Translated by Douglas Irving
Three Women from Haiti
ISBN: 978-1-944884-63-5 (pbk.)
Three Women from Haiti, first published in German in 1980, is the final work by the great German novelist, Anna Seghers. This literary triptych contains stories set at different junctures in Haitian history. The Hiding Place tells the story of Toaliina, an indigenous Haitian woman alive around the time of Christopher Columbus’s exploratory voyages to the New World. Toaliina escapes from a ship bound for Spain and spends the rest of her days in hiding from Spanish conquistadors. The second story, The Key, takes place in France at the start of the nineteenth century. The fate of Haitian couple Claudine and Amédée is closely bound to that of their revolutionary hero, Toussaint Louverture. Finally, Separation depicts present-day Haiti at the time of Seghers writing (late 1970s), under the Bébé Doc Duvalier regime. Local woman Luisa becomes a victim of state repression due to her quiet resistance.
These three stark, uncompromising portrayals of women caught up in life-threatening situations form Anna Seghers’s testimony work, and demonstrate her concern as a revolutionary writer to give voice to those marginalized in history and place them center-stage.
Also included here is the 1948 essay Seghers wrote about the life of Toussaint Louverture and his pivotal role in the Haitian Revolution, her core inspiration for Three Women from Haiti.
“The grande dame of East German writers is Anna Seghers, a realist novelist of extraordinary power whose stories so often focus on the pain and suffering of women caught up in the maelstrom of world events.” (Susan Bassnett, Feminist Experiences: the Women’sMovement in Four Cultures (Oxford: Routledge, 2013), p. 74.)
“It may be that some of the characters from the works of Anna Seghers rank among the last revolutionaries in German literature…. What would the twentieth century be without them?” (Christa Wolf, ‘Gesichter der Anna Seghers’, in Anna Seghers. Eine Biographie in Bildern, ed. by Frank Wagner and others (Berlin: Aufbau Verlag, 1994), pp. 6-9 (p. 9); [translation D.I.].)
“I first read about Saint-Domingue when I was in Mexico, and was fascinated by the period in its history when there lived a great black leader, Toussaint Louverture.” Anna Seghers in interview, 1967. (Über Kunstwerk und Wirklichkeit III: Für den Frieden der Welt, Sigrid Bock (ed), p. 35 (Gespräch mit Wilhelm Girnus), Akademie-Verlag, Berlin (1971))
Helen Fehervary suggests that Anna Seghers “from the start wrote with a deliberately global context in mind” and that “her depiction of political resistance and liberation movements on an international scale… also assures her place within present and future discussions of post-imperialist and postcolonial discourse”. (Fehervary, Helen, The Mythic Dimension(University of Michigan Press, 2001, pp. 1-2.)
“In every one of Anna Seghers’s short stories and novels there is someone who cannot help but long for a resonant, a radiant, a radical reality, something unreservedly ‘non-petit bourgeois’, something revolutionary, something that holds the essence of the oftentimes dull, drab every-day, the flavorsome core of the oftentimes bland fruit of which we all must eat. If I understand her correctly, for Seghers this longing, which connects across the most diverse eras, is the truly human one, the one that endures. ‘The basic themes haven’t changed in two thousand years; the incarnations are many and varied.’ These variations relate to the relative fortunes of that human longing, different in some to others, and of those who communicate it.” (Christa Wolf, 1983)
“Anna Seghers’s clear, vivid style still impacts on readers today.” (Stefan Keim, critic. 2018)
“By limiting the geographical location to the island of Haiti, with detours through the countries of the colonial powers of Spain and France, these three extremely sparing and terse short stories (even by Seghers’s standards) have nevertheless a vast historical and thematic range. They encompass almost five hundred years—from the Spanish Conquest, through the era of the French Revolution up to the present—and touch upon the great social and political problems inherited by Seghers’s century and passed on to the next: the social question; the question of race; colonialism and its consequences; and the value of the individual in the struggle for the betterment of life for everyone. The result is not a positive one, the pains and problems persist despite great sacrifice, borne by women especially worldwide. At the time of an emerging feminine movement Seghers indicates—as she had already in her youth—that in this area there are still no grounds for optimism, that in a world of exploitation of one individual by another, women sit at the very bottom, now as ever.” (Christiane Zehl Romero, Anna Seghers.Eine Biographie 1947-1983(Aufbau Verlag, Berlin (2003)), pp. 322-3)
“The deep sorrow of [Seghers’s] last stories, before her death in 1983, posit painful questions about the sense and cost of the sacrifice people make in the universal struggle for a fairer world.”
“In Seghers’s essay A Black Man Against Napoleon(1947/48), she shows how Haiti in 1800, principally through the influence of Toussaint Louverture, became pivotal in modern history.”
“Seghers’s final vision, involving more than just three women and reaching far beyond Haiti, is as painful as it is impactful.” (Eva Kaufmann, 2005)
“That longing in all human beings that will sooner expend last breath on words of affirmation than conserve it on behalf of life, believing that life is justified if only at the moment of quitting it, the remnant spittle of a parched tongue is launched against the enemy in one defiant gesture of contempt, supplying a final action of hope, of encouragement for the living, validating one’s entire being in that last gesture or in a word of affirmation. Overcoming pain, physical degradation and even defeat of ideals to sum up, to send a reprise of faith to the comrades one leaves behind, and make even dying a triumph, an ultimate affirmation.” (Wole Soyinka, The Man Died: Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka(Vintage: London, 1994), p. 91)