Fabienne Josaphat: “Dancing in the Baron’s Shadow” is historical fiction based in Haiti, my country of birth. The story takes place in 1965 under the dictatorship regime of Francois Duvalier, known as “Papa Doc”. It’s the backdrop for the characters, Nicolas and Raymond, brothers at odds with each other who are trying, each in their own way, to survive the brutality of Duvalier’s militia. When Nicolas is thrown in prison due to his anti-government ideals, Raymond has to rise to the occasion and try to save him. So it’s a tale of brotherly love and sacrifice underneath the cloak of political intrigue and suspense.
F: Why do you think it’s important to shed light on this part of history?
FJ: I’ve had the characters in my brain for a long time, and the period of history I write about became a natural setting because it’s a period that in many ways defines Haiti. It’s a moment in our history we still seem to hold on to even after it’s gone. Some people still romanticize it, and many others are physically or emotionally scarred by it. The international community knows what they know of this Haiti through the eyes of their media, but I felt it was important to tell it from the perspective of real Haitians, even if I was born almost at the tail end of the Baby Doc regime. My characters are Haitian, authentically, and I’m using them through fiction as a way to present this part of history, and not through the eyes of others.
I also want to add that I’m fascinated with history in general even if I’m awful at remembering dates. I love spending time hearing about my family’s good old days, I love vintage post cards, vintage music, old film reels and old photographs of relatives in their afros and platform shoes. But mostly, I love to know what it was like back in the day for other folks not living in America, living in other parts of the world. I like to explore what history was like for them at the time: what was happening to them? Who were they listening to? Who were they influenced by? I find we learn a lot about ourselves when we read history and sadly, most often than not, we fail to learn from it. Here, this history was like a very long flashback in time for me, and it allowed me to dwell on themes of ideology and passion and fear. It helps me understand generational relationships and understand character.
F: The book deals with issues of nationalism and power. Do you think that nationalism, once taken to a certain extent, is inherently corrupt? Can it ever be used for good?
FJ: I think mostly anything, taken to an extreme, can be problematic. Nationalism is good. It reinforces a sense of pride and identity in people, I feel. There were people who were arguably great nationalists, leaders like Sankara in Burkina Faso, for example, whose sense of nationalism lead him to envision a strong, self-sustained country (his vision was to empower his country and all Africans).
But nationalism can be dangerous because it can become that layer that accumulates between people and the rest of the world or the environment. It can separate people from reality. One could argue that Papa Doc was a nationalist, but he had is own vision of what that meant and it’s possible that this vision changed over time, became corrupt and in the end, became it became a dictatorship. Nicolas is a nationalist in the novel because he cares deeply about Haiti and does not want it to be molded by the flawed sense of nationalism of another, aka Duvalier’s. My personal take on nationalism and power is that they’re both like alcohol. One can become drunk on both, and the consequences can break a country.
F: You’re also a professor. How do you teach your students about the writing process?
FJ: I teach my students the main elements of writing and I leave the rest up to them to tell their own story. I just give them the tools, or the bone structure, really (image, setting, plot). Then I let them assemble to bones and add the flesh. I do try teach them, however, that the writing process is hard enough that they should respect it. This means honoring the pre-writing process as well as the revision process.
F: Has your own writing process evolved over time?
FJ: Yes. I tell my students I was one of them because I used to just write a story on a whim and bam! I thought I was done. I’d written a story.
Now the more I write I find that this process is hard, it’s solitary, it’s demanding, and I become a little better at it with time. I’m more in love with words now than I was before because I’m broadening my readings and delving into poetry, which informs my fiction. I’m taking the time to plot and map my stories before I write them so they make sense and I’m not just vomiting nonsense on the page (it’s something I learned from my professors in my MFA program). It’s incredibly helpful and saves energy. So yeah, my writing process has become a bit more methodical.
F: Do you think characters provide you more freedom to explore issues of marginalization? In what ways has your own perspective influenced the narratives that you choose?
FJ: In a way, Dancing in the Barons’ Shadow is taking characters who are marginalized and putting them on stage to fight against oppressive forces (the government, but also the obliviousness of the outside world). I think Haiti has been marginalized, since its inception as a nation, and cast aside as some sort of punishment for its deeds, only to be remembered in cases of disaster. But what I love is that idea that my characters, and Haitians in general, are finding their own way to push against the marginalization. Whether or not they are succeeding is up for debate, but they’re constantly pushing back.
The last thing I want to add here is that I wish I could choose my narratives, but the reality is the narratives choose me, so much so that I barely have the time to think about my perspective and how I’m going to weave perspective and narrative. It’s only when the work is done that I step back and consider what I’ve written, and I realize that marginalization plays a central role. That’s something I can’t shake, and I probably don’t want to. It’s what drives me as a writer.
Fabienne Josaphat was born and raised in Haiti, and graduated with an MFA in Creative Writing from Florida International University. She writes fiction, non-fiction and poetry, as well as screenplays. Her work has been featured in The Master’s Review, Grist Journal, Damselfly, Hinchas de Poesia, Off the Coast Journal and The Caribbean Writer. Dancing in the Baron’s Shadow is her first novel with Unnamed Press, forthcoming in February 2016.