Madison Smartt Bell by Jack Stephens

BOMB 73 Fall 2000
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Madison Smartt Bell. Photo by Jerry Bauer. Courtesy of Gelfman Schneider Literary Agents, Inc.

I have known Madison Smartt Bell since shortly after the publication of his first novel, The Washington Square Ensemble, which I happened to use as required reading in my fiction writing class at Loyola College in Baltimore in the mid-’80s. A dozen books later, he’s about to come out with the second volume of his trilogy covering Toussaint-Louverture and the Haitian Revolution. It’s called Master of the Crossroads and is the subject of this interview, which was conducted via e-mail in three rounds. The following conversation is excerpted from questions sent from Bellagio, Italy, New York City and Cape Hatteras, North Carolina; with Madison’s answers bouncing back from Baltimore, Maryland and Deer Isle, Maine, just after his recent return from Haiti.

The first volume of the Haitian trilogy, All Souls’ Rising, begins with the slave meeting at Bois Caiman (where the first black revolutionary leaders were chosen in August 1791), and encompasses Toussaint’s rise as leader through the great conflagration at Le Cap in June, 1793. Master of the Crossroads picks up in 1794 with adroit Toussaint’s tenure as a world-class politician and perhaps the most progressive leader of his day.

Jack Stephens You’re not black, you’re not French, you’re certainly not Haitian. The subject of Toussaint-Louverture and the Haitian slave revolt is, therefore, someone else’s story embedded in a cultural history far from your own. What drew you to it? What is the genesis of your fascination with the subject?

Madison Smartt Bell Something new, something really different. I kept running across it from early days’ writing. When researching Santería for The Washington Square Ensemble I read a lot about Vodou, which was then more popular with anthropologists so there was more to read, and I became extremely interested. Researching Waiting for the End of the World I came across the Haitian Revolution under the rubric of terrorism and got interested in the career of Toussaint. I read a short biography called Citizen Toussaint by Ralph Korngold and saw in his personal story a novel more or less already written. Over the next ten years I kept circling back to the idea, then doing something else instead. Something easier. Until finally there seemed no reason to put it off anymore. We’re mostly not French in the US, though lots of us are black; still, the Haitian Revolution has all the ingredients that were present in the formation of our own society, with all its flaws. There’s something fated about the place: here Columbus made his first settlement, here the first European genocidal effort against American Indians was achieved, here Las Casas invented the idea of African slavery. The Haitian Revolution worked out the consequences of this situation more violently and more rapidly than any other event in the Western Hemisphere.

JS What does this particular piece of history mean to you personally?

MSB Traveling in Haiti pretty well cured me of racism as such. It would have been worth it just for that. Some time into the writing of All Souls’ Rising I realized that the subject was a way for me to write about a slave society without involving my own ancestors, some of whom certainly did own slaves. It was just close enough and just far enough away, in that sense. There were three revolutions that inaugurated the modern world. The American Revolution was mostly about colonists freeing themselves from the power of the mother country. In political terms it was a tax revolt, though the rhetoric about human rights in the Declaration of Independence was a fundamental part of it. The French Revolution was an internal effort for social reform, where the emergent human rights ideology defined and propelled a violent overthrow of the status quo. Both these movements relied on ideas of natural human rights, to freedom and self-determination, but the new societies that resulted were still slave societies (except for France, briefly, under the Terror). The Haitian Revolution extended those ideas of natural human rights to all people, not just white people—and was thus more complete, more radical and more successful, though from our point of view more obscure.

JS Otherness propels, familiarity reassures, right? In the historical novel readers really want both, to be refreshed and confirmed by what is other (exotic) and the same (universal) in our humanity. Can you talk about this both as a writer and reader of the genre?

MSB Well, I think 90 percent of what passes as historical fiction amounts to a costume ball, with thoroughly modern characters wearing period costumes and acting in period situations. I’ve been influenced by George Garrett’s approach to historical novels to believe this is fundamentally false. We’re all human, sure, but different historical circumstances produce a very different mentality. The most extreme case that I’ve dealt with, and the hardest to write initially, is the character of Riau—in terms of being furthest away in his experience of the world from anything I or the reader would be familiar with. Doctor Hébert is much closer to the modern reader’s point of view—I think not anachronistically so (there were people with his brand of rationalist idealism running around in that part of the world), but he does serve as a pilot fish for the reader. In between there’s a whole lot of characters who think and react in terms of their own time as faithfully as I could get them to.

