A Look at Indie Authors and Their Publishers
By Lanie Tankard, Indie Book Reviews Editor
Dallas: Deep Vellum Publishing, August 15, 2017. 264 pp., $14.95, paperback ISBN 9781941920565, e-book ISBN 9781941920572. Original French edition Bain de lune. Paris: Sabine Wespieser Publisher, September 2014.
Author: Yanick Lahens
Haitian writer Yanick Lahens is the author of three novels, three short-story collections, and a group of critical essays. Born in Port-au-Prince, she studied in France and graduated from the Sorbonne before returning to Haiti to teach literature at the University of Haiti and work for the Ministry of Culture. She has been a dedicated advocate for literacy in her country, working with a foundation that helped build four libraries. Lahens also led Road to Slavery, a UNESCO project using literature and art as a communal reflection on Haiti’s legacy of slavery. She is a board member of the International Council of Francophone Studies (CIEF).
Lahens received a 2015 French Voices Award from the French Embassy to fund the translation and publishing of Bain de lune into Moonbath, as well as the 2015 Joseph D. Charles Prize from the Georges Castera Library in Limbé, Haiti. Clement Benoit II, a Haitian poet who delivers books by horseback, named the library after another Haitian poet, Georges Castera. The prize bears the name of Dr. Joseph D. Charles, former ambassador to the United States in addition to past Haitian secretary of state for foreign affairs.
In 2014, Lahens received two major French awards, the first being the Prix Femina for the best literary novel published in France each year by either gender. Bain de lune, her fourth novel, took the prize. Also that year, the French Ambassador to the Republic of Haiti awarded Lahens the rank of Officer in the French Order of Arts and Letters. The Haitian Studies Association presented Lahens the Excellence Award in 2011 for the entire body of her work. In 2009, she received the Richelieu International Award for Francophone Literature.
Lahens is a founding member of the Haitian Writers Union and a literary editor of Editions Henri Deschamps.
Translator: Emily Gogolak
Literary translator Emily Gogolak, who translated Moonbath from the French Bain de lune, is a freelance writer based in Texas. A comparative literature graduate of Brown University, she’s been an editorial staffer at The New Yorker as well as a James Reston Reporting Fellow at the New York Times. The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting has supported her investigative work. A member of the Overseas Press Club of America, Gogolak has reported from Haiti and Honduras, among other spots. Her writing concentrates on “migration, gender, and the US/Mexico border.”
Introduction: Russell Banks
Prize-winning author Russell Banks, who wrote the introduction to Moonbath, lived in Jamaica (one hundred miles west of Haiti) when he was writing The Book of Jamaica, published in 1980. One of the themes in his 1985 novel Continental Drift is unrest in Haiti.
Publisher: Deep Vellum
The historic Deep Ellum neighborhood of Dallas, Texas, is home to Deep Vellum: a bookstore, a not-for-profit publisher of worldwide literature, and host of local presentations of art, music, film, and performance. The two co-founders of Deep Vellum, Will Evans and Anne Hollander, operate as a team.
Evans started Deep Vellum Publishing in 2013 as a “nonprofit indie book publisher dedicated to translating the world’s best novels into English for American audiences.” He looked for “undertold, outstanding stories.” Then in early 2016, he opened the bookstore and located Hollander to run it as he began a new venture.
Evans, a translator, earned two bachelor’s degrees in History and Russian Language from Emory University, as well as an MA in Russian Culture from Duke University. Hollander has a BA in Biochemistry and Ethics from Smith College, as well as a JD. She has worked in marketing, sales, and innovation leadership positions. Sonnier holds dual degrees in business and film from USC.
During a Writers League of Texas panel at Austin’s BookPeople on March 16, Evans explained how he combined publishing and movie scripts in the transition from Deep Vellum to Cinestate. He recalled founding Deep Vellum in a void. “There was no indie bookstore in Dallas. SMU had shut down its press.” He searched for “stuff that was falling through the cracks,” specifying: “We look for the manuscript that’s too _____ for someone else to publish.”
