An interview with Eddy Toussaint Tontongi as told to Gilmore Tamny
I adopted “Tontongi” as my nom de plume about 25 years ago. It was a nickname given to me by my mother when I was a toddler, meaning “Uncle Guy” in Haitian Creole.
Did you always want to be a writer?
I don’t know if I always wanted to be a writer, but I would presume that a moment of encouragement from my mother was a big part of it. I must have been about seven or eight years old when I wrote my first poem. My mother was so proud she took the poem, written long hand on a piece of school notebook paper, and showed it to the entire lakou vwazinaj (the surrounding neighbors within an enclosure of dwellings) in the Bolosse section of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. I don’t remember all the words of the poem but it certainly was my first, and my mother my first admiring reader. I continued to write poems and proto-philosophical reflections throughout my adolescence. Most of my adolescent poems were about love or romantic intrigues, broken hearts, and women’s betrayal or misunderstanding. My reflections were almost always on the unjust nature of life, the caprice of fate, the questioning of everyday existence.
Who are some of your favorite writers?
My favorite writers are, in affective and chronological order:
First was Carl Brouard, a Haitian poet I met when I was about 6 years old. Then, in my adolescence, I happened upon works by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jacques Roumain, Victor Hugo, René Depestre, Karl Marx, Frantz Fanon, Stendhal, Pablo Neruda, and others. I say, “happened upon” because works by many of these writers were not part of the official school curriculum under the dictatorship of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier ; and those that were part of the curriculum were taught very superficially, depleted of their critique of society and injustice. I loved the works of these writers in which I saw a willingness to question the human condition with great intellectual insight and political courage. Later favorites would include the French Surrealists, Amiri Baraka, Langston Hughes, Simone de Beauvoir, Paul Laraque, Jack Hirschman, Franck Laraque, Michel Foucault, etc.
Who would you consider some of your biggest influences?
As far as influences, I would say that my “favorite writers” are also those who have influenced me the most, especially Rousseau and Sartre. My poetic influences properly speaking encompass a variety of poets that includes the French romantics (like Musset, Vigny, Hugo, Baudelaire, for example), the Haitian indigénists or post-indigenists like Jacques, Roumain, Carl Brouard, René Depestre, Jacques Stéphen Alexis, the French Surrealists like Paul Èluard and Aragon. In reality, although I enjoy reading certain writers more than others, I try to avoid “influences”, having found more excitement and pride in developing my own style and thinking process.
What is your writing routine like?
I belong to the tribe of writers who like to write in bars, pubs or coffee shops, like Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Ernest Hemingway, etc. I go to a local bar (wherever I find myself), order a drink and start writing about anything I have in mind, sometimes just taking notes. I will next go home to my computer (ages ago it was my typewriter) and transcribe those writings. This routine of writing has the advantage of helping me kill two birds with one stone: have a good time and produce literature! I write in cursive, in long hand. Unfortunately, writing in cursive has now become an endangered species. Some of the younger people I meet in those settings look at my writing in cursive as some kind of museum curiosity.
How has getting into the publishing business affected your own writing?
Getting into the publishing business has not affected in any way my writing because my writing is about my own experience, my own emotion, my own conscience; more precisely, my writing is the transcription of these three dimensions of my being – a stance that is not negotiable. I have made a deliberate decision not to let the literary content of my work be determined by economic considerations. I also made the decision to develop alternative ways of publishing, including founding my own publishing house— The Trilingual Press — because publishing is power.
Have you finished your work on “Reverse anthropology”? Could you describe a little more about it?