JS Does this affect your hands-on research, archivally and in the field?

MSB William Vollmann, in Fathers and Crows, has the beautiful metaphor of swimming against the stream of time. And I think one of the important innovations in his approach to historical fiction is to document his own efforts to move backward in time, to reach the period he’s trying to portray. I didn’t make it part of the document, but that’s one of the things Vodou has done for me. I had these very powerful, inspired dreams that showed me that I had to make leftward circles through certain places, like the hands of a clock going backwards. Vodou works through a rapport with the spirits of the dead—who congregate to form a vast spiritual reservoir from which individual spirits are formed who possess the living during ceremonies and sometimes on other occasions. So I ended up believing that the spirits of the people who acted in the story I’m telling haven’t gone away or disappeared—they’re right there all the time, on the other side of the mirror, and under the right conditions they can come back through, and emerge into the present.

JS Your prose, especially in the highly interiorized works like Dr. Sleep, reads and is experienced like that kind of hypnagogic state where one falls into dream but is not quite asleep, as though in a trance, a stroll, sometimes backwards, through a vivid shadow world. This makes some sense considering that your preferred work habit, until All Souls’, was to avoid revision. Then that changed, especially in regards to your working relationship with your editors Sonny Mehta and Cork Smith. How?

MSB I did so many books with Cork Smith that at a certain point I internalized his editorial style, about 90 percent of it anyway, so that the last manuscripts I had with him at Harcourt came through very clean—hardly a mark on them. At the same time he’s a very unobtrusive editor. Sonny is, I think, as good a structural editor as Cork; in my first conversation with him he had detected most of the problems latent in All Souls’ Rising which I hoped I had camouflaged and concealed. Whereupon some of those problems were in fact corrected.

JS Did Master get the same editorial treatment? Did this change the form of your scriptorial meditation? Or did you slide back into the old groove?

MSB I don’t think my approach to composition has really changed. The thing is that these historical novels are so hideously complicated and I am burrowed into them for such a long time that I need a couple of good outside reference points to be sure they are intelligible to a newcomer … and I have to make extra changes and adjustments accordingly. That said, the big editorial difference between All Souls’ Rising and Master of the Crossroads is that in the former case I had a mandate to make it shorter and less complicated, which I did by excising a couple of subplots—over 100 pages were removed from the penultimate draft. With Master of the Crossroads there was pressure to clarify but not to cut. It’s longer than All Souls’ Rising(you know this by now, I imagine) and also stronger I think, for a lot of reasons, including what I’ve learned so far by traveling in Haiti.

JS You’ve been called a “Southern writer” often enough. I’m not even sure what it means anymore. What does it mean to you?

MSB I take the opposite stance to Richard Ford, who has one of his characters declare, as a sort of rhetorical climax, “Place means nothing.” And I reckon he has managed to make it mean nothing to him. But I’m a Southern writer not because of my subjects, which have little directly to do with the South, but because my sensibility was shaped by that culture, and also the core of my literary education comes from the two generations of Southern writers before me. I do think that I see and react to everything differently, no matter what or where it is, because of the fact I’m a Southerner. I also have some traces of an attitude of distance and separation—a membrane dividing me from the rest of American society that many Southerners used to share, and some still do. That distancing has its disadvantages, but it can provide a certain perspective … most of the important American literature has been written by those outside, in one way or another, the social mainstream.

JS Often enough, your stories seem as much about the surroundings the characters find themselves squirming in, as in the drama of the squirming itself. Which provokes the philosophical question, What kind of world is this? Rather than the narrative, What will this character do next? Casual critics of All Souls’ have said the read was (too) graphic, (too) violent, (too) sordidly detailed; while proponents fire back, “What do you expect from a slave rebellion?” Do you enjoy engendering such arguments? Where do you find yourself in the crossfire?

