Amber Austin, « Roger Dorsinville, Emerging from the Shadow of the Father: Memoirs of Haiti »

by Amber Austin

photo de Roger Dorsinville prise à Dakar vers les années 1960 D.R., photo des archives du CIDIHCA

photo de Roger Dorsinville prise à Dakar vers les années 1960
D.R., photo des archives du CIDIHCA

Describing his life in Memoirs of Haiti, Roger Dorsinville takes the reader (or listener) on a journey through a collage of recollections that relate to his childhood and early manhood in Haiti. Although many factors influence the shaping of his youth, the consciousness and conception of his father are particularly significant. Starting at the age of six, a strained and silent relationship ultimately trains and shapes the son. Living in his father’s shadow for many years, he only begins to emerge from this when his life goes uncontrollably off course when he is tried for sedition and jailed. In a strange and – to say the least – uncomfortable situation for the first time, the son is forced to reach inside himself to address and solve it. It is at this point in time that he begins the process of unearthing an identity – and a voice – separate from his father, and thus starts the transformation that will forever change the shape of his future.

Recalling his childhood in chapter one of Memoirs of Haiti, when he was three or four, the speaker describes his first memory of his father. In this memory, there is no connection or relationship between the two. He describes his father as a « growling shadow [who was] seen only at the end of the day » (18). Here, the word « growling » describes a man whose spoken words come out vaguely, obscurely, and even menacingly, while the word « shadow » connotes mystery, foreignness and the unknown. The mystery imported into the description by these two words is furthered by his portraying him as someone who was seen only at the end of the day, which thus places him in the liminal (and indefinite) period between day and night. Thus, in this earliest memory, the speaker refers to a man who is immersed in shadows and mystery, and who is entirely detached from his son.

Chapter two, however, marks a turning point in Memoirs of Haiti, and thus, in the life of the speaker as a child. Recalling his life at the age of six, he tells the reader (or listener) that his father began to spend more time at home. As a result, men from the neighbourhood gathered at the family house on Sundays to discuss literature, politics and current events. The child also attended these meetings, which enabled him to become « not only conscious of his [father’s] presence, but also of his [father’s] personality » (29). The development of this « consciousness » obviously contrasts with the mystery surrounding his earlier childhood memory, and allows the son, for the first time, to see his father as more than a vague presence or a « growling shadow. » Becoming aware of both his father’s presence and personality, the son initiates his emergence from the shadow that engulfed him in the earlier childhood memory.

     Once conscious of his father, he not only begins to know his progenitor, but also begins to cultivate a relationship with him. However, the awe that surrounded the six-year old child with « the birth of the father » is quickly replaced by a troubled understanding of the fundamentals of this new relationship. In the Sunday group settings wherein he was able to observe his father, the child describes him as a group leader, [1] a smooth talker and « a fine man of the word » (30). But aside from this group and on a personal level, he describes his interaction with his father simply and bluntly, telling the reader (or listener) that he « didn’t talk much with [his] father » (98) and that in fact, they « practically never spoke » (98). Consequently, filial relationship, once established, is characterized by a total lack of dialogue and verbal communication.

For the older writer looking back on his childhood the lack of dialogue that characterized his relationship with his father is clearly seen in a negative way. This is effectively shown to the reader (or listener) in a revealing statement. In it, the father is described as someone who « hid behind his trademark silence » (59). Firstly, the fact that the word « trademark » is used shows (again) how the father (and the relationship between father and son) is described in terms of silence. It also shows, however, that this silence is found to be cowardly – the speaker tells the reader (or listener) that his father was someone who « hid » behind it.

Two exceptions to the father’s « trademark » silence are described. In the first, the father is portrayed as someone who breaks his silence only momentarily, to bark out an order or command. One clear example of this is the story related to the reader (or listener) about the new camera the speaker and his brother bought. Proudly showing their first photos, the only response the two sons received from their father was « No tie? You had no tie on at the Champ-de-Mars? A Dorsinville does not go out without wearing a tie » (68). Thus, silence is momentarily interrupted to « correct » the boys. This interruption does not involve any dialogue or discussion – it is simply an order to be accepted and followed by the two sons.

