By Guitele Jeudy Rahill
1stbooks.com: 1st Books Library, 2001.
ISBN # 0-75962-408-9.
Comments of Bob Corbett
Guitele Jeudy Rahill tells a simple and tragic story in this, her first novel. At times it even reads more like a police report than a novel. Primarily it is the story of Kasha Pouchat’s sexual abuse at the hands of her stepfather, Antoine Ducasse. Secondarily it first recounts a different sort of sexual abuse of her mother by her husband, Henri Berceuse.
The story is sad, touching, even evoking anger, if not rage, at the two male abusers. Henri Bereuse is a wealthy black Haitian of middle age. He has had a succession of beautiful light skinned mulatto mistresses, seemingly having a pathological need to be affirmed by women who are dependent upon him, but who are stunningly beautiful and light skinned. As his last affair is coming to its end he meets 16 year old innocent and very poor Peggy Pouchot who is both beautiful and light skinned. He effectively buys her from her mother and sets her up in a small apartment he owns in Petit Goave, Haiti. Henri lives with his wife and children in Port-au-Prince and is a ranking government official in the Magloire presidency of the 1950s.
He is not violent with Peggy, even treating her with tenderness and consideration and takes decent material care of her and her family. Nonetheless she is a kept sexual toy and their sexual union and child, Kasha, seem to be little more than property to Henri.
When Papa Doc Duvalier comes to power Henri flees to the U.S. and some details become murky (how does Peggy keep going financially and even buy a small home for family in Sans Fils in Port-au-Prince?).
Along the way she has taken up with Antoine Ducasse who is no more possessive than Henri, but expresses it in much rougher physical ways sexually, emotionally and violently. Unbeknownst to Peggy he also sexually abuses tiny Kasha.
When Kasha is four year old, Peggy and Antoine split for NY (more ambiguity about the finances of this) and they don’t send for Kasha until she is 9. In Brooklyn Antoine steps up his abuse of Kasha eventually convincing her that only regular sexual intercourse with him will keep him from killing her mother.
In a couple of concluding pages the 16 year old Kasha finally leaves Brooklyn to visit her dying father, Henri, in Miami. This becomes her moment of opportunity and she tell us she will never return to Brooklyn.
I came away from the novel confused at its literary merits. There is a strong sense in which it read more like a police report than a novel. There was a decided exception to this style, however, in the few passages where the narrator enters into the inner lives of both Peggy and especially Kasha, dealing with the suffering from their sexual violations. These were powerful and touching scenes, written with sensitivity and evoking passion. But most of the writing seemed of poor quality, lacking any complexity or dramatic tension, jumping from event to event without plausible connections or motivations.
I was especially disappointed in the wildly overly simplistic stereotypes of Haitian characters. Henri and Antoine are characters of type – Henri the ugly, aging, rich black; insecure, yet able to buy a steady string of poor light skinned beauties. Antoine was the ultimate violent bull of an underclass lout and abused Peggy is the utopian Miss Innocent. Peggy’s mother is the arch type slum-dwelling mother so poor as to sell her second oldest daughter to save the rest; her father the archetype drunken, clarin drinking drifter. Even Haiti itself gets it only general description as the old saw – poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.
It was just all too pat, too stereotypical. I do not begrudge the literary artist the need to give us “types,” to build on widely perceived generalizations – I even respect such needs and believe that despite the protestations of political correctness to the contrary, we need to see things from within the patterns of general types in order to understand them as not just unique individuals. But, I do expect from writers what I get from more successful Haitian writers like Edwidge Danticat (whose BREATH, EYES, MEMORY treats three generations of Haitian women in both Haiti and the U.S. as VIOLATION does), who give us much more living real and complex “types.” We may recognize them as types, but we meet them as types with the warts or individuality and complexity of old friends. They become more believable as people and we tend to feel for them with greater depth. I found myself less engaged with the characters feeling there were more like people I might have read in a news story or academic treatise.