The first part of this question is answered in the response to the next question. I will answer the second part by quoting what I said in the Introduction of my book Poetica Agwe:
Having lived most of my adult life in exile in the North, my essays and poems are both anthropological data and lyrical testimonials. Only, this time the anthropology is reversed; instead of the colonizer looking at the colonized as object, it is the colonized who is now looking at the colonizer or the heritor of the colonizer, perhaps not as object but as anthropological interest. For once the North is being scrutinized by a gaze that is, as Frantz Fanon would say, ‘a conscience of itself,’ and not a reflection of its own megalomania. The notion of a Reverse Anthropology breaks new ground in that, for the first time in recent intellectual history, since perhaps the Négritude movement and the Fanonian affirmation of the Other as subject, the Western paradigm of valorization is challenged by an ‘Outsider’ who questions everything, including not only the unjust nature of the ambient power relations, but also the intellectual justification they propose. That’s essentially an intellectual and paradigmatic inquiry which reverses, displaces, returns the one-sided gaze of Eurocentrism, and its frame of reference, from the North to the South, by what Fanon called ‘the gaze of the Other,’ questioning its normality-producing cultural outlook posed as universal prototype. The observer is now being observed, the seer seen. "The evocation of Agwe, the Vodou god of the sea and travel, in the title of the book is tantamount to a sort of endorsement of its spirit by this loa* whose mission is to return the soul of the dead African—originally the enslaved African transplanted to the so-called New World—to Mother Africa where it all began and will end". In this case, it symbolizes together my exile from my country, the painful experience of alienation in foreign lands, the joy of encounter with other peoples, countries and races, and the dream of building a better tomorrow.
What projects are you currently working on either as writing and/or publishing that you are excited about?
I am now finishing two major works on my concept of Reverse Anthropology. One is a kind of theoretical apprehension of what Heidegger’s Being-in-the-world is from the point of view of the oppressed, from the vintage point of someone who was not supposed to be, let alone a legitimate being, and which reverses the gaze. Indeed, that’s exactly what the enslaved Africans did in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (the colonists’ name for Ayiti/Haiti): Reversing the gaze to see the masters not as dispensers of culture and civilization, but as mere oppressors who need to be opposed. That apprehension of the oppressors helped a good deal in mustering the fighting spirit that helped the Black people of Haiti gain independence through tactical intelligence and military prowess. This work, Le Regard de l’Autre (The Gaze of the Other), is about scrutinizing the master/colonizer/imperialist controller, penetrating his logic of functioning, thus reversing the power relation. In it the Western intellectual attributes of power are challenged by a totally different standard of value and appreciation.
The second major work-in-progress is a collection of memoirs, written in English, and which conveys what I have experienced during my sojourn in the North — France and United States. It is constituted of memories and empirical encounters related as stories. It is in this series of memoir-like stories that I have more completely profiled my concept of “reverse anthropology.” These stories, my own stories, provide a kind of empirical attestation of the counter-gaze of the oppressed. As C.L.R. James said in his seminal book The Black Jacobins , the enslaved Africans in Saint-Domingue had the advantage of seeing slavery from two differently angles: while the slave masters/colonizers saw the reality of slavery from one-dimensional perspective, the enslaved Africans saw it from both the world of the masters and their own world.
I’d be interested to know a bit more about the Haitian literary community in Boston. Also, I don’t know how often you go to Haiti, but how/what connections there are to the literary communities in Haiti?
The Haitian community in Boston has a long history of intellectual and political connection to its ancestral provenance, Haiti, that dates back to the beginning of the community and continues today. However, there were no “Haitian communities” per se in the Boston area before the Haitian mass emigration under the regime of the Duvaliers (father and son) in the 1960s and 1970s. Around mid-1970s, poets and artists like Jean-Claude Martineau, Myriam Desmesmin, Rodney Georges, Ti-Gérard Richard, Fritz Dossous, etc., emerged as figures of stature and respect among the Haitian émigrés and the Haitian intellectual community in particular. Georges and Richard died at relatively young ages, but Martineau, Dossous and Desmesmin continue their work for democratic change in Haiti, especially for the celebration and valorization of Haitian Creole language and culture. The Haitian community in greater Boston has upheld Haiti’s reputation as germinator of high culture and arts. We have, for example an active association called “Haitian Artists Assembly of Massachusetts,” and a trilingual literary-political magazine, Tanbou, which have been around for over twenty years, based in the greater Boston Haitian community, but with international influence.
Any thoughts about Boston as an artistic community?
