In A Knife in the Sky, a journalist’s decision to talk and a student’s desire to know puts them in the crosshairs of a murderous dictatorship. As the novel opens, Mika is dangerously engaged in the pursuit of truth during Haiti’s first Duvalier regime. Nearly thirty years later, her granddaughter Junon witnesses the repressive dynasty’s unravelling. Brutal, terrifying, and hopeful,
A Knife in the Sky is an homage to those who have survived tyranny.Originally published by Éditions du Remue-ménage in 2015 as Femmes au temps des carnassiers, this book, like most of the author’s oeuvre, is preoccupied with colonial imposition. Marie-Célie Agnant writes on the ruthlessness of a dictatorship, on humanity, and locates the strength and power of resistance in women.
“The work is shaped through a rich, crafted language that creates an acute awareness of what duvalierism was. This considerable effort is not a catharsis, nor an anamnesis; rather, it is the heart-rending testimony of the suffering, the inner struggles and the stand against Duvalierism of a woman caught in the midst of a regime that redefined the heights of horror.”
—Alain Saint-Victor, Potomitan
“Marie-Celie Agnant’s work is noble: she names and narrates terrible emotions and chaos, yet always in a sensitive and poetic way. The fate of the women in her books is not sealed by the torment of their daily lives, but in the humanity of each one. Through these portraits of women—courageous women, women who are full of hope, even without underestimating the weight on their shoulders—Agnant shows us the pain they carry from one generation to the next.”
—Le Fil Rouge
“Breathless: that was the state in which I found myself in after reading Marie-Célie Agnant’s work. This was the first time that I was speechless after reading a book. I am without words: the words to describe it, without the words to recount the story, the words to articulate what matters most. The essence of the book cannot be resolved in a sentence or summary. After finishing the novel, only the emotions remain, some more intense than others. Rage, powerlessness, anger, love, and friendship unfold, and coalesce into love, anger, and madness. In order to create this emotional amalgam, you have to have lived it, felt what the characters feel, you have to have experienced this tragedy—and above all, come out of it more alive, and stronger…Marie-Célie Agnant isn’t just telling a story. She has become the interpreter of a voice, the living witness of a time, an era. Marie-Célie Agnant awakens memory and conscience.”
—Rachel Vorbe, Le Nouvelliste
A poet, short story writer, young adult fiction writer, storyteller, and novelist, Marie-Célie Agnant was born in Haiti and has lived in Québec since 1970. Many of her books evoke the hardships endured by women in the West Indies and the difficulty of legitimizing this part of history even today. Her work has been published in Québec, France, and Haiti, and translated into several languages. Her novel Le dot de Sara (Remue-Ménage, 1995) was a finalist for the Desjardins prize, her collection of short stories Le silence comme le sang (Remue-Ménage, 1997) was a finalist for the Governor General’s prize for fiction, and she has won the Prix Gros Sel for her children’s book La légende du poisson amoureux (Mémoire d’encrier, 2003), the prose creation prize awarded by the SODEP for “Sofialorène, si loin de la délivrance,” and the prestigious Prix Alain-Grandbois for her third collection of poems Femmes des terres brûlées (Éditions de la Pleine Lune, 2016).
Katia Grubisic is a writer, editor, and translator whose work has appeared in various Canadian and international publications including The Walrus, The Fiddlehead, The Globe and Mail, Grain, The Spoon River Poetry Review, and Prairie Fire. Her collection What if red ran out (Goose Lane Editions, 2008) was shortlisted for the A.M. Klein Prize for Poetry and won the 2009 Gerald Lampert award for best first book.Her book translations include Louis Patrick Leroux’s play False Starts: A Subterfuge of Excellent Wit (with Alexandre St-Laurent; Talonbooks, 2016), Martine Delvaux’s White Out (LLP, 2018), Jeanne Painchaud’s ABCMTL (ruelle, 2019), Stéphane Martelly’s Little Girl Gazelle (ruelle, 2020), Ioana Georgescu’s Daughterof Here (LLP, 2020), and Marie-Claire Blais’s Songs for Angel (House of Anansi, 2021). Her translations of David Clerson’s first novel, Brothers (QC Fiction, 2016), and of Alina Dumitrescu’s A Cemetery for Bees (LLP, 2021) were shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award for translation. www.katiagrubisic.com
from “Brigands’ Ball in the Brothel of the Lord”
Bé has been over at the house with me for a few days, as she wanted. She tries hard to be discreet, but from time to time she tiptoes hesitantly into the study like a beggar to offer me something—freshen my water or get me some tea. Her presence is both a comfort and a concern. What happen if there is an attack, or if the house get shot at?
