This time last year, I started learning about the Haitian revolution. I’m a devoted fan of Mike Duncan’s history podcasts, and December 2015 was when he started a new series about this little known but hugely significant event. The Haitian revolution is rarely taught or discussed, but it resulted in the first independent nation in Latin America and the Caribbean, and the second republic in the Americas. It also remains the only slave revolt in history to successfully create a new, free country. In the midst of the confusion of the far more famous French revolution, the French colony of Saint-Domingue underwent its own turmoil, leading its violent transition from slave economy with codified racism to independent Black-lead state.
Anyway, I was thrilled when I saw that the ever-wonderful Archipelago books were publishing ‘Dance on the Volcano’, according to Netgalley ‘one of the only novels to closely depict the seeds and fruition of the Haitian Revolution, tracking an elaborate hierarchy of skin, color and class through the experiences of two young women. It is a story about hatred and fear, love and loss, and the complex tensions between colonizer and colonized, masterfully translated by Kaiama L. Glover.’ An internet search revealed a picture of its glamorous-looking Haitian author and I couldn’t wait to get reading.
‘Dance on the Volcano’ tells the story of the beautiful and talented Minette, the mixed-race daughter of an ex-slave. She’s so so beautiful but even more talented, and she ends up being taught music by a white opera singer. Did I mention that she was beautiful and talented? Anyway, she performs incognito at the theatre and takes the town by storm. It is at a glamorous after-show party that that she meets the attractive and enigmatic Jean-Baptiste Lapointe. Imagine her shock when it transpires he is too arrogant to dance with her! ‘Oh! she would get her revenge, she swore it. Someday, she would meet him again and make him regret that insult. Refusing to dance with her, Minette, who had just sung at the Comédie and been admired by the Whites. She would make him regret his behavior – even if it took ten years.‘
I think it’s fair to say that ‘Dance on the Volcano’ was not what I expected and I must confess that I enjoyed it immensely. Or rather, I enjoyed the superficial love story, while grappling with the subversions that came from the historical setting. While I think I’ve read the Cinderella plot at least a hundred times, I’ve never seen the proud, arrogant love-interest be cast as a Black slave-owner. The historical fact is that slavery and racism were both legal within Saint-Domingue, but were not completely intertwined. There were free Blacks and ‘Coloureds’; any free inhabitant with enough money could acquire slaves and this is the case for the proud and passionate Lapointe. It does give an odd twist to the conventional romance plot though. British books of this genre may relish the power their heroes wield, but rarely do the heroines see how ‘All of these laboring faces, streaming with sweat, nervously anticipating the overseers’ whip, were screaming out a truth she refused to acknowledge. Everything, from the leaf-covered huts to the factory with its mill, its oven and its chimneys – the entire existence of the exploitative and pitiless planter, rendered indifferent and vicious by the love of profit were all spread out right before her.’
The situation is as complex as it is inhumane, but it is also interwoven with Mills & Boon tropes:
‘She looked at him. Despite his violent attitude there was something charming – both infantile and cruel – emanating from him. In pronouncing those last words, he had bitten his lip and his beautiful teeth were like a white stain on his dark mouth. “I hate the Whites as much as the Blacks. the former despite me and the latter debase me. I hate the female slave that was my mother – “‘
‘Dance on the Volcano’ is a novel not a history book; I wouldn’t say it taught me many new facts about the Haitian revolution, but it did give me a lot to think about. It was a reminder that divisions between genres are not always helpful and that even ‘universal’ stories are always bound up in their cultural backgrounds. If you want to learn a bit about how Haiti moved from being a French colony bound by race laws and slavery to an independent Black-led republic, this is a good place to start. Of course, if you want a more detailed account (though with fewer lines like ‘“You’re nothing but a monster.” “What does that matter, since I’m in love with you?”‘) I really recommend the Revolutions podcast – right now I’m learning about Simón Bolívar and Gran Columbia and I’m secretly hoping for some great Archipelago books covering the same topic in the coming year!
I received my copy of ‘Dance on the Volcano’ from the publisher via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.