P is for René Philoctète (1932-1995)

Philoctète was a Haitian writer, journalist, teacher and editor born in Jérémie, Haiti. 

The work, literary life, and activity of Philoctète is closely tied to influential collectives and movements in Haitian literature. He was part of the literary group Haïti littéraire, formed in the early 1960s with fellow writers, including Anthony Phelps, Roland Morisseau, and Serge Legagneour. Based in Port-au-Prince, the group was influenced by Surrealism, and advocated an internationalism and ethos of solidarity that stood starkly against the extreme nationalism of the Duvalier dictatorship. Its short life was partly due to various members migrating to France, the United States, and Canada. After some time in Montreal, Philoctète returned to Haiti and in an interview with Charles H. Rowell, talked about the difficulties adapting to “the North American atmosphere” affirming, “I came back home to my Caribbean island, and I celebrated my return in ‘Ces Res qui marchent’ [1969]” (624).

Philoctète published four plays and ten volumes of poetry, including Saisons des Hommes (1960) and Tambours du Soleil (1962), which the late scholar Michael J. Dash defined in Literature and Ideology in Haiti as works that “celebrate an ideal of human solidarity” whilst challenging prefigured notions of literary form and creation (204). Later, in 1965, Philoctète—who stayed in Haiti—co-founded the Spiralist movement with writers and artists Jean-Claude Fignolé and Frankétienne. Scholar Kaiama Glover, who has affirmed the need to acknowledge the contributions of Spiralism in literary histories of the Caribbean region, describes in Haiti Unbound the movement as challenging binaries between insularity and globalism, as the “dialectic of the individual and the universal, of the centripetal and the centrifugal, of the closed and the open, is precisely encapsulated in the form of the spiral” (26).

Although Philoctète is well known as a prolific poet, he also authored three novels, including Le peuple des terres mêlées (1989), translated by Linda Coverdale and published in English as Massacre River in 2005. It speaks of the murders by the Dominican Vespers during the 1937 massacre of Haitians and Dominican-Haitians across the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, ordered by the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo. It is a novel that, using Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s title, ‘un-silences the past’ through striking visual imagery. The strong elements of surrealism in Le peuple des terres mêlées, together with the precipitous imagery of the spiral, blend the literary influences of the Haïti littéraire and Spiralism. 

Contemporary writers have stressed the role of translation, bilingual and original language publication in bringing the literatures of the Caribbean together. In Among the Bloodpeople, Jamaican author Thomas Glave writes about the significance of reading the work of authors such as Frankétienne, Yanique Lahens, Maximilien Laroche and Philoctète in the landmark journal Callaloo, as well as teaching the novel Massacre River (41). In the 2005 English edition of Le peuple des terres mêlées, Haitian author Edwidge Danticat—who in 1998 wrote The Farming of Bones, which also tells the stories of the massacre’s victims—points out how Philoctète’s characters “continue to challenge the meaning of community and humanity in all of us.”

Marta Fernández Campa

More about the author

Philoctète’s brief Wikipedia biography.

The Radio Haiti Archive includes 1989 audio of Philoctète discussing Haitian poetry and his own work.

A 2005 edition of Massacre River includes a preface by Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat.

A brief biography, list of works, and John Taylor’s translation of Philoctète’s poem “Walking Islands” (1969).

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