A Brutal Haitian Regime Inspired Fabienne Josaphat's First Novel

May 21, 2019

The Sundial Book Club is currently reading "Dancing in the Baron's Shadow," by Haitian American author Fabienne Josaphat, which takes place in Haiti during the dictatorship of Francios Duvalier, also known as Papa Doc. 

Papa Doc's regime, which started in the late 1950s, is responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Haitians. In the novel, Josaphat's first, we meet the brothers Raymond L'Eveille, a taxi driver struggling to support his family, and Nicolas L'Eveille, a well-off law professor. One is thrown into the infamous prison Fort Dimanche, and the other must find a way to set him free.

On Sundial, Josaphat shared her intensive research for the book and her personal history with the Duvalier family. She is based in Miami. 

Want to read along? Join the Sundial Book Club here. 

This has been edited lightly for clarity.  

WLRN: Where did the idea come from? 

JOSAPHAT: The characters are inspired by true characters. So Nicholas, the attorney in the novel, is based on my father. My father was an attorney in Haiti in the early 80s. He was arrested under Papa Doc's government and went to prison for a while. I always wanted to write about that because I was very curious about the why, the how and what happened. [My father] never really wanted to talk about it because it was too painful for him and I think he didn't want to put that burden on me. He was trying to shelter me and [that] started my curiosity. That's how the character of Nicholas came to be.

The other character in the novel [is] Raymond and he is based on my uncle who was actually a taxi driver. So what's interesting about my father and my uncle is that they've always had a very strained relationship. They never really got along very well. They did okay but there was always a lot of tension between them and growing up I never understood why. It's hard for me to fathom the family dynamic like theirs. I told myself it would be interesting to write about two brothers who don't really get along and who are living under the regime of Duvalier, which I found also very interesting, because historically it's a very traumatic experience for the Haitian people. What would they do if one of them actually went to prison? And that's how the novel came to be.

The story takes us to Haiti in the 60s under Papa Doc's [regime]. I'm curious how Haitians think about and talk about him today?

I am going to say there is a mix. I'm getting mixed reaction to what the government used to be. A lot of times you'll find no matter how traumatic it was and how violent the era was you'll find a lot of Haitians who still reminisce about the era and say things like 'there was more security and more sense of safety back in the day.' This is interesting because there were so many people who died. This was always a strange contradiction for me, listening to these people reminisce and sort of romanticize an era that was so brutal for so many others.

As you say that all that keeps popping back in my head is Papa Doc's militia.

When Papa Doc became leader of Haiti he actually had his own militia called, Tonton Macoute. And they would do whatever Papa Doc wanted them to do. They were there to do his bidding. A lot of people were arrested and brutalized because of the Tonton Macoute.

When you read books about history you get a lot of facts and accounts but you don't get the emotional weight of what that was like right until you talked to people. - Fabienne Josaphat

In part you write a story that is extremely entertaining but you want to be historically correct. Did you find that difficult?

I don't know that it was necessarily difficult but there was so much information there. There's so much written about the era and I started out by having to read a lot of material. Once I did that I just couldn't stop there. I realized as I was reading that it still didn't really explain what Fort Dimanche was at the time and it certainly doesn't tell me what emotionally what that was like. When you read books about history you get a lot of facts and accounts but you don't get the emotional weight of what that was like until you talk to people. So my research was interesting because I was learning a lot of information that I didn't know and I was also talking to people and learning what that was really like to not only live in the era but also what it was like to be in Fort Dimanche and make it out, if you were lucky enough to make it out because most people didn't.

Author Fabienne Josaphat welcomes Sundial Book Club members to read along.