Fabienne Author PhotoDancing in the Baron’s Shadow is about two brothers living through a real dictatorship that most people don’t even know about. How did this story come to you?

I had these two characters in my mind for a long time: two brothers in Haiti, one socially and financially more successful than the other, but the other, kinder and more heroic. I had it in my mind that someone should write about Haitian history and politics through fiction. The Duvalier era was tempting, because I couldn’t think of any story that brought up that slice of history, except maybe for Graham Greene’s “The Comedians.” Those were hard years of tyranny and censorship, when people were killed or imprisoned, or vanished without explanation. Haiti was dubbed “the nightmare Republic” back then, and still, it intrigued the rest of the world. That period in time was a goldmine waiting to be excavated.


Even if you had to do a lot of research? What was that like?

I enjoyed this process tremendously, because I learned a lot about Haiti as it was when I wasn’t yet born, a world where even under the burden of dictatorship, people found ways to survive no matter their social or economical situation. I learned about the culture, the politics, the making of a nation just as it began to crumble as Duvalier’s rule tightened its grip. And the best part of it was that I got to understand the world in which my parents evolved. My mother always tells me stories about how writers were censored and exiled, and books were banned. She once stayed up for two nights, reading a banned book she’d borrowed from someone, because she didn’t want to be caught with it. One of Haiti’s famed novelists, Jacques Stephen Alexis (mentioned in the novel) disappeared under Duvalier’s regime. Papa Doc didn’t like writers. He felt they were dangerous.


Have you learned anything about yourself in the process?

I learned about myself as well. I learned that the past is always more romantic than the present, and I fell in love with the past, from the music to postcards to clothing. I sort of lived in that reality and immersed myself in it, to the point where I wrote to the sound of Nemours Jean-Baptiste while writing.


What was hard in writing this novel?

One of the challenges I had in the process of writing historical fiction was letting the characters have their own story. I was getting caught in the history instead, and in early drafts I felt I had to explain context and historical facts as a narrator, and really I don’t. I realized that the characters should live their story.


But it also captures the extremely violent and gruesome realities of life under the Duvalier regime.

Dealing with the violence was definitely a major struggle. It’s a hard story to tell because it deals precisely with the horror of dictatorship, so exposing the torture and brutality of that world, writing about incarceration in the horrible place that was Fort Dimanche, all of that was taxing.


So it’s not about dancing? Who is the Baron of the “Baron’s Shadow,” does it perhaps allude to Haitian folkloric icons like Baron Samedi?

The Baron is the novel is a code name for Papa Doc, and he did have an affinity for dressing like Baron Samedi. In the Vaudou religion, Baron Samedi is the guardian of cemeteries, so he represents death, and Haitians used the code name Baron to designate Papa Doc who always dressed in the same manner, right down to the hat. So yes, in that sense it does, and although the novel isn’t magical realism, I feel it’s hard to write about Haiti without acknowledging that its folklore had and has tremendous influence on its people. In fact, Duvalier knew this and he drew upon those beliefs to exert control over the Haitian people. In one instance, one of his close acolytes he felt had betrayed him went into hiding, and the popular belief was that this man, an adept of Vaudou, had the ability to shift shapes and morph into a black dog. Duvalier had all the black dogs in Haiti killed. He understood the Haitian people and their fears, and he knew how to play upon those fears to be respected.


Do you feel responsibility as a Haitian writer, to present your country to the world in a certain light?

My only responsibility is to talk about Haitian people the way they are: complex, passionate, colorful, faithful, and revolutionary. I’m only here to tell stories that continue to entertain the world, stories that remind others that this chaotic history we have is what makes us so fascinating.


FABIENNE JOSAPHAT received her M.F.A. in creative writing from Florida International University. Dancing in the Baron’s Shadow is her first novel. She lives in Miami.

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