Lili Dauphin is a Haitian author and poet with a strong connection to her country and her people.
Long before the island was hit by the recent devastating quake, forcing the world to face up to the woeful plight of the Haitian people, Lili had embarked on a personal campaign to draw public attention to the suffering of her people, including the thousands of children known as the ‘restaveks’ who continue to be enslaved in their own country 300 years after the Haitian Revolution.
The word restavek,’ which in Haiti is also rendered as “Ti-moun ki rete kay moun,” is a Creole expression which means “children who stay with adults”. A restavek is an impoverished child who is sent to live with relatives or strangers in exchange for food and shelter. Usually their parents are too poor to provide for them.
They are, to all intents and purposes, child slaves and they’re subjected to physical and emotional abuse by their keepers. Their sole purpose is to do domestic chores and to serve their keepers’ children, including fetching their water, bathing them and walking them to and from school. Their keepers even loan them to their friends and forbid them to speak until spoken to. Often the girls are sexually abused.
In an interview with Time magazine, the Rev. Miguel Jean Baptiste, a Roman Catholic priest who ran a shelter in Port-au-Prince for restaveks, traced the roots of the tradition back to slavery. “There was no value placed on children during the slavery era. Unfortunately, we’ve carried that mentality with us today,” said Fr Jean Baptiste. It is estimated that approximately 300,000 children in Haiti are restaveks.
Lili Dauphin’s works which range from fiction and poetry to inspirational books include the popular autobiographical novels Crying Mountain: Crazy Hurricane, I Will Fly Again: The Restavec and My First Sins. Having grown up in Haiti, she knows the tribulations of her people first hand and is familiar with the plight of the island’s child slaves.
I Will Fly Again tells a poignant and chilling tale of a young girl enslaved by her relatives. Her will to survive and overcome her trials drives her to try and find the mother she has never known. The narrative is a vivid, moving portrayal of chid bondage in Haiti and the dehumanizing effect it has on the society.
Her book, Crying Mountain chronicles the experiences of a young girl named Tilou following the passage of a devastating hurricane, which she recounts in a diary she kept when she was eight years old. She lives in a village surrounded by extreme poverty, superstition and brutality. It’s a story of childhood lived courageously and creatively, and shows the capacity of the human spirit to persevere against overwhelming odds.
First published in 2006, the novel seems to have presaged hurricanes Hanna, Gustav and Fay which struck Haiti in August 2008, killing 3,000 people and leaving tens of thousands homeless. Some of the scenarios described in the book even resemble the scenes of destruction and suffering that resulted from this year’s quake. It shows that Lili is in touch with the realities on the ground in her homeland.
Although her books are targeted at teenagers and young adults, they have crossover appeal and are catching the attention of older readers. Crying Mountain was selected for reading by the London Afro-Caribbean Book Club in September last year.
Lili Dauphin’s books also reflect her unfailing love for Haiti, showing that her perception of the country is by no means dark or negative. This is borne out by little Tilon’s impressions of her village in Crying Mountain. “In spite of the tough times that were tough nearly all the time, I couldn’t ignore the indescribable beauty of the place. Tiville was mysterious, spooky and sensual and its people beautiful, sexy, passionate and proud.”
Lili and her book of poetry, I Will Touch the Sun was awarded the 2008 Irwin award for Best Inspirational Campaign. The Irwin Award is named for Book Publicists of Southern California (BPSC) founder Irwin Zucker. It’s an annual award and was introduced in 1995 to formally and publicly recognize BPSC members who conduct the best book sales and promotion campaigns. Honorees share with the BPSC audience the steps they took that led to the success of their book promotion campaigns.
Lili currently resides in the USA. I had the pleasure of doing an online interview with her in which she spoke about the challenges of life in Haiti and her experiences as a writer .
What was it like growing up in Haiti and for how long did you live there?
Lili: When I was six years old, I took a look at my life and was astonished. Then, I found something to believe in “ME.” Having no parents around, life was tough but I learned to make the best of my circumstances. I turned tears into laughter, sadness into joy, I nurtured every moment good and bad. I cherished those who mistreated me with love and compassion but most of all, I never gave up on myself.
Now, more than ever, (perhaps because of the earthquake) the world seems to be waking up to the plight of Haiti and the horrific abuse of its children under the restavek system. How does that make you feel?
Lili: I am happy and relieved to know that people are finally paying attention to this important matter. I have waited my whole life to see this kind of compassion towards the innocents.
Your book I Will Fly Again: The Restavek’ tells a chilling tale of a young girl enslaved and abused by her own family members. Judging by the feedback from readers, many of them were deeply moved by the story. What inspired you to write it?
Lili: The Restavek system is endemic not only in Haiti but in many other countries, especially poor areas of the world. I have personally been exposed to the devastating effect of the Restavek system and always felt the need to do something about it. In bringing the issue to light, I hope others will acknowledge its dark effect as well.
Have you gotten any feedback from teenagers and younger readers?
Lili: Yes I have. Many asserted that the story has changed their lives for the better. The book inspired them to become more appreciative of their own lives, which they often took for granted.
Have you visited the island since the earthquake?
Lili: Not yet.
To what extent has Haiti shaped you as a writer?
Lili: I probably wouldn’t be a writer if it weren’t for my experiences growing up there. Writing was my lifeline as a child. Where else could I have experienced such a bounty of tropical beauty and at the same time be exposed to such human trial where I could understand the human condition?
How did it feel to win the 2008 Irwin Award for Best Inspirational Campaign?
Lili: I felt much joy in the fact that people recognized my work. I have always wanted to inspire others and winning this award shows that people truly appreciate my work.
Do you believe poverty is to blame for the exploitation and abuse of Haiti’s children?
Lili: That’s one of the reasons. The lack of education is also another factor. Another reason is that people feel the need to leave their kids with family members or strangers so they can go abroad to work, thus leaving the kids at the mercy of others. It is also a cultural pattern.
Do you share the view that the children continue to be dehumanized because most people have chosen to look the other way rather than speak out?
Lili: Absolutely. Generally, what’s considered child abuse in America and other industrial countries may merely be viewed as discipline in Haiti. No matter where we are in this world, whether we’re poor or rich each human being, especially children, deserves to be treated with dignity.
By all accounts, Haiti is a deeply religious country. Why do you think the churches have not been able to encourage more people to change their attitudes towards children?
Lili: The problem is so enormous and has been going on for so long that it has become a part of the culture. It’s difficult to go up against cultural resistance.
Do you find writing a cathartic and healing experience?
Lili: Absolutely. I experienced many difficulties as a young child. It was through writing that I was able to comfort myself as well as release my desire for creative expression. And so doing, I find joy especially in the fact that I am deepening the mystery about ourselves.
Which of your books did you enjoy writing the most?
Lili: I’ll have to say:” I Will Fly Again:The Restavek.” It was a very difficult book to write because of the intensity of the subject matter. In the end, I felt so relieved and new. It was an amazing spiritual journey.
Who are some of your favourite writers and what books had the greatest influence on you?
Lili: We didn’t read books because we couldn’t afford them. As children we gathered around and told stories. If that’s what reading is supposed to do, then I’ve had my books. Now, I have all the books that I can read.
Check out Lili’s blog at http://www.islandlili.com/