With the second exception, however, the reader (or listener) is told of a softer side. Discussing the hunting trips that used to take place with his father and his brother, the speaker fondly recalls the car rides to and fro. During this time, « there’d be little exchanges between a relaxed father and his teenage sons » (98). These « little exchanges, » although not equal to serious and deep conversation, allowed the sons to share and communicate directly and verbally with their progenitor, which in turn allowed them to see another side of him. This « relaxed » version of fatherhood contrasts with the prevailing strained and silent image, and thus creates a sense of comfort and happiness not present in many of the other recollections.

But, as already noted, these instances are exceptions, and few moments of verbal exchange are represented between father and son. In light of an obviously lacking dialogic form of communication between them, the son develops a nonverbal form of communication through writing. Describing this, the writer says, « I started [writing] early, from the age of fourteen, I think. My brother and I wrote reviews of films, plays and lectures for our father’s daily newspaper » (51). The fact that he started writing at such a young age is in itself an important detail, indicating the early development of this « other » form of communication. But, the fact that he and his brother both develop and target their writing to the father’s paper (as opposed to some personal venture), indicates how both he and his brother rely on the written word to communicate with their father.

While further discussing the development of this form of communication, the writer says, « at first, he [the father] corrected our prose, then he stopped. He was proud of our writings at sixteen or seventeen. We heard of that through friends. He did not praise us face to face. We knew our pieces were good when he read them in our presence and accepted them » (51). This is a revealing statement on many levels. Firstly, the reader (or listener) is given the image of the father silently correcting the prose of the sons, and then handing it back for them to read and understand (note the entire lack of verbal exchange). As the sons’ writing improved, however, the written corrections are replaced with a silence indicative of acceptance. The only verbal connection between father and son is the praise that must travel to the sons second-hand, through the father’s friends. Thus, direct communication only occurs through the written word, which passes from the pen of the sons to the eyes of the father, and then back to the sons without the utterance of a single word.

Ultimately, through the development of a silent relationship with his father, and the cultivation of writing as a main form of communication with him, Dorsinville develops not only a consciousness of the father, but also a conception of himself. The sense of self that he develops is intricately linked with the position and identity of his father and his father’s friends, and the writer describes this, telling the reader (or listener) that « you can see how we [he and his brother] were trained to reach for an ideal. It was out of the question we would turn out less…In that sense, my father and his friends were our models » (30-31).[2] The father and the friends, who act as role models, thus « train » (which connotes rote learning and repetition while minimizing, or entirely omitting, active thinking) the sons to reach for an ideal represented by the father and his friends. Diverging or changing from such a prescribed course is simply « out of the question. »

This « natural order, » where the son follows in the footsteps of his father, and where it is « out of the question » for him to turn out to do anything less, ultimately relates to what the speaker calls Haiti’s « suicidal cycle. » Describing this cycle, he says, « we’re talking about a very unusual society whose main characteristic is to turn in a circle within a value system that spurs each one to move up a bit, in search of some betterment » (60). Key words in this statement are « a bit » and « some, » which indicate a very small or moderate betterment or transformation, but which outlaw any major ameliorations or drastic changes. This, combined with the fact that the value system is described as a « circle, » which has no beginning and no end, and repeats itself over and over, presents the reader (or listener) with the image of a stagnant society. Stuck in this circle, a person can only improve a bit on what has already been done, but ultimately, can never deviate or break free.

