Lahens’ home country but there is no room for sentimentality, there is no room for the world turning a blind eye to their pain, their horror, there is no room…

Cars overtake us at speed, some of them with sirens blaring, guns poking from their windows. We all, the driver included, take up positions that ensure we do not meet the eyes of the passengers in these vehicles that paint a new face on an old disaster with which we are all too familiar. One day, someone in this city must have given a signal for disorder and ever since then there has been no respite. No safety catch. The order of time, of space has not returned since. And today this city continues its inexorable progress into horror.

This is a lyrical novel, one which exposes the poverty and despair of Haitians. Through the reminiscing we learn tales of street walking, of a want to escape, the loss of innocence and more. The title “The Colour of Dawn” leads you to believe a new era is coming and immediately we believe that it will be a rosy future, this dawn is less so. Religious references, working at a mundane hospital job, offerings to “idols” and consistent reminders that these women want to escape their own existence is the only dawn they seem to grasp onto. Not even through her own child can Angelique see a bright future.

Fignole’s disappearance is solved in the end, however as per usual, there are no spoilers here, you’ll have to read this work yourself to see what happens to the little boy of the family.

I will be back soon with another work from Haiti, the recently released “Ready to Burst” by Franketienne from Archipelago Books.

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