MSB I’m probably lucky not to have heard the splatterpunk accusation more often than I did. Most readers seem to have seen the violence as something you had to go through in order to get to the essential point. The key scene in this regard is the one where Choufleur skins his father alive under Doctor Hébert’s spying observation. In writing the book I came to realize that the real subject of the argument was who counted as being human and who didn’t. Those who got categorized as less than human could be butchered. The argument became that the subhumans (white for some, black for others, colored for others still) should be butchered and wiped entirely out of creation. In other words, it is a story about attempted genocide and the inherent violence that goes along with that. As far as the intended total effect, the game plan is straight out of Aristotle, where pity and fear produce catharsis. Or as Flannery O’Connor put it, the shock of violence is used to turn the mind of the audience toward the moral issues. As far as controversy goes—I can take it or leave it. I’m doing what I have to, artistically, regardless. In any case, I think that Master of the Crossroads may be a little easier for some readers to digest, though it’s not by any means diluted … this middle period of the Haitian Revolution seems to me to be more about political and military strategy than about that initial explosion of rage and the will to destroy.

JS Novel readers are one thing. How did historians respond to All Souls’?

MSB I worried a good deal about the Haitian reaction. I had two very positive ones from Haitian historians Michel-Rolph Trouillot and Patrick Delatour. I used All Souls’ Rising as a calling card with them and both of them liked it well enough to help me substantially with researching the following volumes. The books are as historically accurate as I can make them, and I think that gives them credibility with historians in the field.

JS Vodou. You’ve practiced it? Is this what you mean when you say, “one of the things Vodou has done for me?” If you’ve not actually practiced in a devout way, you’ve done a little more than experience the rite from the sidelines, no?

MSB Yes. I’m not fully initiated and I don’t have a formal engagement with a particular spirit. I have what is called têt lavé, meaning a ritual head washing, something like baptism, which prepares the head to receive the spirit. And with this I feel reasonably well balanced when I go to certain ceremonies in Haiti. The people there have been very kind to me, and very patient with various stupidities I inflicted upon them with my ignorance, and for the time being I think I should say no more about them or their place than that. I still have a great deal to learn. This journey began in 1996 when I underwent an experience of partial possession—not at any ceremony or anything like it but in a hotel room during a blackout in the north of Haiti. Suffice it to say that this was an indelible experience and I have spent a long time since trying to understand it and to come to terms with it. I don’t know if the spirit will dance in my head again. For a while I thought that full possession was what I wanted, or to put it in more proper Vodouisant terms, that it was the thing required of me by the spirit. Now I am a good deal less certain on that point. What I do feel confident about is that Vodou is one of the great religions of the world and, in the way most Haitians practice it, compatible with charismatic Christianity (and usually practiced in tandem with a very devout Catholicism). For most of the years since 1996 I went also to a charismatic Episcopalian church in Baltimore with my daughter and I felt the two religions reinforced each other quite well, and in fact amounted to different facets of the same religion. I should say that the Episcopal priest did not by any means agree, but instead felt that I was trafficking with the Devil, and that I never ventured to share my views with others in the congregation. Nevertheless there was some real Christian tolerance in that church, and I think I would still be attending if they had not gone out of business.

Anyway, and as you may know, all my novels before All Souls’ Rising were experiments in different religions, up till Doctor Sleep when I thought I’d found the answer: Hermetic Gnosticism, à la Giordano Bruno, is the right religion for our time! Actually I still subscribe to this idea. The problem with Hermetic Gnosticism, though, is that it remains problematically egotistical, and this in turn creates theological problems which Bruno himself could never resolve. Vodou solves these problems. As in optimistic Gnosticism, every believer can incarnate divinity. In fact the same godhead may inhabit several different believers at the same ceremony and in these multiple embodiments get along with itself quite harmoniously. But what this amounts to for the servant, the believer, the ordinary landlord of the body possessed, is an abolition of the individual ego, which is utterly displaced, rendered for the duration of possession null and void. What this promises and in fact delivers is release from the tyranny of the ego, a way out of the prison of the self. And this, I think, is what all religions seek in one way or another to provide. There’s a beautiful song by Boukman Eksperyans about this, called “Sa’m Pedi.” And what it does is conflate this Vodouisant idea of sacrifice and abolition of ego with the Christian idea that one must lose one’s life to find it. It’s the most powerful piece of practical metaphysics to occur in pop music since Bob Marley died. Vodou will wash your ego right out of your head and leave you cleansed of it, for at least a little while. In Haiti, like nowhere else I’ve ever been, religious experience is as real as a rock in a field. You can break your toes on it. Or if you stand on it, it will hold you up. And that may be the strongest reason I keep going back there.