Rahill intensified my discontent with other inconsistencies or stylistic puzzles. There was the blatant inconsistency in which we know Peggy to be 16, almost 17, then a couple of pages later are told of her brother, “Toto, the one born a year after her… He was twelve years old.” More subtle, but as disconcerting, Peggy is presented as wildly innocent (even though she’d already been abducted by an army officer and had a forced abortion), and she’s presented as a child of the slums and traditional life. Yet she utters sophisticated feminist slogans about avoiding having children to add to the sum of the misery. Yet confounding the confusion, she docilely submits to being sold to Henri to “bear him children.”
There is another confusion concerning the narrator. It is an unnamed, all-seeing narrator, yet the narrator seems to be addressing American who know nothing of Haiti with little asides about simple facts of the country that are so typical in books by foreigners. She uses a few very simple Creole phrases in dialogue, then translates them into English. Yet the lack of attention to detail is curious. Henri literally runs into Peggy the first time they meet when she has gone to fetch water for her family. He bumps into her and knocks down her pail while she’s carrying water in downtown Port-au-Prince. He then drives her home to her house at Fort National in Petionville!!! I was astonished. With a 5 gallon bucket of water that would probably set the all-time record for longest water-fetching trip in Haitian history.
I read the novel twice, first in about March, then I read it a second time in October while I was in Haiti and with much greater care, taking copious notes. I am most reluctant to present such a negative review. After the first quicker read done without notes, I just decided to wait. But having given the novel a much more careful read, I felt it would somehow be intellectually dishonest not to offer my thoughts.
I do hark back to the most positive writing I found in the novel – the few short internal dialogues the narrator recounts of both Peggy and Kasha. Rahill has the ability to present the inner agony of those two women with power and insight. I would just urge that future longer fiction have more fullness of characters and more attention to interacting real humans, and that the details of plot movement be consistent with understandable motivations.
I welcome other views of this novel to append to these reflections.
Rahill commnets: (Corbett's remarks to which Rahill is speaking appear in italics.
Violated is, first of all classified as a work of fiction. Violated is also a novella, and not a novel . Hence, its narrative style, its brevity and the seeming minimization of attention to detail when it comes to plot and character development. Webster's New Universal Dictionary defines novella as: "A short prose narrative, usually with a moral and often satiric". In contrast, a novel is defined as "A relatively long fictional prose narrative with a more or less complex plot or pattern of events..."
Because it is a novella, I purposely set out to "type" characters such as they are in that I wanted to convey a sarcastic and negative view of such dysfunctional types. I had also set out to demonstrate the depth of human degradation to which individuals may plunge when their very basic needs for food, clothing, shelter and safety are thwarted.
"The story is sad, touching, even evoking anger, if not rage, at the two male abusers. Henri Bereuse is a wealthy black Haitian of middle age. He has had a succession of beautiful light skinned mulatto mistresses, seemingly having a pathological need to be affirmed by women who are dependent upon him..."
The key word here would be "pathological". As you may have noted on the back cover of the book, I am a licensed therapist and I have dealt with a lot of persons who've been impacted by the trauma of domestic violence, family secrets and sexual abuse. I am really glad to see that the story evokes rage and anger because then I have accomplished what I set out to do: that of getting the reader to empathize with such victims. :o)
Along the way she has taken up with Antoine Ducasse who is no more possessive than Henri, but expresses it in much rougher physical ways sexually, emotionally and violently.
Please note that in an effort to not type the men as the sole Violators, I also tried to get the reader to understand the root of Antoine's pedophilia, ie, that he had previously been molested by a teenaged female restavek. And I linked Henri's self hatred not to his own personal ugliness but to his perception of what his physical characteristics lent society the right to do to those who looked like him (Remember the scene of the soldiers raping the boys on the streets). Note also, that I never described what Kasha looked like physically so that readers would empathize only on the basis of what she was going through.
