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A Book Festival in Miami’s Little Haiti Seeks to Empower the Community

The Little Haiti Book Festival, now in its fifth year, is an homage to Haiti’s culture and historical legacy, both past and present.

Little Haiti Book Festival (image courtesy the Miami Book Fair)

The name of Sosyete Koukouy, a cultural organization for Haitians in South Florida, translates from Kreyòl to Society of the Firefly — at once majestic and indicative of its purpose to illuminate the artistic legacy of Haiti. It was founded in 1986 by Jan Mapou, who moved to Miami from Haiti in 1969 and has been an active advocate for the Haitian people ever since. His bookstore and community center, Libreri Mapou, functions as a kind of headquarters for Sosyete Koukouy; it was here that the Little Haiti Book Festival — originally a vision of Mapou’s — was born.

Little Haiti was officially named as such in 2016, despite its title being rather contentious — it shares territorial and historical borders with both Little River and Lemon City, a neighborhood with its own rich history and, at one time, a large Bahamian-American population; preservationists and developers felt “Little Haiti” infringed on these preexisting neighborhoods. But Little Haiti has, since 1980, been the heart of the Haitian diaspora, home to much of Miami’s Haitian community, the largest in the United States. Despite the US government almost consistently sending back Haitians who were escaping the Duvalier regime, the Haitian community slowly integrated, shifting the identity of the predominately Hispanic and African-American neighborhood. Mapou opened Libreri Mapou in 1986, the year the Duvalier regime was overthrown.

Now in its fifth year, the book festival, an extension of the community that formed around Libreri Mapou, is held at the Little Haiti Cultural Center — always in May, Haitian Heritage Month. The festival is an homage to Haiti’s culture and historical legacy, both past and present. Co-organized by Michèle-Jessica Fièvre, a Haitian-born writer and educator, Lissette Mendez, the director of programs at the Miami Book Fair, Myrtha Wroy, director for Miami Shores People of Color Inc., Sosyete Koukouy, and Jan Mapou, the festival lives under the umbrella of the Miami Book Fair at Miami Dade College.

Painter Willer Fils-Aine at the Little Haiti Book Festival (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Considering the conflict around the naming of Little Haiti, the treatment of Haitians across the globe, and the Temporary Protected Status of Haitians (which has become prognostic for Trump’s immigration policies), the empowerment of Haitians is critical. It can be healing to celebrate Haitian art — dance, visual art, music, but especially literature, given words’ power in the process of self-advocacy. As Mendez explained, “Unlike countries and cultures who have suffered severe oppression, in the US, we take our ability to freely communicate for granted.”

Little Haiti Book Festival (image courtesy the Miami Book Fair)

Marleine Bastien is the executive director of Fanm Ayisyen Nan Miyami (Haitian Women of Miami), which provides wraparound services for Haitian women and families, facilitating their adjustments to South Florida and granting various resources. But, she explained to me at the festival, they also “give members of FANM the tools to advocate for themselves,” and art, she explained, is crucial to this process. “It’s a tool of empowerment,” she said. “When we were organizing for the FANM homeowners, we included poetry writing with [poet and activist] Aja Monet. They often felt so stepped on, so disenfranchised, and writing really helped them. When we were walking to the village hall, we sang en route — music and poetry can be a powerful tool for enfranchisement.”

Bastien, a longtime member of Sosyete Koukouy, is the daughter of parents who she describes as “quiet activists under the Duvalier dictatorship. My dad was arrested constantly — not because he was actively organizing or especially politically subversive, but because of the powerful actions he and my mother were taking to empower people.” Her father built the only school in his village and taught both adults and children how to read and write.

Little Haiti Book Festival (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The festival spanned one day and a half, with music, readings by poet Yvette Israel Leroy, and a talk by keynote speaker, Jean-Claude Exulien, who spent 20 years teaching history to high schoolers in Haiti and now teaches English, reading, and writing to adults, many of them Haitian-Americanin Miami. The marketplace at the Little Haiti Cultural Center filled with authors and publishers selling and signing their work and booths by organizations dedicated to the preservation of Caribbean history — like Haiti: An Island Luminous, part of the Digital Library of the Caribbean.

The poetic significance of literature, particularly for youths, was everywhere: Edwidge Danticat read her children’s book, Mama’s Nightingale: A Story of Immigration and Separation, to an art class filled with kids; in John L’Ecuyer’s beautiful film On the Verge of a Fever — based on Le goût des jeunes filles by Haitian novelist Dany Laferriere and which screened that afternoon — the teenage protagonist, on the run from a Tonton Macoute, seeks refuge in a book of poetry. A local high school teacher at the festival, Sherley Louis, told me, “many of my students don’t even know about the history of Little Haiti. Yet they have a voice, something to contribute. They’ve a lot of talent, but because they’re learning a new language, sometimes people don’t see it.”

Edwidge Danticat reading at the Little Haiti Book Festival (image courtesy the Miami Book Fair)

There are layers to the Haitian, and Haitian-American, experience, and the festival’s lecture series addressed some of these: Literati Natif Natal, a talk on modern Haitian Creole literature; Haiti: Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery, a discussion of the detrimental and emotional impacts of modern slavery in Haiti; and a panel on the sometimes adversarial relationship between Caribbean Americans and African Americans in South Florida. There, one audience member reminded listeners that “these dynamics are complicated, and not by accident. There is an entire legacy that would have us be divided; it’s all in ‘thanks’ to those who colonized us. Those of us who understand those dynamics have a responsibility to call each other on it.”

Little Haiti Book Festival (image courtesy the Miami Book Fair)

The year 1804, marking Haiti’s independence and the culmination of the unprecedented Haitian Revolution, was repeated like a poetic interlude: on T-shirts, in a verse rapped during a musical performance, on book covers. The acknowledgment of Haiti’s ultimately radical history is crucial to the self-empowerment of Haitians and Haitian-Americans. Exculien explained to me the profound power not only of literacy, but of knowing one’s own history. “Twenty years ago, we had what we call in sociology a crisis of identity,” he said. “Kids in this community refused to identify themselves as Haitians. When they know their history, it’s different — they are proud, now, to be Haitian. That’s why I tell them, almost every day, history is a weapon. You can use it to defend yourself when somebody says something bad about your country, your origins, your ethnic group. If you know your history, you can answer.”

The Little Haiti Book Festival took place at the Little Haiti Cultural Center (212 NE 59th Terrace, Miami) Saturday, May 27–Sunday, May 28. 

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