JS It’s interesting that in both All Souls’ Rising and Master of the Crossroads you’ve got this kind of wide-screen background struggle of people just trying to eat, sleep, dodge musket balls and bad weather, get laid or give birth—the basics. All the while there is this strategic military and political maneuvering going on between Toussaint, Leclerc, Sonthonax, etcetera, not to mention the international struggle taking place on this one island between the French, British, Spanish, and the extremely complex Haitian melting pot itself. The political scenes seem to emerge almost naturally from the more basic human condition. You’ve inverted the usual background/foreground concerns of the painterly novelist. This is intentional, I assume …

MSB Your phrasing reminds me of a Walker Percy essay that has been a big influence on me since college. It’s in The Message in the Bottle and it starts with the difficulty of making a sufficient aesthetic presentation of a big spectacle such as the Grand Canyon. However, if you have a fictional character with his own agenda blunder onto the canyon rim, by virtue of the fact that he “has other fish to fry” (Percy’s phrase) the audience may experience the whole of the Grand Canyon through him. I feel a lot more comfortable handling fictional characters as such, rather than trying to transform historical personages into fictional characters. Particularly in the case of Toussaint-Louverture, I was very reluctant to falsify or invent anything at all. Obviously he is fictionalized to some extent. But there is almost nothing he does and particularly nothing that he says or thinks that I cannot justify from my reading of the historical record. Also, I wanted to try to catch him in the crossfire of many different points of view. Because all the prior analyses of his personality are so contradictory and because the historical record itself, in full, indicates profound self-contradiction … at least in “Western,” “First World” terms. So if I can get him intersecting with enough fictional characters, then an image of the complete Toussaint emerges … I hope. Sort of like the Invisible Man, caught in the middle of a paintball fight. An image that is something like what Auden explained about a Brueghel painting—where Icarus is crashing into the ocean in some far distant corner, while 90 percent of the canvas is devoted to ploughing and other mundane peasant activity. Because the big spectacular events are only made real by the ordinary people who surround them, or maybe take some peripheral part in them while following their noses through the regular business of their lives.

JS Here’s an unfair question just for fun: Who do you see yourself most personally aligned with in the trilogy?

MSB Well, Dr. Hébert was conceived from the beginning as a pilot fish for the reader, and for me as well. He’s the guy who’s dropped into the situation out of the blue and has to figure it out as he goes along. His ignorance is mine. So in that sense, he’s my main guy. Though at this point, having written two-thirds of the trilogy, I think I’ve got dual fictional protagonists (with Toussaint as the historical protagonist overarching everything): Dr. Hébert and Riau, with Dr. Hébert representing the European point of view on the whole situation (probably at its most enlightened), and Riau a pilot fish leading the reader into much more alien subject matter (for American novel readers, that is) of what would finally emerge as Haitian culture. These two characters come from absolutely opposite poles, but they are inclined to be friendly and are forced by circumstance to rely on each other in various ways. So the big fictional issue that wraps around all the other subplots is, how close can these two men become? How well can they finally understand each other?

JS No matter what, blood is a big motif in Master of the Crossroads and elsewhere in your work. You have this character Moustique (mosquito) and it occurs to me with all the birth and bloodletting and bloodlines and snuffing of mosquitoes which go about mixing the blood of whomever they bite, that you are composing one epic-length rhapsody on human blood and all its mortal, social and historical meanings—its beautiful, morbid, sanguine, chaste associations.

