Live Reporting from Haiti Liberez la Parole festival

Deji Olukotun reports…

Liberez la parole begins! Day 1 Report from Haiti

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. The panelists, who included a radio talk show host-cum-novelist and a professor of literature, gave lie to the accusation that there is a lack of role models for girls and young women today.

Honestly, the writers covered so much ground on the first day, with a very lively audience, that it’s hard to imagine what else there is to discuss. But I’m sure there will be surprises. Tomorrow we head to Gonaives, stopping at a few towns along the day for more spirited jib-jab.

Challenges and Questions: Day 2 Report from Haiti

Pictured here is the panel at the Biblioteque (library) of Gonaives, Haiti at Day 2 of PEN Haiti´s Liberez la Parole festival. From left: Jean-Euphele Milce, president of PEN Haiti, Deji Olukotun, PEN American Center / PEN International, Emmelie Prophete, PEN Haiti, Georges Castara, PEN Haiti, and Fritz Dorvilier, a Haitian Senator.

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 own 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.

PEN Haiti’s Liberez la Parole festival ends on a high note: Day 3 Report from Haiti

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.

But beyond the official events, the festival encouraged discussions at the dinner table, beneath mango trees, or sitting around a barbecue pit. These unofficial discussions underscore the importance of the need to seek and receive expression—you can’t put a number on the ability to converse with someone casually in person, whether about a political election, free expression, or the quality of the grilled goat.

I’ve been touched by the extraordinary hospitality of PEN Haiti and also the sincerity of engagement with freedom of expression issues. It is has been a privilege to share the work of PEN International and PEN American Center and I hope this festival sparks the beginning of a deep and lasting relationship.