Early November. Twilight, like a mantle of mourning, comes quickly. Then a dull silence as the night takes hold of everything. But today, dusk brings along some ruckus about the circus of the inauguration tomorrow. Toni runs over, despite the fear, to bring us the latest news. Is she losing her mind? She’s so reckless. She cut through the middle of the thicket—she’s afraid of being seen by the militia in case they’re still out on the road—and charges in, drenched in sweat. Her words tumble out, confused. “When will this noise end?” she asks me. I confess I’m losing my mind too. Throughout the afternoon, all we could hear was the chaotic howling of people and animals, a metallic thrum, the blare of horns, vaksin, trumpets, and drums. The sky went dark, as if it were filled with anger. Toni tells us that down in town, they’re going around, rifles slung on their shoulders, knocking on doors to hand out crucifixes painted red and black. The makout have decreed that all vodou priests, manbos, Catholic priests, and pastors must be at their service.
“What the devil have we fallen into?” I ask Bé. “Are we going to be able to hold out?”
“The situation is explosive, but it’s got to stop. We will hold out, you can be sure of that,” Bé says. “They’ll have to stop!”
I nod, timidly. I’d love for her to be right.
“Hope alone isn’t enough to dismantle the system, Bé.”
My voice is a faint whisper, and suddenly I start to cry. I sniffle, tears rolling down my cheeks. Too late; all the emotions of the past few months have put my nerves to the test. I am spent.
“Are you forgetting, my girl, that even the MacDonald stopped?” A runaway train is one thing; this madness won’t subside so easily.
Tante Bé hasn’t seen me cry since I was a child. She’s startled, and dejected: she knows I rarely cry. I feel guilty for blubbering around two old women. There’s no way they can defend themselves against this madness. But I can’t help it… “Do you realize that the three of us are alone in this big house, isolated here at such a dangerous time?”
Bé silences me with a gesture of her hand, calm but vigorous.
“We are not alone, Mika.”
I wait for her to continue but she gets up and goes to the window. She sits sideways, and for a long time she contemplates the darkening road, from which a constant, threatening growl arises. She looks back at Toni and me. “Their trucks are moving in, trucks full of killers. They’re going to invade the whole city at dawn. Yet we must not give in.”
Bé’s voice, so firm and full of conviction, is a whip. I know that voice, her tone is so familiar, I’ve always known it. She will not tolerate a single thoughtless word. For a second I remember how she would stand up to my father or Clarisse, that voice; she never shouted or lost herself in needless antagonism. It’s a voice that comes from the womb, unfolding with such quiet strength and assurance that whoever hears it is struck dumb.
Bé stares at me. “I’m surprised at you, my girl, at your words. That’s not how I brought you and your sister up. Don’t you dare say we’re alone. We’re not half-women! We look upon death—death, which has been lurking for nearly a whole year, but the deaths we mourn must compel us to hold our heads higher each day. Trials and privation, humiliation, kidnappings… None of it will make me a victim! Do you hear me, Mika? I have to grab fear by the collar, and you should do the same. Otherwise death wins.”
Tante Bé has her own notion of existence: her tendency to refer to proverbs, to the past, but also to her own experience, all of it feeds her abiding conviction that human beings come into the world in order to fight. Her basic maxim is that you are only alive if you are ready to fight.
Bé reminds us yet again of the MacDonald train derailment. She doesn’t recall exactly when it happened, but her retelling is vivid: the train tore through the town like a wild animal.
“It had gone for miles and miles. You’d have thought it would go on forever. There wasn’t a building that could stop it, no pillars, bridges, or barriers. The MacDonald was loose. The damage was as bad as the most savage of cyclones. But then there was the Pic Macaya. They collided like two rival beasts, and the mountain, without lifting a finger, sent the MacDonald flying into the Artibonite River, where its rusting remains still lie.”
In a superhuman effort to tame my trepidation, or to show Bé that I am worthy of her, I offer to walk Toni home. I don’t dare ask her to sleep over, that would just be too risky: every night, I count the hours, hoping for morning. Before she leaves, Toni reaches into her bra and pulls out a piece of paper folded umpteen times. She unfolds it carefully, smoothing it flat with her hands. She asks us to pray with her. Aunt Bé doesn’t mind, mainly out of friendship for Toni.
Bé hates priests, pastors, oungans, and all the rest of them as much as Clarisse does. They have too much power, they say. Toni reassures her: the most powerful vibration in the universe, she explains, is prayer. She tells us to close our eyes and gather our thoughts. Toni’s voice trembles with faith frequently tested.
