I’ve just arrived at the small nook of a church basement to take a beginner’s class in Haitian Creole, and somehow we’ve gotten into a discussion of the all-time literary greats. “Do you like the Russians? Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky?” The instructor, Rassoul Labuchin, sizes me up from across his desk. “And the Americans. You know Dos Passos? Or Walt Whitman? Walt Whitman is a good poet.” I can immediately imagine him declaring, à la Whitman, “I am large, I contain multitudes:” with his booming voice and air of self-assured amusement, Labuchin commands space like a seasoned stage actor. I and the five other students in the class – mostly young Quebeckers of Haitian background – are all eyes and ears.
The lessons are offered by Kepkaa, a relatively modest organization dedicated to the promotion of Haitian Creole and Afro-Caribbean culture in Montreal. Whitman, the 19th century American poet who sung his fledgling nation into being, ends up being an appropriate spectre to invoke at the beginning of a class that turns into a long discussion on the history and culture of a troubled country. “There are many root causes of under-development in Haiti,” Labuchin begins, visibly deciding how to disentangle the topic for us. Over the next three hours, he sketches out a dismal national narrative: 15th century colonization by the Spanish resulted in the decimation of the country’s native population, and was followed by French rule relying on imported African slave labour. A brutal civil war at the end of the 18th century ended in independence that ultimately isolated the small country from the rest of the world. If nothing else, Labuchin wants to make sure we remember that, “The history of Haiti is a history of blood.”
By the end of the night, we still haven’t cracked open a Creole textbook – partially for my sake, as the other students are three classes in, and would have left me in their dust, but also because the course is meant to cover more than just language. The president of Kepkaa, Pierre-Roland Bain, explained over the phone that young Haitian-Canadians are eager to dig up their roots. “They learn about themselves,” he told me. “They start with the language, and then they will buy books to learn about the history, they will ask questions, they will go to activities to learn more because they feel that they’ve missed something – that there’s something they don’t have.” Unsurprisingly, Afro-Caribbean history is sorely lacking from the curricula of most Canadian schools. “You need someone to help you to find it, to know it, to read it to you,” Bain said.
It’s hard to imagine a better person to tell that story than Labuchin. He’s a literary force in his own right, as it turns out – handing out scripts for an opera called “Maryaj Lenglensou” (or “Le Mariage Lenglensou,” in French), he declares cheekily, “Rassoul Labuchin is the name of the artist.” I later found out that it’s celebrated as “the first black opera in Haiti,” and is the only show in Haitian theatre history to have been performed in 37 cities. The story tackles traditional operatic themes of passionate love and betrayal: a young sexton proposes to his beloved, only to have his jealous friend sabotage the marriage. The triangular mess snowballs into a fatal disaster that gives the story its name – Lenglesou is a voodoo spirit associated with violence and tragedy. It hardly seems coincidental that, like his country’s past, Labuchin’s magnum opus is a history of blood.
Labuchin warns that next class will be strictly Creole-only, and nobody groans. As Bain explained, the students come on their own initiative: “Most of the time the parents say, ‘If you speak Creole, your English will be very bad.’ But the young generation, they are not satisfied with that. So they learn by themselves, and when they get together they speak Creole most of the time.” Fostering a community of young people on the basis of language is, for both Bain and Labuchin, Kepkaa’s main “rezon pou être.”