MSB I think this is a classic example of the unconscious mind at work in the production of art, which I discuss in my book Narrative Design. I wasn’t aware of this image pattern in the global way you describe it, but I executed it at an unconscious level, so it really is there, it’s a legitimate reading. The only aspect of this pattern I was consciously planning is a long thread leading from All Souls’ Rising to the third volume—50 years before the revolution, a maroon called Macandal concocted a poison plot to kill all the white people. He got burned at the stake before it could happen, but the legend is that his spirit escaped in the form of a mosquito. So thereafter whenever a mosquito bites somebody it could be the spirit of Macandal. The trigger really gets pulled on this idea in volume three when the huge yellow fever epidemic decimates the army sent by Napoleon. Of course I have to cope with the problem that nobody at the time knew that this was a mosquito-borne illness.

JS As you know, I’m working on a historical novel concerning the first Mayan contact with Europeans. Currently, I’m trying to finesse a passage in which a Spaniard finds himself a participant (not the victim) in a human sacrificial rite. I am struggling with the whole problem of bypassing all bias, to really understand how sophisticated and advanced cultures could take so naturally to acts we see as morbid, evil, and inhumane.

MSB Nietzsche says we can’t see around our own corner. I only think that it’s very, very hard. With rites like what you describe or horrific events like the Haitian Revolution, you have to try to experience them the way the participants did—far away as it may be from your own natural point of view. This takes a lot of work, but it’s not impossible. For example, what most honkies, including me for a long time, see as most significant about the ceremony at Bois Cayman is that the massacre of all the white colonists was planned there. I was talking to Lòlò Beaubrun (lead singer of Boukman Eksperyans) in 1995 and I realized that he saw Bois Cayman as the Haitian/Vodou analogue of the Sermon on the Mount. I was greatly perplexed and said, “Wait a minute, the main thing they did at Bois Cayman was plan to kill all the white people!” So Lòlò laughs merrily and says, Sure, but so what? That was just a peripheral thing they had to do on the way to their destination, which was to unify the Haitian nation politically, religiously and linguistically out of all the different African ingredients. The white slave owners were an obstacle on this path so they had to be removed—but this is just a minor detail, far from the central meaning of Bwa Cayman. After all, they were only white people. And after that I began to sort of get it … at least some of it.

JS Toussaint’s story—indeed Haiti’s—is such a tragic one, all the way down to the current situation. Can unrelenting tragedy truly be cathartic? Or are you content with what seems like an unjustifiably long “holding pattern”?

MSB This is the hard question … in religious terms, you have put the hard question. World history keeps on being relentlessly tragic and one might argue that Aristotle’s very durable concept for tragedy was invented only to aestheticize it. The only reasonable answer I have heard is what Robert Penn Warren has Willie Stark say on his deathbed to Jack Burden, “It could have all been different. You have to believe that.” And that may sound sentimental but I don’t know a better answer. In fact, you follow this piece of advice or else you are committed to despair. Look at Haiti now, 200 years later, and the United States now, and it seems fairly freaking unlikely that things are going to turn out different or better in either place. Still, I cherish certain secret hopes, including the idea that things may really reform in Haiti in a way that might teach the US a few useful lessons. The third option of course is to go back and see what sort of comfort you can extract from the Book of Job.

JS I would think that by the time you’ve finished the next and final installment of the trilogy, you’ll be hungry for something else. Then again, perhaps you’ll want to deal with the more modern Haiti, the one where the US now has a stake in the poorest nation in the Americas?

MSB I think when I get done with the final volume I’ll confront the same set of disagreeable options as when I finished Doctor Sleep: 1. Suicide (just a rhetorical point, okay). 2. Abandon writing altogether (the Rimbaud/Duchamp solution). 3. Think up a new trick. I don’t really know what I’m gonna do. The scheme has been to insert short contemporary novels between these long historical novels, e.g. Ten Indians. I have one of these about done now, Anything Goes, about a bar band that travels around the US, and it involves some songs I co-wrote with Wyn Cooper, the poet who wrote the lyrics for Sheryl Crow’s first hit. He does the words and I do the music—it’s been a fun project. We’ve recorded some demos up in Vermont so there are various synergistic possibilities for this. I have a couple of plans for short novels. One would be a family historical story, based on the Bell Witch, a spirit that haunted the family of one of my ancestors in Tennessee back around 1800. I’ve made a couple of trips to Haiti recently with Robert Stone, and I think he is working on a novel that has some scenes in contemporary Haiti. And I have the germ of an idea for a novel about contemporary Haiti, but I don’t know if I’ll write it or not. I have a running joke with Bob about how I’ll make him a minor character in my novel if I can be a minor character in his.

