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What We’re Reading: Dance on the Volcano

For Black History Month, I signed up for one of the best newsletters to ever grace my inbox–28 Days of Black History. Co-curated by Camille Bethune-Brown and Shanaé Burch, subscribers are introduced to both familiar and lesser-known people, works, experiences, and achievements in Black culture each evening in February. Marie Vieux-Chauvet’s Dance on the Volcano (La danse sur le volcan) was presented early in the month, and as a devotee of Archipelago Books, I read Kaiama L. Glover’s stirring translation of a key work of Afro-Caribbean liberation and colonial race relations.

A familiar site in postcolonial writing, especially from the Americas, the port sets the stage for the narrative. What centuries ago would have been the place of contact that would then ignite generations of brutality, becomes an arena for spectator sport: a witnessing of perpetual colonial arrivals by an audience competing for each other’s gaze. This scene reverberates through the story as the context that colours all individual aspirations and character development. Who is Haiti (in the late 18th century known as Saint-Domingue)?

We follow the story of Minette (the title characters, and many supporting characters, are noted at the end of the book as real individuals of the Haitian Revolution, with Minette and her sister Lise as singers of the time), the daughter of a freed slave, Jasmine, conceived through rape from Jasmine’s white master. Minette is gifted with a voice that provides her with considerable social mobility culminating in performing at the Comédie, a major theatre in Port-Au-Prince. As Minette negotiates her place as “the young person” in an artistic environment where her mother and sister must crowd in the very back of the theatre, where those who laud her in their seats then shun her in the afterparty, she simultaneously undergoes a political awakening. Vieux-Chauvet balances these deftly, maintaining the realistic perspective of a teenage girl, one who wants praise, love, and beauty, but also one who reflects on her condition in a structure set against her race and her sex. This heartbreaking vacillation between validating and punishing subjugated classes, exploitation and reverence, a voice to echo the concert halls of Paris and a sound from the lambi that lacerates the night as a secret code, lays bare what is the most cunning of colonialism. This masochistic need and disposal of the other.

The most critical aspect of this novel is its analysis of race relations among the mixed races. With each layer of the story comes a searing eye for the fractions of biracial and multiracial identities and their respective level of belonging, respect, and privilege in colonial Haiti. Especially poignant are the free people of colour and the freedmen, whose agency comes at a costly price to their enslaved brothers. The betrayals among the non-white groups becomes the spectacle the white colonists want to see, a distraction, an amusement from their own crimes. As others have noted, it may be more appreciable to read the original as the French and Creole inscriptions linguistically embody this societal friction.

Published in 1957, its intricacies illustrate perennial conflicts: admiration and exploitation of Black labour and genius, social mobility and safety as a function of whiteness, and the dual human nature of love and brutality. The title of the book comes from the French danser sur un volcan on the eve of the July Revolution to denote the actions of those who are not aware of imminent danger. With the backdrop of the American Revolution and running parallel to the French Revolution, the liberation of Haiti arrives on the horizon.

—Sarah Wang, Programming Coordinator

Author

Sarah Wang