“Almighty God and all the saints in heaven, as we await the great day of deliverance, we ask that you grant us strength and support. Keep us, protect us; in you we place our trust. Saint Jude, patron of desperate causes, listen to us and help us out of this hardship. Saint Anthony, you who know where all things are that have gone astray, bring us peace. Saint Augustine, who has the power to shun the rats and all the vermin and parasites, get rid of the Duvalierist dreck that is ruining this country and take away the terror that paralyzes us. Saint Louis, you who know abscesses so well, see that all these rabid dogs die quickly. Saint Barbara, let us be rid of all this carrion as soon as possible. Saint Benedict, they are all evildoers and swear only by evil spells; let them poison and destroy each other.”
By the time Saint Fiacre comes around, whose help is implored to get rid of haemorrhoids, Bé reminds Toni that it will be dark soon. Maybe it would be best to continue the prayers on the way home.
Toni and I walk one behind the other because the path to her house is narrow and crowded with weeds. We tread slowly, weighed down by the horror that surrounds us on every side. It only takes about ten minutes, but it seems like forever. Toni quietly reels out an unbelievable litany that would have given Clarisse quite a laugh. I follow her, slowing my steps because she can’t go so fast.
When I get back, Bé and I fall asleep huddled together, like in the old days, when as a child I used to wake in the dark and slip into her arms. Barefoot, creeping down the long corridor where the bedrooms were lined up, I would work out my plan: I’m going to tell her that I’ve felt nauseous for a few days. I would stop and think. Better to be careful, Bé has to believe me. There I was, moving my lips, working out the flaw in my plans, searching in my little head filled with ghosts and steam-snorting horses with metal hooves, wondering what perils might stir Tante Bé’s sympathy so she’d let me sleep in her bed. Now, with Bé here, I’ve left my hideout against the big cabinet in the study. That night, I sleep a little bit longer. I dream of flying pigs, of women shucking their skins and soaring through the neighbourhood gobbling up newborns. When their escapade is over, the flying cannibal women are chased by the MacDonald train while militiamen with hippopotamus mouths jump from the moving train to gut them, their carnassial teeth as long as swords.
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Inanna Admin –
The Meeting Point: Haitian writers amid Québécois letters (Excerpt)
A Knife in the Sky by Marie-Célie Agnant, Translated by Katia Grubisic
reviewed by Amanda Perry
The Literary Review of Canada – January 3, 2023
Last August, the residents of Montreal’s well-heeled Outremont neighbourhood were treated to a curious scene. Librairie du Square was hosting a reception to welcome the poet and novelist Emmelie Prophète, who had been appointed Haiti’s minister of culture a few months before. On the sidewalk outside the bookstore, a sole protester rolled out a banner that declared Prophète a kolabo — or collaborator, in Haitian Creole. In that same language, he loudly denounced the author as part of the political elite that had caused his exile. The celebrated writer Dany Laferrière, the most recognizable Black man in Quebec letters, sat on a park bench next to him and argued back in French.
The moment highlighted Montreal’s status as a centre for Haitian publishing and politics, a space where waves of exiles and immigrants meet and sometimes clash. During the 1960s, it became a hub for those fleeing the dictatorship of François Duvalier. Largely French-speaking and highly educated, these Haitians founded their own presses and cultural centres — and were key contributors to the Quiet Revolution. In the decades that followed, a far wider array arrived, including many who spoke only Creole and came from poorer backgrounds. These days, people travel back and forth in a steady stream between the Caribbean nation and Canada’s second-largest city. As do books.
Despite the many government grants designed to facilitate exchange between Canada’s two official languages, Haitian writers who publish in Quebec are not often translated into English. Even Laferrière, the first Canadian and the first Black man elected to France’s prestigious Académie française, has seen only a portion of his work made available to anglophones. It is thus refreshing to see novels by Prophète and Marie-Célie Agnant recently appear in English, in editions that follow industry best practice by listing the translators on their covers. Prophète, a bestseller in Quebec, lives in Port-au-Prince but has published with Montreal’s Mémoire d’encrier for nearly twenty years. And Agnant, who moved to the city as a teenager in 1970, is among the most recognized Haitian Québécois writers, with an oeuvre that includes poetry, fiction, and young adult literature.
Agnant’s A Knife in the Sky follows in a robust tradition of protest literature against the Duvalier dictatorship. (François “Papa Doc” Duvalier ruled Haiti from 1957 to 1971, and his son then ran the country until 1986.) First released in 2015 as Femmes au temps des carnassiers, by the feminist press Éditions du remue-ménage, it examines the early years of the regime through the experiences of women. The first section follows the journalist Mika, who publicizes the government’s crimes despite escalating threats to her safety. She is punished for defying the state and for daring to participate in the public sphere; once she is taken into custody, Duvalier himself proclaims, “That’ll teach her to trade in brooms and needles for a quill.” The narrative as a whole is haunted by the use of rape to terrorize political dissidents and their family members.