     For the speaker, the natural order [3] that he has been trained to follow is that of the « little bourgeois » (34, 48). And, through his childhood and early manhood, he does indeed follow this path – he attends school, gets good grades (except one year) and graduates with success. Recalling this period of his life, the writer characterizes it by its total lack of independent thought. He says « I went through the school system like a serf; and after that I studied on my own – law, for example, learning by rote, like a serf…I read a lot; I practiced sport; I discovered sex – things I focused on in response to physical urges » (46-47). The self-deprecating description of himself as a « serf, » the fact that he learned by rote, and the connection of these events to only the physical – and never the mental – urges show how this period in his life unfolded along a set path of mediocrity, instead of a self-determining one with a goal.

Even after the death of his father (which occurred when the writer was eighteen), the son is unable to « wake-up » (47) from this unthinking path. Describing his first major solo decision after his father passed away – what to do with his life – the speaker tells the reader (or listener) that he ultimately decided to join the military. What is so interesting about this first major decision, however, is the way he describes making it, and the paradox that surrounds it. He says that he never « really [chose] to become an army officer » (52), and that, rather, he just followed « the easy way » (52). Consequently, this first key independent decision is one that was not consciously made (hence, the paradox; making a decision without thinking about it). So, even after the death of his father, the son continues along the carefree and thought-free path to which he has become accustomed, making decisions about his life that never involve active thought.

The military, however, offers more than just a carefree path. It also, in many ways, acts as a replacement for the dead father, and thus offers a milieu that the writer gets used to. Firstly, when discussing the military, he characterizes it as the « camp of the mute ones » (52). To the reader (or listener), this must immediately recall the father’s « trademark » silence. Also, the relationship that the son establishes with the chief or « father » of the army, Calixte, is remarkably reminiscent of his relationship with his natural father. For example, after hearing the rumors of the impending assassination of Armand, Dorsinville approaches Calixte for information. But, as he recounts to the reader (or listener), Calixte simply tells him to « see Bonhomme » (79). The terseness of this conversation, its total lack of dialogic interaction, along with the fact that Calixte also transmits information second-hand (like Dorsinville’s father’s praise, which had to travel to his son through the father’s friends) immediately recalls the son’s interaction with his father.

At age twenty-six, the life of this « aimless youth pursuing fleeting joys like little flowers in a gray countryside » (47) is turned upside-down. Because of his role in the Armand assassination conspiracy (which failed), the once proud and carefree soldier of the state is arrested and detained as an enemy of the state. The word role is italicized here, because, as Dorsinville points out in his defense plea, his only real role in the assassination plot was that he was aware of it, hence his only « real mistake » (207) was that he didn’t denounce the « father » of the plan, Calixte. The « son » is ultimately arrested for following the father – which is something that he has been trained to do since he became conscious of his biological father at the age of six (with « the birth of the father. »)

Showing just how much Dorsinville’s father influenced him prior to his arrest is a salient feature in the speaker’s memory. The reader (or listener) is told that his relatives, worried not only about his imprisonment, but also his life, suggested that he flee Haiti for the Bahamas. His response was to immediately – and absolutely – deny this possibility. He simply said that « there was no way Hénec’s [his father’s] son was going to escape like a thief » (85). What is important to note in this response is that Dorsinville does not say that he, personally, decided not to escape. Rather, he defines his decision not to run in terms of his father – « Hénec’s son » would never escape like a thief. Defining himself as « Hénec’s son » shows how the speaker, at the age of twenty-six, still defines himself in terms of the father, and still follows in his shadow.

When he is finally arrested, however, and put in prison, Dorsinville turns to reading. Having brought a book with him, he tells the reader (or listener) that the subject of the book (which was philosophy) was irrelevant to him, and rather, the significance of the book was in its « capacity to hold back one’s own thinking » (87). When the book is taken away, however, he is left alone with only his thoughts. Now, with nothing left to do but delve into his own mind for comfort and reason, he tells the reader (or listener) that he « began to think for [himself] » (47). This is a defining moment in Memoirs of Haiti, and (hence) in the life of Roger Dorsinville since, for the first time, he thinks freely and independently. This moment marks the beginning of the individual’s transformation, and the concrete emergence of the son from the shadow of the father.