“Texas has one of the strongest literary communities of writers in the country,” Evans stated. “The diversity of Texas blows my mind. Texas is like a crossroads, a melting pot creating friction and the stories that come with it. How can we tell these stories? Friction works in that diversity.”
As he took on “the role of being independent in a state so diverse,” Evans developed close relationships with indie bookstores. “Books carry a lot of weight in their communities. The goal is to get a book into the hands of as many readers as you can who will care about that book. Influence the readers who will tell their friends. Horror and sci fi are overlooked. The core of what we do is marketing. The idea of authenticity is so important we included it in our mission statement. Never talk down to anyone. There’s not enough indie publishing. More people think of films defined as indies.”
Do you need an agent? “Not to submit to Cinestate,” Evans emphasized. “We want the stories. Agents are good for contracts. Every book we publish will be a film or TV series. The business model of books and film has never been done. We just shot our first movie.” The Cinestate submissions policy is on the website, where for a limited time they are accepting both proposals and manuscripts. Deep Vellum publishes “international literature in translation.”
Harriet Levin Millan is a poet, novelist, and creative writing professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia. In a Journeys column on The Smart Set, she has noted: “Haiti has few publishing houses, so most books get published in France. Written in French, a writer’s audience is again limited because Creole, not French, is the language of the masses” in Haiti.
Sabine Wespieser Publisher in Paris brought out Moonbath originally as Bain de lune in 2014. The publishing house, founded by Wespieser in 2001, is in her home. She had previously worked for Actes Sud, a French publishing house in Arles. In a 2008 interview in Le Figaro, Wespieser said, “I like when literature is an open window on the world.”
Yanick Lahens spins a tale about her native land of Haiti as a long narrative poem involving four generations of two families: the Lefleurs and the Mésidors. This century of events becomes a saga of Shakespearean proportions titled Moonbath, in which Lahens pits classes, genders, religions, races, and powers against one another in a fierce storm of memories.
The novel opens on a beach near a Haitian village, Anse Bleue (Blue Cove), where the tide rolls over the body of Cétoute Olmène Thérèse. Her spirit’s voice traces her life’s trajectory, from the young schoolgirl she once was to the battered woman in the sand. Cétoute sifts through her ancestry recalling stories of the Lefleurs in her bloodline: great grandmother Ermancia, grandmother Olmène, and father Dieudonné—who, in fact, gave Cétoute her middle name for her grandmother. The two never met, however, because Olmène snuck away from the village before Cétoute was born.
Why did Olmène leave? She was fleeing the man with whom she lived after he became involved in the country’s escalating violence: Tertulien Mésidor, father of their child, Dieudonné. As Cétoute recounts their history, she adds in the Mésidor lineage—from Anastase (Tertulien’s father) to Mérien (Tertulien’s son with his wife) to Jimmy (Mérien’s son and Cétoute’s love).
From the start, Lahens skillfully weaves this epic story of two families on the framework of Haiti’s past. The pattern bears skeins of Vodou, hurricanes, politics, and imperialism—all swirling around “the man in the black hat and thick glasses.” Lahens uses this phrase throughout the novel, never referring by name to the man known as Papa Doc, Haiti’s president François Duvalier—nor to his son called Baby Doc, Jean-Claude Duvalier, who succeeded his father when he died in 1971 but then fled the country in 1986 during the coup. Lahens writes of the men around the Duvaliers called the Tontons Macoutes. Created in 1961, this ruthless paramilitary group persisted in its violence even after it was officially discontinued more than two decades later.
In the novel, the village name alludes to the blue uniform of the terror squad. Lahens shows how recruitment for the Tontons Macoutes took place in remote villages and hamlets far from the capital of Port-au-Prince, in spots like Anse Bleue. One is reminded of J.R.R. Tolkien’s hobbits, who in Chapter 3 of The Two Towers keep vigil from Rivendell over “the Misty Mountains to the east,” “aware of the perils that lay ahead” as the “Hunter’s Moon waxed round in the night sky, and put to flight all the lesser stars.”
