The Colour of Dawn

Yanick Lahens
Alison Layland (trans.)
Publication Date: 
Monday, June 24, 2013
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Port au Prince, Haiti. The police roam the streets and no-one is safe. Fignolé, musician, political radical is missing. His sisters Joyeuse and Angelique search for their young brother amid the colourful bustle, urban deprivation and political tension of the city. Eventually they will find him, but in the process they will also have found more about themselves than they wanted to know.

The Colour of Dawn is the story of one day and three lives in a city where love is hard to find, life is cheap and death is all too familiar. It is the tense, passionate and vividly told story of small victories of hope in the face of a seemingly impossible fight against a monolithic regime.

"Powerful and Unforgettable" – The Times


Review By Joanna Collins, Wasafiri

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Yanick Lahens's The Colour of Dawn explores precisely this political death alongside the social, economic and gendered powerlessness of a group of women in Port-au-Prince. Lahen's novel is built around the absence of the rebellious and outspoken Fignole, 'who has never accepted the rules of any dogma, any uniform, or any doctrine'(70). Narrated alternately by Fignolé's two sisters, the sensual Joyeuse and bitter, god-fearing Angelique, the novel traverses Port-au-Prince over the course of a day, observing the violation, sexual predators, poverty and injustice that inhabit their neighbourhood. The sisters ostensibly represent opposed outlooks on the depressing reality of daily violence. Whilst  Joyeuse moves physically amongst the chaos of the city, using her faith in her youth and attractiveness as a talisman, Angelique succumbs to despair and moves in a narrow world of rancour mainly staged within claustrophobic interiors.

However, this is not simply another rehash of Haiti as 'Bloof maddened, sex maddened, god maddened' or 'the most dangerous place on earth'. Lahen's novel is a clear political critique of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Aristide is named only as 'Prophet-President, boss of the Démunis[the poor] party'(27), damningly likened to 'the other Prophet-President, President for Life' Franç Duvalier(who is also not named)(70). The reader witnesses omnipresent violation and violence, specifically the 'insidious war' where 'armed bands[...] blended in with the forces of order[]liquidate the insurgents'(45) This is a narrative of Aristide as yet another Hatian despot, enlisting chimére(armed gangs) to enforce his rules(a narrative disputed in Garland's chapter on Cité Soleil). Fignolé is positioned as an ideological challenge to this tyranny: a free-thinking, astute rebel. His name recalls Lahens's contemporary, anti-Duvalier writer Jean-Claude Fignolé, and significantly, leftist Daniel Fignolé, who tantalisingly almost came to power instead of François Duvalier in 1957. However, Fignolè is always at best marginal: he never speaks, is never present, exists in the stories of others, appearing only in the very last selection in order to be definitively annihilated. Hope and resistance then are confined within the imagination-once they are spoken or enacted brutal silencing ensues. 

The defeat of Fignolè the 'artist'(musician) in some ways also reflects Lahen's dilemma as an artist in a country with low literacy, a condition she has referred to as 'internal exile', writing in French, Haiti's official language, rather than its national language of Kreyòl. It is noticeable that a deliberate internal dissonance pervades the formal structure of the novel: although certain incidents overlap in the sisters' accounts, their two voices do not unite to produce one cohesive narrative, and much of what happens to Fignolé remains mystery. For Lahens, the dissonance must also be ascribed to a society which isolates people from each other by breeding distrust and fostering exploitation. And this climate of alienation within Haiti is not simply 'internally' generated.

Tellingly, the novel sees American journalist John arrive with 'the second occupation'(60) in 1994, where the US military reinstated Aristide. John, a meld of journalist and tourist, embodies the failure of an American 'New World Imaginary', assuming a 'benevolent' superiority, exoticising and eroticising Haiti for self-affirmation. John also revealingly lends his unwavering support to the Prophet President. A functional rather than central character in the novel's events, he suggests a critique of the academic writing in Haiti and the America's, or indeed the writer of this review-a 'well meaning' outsider who is ultimately unable to understand or empathise with the reality of Haiti. The 'who' and 'how' of representing Haiti is then a key, if implicit, stake in both books, and is part of a larger ongoing debate about representing the meaning of Haiti and its politics. (This played out for example in Lyonel Trouillot's critique of Peter Hallward in Small Axe('Hallward, or the Hidden Face of Racism' 30(2009)127-36) and Andrew Leak's rejoinder in Bulletin of Latin American Research('A Vain Fascination:Writing from and about Haiti after the Earthquake' 32.4(2013) 394-406))However, Garland, quoting Said, makes a case for the relevance of the outsider's perspective, to supply 'a great deal of information, the human context and historical events that have reduced [people] to their present state'(190). Such narratives then, regardless of divergent political and ideological outlooks, counter silence and misunderstandings surrounding Haiti, prompting valuable new narratives, critical revisions and questions. 


