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A Renaissance of Book Publishing in Haiti

August 1, 1989

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) _ A new freedom of expression in book publishing has flourished in Haiti in the three years since the overthrow of Jean-Claude Duvalier as president for life.

Although impoverished and highly illiterate, this nation of 6 million people now has about 500 locally published book titles available, including more than 200 so far this year.

The publication of books has risen even though Haiti has seen army repression, anti-government demonstrations, massacres and three coups since the downfall of the Duvalier-family dynasty in 1986.

Laennec Hurbon, a sociologist and one of Haiti’s leading writers, says Haiti now publishes more books than any other country in the Caribbean.

″There has been an intellectual renaissance,″ he said.

Haitian authors introduce their new works every week at cultural centers such as the National Library, the French Institute, La Pleiade Library and Bato Fou Restaurant.

During the 29 years of Duvalier rule, freedom of speech and book publishing were stifled. Magazines and newspapers were not allowed to print stories on local politics. State censors regularly cut out articles considered subversive from French and American weekly magazines before they were displayed on newsstands.

When Francois ″Papa Doc″ Duvalier, Jean-Claude’s father, was in power from 1957 until his death in 1971, entire rooms of the main post office in Port-au-Prince were stacked to the ceiling with books confiscated from the mails.

Haiti exhibited 300 recently published books at the convention earlier this year of the Association of Caribbean Research and Institutional Libraries in Jamaica.

″The other exhibitors were absolutely dumbfounded by their quantity and quality,″ said Ludmilla Joseph, legal-deposit secretary of the National Library.

Jamaica, with 22 new books, was the second most abundant exhibitor, Joseph said.

Since independence from France in 1804, Haitians have published some 17,000 titles, the vast majority in French, the language of the educated elite, according to the National Library.

Haitian authors say that the country’s political uncertainty, poverty and widespread illiteracy make the publishing boom even more impressive.

″When you take our 75 percent illiteracy rate into account, Haiti is one of the front-runners of the world,″ said historian Dr. Georges Michel, who in July autographed his newly published ″History of Haitian Railroads″ during promotional sales at several Port-au-Prince cultural centers.

Since Jean-Claude Duvalier was overthrown, Henri Deschamps, Haiti’s major publisher, has issued 150 new books, including a series of Haitian literary and historical classics, novels, essays and textbooks.

The Deschamps catalogue includes 40 titles in Creole, a language derived from 18th century contact between French-speaking slaveholders and African slaves, and spoken by all Haitians.

The Montreal-based, Haitian-run International Center of Haitian Documentation and Information has published 26 new titles in the past three years and plans to publish world classics in Creole.

But book sales are limited in a country with an annual per capita income of less than $300.

″Our market is small and for many of our customers the average of $10 per book is high,″ said Monique Lafontant, co-owner of the bookstore La Pleiade.

″We authors cannot make a decent living from our writings, in spite of our hard work,″ said historian Georges Corvington, who has never sold more than 2,000 copies of any one of the six volumes of his popular ″Port-au-Prince Through the Ages.″

Hurbon is the author of five books on Haiti and research director at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris. His most recent title, ″Comprendre Haiti″ (Understanding Haiti) has sold 4,000 copies.

Other contemporary Haitian authors include novelist Roger Dorsainvil and historians Roger Gaillard and Jean Fouchard.

Two titles to be published later this year are an illustrated, two-volume history of Haitian art by Philippe Lerebours, director of the National School of Arts, and a new edition of the internationally acclaimed ″Thus Speaks the Uncle,″ by the founder of the Haitian negritude movement, Jean-Price Mars.

″Last Christmas we made a cultural breakthrough; for the first time, our customers bought more Haitian titles than French and foreign titles combined,″ Lafontant of La Pleiade said.

Though most Haitians are unable to read their country’s publications, ″the information is filtering down to the intellectually alert but non-reading masses by word of mouth and through the radio,″ said Deschamps.

High school and college students make up the bulk of those who visit autograph-promotional sales, where authors offer 50 percent discounts.

″I am publishing for the future, for 20 years from now,″ Deschamps said. ″In the long run, the investment in human resources will pay off.″

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