Moonbath’s narrator, Cétoute, recounts how her community watched some of its own become “bogeymen” (which is the meaning of “Macoutes” in the Haitian Creole language), while everyone else tried to become invisible “like a lamp in the fire of Hell.” Vodou is an official religion in Haiti and “the man in the black hat and thick glasses” used it to his advantage. By dressing himself to resemble the macabre spirit Baron Samedi, representing death, Papa Doc induced fear. The Tontons Macoutes also encrypted Vodou iconography in their outfits: sunglasses, hats, red scarves, and the dark denim of farm laborers. The type of fiction in Moonbath can put collective memory to good use, weaving history best forgotten into a timely allegorical folktale “lest we forget” that leaders who demand adulation and react harshly to criticism can wreak havoc.
Graham Greene’s 1966 novel The Comedians (made into a movie the following year) examines the Tontons Macoutes: “Violent deaths are natural deaths here. He died of his environment.” Greene emphasized: “Some of us keep a record. We have a lot of names on it now.” And this line he penned still echoes more than half a century later: “One felt surrounded by the indifference of the world outside Haiti.” Greene sketched the country with his words: “The deep blue shadows sat permanently on the mountain slopes, the sea was peacock-green. Green was everywhere in all its varieties, the poison-bottle green of sisal slashed with black, the pale green of banana trees beginning to turn yellow at the tip to match the sand at the edge of the flat green sea. The land was stormy with color.” Lahens, too, employs colors as ominous allusions to violence in Moonbath—particularly blue and red, the predominant colors of the Haitian flag.
The Lahens novel takes its name from the moonbaths Cétoute enjoys with her brother Abner, who is brave enough “to taste the wild beauty, the violent mystery of the night” with her. Erzulie, mentioned from time to time in Moonbath, is the Haitian love goddess. Her sacred color is blue and she represents the moon.
Zora Neale Hurston was one of the first to examine Vodou in Haiti through scholarly research, after working with Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict, and Margaret Mead. While living in Haiti to gather information for her book Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica, Hurston wrote the manuscript of her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. In her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, she commented, “People can be slave-ships in shoes.”
Lahens sprinkles shoes liberally throughout Moonbath as metaphors. Olmène is determined to wear the pair of shoes Tertulien brings her from Port-au-Prince, despite the pain she must soak away. “She no longer wished to be a bare-footed woman.” And “she eventually got used to these foreign bodies that…made her a woman with shoes.” Cétoute notices Jimmy’s boots “like you see in the movies.” She buys a pair of fancy red heels at the market for “the feet of a queen” and gives herself a pedicure on the sidewalk because “peasants, you remember them by their feet.” Her friend Cocotte tells her the red color of her shoes will get her in trouble with men but Cétoute, influenced by foreigners who come “with shoes that catch our eyes,” wears them to attract Jimmy. The militants of the party of the Destitute arrive with “their great faith and their bare feet in dusty sandals.” Lahens details “the clothes from elsewhere”: “worn-out dressing gowns of the women from Minnesota, worn-down cowboy boots from Texas,…the jeans, the t-shirts, and sneakers from the fifty states of the USA.”
Optimism is scarce in this novel, a chronicle “about the hunter and the prey, those who crush and those who are crushed. About those who are poor from the start and will remain poor until the trumpets of Judgment Day resound.” Yet as Tolkien wrote of the hobbits in Rivendell, the “future…ceased to have any power over the present.” Similarly, Moonbath demonstrates how loss of hope eventually brings people together, uniting them against “the dangers coming from those stronger than us.” In fact, the national motto of Haiti is “L’Union Fait La Force” (In Union There Is Strength).
Lahens in one part of the novel suggests that words are perhaps their most powerful weapon. Cétoute’s father, Dieudonné, never had the chance to go to school, so he makes sure his four children do—and they, in turn, help him learn to read and write. Dieudonné learning to spell “mango” is a beautiful paean to literacy.
Loren Eiseley wrote in The Unexpected Universe: “Every time we walk along a beach some ancient urge disturbs us so that we find ourselves shedding shoes and garments, or scavenging among seaweed and whitened timbers like the homesick refugees of a long war.”
Yanick Lahens adeptly dipped her pen nib in tears to write Moonbath. She brandished her writing instrument with dexterity, creating Cétoute as a metaphor symbolizing both the pain and the promise of Haiti.
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