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In 2009, Translators’ House Wales introduced its first Translation Challenge, ‘to promote and celebrate the crucial contribution translators make to enabling literature to travel across frontiers, and to draw attention to literary translation as one of the creative arts.’ The Challenge has been an annual event ever since, usually involving translation between Welsh and English. In 2010, however, Translators’ House Wales collaborated with Oxfam to set the Challenge in Grench, with the Bardic Staff being awarded for the best translations into Welsh and English. The piece chosen was an extract from the title story La folie était venue avec la pluie (Madness Came with the Rain) by acclaimed Haitian writer Yanick Lahens, and the Bardic Staff for the English translation was awarded to Alison Layland, The Colour of Dawn once again brings together this award-winning writer/translation combination in Layland’s sensitive translation of Layhen’s powerful and ompelling novel, La Couleur de l’Aube.
Set on the wrong side of the tracks in the Haitian capital of Port au Prince, The Colour of Dawn tells the story of one dramatic day in the life of a small, close-knit family through the voices of sisters Joyeuse and Angélique. True to their names, Joyeuse is determined to hold onto hope and to find joy despite all the odds against, while Angélique initially comes across as a self-righteous martyr who ‘keeps all her happiness tightly bound in a severe bun at the nape of her neck.’ Although there is little distinction betweeb these voices, the reader quickly comes to recognise them by their tone and individual take on life. Joyeuse seduces us immediately (as she does men), whereas our hearts warm more slowly to Angélique as she reveals herself in all her vulnerability. What the two share is a deep and abiding respect for their mother. Ma Méracin, and their devotion to their brother. Fignolé – ‘Fignolé, inhabited by poetry, crazy about music. Fignolé has no place on this island where disaster has broken sprits’. Fignolé has gone out the night before the story begins, and he hasn’t come home. The three women – mother and sisters- fear for his safety but can do little other than wait.
In The Colour of Dawn, Lahens once again captures the grinding poverty, discrimination and brutality faced by Haiti’s poor black community an the various coping mechanisms individuals deploy. Ma Méracin quietly but firmly defends her independence and holds to her trust in the protection of the vodou gods. Angélique cleaves to a more vengeful Christian God, harbouring a profound bitterness that tells her ‘there is no wrong in turning malicious when you are enslaved.’ Joyeuse and Fignolé, their youthful spirits intact, believe they still have some power to shape their own futures: ‘Who, is they are normal, would not want some of this extravagant thing known as happiness that you see gleaming in the distance?’ The happiness might be always in the distance, but at least it’s there, keeping alive a glimmer of hope that attenuates the sense of defeat in ‘a country that [is] lost, debased, trampled underfoot.’ Fignolé sports his dreadlocks proudly and Joyeuse delights in her body, scorning the rich black women who come to the shop where she works to buy products to straighten their hair and lighten their skin because they believe in ‘the black humiliation of our skin’. The family briefly befriends John, a white American journalist whose ignorant romanticisation of black poverty deftly transposes the humiliation. The family knows he sees them as ‘exotic animals walking around on their hind legs’ and quietly con him out of money to pay for the funeral of a non-existent cousin. John knows very well the cousin doesn’t exist, but this is all aprt of an unacknowledged game.
Lahens’ compassionate study of the grim existences suffered by so many Haitians could be a recipe for depression, but far from it – her characters brim with life, vigour and a profound rage that keeps them fighting for a better future, both for themselves and for their country. The beautiful, slightly formal language so finely replicated in Layland’s translation keeps the pace slow mirroring the heavy passing of the hours as the three women wait for news of Fignolé. Yet there is also plenty of action and suspense to keep the pages turning.
Although Lahens is one of Haiti’s most prominent writers, and several of her books have been translated into German. The Colour of Dawn is, as far as I’m aware, the first full-length English translation of any of her books. Seren and Alison Layland are to be congratulated for bringing the work of a significant international author to an English readership.

Suzy Ceulan Hughes

22/05/2014 - 11:20
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Rosie Johns

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Every day is a challenge in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and at first this day is no different. Fignole, a young man "inhabited by poetry, crazy about music" has not come home. His sisters, Angelique and Joyeuse, weave their increasingly and desperate search for him in to their daily round. Angelique works at the hospital, and is the lone mother of a little boy, Gabriel. When she's worried, Angelique is given to violence – she now regrets waking Gabriel with a whipping. "The violence was all I had to distance myself from the fear". Angelique, meanwhile is worried because she found a gun in her brothers things. As the day goes on, the sisters think over their lives and their relationship with eachother.

The author was born in Haiti, and beautifully recreates the poverty, the lawlessness, the cheapness of life in this dreadful country. Powerful and unforgettable.

Kate Saunders The Times 31/08/2013

02/09/2013 - 15:40