There is a strong sense in which it read more like a police report than a novel.
Hmmm.. Perhaps I wrote at those times as if I were writing case notes. Point taken and will make sure I don't do that in my next effort. Thanks.
There was a decided exception to this style, however, in the few passages where the narrator enters into the inner lives of both Peggy and especially Kasha, dealing with the suffering from their sexual violations. These were powerful and touching scenes, written with sensitivity and evoking passion.
Thanks. Perhaps I ought to build on that strength in my writing. Those are good skills for a therapist and I've been told that I do possess them.
You compared me to Edwidge Danticat (however unfavorably).... I think I followed the styles of Claude Brown in Manchild in the Promised Land...Piri Thomas in Down These Mean Streets, and Richard Wright in Native Son. So I have gone out and purposely bought Krik Krak. But most of the writing seemed of poor quality, lacking any complexity or dramatic tension, jumping from event to event without plausible connections or motivations
Good. That's how the mind of a traumatized child works also. The tension is in the response to such abuse...and the heart does jump and skip seemigly without order and without plausible connections. Hypervigilance and lack of concentration and focus are central to the thought patterns of traumatized children nd adults. And could there really be any plausible explanation for domestic violence and incest...
Peggy's mother is the arch type slum-dwelling mother so poor as to sell her second oldest daughter to save the rest; her father the archetype drunken, clarin drinking drifter...
I was in Kwa Bosal in February...."Welcome to true poverty" is what my gut told me, from the stench to the hopelessness on so many faces. TRAUMA....it distorts one's sense of self. It renders a loving mother hopeless and incapable to care for herself let alone her children. And what of the restaveks...the many children whose mothers give them up for NOTHING just to keep them alive and sheltered...it's out of lvoe, not out of business. But Mimi, had more than 1 or 2 children, and she sought the salvation of ALL of them. Peggy was a vehicle for that redemption, AND Mimi could be asured that she would be cared for as well. Tough choice, but impossible?
There was the blatant inconsistency in which we know Peggy to be 16, almost 17,
then a couple of pages later are told of her brother, â^À^ÜToto, the one born a
year after her! He was twelve years old. ...
Yet the lack of attention to detail is curious. Henri literally runs into Peggy the first time they meet when she has gone to fetch water for her family. He bumps into her and knocks down her pail while sheâ^À^Ùs carrying water in downtown Port-au-Prince. He then drives her home to her house at Fort National in Petionville!!
Total and absolute errors and oversights. Wish my editor could've picked that up. He also knows nothing of Haiti. I wish I'd seen other options. But wait, I looked on Page 29 and it states that "Toto, the one born four years after her...twelve years old..
I had had to stop printing of the book at one time because of inconsistencies that I'd seen AFTER the editor had been through the manuscript a third time. I wonder if some of the books were sent out to people who'd ordered via the net BEFORE the changes were made. I would be glad to send you a free copy of the revised version. Fort National is mentioned on p 27, 34 and 46. Can't seem to find Petionville as where Peggy lived with her family. Please let me know what pages and I will make sure the adjustments are made for the French version. Perhpas that was already addressed in the second editing.
With a 5 gallon bucket of water that would probably set the all-time record for longest water-fetching trip in Haitian history.
What page, please? Couldn't find it as I typed this, and I know you took notes. It'd be towards the beginning of the book when Henri and Peggy first met.
I do hark back to the most positive writing I found in the novel â^À^Ó the few short internal dialogues the narrator recounts of both Peggy and Kasha.
Do you mean between Peggy and Mimi?
Rahill has the ability to present the inner agony of those two women with power and insight...
Again, what a tremendous opportunity you've given me to see the book through your eyes.
If you will have the time to tell me which page those inconsistencies are on, I will edit them and e-mail the changes to the French translator/ editor because theyhope to have it out in France in February. Thanks for all your help.
Bob Corbett firstname.lastname@example.org