Dance on the Volcano, by Haitian author Marie Vieux-Chauvet (1916-1973), was originally published as La Danse sur le Volcan in 1957. Previously translated into English by Salvator Attanasio in 1959, Archipelago Books has published a delightful new translation by Kaiama L. Glover. Glover, a scholar of Caribbean fiction, translation, and Francophone literature, seems like the natural candidate for translating Vieux-Chauvet’s stunning novel. She has already translated two other works of Haitian fiction, and her scholarly knowledge and apparent pleasure in making the sights and sounds of colonial Haiti accessible to an Anglophone audience are palpable.
Dance on the Volcano tells the story of Minette, a young black woman who passes for white in 18th century Haiti (then called Saint Domingue). Minette, blessed with a beautiful singing voice, becomes the first free woman of color to perform at the opera performance house in Port-au-Prince. The novel, which alternately radiates joy and terrible pain, traces Minette’s rapid radicalization and political awakening, while also depicting the build-up to the Haitian Revolution, as well as delineating race, class, and gender in the country at the time.
The story does not have a cohesive, linear sense of time. Events rush past in great dollops, and turning points in the story often slip by in a blur, and we, the reader, are left to navigate with Minette the lasting trauma (and later effects) of these events. The book is, perhaps, unevenly paced, but this does not detract from the story or descriptive language.
Each character represents a different subset of Haitian society, and Vieux-Chauvet does not stray from dedicating several sentences to descriptions of someone’s skin, eyes, and mouth. This dedication to the subtle differences in phenotype is matched only by a similar dedication to the intricate details of clothing and textile. Madras scarves, ball gowns, and simple frocks are all imbibed with the same level of significance, so that the sensory aspects of the novel are heightened considerably. While these details may seem like a deviation from the plot points of the story, it becomes apparent that the minutiae of a character’s face—arched eyebrows, the angle of one’s madras scarf, one’s freckles, the slant of one’s eyes—are just as important as plot developments. In fact, Minette’s success as a performer, and her success in love and romance, is entirely dependent on her ability to conditionally pass for white.
Also, characters slip between French and Creole, depending on social situations, to express frustration or to connote access to capital and education. Vieux-Chauvet (through Glover’s translation) notes this throughout, as Jasmine (Minette’s mother) reminds her daughters to “speak French,” or as Minette curses vehemently in Creole. There is, however, no linguistic indication of characters speaking Creole–their words are translated into standard English: “An elderly one-armed man came over to her and asked what she needed in a lisping Creole… ‘Right away, right away,’ answered the one-armed man. ‘And you’ll have a guide as well.’” As an English reader, one is left wondering what’s been lost in translation when what Vieux-Chauvet originally wrote—and its representation of code switching and multilingualism—is entirely rendered in English. (Additionally, what a reader’s lack of knowledge of the nuanced language and vocabulary used to describe race in Haitian French and Creole might mean toward understanding this aspect of the novel.) Still, none of this affects understanding the plot, nor Minette’s growth as a character.
Perhaps the most profoundly enjoyable aspect of the novel is Minette’s slow but steady development from an innocent child to a revolutionary. One of the novel’s most illuminating and exciting moments is when Minette learns the word for “injustice,” a scene that takes place over a few pages:
“It was a painful sensation she felt manifesting itself all around her and that had been revealed to her, not because anyone had pointed it out to her but because in herself she had felt a muted revolt against so much absurdity… She had continued to live with her revolt without even realizing it was there, eating her up, sleeping, envying the life of the Whites just like all the others in her social class. But in listening to Zoé, a veil was torn off, exposing everything that had been so well hidden inside her.”
The novel’s prose and story truly shines as Minette’s political consciousness grows. There is a giddiness and simmering rage in each of these moments that is infectious, and Minette’s transformation from a free woman of color that pities Haiti’s population of enslaved peoples to a revolutionary who vows to destroy slavery and slaveholders is beautifully developed over the course of the novel. As she becomes more attuned to the injustices of slavery, of class inequality, and of the violence of whiteness, Minette becomes a more fascinating and inspiring character. Additionally, her own position of relative privilege (the permission to attend balls for white plantation owners only, performing at the opera house) in the racial and class schemas of Haiti underscore her desire for liberation for all people of color in Haiti—liberation from the confines of race, class, and gender. We even get to witness Minette planting the seed of revolt in the minds of other women in similar social positions as her.
It feels odd and exciting to be reading this book as a Drexel University professor recently became the target of death threats and a Breitbart-based smear campaign for praising the tactics of the Haitian Revolution. It feels odd and exciting to write this review and consider these histories of colonial oppression and, specifically, colorism as a potential fascist assumes the presidency in the U.S., and our own positioning in existing structures of oppression comes into question. Because of this, Glover and Archipelago’s new celebration of Vieux-Chauvet’s writing and storytelling is incredibly timely as we hurtle away into a new year vibrant with possibility and tinged with turmoil.