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By Deji Olukotun

PEN Haiti’s Liberez la Parole! (Free the Word) festival concluded today at the biblioteque of Gonaives. The three-day event featured some of Haiti’s most prominent writers and journalists as well as diaspora writers from as far afield as France, Montreal, Switzerland, and the U.S. The event sites themselves were diverse; at libraries, language institutes, and town halls. Again and again, audiences in searing heat engaged with the panelists by asking difficult questions of prize-winning authors as well as national senators. (On one panel, an audience member even told a senator to sit down until he finished his question—and he did.)

Haitians take free expression seriously because of their historical legacy under successive dictatorships, but also more recently under President Martelly, who has become more hostile towards muck-raking journalists. The participants drew further inspiration from Jacques Stephane Alexis, a doctor, novelist, and statesman who challenged the Duvalier regime until his forced disappearance in 1962.

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By Deji Olukotun
Another lively panel at PEN Haiti’s Liberez la parole festival, this time at the Alliance Francaise in Gonaives, the heart of Haitian revolutions. Featuring (from left) Louis-Philippe Dalembert (author and poet), Frantz Duval (editor-in-chief of Le Nouvelliste, Emmelie Prophete (novelist, poet, and radio personality). Once again the panel discussed Jean-Stephane Alexis, doctor, poet, novelist, and statesman disappeared around 1962 under the Duvalier regime. The second photo was the site of delicious meals, a lot of horsing around, and performances by a vodou troupe and a host of both local and international musicians. By Deji Olukotun
Another lively panel at PEN Haiti’s Liberez la parole festival, this time at the Alliance Francaise in Gonaives, the heart of Haitian revolutions. Featuring (from left) Louis-Philippe Dalembert (author and poet), Frantz Duval (editor-in-chief of Le Nouvelliste, Emmelie Prophete (novelist, poet, and radio personality). Once again the panel discussed Jean-Stephane Alexis, doctor, poet, novelist, and statesman disappeared around 1962 under the Duvalier regime. The second photo was the site of delicious meals, a lot of horsing around, and performances by a vodou troupe and a host of both local and international musicians.

By Deji Olukotun

Another lively panel at PEN Haiti’s Liberez la parole festival, this time at the Alliance Francaise in Gonaives, the heart of Haitian revolutions. Featuring (from left) Louis-Philippe Dalembert (author and poet), Frantz Duval (editor-in-chief of Le Nouvelliste, Emmelie Prophete (novelist, poet, and radio personality). Once again the panel discussed Jean-Stephane Alexis, doctor, poet, novelist, and statesman disappeared around 1962 under the Duvalier regime. The second photo was the site of delicious meals, a lot of horsing around, and performances by a vodou troupe and a host of both local and international musicians.

By Deji OlukotunAnother view of the attentive audience at the Liberez la Parole festival at the Biblioteque of Gonaives, Haiti. The audience asked a number of difficult questions of the participants ranging from overreach by the Martelly government to the formation of a new Haitian army. We also discussed the role of PEN American Center in holding the U.S. government accountable and the role of PEN International in promoting free expression, among other issues.
There is little doubt that Haitians eagerly participate in questions regarding literature and government—in 90 degree heat and humidity—as we had to close the session early to run to the Alliance Francaise across town for the final panel of the evening. The event caps off a long day of a beautiful drive through the rice paddies of the Artibonite valley to Gonaives, a town known for its history of defiance. The Haitian revolution, I´m told, began here, the first Constitution was signed here, and Gonaives formed the heart of the popular protests that ousted Baby Doc in 1986.

By Deji Olukotun

Another view of the attentive audience at the Liberez la Parole festival at the Biblioteque of Gonaives, Haiti. The audience asked a number of difficult questions of the participants ranging from overreach by the Martelly government to the formation of a new Haitian army. We also discussed the role of PEN American Center in holding the U.S. government accountable and the role of PEN International in promoting free expression, among other issues.

There is little doubt that Haitians eagerly participate in questions regarding literature and government—in 90 degree heat and humidity—as we had to close the session early to run to the Alliance Francaise across town for the final panel of the evening. The event caps off a long day of a beautiful drive through the rice paddies of the Artibonite valley to Gonaives, a town known for its history of defiance. The Haitian revolution, I´m told, began here, the first Constitution was signed here, and Gonaives formed the heart of the popular protests that ousted Baby Doc in 1986.

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By Deji Olukotun

The first day of the Liberez la parole (Free the Word) festival in Haiti kicked off with aplomb. Housed in the bucolic Institut Francais in Port-au-Prince, a star-studded panel of authors and journalists probed the limits of free expression. The speakers discussed the importance of objectivity and truth in journalism, while reserving a broader space for fictional stories. At the same time, they noted under-reporting on issues affecting vast swathes of the population in impoverished neighborhoods such as Cite de Soleil. The speakers also examined the new spaces for dialogue that emerged after the fall of the Duvalier regime, while observing ongoing challenges in reporting on the government during the post-quake recovery period.

The panel was followed by an equally lively discussion of women and free expression featuring Evelyn Trouillot and Emmelie Prophete. The two writers questioned assumptions about “chick lit” and called for greater support of girls and women writers, who are facing barriers to entry, caused in part by poverty but also gender bias.

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Evelyne Trouillot speaks with Gaspard Dorélien at the Institut Francais in Port-au-Prince on the panel: Paroles de femmes, paroles libres (Women narratives, free narratives). The panel discussed gender bias in conceptions of women’s literature in Haiti and voiced concerns about fewer opportunities for women writers, while celebrating the rich legacy of writers today. 

Evelyne Trouillot speaks with Gaspard Dorélien at the Institut Francais in Port-au-Prince on the panel: Paroles de femmes, paroles libres (Women narratives, free narratives). The panel discussed gender bias in conceptions of women’s literature in Haiti and voiced concerns about fewer opportunities for women writers, while celebrating the rich legacy of writers today. 

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PEN American Center - April 13, 2012: PEN Haiti to Host Its First International Free the Word! Festival