Toronto’s Inanna Publishers describes A Knife in the Sky as “preoccupied with colonial imposition.” Although Duvalier’s anti-Communism secured him the support of the United States, the novel actually focuses less on Western imperialism than on attacking the regime as a form of fascism. This is particularly the case in the second section, which follows Mika’s Spanish-born granddaughter Junon. When Junon travels to Haiti and encounters a man who tortured her mother, Soledad, he insists, “I was an army officer, I was just obeying orders.” The parallels between the Haitian dictator and Francisco Franco are easy to see.
The strongest parts of the book capture the claustrophobia of political dissidents who wait for the hammer to fall. Mika tries to write but instead finds herself “cowering behind the furniture like an animal being stalked.” She realizes “how hard it is to cheat my body,” which registers the terror that her mind rejects.
…Agnant is commemorating a real-life victim of persecution. She dedicates her book to the Haitian feminist Yvonne Hakim Rimpel, a leading figure in the country’s suffragist movement who, just like Mika, was kidnapped, beaten, and left for dead in 1958. Though Rimpel survived the attack, she never wrote again. This fictional version of her is therefore understandably heroic, as Agnant reclaims a voice that was silenced.
Inanna Admin –
Echoes of Violence
A Knife in the Sky by Marie-Célie Agnant; Translated by Katia Grubisic
reviewed by Bronwyn Averett
The Montreal Review of Books – March 16, 2023
Marie-Célie Agnant’s 2015 novel Femmes au temps des carnassiers, recently translated as A Knife in the Sky, is bookended by the rise of François Duvalier in 1957, and the overthrow of his son Jean-Claude Duvalier in 1986. During this period, Haiti suffered unbearable violence.
From the first page of the novel, the reader is plummeted into a world framed by continual threat. Mika, a journalist modelled on the Haitian journalist Yvonne Hakim-Rimpel, waits in a deep state of fear. Hiding in her apartment, but refusing to be silenced, she continues to critique the emerging regime of violence under Papa Doc and his paramilitary army, colloquially known as the Tonton Macoute, while trying to take some comfort in daily domestic routines and visits from the women in her family.
By showing this world through the eyes of Mika, along with the strong but scarred women who form her family and community, the book evokes the ways in which psychological violence permeates every aspect of life under a dictatorship.
The second half of the book follows the story of Mika’s granddaughter, Junon, who, though born in Spain, inherits the traumatic memories of Haiti through a troubled relationship with her mother Soledad. Much of this section of the book follows Junon’s process of coming to terms with a past that occurred before her own birth, most notably an incident of torture that forever shook the lives of her mother and grandmother, and which echoes the real story of Hakim-Rimpel. The rest of the book explores the deep consequences this horrific event will have in both their lives.
Though one of its most remarkable accomplishments is to capture the fever dream of violence that the people of Haiti lived through during this period, the novel has the added attribute of familiarizing the reader with a history whose details are so often relegated to a footnote. Names such as Lafontant and Péralte are evoked – the former Roger Lafontant, a leader of the Tonton Macoute; the latter Charlemagne Péralte, a nationalist leader who was killed for resisting the US military occupation of Haiti. Though the book delves more into emotional resonance than historical analysis, it certainly participates in that great tradition of Haitian literature (Edwidge Danticat and Marie Vieux-Chauvet come to mind), whereby history must live in fiction because it is so little accounted for elsewhere. This is, of course, familiar territory for Agnant, whose Le livre d’Emma and Un alligator nommé Rosa evoke the trauma suffered by the women of Haiti in particular.
In Agnant’s dedication, to the memory of Yvonne Hakim-Rimpel, she writes that “a story silenced is a story slaughtered.” This theme of silence is at the heart of the book, and the choices that people make on whether to uphold that silence for their own dignity, or to speak in the face of unspeakable violence, are choices that frame their sense of self. At the beginning, Mika, unable to write of the events around her, quickly jots down instead: “They have succeeded for one whole day in depriving me of speech.” Later, after the attack, when she has chosen to forgo her journalistic speech (among other forms of communication), it will be her granddaughter Junon who asks the perennial question of all those born under the shadow of violence: “How could I speak the unspeakable?” And it is in returning to Haiti, to witness the final days of the Duvalier regime, that she seeks her answer. As always, Agnant’s gift for bringing readers deep within the emotional tension of a moment creates a stirring novel. This translation is clearly the product of a mutual poetic understanding between the author and translator, as Katia Grubisic renders all the fierceness and hope, laughter and despair, into language that goes straight to the heart of the reader.