I love Boston and its surroundings (Somerville, Cambridge, etc.). I find its residents – homegrown and foreign-born alike – very welcoming, despite its reputation for New-England coldness! Boston has a very vibrant, diverse, and top-ranked artistic community, and has been a good refuge for many Haitian writers and painters. I only wish I had more leisure time and money to attend more performances featuring the range of local, global cultures.
Is there a question we don’t ask that you would like to add ? Also, it's a big question but I'm going to ask anyway, as it seems much on your mind as writer and activist: how do we move towards peace?
One question that you have not asked me and which I would like to add is: Why and for whom I write?
I believe with French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre that writers don’t live in a vacuum and regardless of what they might think of the sublimity of their trade, they’re always “in the coup,” they’re always a part of the struggle for life, on one side or the other, whether they like it or not. I made a decision to be on the side of my conscience and my intelligence. On the side of those who have no voice or whose voice is being silenced. On the side of those who are fighting for change, for social justice, for a better world. My poetry and my intellectual creativity reflect this choice.
As for the second part of the question: How do we move towards peace? I would answer first by saying we should cultivate more tolerant and equitable relations within and between individuals and social groups – an effort individuals themselves can do and have done, but which needs active government intervention. Second, more importantly, create an international order more respectful of people’s rights to self-determination and access to world riches. Although there will always exist psychopaths, like Hitler, for whom all accommodations and compromises are seen as weaknesses to exploit, nations, big and small, should be able to live together in peace and mutual respect in a rational world, if their respective populations force on the governments the culture of peace. But unfortunately, economic, religious and political interests of dominant social groups or corporations interfere in the process of peace. I believe, through voluntary praxis of peace and continual people engagement, we can achieve this ideal state of peace.
The current US’s overture toward Iran is a good thing because only through diplomacy and the respect of other countries’ interests can we realistically achieve peace. As I say in one essay of my above mentioned book :
“Wouldn’t it have been better for Napoleon Bonaparte to talk to Toussaint Louverture instead of sending 32,000 troops to crush the liberty aspirations of the formerly enslaved Africans? Even after the invasion, Toussaint was willing to talk, agreeing to meet with a high envoy of Napoleon in a secret place. As they arrived, Toussaint and his aids were surrounded, tied and kidnapped. They placed Toussaint on a boat and sent him to a horrible prison, the Fort de Joux, located in the Jura mountains, near the Swiss border with France. He died from pneumonia a year later, on April 7, 1803.Toussaint’s abduction and death had the immediate effect of making the rebellious Afro-Creoles more angry, emboldening their radical impulse toward total independence from France. Toussaint’s lieutenant, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, more revolutionary in many respects than Toussaint, took the helm after his removal and led a successful independence war against France. The insurgents declared Haiti’s independence on January 1st, 1804.”
Unfortunately this lesson of history is mot always followed. Closer to us, instead of talking with Saddam Hussein in 2002-2003, the United States decided to demonize him and invade Iraq, exaggerating his supposed arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. We all know the rest of this sad story. Finally, I would say peace is achievable only if there is justice and the recognition of other peoples ‘rights.
I thank the Somerville Arts Council for the honor of selecting me as Somerville Arts Council's February Artist of the Month, and for giving me the opportunity of talking a little bit about my work and what it means to me.
* Loa = Vodou god or spirit in Haitian Creole.
Eddy Toussaint Tontongi is from Haiti, he writes in French, Haitian and English. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts. His latest books include : La Parole indomptée / Memwa Baboukèt (a bilingual essays in French and Haitian Creole, L’Harmattan, Paris, 2015) ; Sèl pou dezonbifye Bouki (essays in Haitian Creole, Trilingual Press, Boston, 2014); In the Beast’s Alley (poems in English and Haitian Creole, Trilingual Press, Boston, 2013); Poetica Agwe (essays and poems in French, English and Haitian Creole, Trilingual Press, Boston, 2011); Critique de la francophonie haïtienne (essays in French and Haitian Creole, L’Harmattan, Paris 2007). Tontongi is the editor in chief of the trilingual literary magazine Tanbou