This « consciousness of self, » characterized by the development of independent thought, is marked by Dorsinville’s famous and monumental Defense Plea. An important work in many ways, its main significance in this context relates to the way in which it was presented. Although written by Dorsinville, the plea was designed to be spoken – to use the verbal word to approach others, to communicate and to explain. The first paragraph of the Defense Plea illustrates this intent, « we intend to defend ourselves so that our silence not be falsely interpreted as a vain display of pride » (207). Silence – the « trademark » of the father – is thus something that is rejected here. Seriously thinking for himself for the first time, Dorsinville replaces the silence and the written form of communication that he learned so well from his father with the dialogue and the spoken word that he learned by himself.

The transformation, which began in prison with the development of independent thought and dialogue, allows the son to consolidate the process of emergence from the shadow of his father. Once started, he never follows the father figure blindly again. As Estimé’s chief of staff, Dorsinville is the one who puts the words of leadership into the mouth of the leader, with his oath of office speech (thus reversing the roles of father and son as he has known them). After two years with Estimé, he proves to be too much of a « shit disturber » (164) and he is offered (offered without choice) another position away from Haiti, in New York (as Haiti’s consul). Likewise, as Duvalier’s ambassador, he is pushed further and further away from Haiti – first to Costa Rica, and then to Africa. Since one does not go to such lengths for a follower, it is clear that both leaders, father figures fearful of Dorsinville (the rebellious « son ») and of his (independent) opinions, push him away from Haiti in order to distance and silence him.

But, as Memoirs of Haiti bears witness, the « fathers' » attempted suppression of the « son » by distancing and silencing him backfired. Dorsinville was never silenced. Banished to Africa, alone and away from his home, he describes himself as « a man cut off from his Haitian roots who, in order to survive and preserve his sanity, married into an African family. » [4]

The African family, however, does not act as a replacement for the Haitian one. In fact, this African family (« the many ») actually opposes Dorsinville’s Haitian father (« the one »), and thus offers him a milieu rich in dialogue and sharing. Ultimately, this encourages Dorsinville to expand upon the transformation that he began in Haiti, and to break free of his father’s training forever.


1. Dorsinville never describes his father directly to the reader, but it is implied in his narrative. All the friends gather at the Dorsinville family house, and around Dorsinville’s father. As the center of attention of these meetings, it is inferred that Dorsinville’s father was the leader of these meetings. [return to text]

2. Here, Dorsinville refers to the father and the friends of the father. This connection between the father and his friends is actually discussed in the second chapter, « The Birth of the Father. » There, Dorsinville spends a lot of time discussing the « brilliant talkers, » like Félix Viard, the « gifted professionals, » like Dr. Félix Coicou, and the « modest people, » like Clément Beaugé. This focus on the father’s friends is important since these individual descriptions all relate back to the father, because the men « were part of the emerging personality of (Dorsinville’s) father. » Thus, the men who emerged alongside the father also became intertwined with Dorsinville’s conception of his father. [return to text]

3. Perhaps Dorsinville’s dissatisfaction with « the natural order » is foreshadowed by the title of his second chapter, The Birth of the Father. When analyzing the meaning of the title, the reader (or listener) understands that the father is born of the son. But to have the father born to the son is a conundrum, since, following the natural order, the son is born to the father. Consequently, the title implies a willed act of subversion of the natural order. [return to text]

4. See Postcolonial Stories by Roger Dorsinville (Lewiston, NY: Mellen Press, 2001): 245. [return to text]

Ce texte « Emerging from the Shadow of the Father: Memoirs of Haiti », by Amber Austin a été publié pour la première fois dans A Critical Edition of Haitian Writer Roger Dorsinville’s Memoirs of Haiti. Trans. and Ed. Max Dorsinville. Lewiston, NY: Mellen Press, 2002, pages 267-274. Il est reproduit sur Île en île avec permission.

© 2002 Amber Austin


mis en ligne : 21 novembre 2003 ; mis à jour : 11 août 2016