Michèle Voltaire Marcelin has written two books of poetry: Lost and Found and Amours et Bagatelles (Love and Inconsequential Things), which received great reviews from critics and most importantly, readers. Her novella, La Désenchantée, (The Disenchanted), was translated to Spanish as La Desencantada. Her poetry book published as “Amores y cosas sin importancia” by the Cuban publishing house Arte y Literatura was presented this February at the Havana International Book Fair.
VoicesfromHaiti celebrates the creative spirit of this multi-talented artist. Read on to find out a little more about Michèle Voltaire Marcelin.
Katia D Ulysse: How do you feel about the way you look? Let’s face it: you’re a very good-looking woman. People notice. Do you think about that?
Michèle Voltaire Marcelin: I never thought I was beautiful but I am now very comfortable with my body. I am comfortable being who I am. I am more interested in being a decent human being than anything else.
Katia D Ulysse: How would you describe your writing to someone who has never had the good fortune of encountering it?
Michèle Voltaire Marcelin: I would say that I write from the heart–mostly about love and Haiti.
MVM: My painting is pretty much like the writing. It comes from the gut. I’m not a cerebral artist. Everything is transcribed because I’m feeling it. It’s not coming from a pre-conceived idea. Oftentimes the subject comes from events that have occurred—like the earthquake, the flooding in Gonaïves and other cities, and the collapse of La Promesse School where many, many children died. When we witness these events, as artists we do what we do. We create art to bear witness and field off those demons that come alongside the disasters.
KDU: Do you remember where you were when La Promesse’s collapsed?
MVM: I was in New York. I stopped what I was doing and wrote a poem about it right away. It is published in Amours et Bagatelles. It was also translated to Spanish.
KDU: Where were you when learned that Haiti had had a massive quake? Do you recall exactly what you were doing?
MVM: I was in Brooklyn, talking on the phone. Another call came. The person said: “Stop whatever you’re doing. There’s been an earthquake in Haiti.” From that moment on, all I remember is trying to locate my mother. She was 89 at the time. It took a week to find her. It was a time full of worry. But some of us were lucky. I did find my mother.
KDU: Where in Haiti are you from?
MVM: I was born in Port-au-Prince. I was raised there, and left when I was 16. I went to live in Chile and attended school in Santiago for about 3 years. Then there was a coup d’état against Allende. I was living with my brother and friends at the time. We were all arrested and detained for days. They had taken us in for interrogation in the National Stadium. They thought we were Cuban. They kept my brother for 3 weeks. It was not a unique situation. They were rounding up those they thought were supporters of the Allende regime. I was just a school girl, but that didn’t make much of a difference to the soldiers. In retrospect, we were really lucky. Ultimately, they did let us go. Others were kept longer. Some went missing. We believe they were killed. I wanted to leave Santiago after that experience. I found my way to New York.
KDU: What was it like to be separated from your parents at 16?
MVM: It was both sad and liberating. It had been hard for me to live in Haiti. It was very closed in. The class hierarchy does not shake easily, as you know. There were specific behaviors expected of a young girl. Your path was traced for you by others and I was savagely opposed to that. It’s not the same now, obviously.
KDU: What do you think of today’s Haiti?
MM: I go very often. Haiti is a country that tugs at your heartstrings; it gives you as much as you give it. But it’s a very hard place to live. The country is in desperate need. It needs the Diaspora to survive. When you go to Haiti, don’t you find that people need a lot from you?
MVM: The people in the street need a lot. It’s not a country you go to that you can easily rejoice in because there’s so much need all around you. When they say it’s poor, unless you’re blind, you have to agree. I don’t think any Haitian likes to hear that it is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. But when you’re there, you see it—unless you deliberately blind yourself. There are children in the street begging for food. Women are pregnant with a child on their arms, begging for food. Fruit sellers are under the sun with 3 mangoes and six limes, waiting for someone to buy. And then there are the beautiful parts. Poverty is not all of Haiti. There is plenty of life, too. It is an exciting, fascinating, in some ways terrible, but profoundly beautiful country.
KDU: Give an example of how Haiti tugs at Michèle Voltaire Marcelin’s heartstrings?
MM: I say that because by the time you walk out of the airport, what you see breaks your heart. 20 different porters in uniform desperately need to make a dollar. They all ask if they can carry your bag. When you choose one, you have to walk past the 19 others. You see the look in their eyes. They are devastated. There are children clinging to the metal gate, calling out: “Mommy, please, Mommy, please.” Unless you’ve chosen to see all of this as some kind of couleur folklorique, you realize these children are hungry and desperate. This should not happen. You can pretend they’re not there. You can pretend—when you’re in your beautiful home or hotel room—that the tent camps are not there. But the desolation will stare you in the face. You have to be honest about what you see.
MVM: Of course, I do. And everyone in Haiti must believe in hope, too. This is how people are able to get up every day and keep going. They know life always triumphs. Tomorrow will be a better day than the one before it. Hope has its place, but we have to be realistic, too. We have to face the truth. Our artists have to tell what is true. Painting this Haiti that is luxurious and surreal and green is lovely, but that Haiti is mostly in the imagination. That Haiti hardly exists. That Haiti tends to be the one that exists in the psyche of the Diaspora. That’s not always the truth. We need to hope, but we have to recognize what the reality is, too.
KDU: What was life like for you when you came to New York the first time?
MVM: I didn’t realize how traumatized I was until years after I left Chile. I was carrying a lot of fear. I worried constantly that people would disappear from my life. Whenever someone didn’t show up for a meeting at a certain time, I imagined the most horrible things. I didn’t think there was anything wrong with the way I felt. I thought it was normal to panic all the time.
KDU: Do you have some good memories about your early years in New York?
MVM: Yes. I loved university. I went to the Davis Center for the Performing Arts at City College. I met interesting people. I fell in love and married a wonderful jazz pianist. He also played with Tabou Combo, one of the most popular Haitian bands. We had a son, and a lovely life until my husband was killed. One bullet through the heart. He was dead on arrival at the hospital. The police never found the culprit.
KDU: How did you manage to stay afloat after that experience?
MVM: The word they always use for Haitians is ‘resilience.’ It means we do what we must. Life always wins. It is not death that triumphs. It’s life. Life continues long after we’re gone. There are areas all over the world where there have been massacres, but the trees don’t stop growing. Grass grows. Schools are built on sites where a lot of blood was shed. Children play there. When my husband was killed, I asked myself: Are you going to die or are you going to get up? I had a 12 year old son. I got up.
KDU: You speak from a deep place. You are as talented as you are wise. How did you get to be so wise?
MVM: I’m not sure if I’m wise. It’s just that I have seen quite a lot, and I choose not to act like a kid who does not know any better.
KDU: How are things now?
MVM: I write. I smile. I am in love again. I met a wonderful man and we married last year. I remember a wonderful childhood and a hellish adolescence. My poor parents didn’t know what to do, so they gave me the opportunity to go to Chile. Before I left Haiti, I saw how the people persevered. I was inspired by them. All the women you see in Haiti; all the peasant women, all the street-side vendors, they persevere in spite of tragedies.
KDU: What is the best part about being Michèle Voltaire Marcelin?
MVM: Being a mother gives me a lot of strength. My son is a wonderful human being. He is the greatest gift. We are more friends now than anything, but I’ll always be Mom. When he used to ask what I wanted him to be when he grew up, I would tell him to be a decent human being. That’s more important than prominence and wealth and everything else. Just be a decent human being. That’s all I strive to be.