JS War and Peace is an interesting comparison since its backdrop is the war with Napoleon and every stratum of a very stratified society is affected. Where do you line up with Tolstoy’s view that history proceeds inexorably to its own end?

MSB Hmm, I hadn’t put this together till you asked the question, but yes. The essayistic portions of War and Peace amount to a sort of precursor to the Marxist theory that individuals and their actions are merely ornamental to the vast subterranean tectonic forces of history. I think Tolstoy developed this idea in part because he wanted to demolish Napoleon’s personal reputation, but as I remember he is faithful to his own theory in his representation of Kutuzov as being rather less talented than Napoleon. But Kutuzov wins because the forces of history happen to be on his side at the moment. The whole thing has nothing to do with his personal qualities, or Napoleon’s. The basic work on the Haitian Revolution in English, The Black Jacobins by C. L. R. James, is quite dogmatically Marxist, and yet when Toussaint-Louverture appears, it’s like the full moon shining on werewolves. Everything James (as well as other Marxist historians) writes about Toussaint admits implicitly that he is an exception to the Marxist rule that individual historical actors don’t matter. On the contrary, the Haitian Revolution could not have happened without this one person and his particular qualities. I think that’s true, and yet Toussaint’s main achievement was to establish the Haitian Revolution as a movement that was not dependent on any one leader. He said so on the day of his deportation, words to the effect of: You think that in striking me down you have cut down the Tree of Liberty in Saint Domingue, but you’re wrong, because its roots are many and very deep. Leclerc later on acknowledged the same point when he wrote home to Napoleon that in order to establish permanent control over the colony it would be necessary to kill every black male above the age of 12. This wasn’t a rhetorical exaggeration. He was quite serious and he was probably right. This, two full centuries before Pol Pot. Vodou offers some good solutions to the implicit paradoxes here. According to Vodou rules you can’t get rid of people by killing them because dead people don’t leave. They only change their state of being and remain invisibly present and influential in the worlds where they lived their corporeal lives. So as far as the idea of the great man in history goes, Vodou resolves it this way: You indeed have great men who influence history as Toussaint did—but these individuals only embody a spirit that the time demands. So if the person is eliminated, then that same spirit will manifest itself in somebody else and continue with its work. That gives you, among other things, a revolution in which every last member is a potential leader, just as every last Vodouisant can potentially incarnate a god. You can see what an intractable problem this was for the French.

JS We’ve talked plenty about the blood and violence, but there’s a lot of love and tenderness in Master of the Crossroads, moments like when Riau picks up baby Yoyo after his vicious hand-to-hand fight with Guiaou. Perhaps more so than in All Souls’ Rising. As a reader, I find it pulls me into an intimate proximity with a people who’ve been under fire for a long time, so that it’s dramatic plus successful. I cared a lot for Haiti and it’s ideological fate by the end of All Souls’ Rising, but by the end of Master of the Crossroads I cared for these people individually, regardless of affiliation, bloodline or political position. I wonder if this is a direct function of your increased intimacy with contemporary Haiti and her people?

MSB I think you’re right about the influence of spending time in Haiti. It seems to me that in the US people tend to have a consistently mixed experience of life, which, day by day, may swing a few degrees between the poles of nice and nasty. Haitian life, by contrast, tends to be all the way at one end or the other. Meaning that when things break down and go bad, it’s really bad. But when life is sweet, the sweetness is unadulterated. It’s the purity of that experience that attracts foreigners, I think, including me. Perhaps the strength of the love is a reaction to the violence, equal and opposite in its direction.

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Originally published in

BOMB 73, Fall 2000

Featuring interviews with Vik Muniz, Shirin Neshat, Madison Smartt Bell, Javier Marias, Misia, Michael Frayn, Karyn Kusama, and Michael Roth.

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