PORT-AU-PRINCE — One hundred years after his birth, Haitian writer Jacques Stephen Alexis is widely recognized for inspiring cultural nationalism and regionalism among Haitian intellectuals. To honor him, a series of events are being held throughout the year to celebrate his centenary and bring to light his ideals of humanism, activism and patriotism to new generations.
Alexis is best known for four novels that literature lovers credit with having undeniable romantic and cultural significance. They revere his attempt to redefine the ‘human’ in aesthetic and political terms, mainly by portraying people in everyday life.
His works – Compère Général Soleil, “L’espace d’un cillement”, “Les arbres musiciens”, “Romancero aux étoiles” – have long served as references in Haitian literature. His 1957 letter to mankind – “La Belle Amour Humaine” – inspire a novel long after his death.
On April 22, Alexis’ 100th birthday, two government ministries held several activities centered around “La belle amour humaine” to honor the writer considered by many a national heritage. Emmely Prophète Milcé, minister of Culture and Communication, said during the tribute that the day was the peak of the events. She vowed to continue the commemorative activities until December.
The organizers hope the cultural activities will prompt people to discover or rediscover the work of the Haitian writer. Titled “La Belle Amour Humaine,” the year-long commemoration is part of a citizenship education campaign aiming to encourage Haitian youth around the values of solidarity, living as a society, research of common good and the love of the country, Minister of National Education Nesmy Manigat said.
For the uninitiated who love Haiti and Haitain culture, here’s a list of key things to know about Alexis and his works, based on interviews with organizers of his centenary, artists, writers and students.
Early life and politics
Alexis was born in Gonaïves on April 22, 1922, to Stephen Alexis, a journalist, historian and diplomat, and Lydia Nonez. He traveled and studied in Paris, then returned to Haiti in 1945 to study medicine at Haiti’s State University. At a young age, Alexis showed more interest in writing and in a political life.
Alexis’ life in politics shows the link between his theses with the social struggles and the political events of his time, according to Max Chauvet who wrote in a 1982 book Alexis Politique. In his “Manifesto for Parti d’Entente Populaire,” Alexis detailed a political program for the left-oriented political party he created. It entailed creating a United National Front to unite existing political forces toward the triumph of the revolution.
Dictator Francois Duvalier forced Alexis into exile.
Given Alexis’ vision of the world and dream for change and progress in Haiti, his centenary is celebrated in a context of socio-political crisis as the solutions he proffered remain relevant in today’s environment.
Inclusive lens that looked at all Haitians
Alexis’ work calls to all Haitians. Recognizing the values of different classes in the country, he mingled with the people and peasants. He speaks to each, particularly regular people, the “peasants” and poor. Haitian culture illustrated by peasant culture is valued.
Humanism and stance against injustice and misery
The call for humanism is present throughout Alexis’ work. He presented himself as an advocate of the “little guy” who fought for the wellbeing of the less fortunate. In parallel, the constant fight against injustice is a prominent theme across Alexis’ novels. In Haitians living in abject poverty and insecurity, Alexis found models for all who stand up against injustice.
Advocacy for the collective interest
Alexis’ work promotes the collective interest over individualism and, for some, it resonates today in Haiti political background. The economic, political and social dichotomy in display today is the result of people’s individualism putting their own interest before the society’s common goal.
Standard bearer of Haiti’s culture
Haitian culture is featured prominently in all of Alexis’ works, with a cosmopolitan lens. Other cultures are also represented since Alexis has lived or visited other countries, where he also represented Haiti.