Adapted from Putting Down Roots: Montreal's Immigrant Writers
IN THE NEARLY FOUR DECADES since François Duvalier came to power in 1957, more than one million Haitians, an estimated twenty per cent of the country's population, fled "this bare rock, this mountainous island with its flinty stones and its alluvial deposits, this land of lingering death." Some 50,000 have settled over the years in Montreal, one of them the author of the above stark depiction of his homeland.
A teacher, scholar, and prize-winning novelist, Emile Ollivier, at fifty-eight and after more than thirty years in Canada, says that he still feels "Haitian in all the corners of my being." But "home" for him now is a tree-lined street in the genteel, primarily anglophone Montreal neighbourhood of Notre-Dame-de-Grace. On Oxford Avenue, his real and fictional worlds fuse. A visitor walking up from Sherbrooke Street is struck by the congruences with Passages, Ollivier's fourth novel. As in the book, we are upstreet from Old Orchard Ice Cream, Esposito Farms, the Collins Funeral parlour.
Inside the gracious, old-style home with its high ceilings and beautiful woodwork, Ollivier ensconces himself in a leather wing chair, ash tray at his side, cigarette in hand. He has courtly, old-world manners, a rich cello voice in which I can discern both the lilt of the Caribbean and the cadence of Paris, and a booming belly laugh often at odds with the seriousness of his words.
He is a man of consequence, a deliberate thinker and writer. There are friends who take him to task for the long intervals between his books. But he can't help himself. He polishes and chisels away at his sinuous prose, publishing only when he has "worked a book through to its end." That perfectionism has resulted in critical praise and awards: three of Ollivier's six works of fiction have been prize winners. Mère Solitude (Albin Michel, 1983; translated as Mother Solitude by David Lobdell) took the Prix Jacques-Roumain in 1985; La Discorde aux cent voix (Albin Michel, 1986) earned the literary prize of the Journal de Montréal in 1987; and Passages (l'Hexagone, 1991) won the $10,000 Grand Prix Littéraire de Montréal in 1991.
Ollivier is part of a long literary line. For although Haiti is notorious for its violence, poverty, and illiteracy, it also has an established literary tradition and reveres its writers. For well over a century Haitian writers have been in the forefront of opposition to the country's successive repressive regimes. And Haitian émigré writers have had a marked and direct influence on the development of Quebec nationalist ideology during the Quiet Revolution.
Ollivier was born in Port-au-Prince in 1940, the only child of a lawyer and a homemaker with a great love of language. His mother tongue was Creole (which since 1987 has become one of the countryâs two official languages and is spoken by more than ninety per cent of the population). ãBut my family was an educated one and so we also spoke French. So already in the family home I was put in contact very early with the French language and culture.ä
His grand theme is exile. Mother Solitude (with 40,000 copies sold, the most commercially successful of his novels and the only one so far to be translated into English) only brings its Haitian protagonist to the brink of exile. But in Passages all the characters are immigrants and exiles and the book stands on three geographical legs: Haiti, from where miserable boat people seek to escape; Miami, which some of them actually reach; and Montreal, where a species of new identity is being forged.