By Jonel Juste for artburstmiami.com
Also featuring on New Miami Times and The Miami Herald
After a cautious return to in-person events in 2022, the Little Haiti Book Festival is gearing up for a major comeback this year. The annual event takes place on Sunday, May 7, at three locations, Libreri Mapou Book Store, the Caribbean Marketplace (Mache Ayisyen), and the Little Haiti Cultural Center.
The book fair, which takes place during Haitian Heritage Month, is a celebration of the literary arts and cultural heritage of Haiti and the Little Haiti community in Miami.
The organizers have lined up several authors, publishers, and booksellers to participate in addition to a range of activities, including book readings, panel discussions, and music and dance performances.
“We view this as a unique opportunity for community members to reconnect in person after being separated by the pandemic, and for our children to engage with, and learn about, the vibrant cultural heritage of Haiti,” says Jean-Marie Willer Denis, aka Jean Mapou, founder of the festival and Libreri Mapou bookstore owner.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the book fair was held mostly virtually for three years.
“COVID-19 has strongly impacted our community, and for the past three years, people were afraid to participate in public events. So, we held the festival on Zoom in 2020 and 2021,” says Mapou, adding that although the event was successful online, it still missed what he says was a sense of togetherness. Most especially, readers couldn’t meet the authors in person.
Last year’s event saw some attendees, but not to pre-pandemic levels. However, with the lifting of pandemic restrictions this year, festival organizers are optimistic about a robust showing.
“We’re definitely back, with a hybrid festival that combines in-person and online programming,” says Mapou. The festival’s initiator also confides that book production has surged during the pandemic, both in Haiti and in the diaspora. “We’re seeing more and more new writers and works coming out, and the book fair provides an excellent opportunity for the community to connect with these new voices and their messages.”
The Little Haiti Book Festival, which was launched officially in 2014 by Jean Mapou’s Sosyete Koukouy, an advocacy group dedicated to preserving Haitian culture in the United States, has provided a platform for notable Haitian authors such as Edwidge Danticat, M. J. Fièvre, Lyonel Trouillot, Marc Exavier, to showcase their work to Miami’s Haitian community. The adventure started with Mapou’s idea to open a bookstore promoting Haitian literature and culture. The festival founder’s vision was also to combat negative stereotypes and misconceptions about the Haitian community.
“People were saying terrible things about Haitians – notably that we were illiterate. I wanted to challenge those ideas and show the world the richness and beauty of Haitian culture,” he says.
The creator of Sosyete Koukouy (The Fireflies Society) started the bookstore with a small library in the Caribbean Marketplace in an effort to educate people about Haitian culture through books. The bookstore quickly became a hub for the Haitian community in Miami, attracting Haitian intellectuals, non-Haitians, and students. That’s how Libreri Mapou started.
The idea for the Little Haiti Book Festival sparked after Mapou attended the annual Haitian book fair called “Livres en Folie” during a trip there. Inspired by the event, Mapou, who already had some experience as a Miami Book Fair board member, decided to launch a book fair in Little Haiti.
“We started timidly, but over the years, our festival has grown and become more popular, drawing in a larger audience,” he says.
After five years, the Miami Book Fair joined forces with the Haitian book fair to provide logistical support, becoming a supporter and is now co-organizer of the Little Haiti Book Festival.
“This partnership exemplifies the power of collaboration to achieve extraordinary results,” says Fièvre, coordinator of ReadCaribbean, a Miami Book Fair program focusing on Caribbean-specific events.
“Both Miami Book Fair and Sosyete Koukouy work together to plan every festival aspect, from logistics to programming. These organizations pool their resources, skills, and passion for literature and culture to finance the event,” she says.
As a result, over the years, the festival has grown significantly in size and scope, attracting a more comprehensive range of authors, publishers, and attendees, according to Fièvre.
“While the primary focus remains on Haiti and the Haitian diaspora, we now welcome authors from various Caribbean and non-Caribbean countries, enriching the event’s diversity and fostering cross-cultural connections.”
It is worth noting that this year, the organization of the Little Haiti Festival is particularly significant as it takes place amidst the ongoing gentrification of the neighborhood.
“It’s important to organize this festival in this context to make the world know that we are not going anywhere. We are here to stay,” exclaims Mapou.
Fièvre says that the gentrification of Little Haiti makes it even more crucial to have a Haitian book festival that preserves and celebrates the community’s rich cultural heritage.
“The festival counters the erasure of Haitian culture and history from the neighborhood by providing a space for Haitian and Caribbean authors, artists, and community members to share their stories and experiences,” she says.
Millien-Faustin, author of a collection of short stories in Haitian Creole (“Tim Tim: Jaden Kreyasyon” and “Eli Fèt Leyogàn”), says it is heartbreaking what Little Haiti is facing.
“In this time of despair, gatherings such as the Haitian Book Festival become more important to keep the community together and stronger.”
This year’s Little Haiti Book Festival promises to cater to diverse interests and age groups. A primary focus of the festival will be author readings and book signings.
Almost 100 authors will be present, showcasing their latest works and conversing about their creative processes and literary journeys, says Fièvre, who is coordinating this part of the festival.
Festival organizers have also scheduled two panel discussions for attendees to spark thought-provoking conversations. The talks will explore relevant topics, such as “Chaos and Community: The Impact of New Immigration Laws on Haitian Refugees in the US” and “Building a Healthier Future: A Panel Discussion on Environmental Sustainability in Haiti.”
Among the panelists: Gepsie Morisset-Metellus, co-founder of the Sant La Haitian Neighborhood Center; Edwidge Danticat, Haitian American author; Paul Novack, former mayor of Surfside; Leonie Hermantin, director of communications and development at Sant La; Philippe Mathieu, agronomist, and CEO of Agroconsult Haiti, and Florentin Maurrasse, Ph.D., a geologist at Florida International University.
“These conversations will allow attendees to engage with the issues and themes that resonate with the Haitian and Caribbean communities,” according to Fièvre.
Various workshops are also planned including sessions on contemporary Haitian dance (NSL Dance Ensemble), music, Haitian theater, and film project management by filmmaker Yanatha Desouvre (“The Sweetest Girl,” “Fragmented Scars”). The workshops will be led by industry professionals, providing valuable insights into Haitian culture.
The festival will feature special events and activities for children and young adult readers, such as storytelling sessions and hands-on activities including artmaking with GO GO MOAD and Haitian artist Asser Saint-Val.
Bilingual writer and storyteller Marie Ketsia Theodore Pharel will read aloud “Tanga” (in Creole), a legend about a magical fish, and “Dumb Boy in Hot Water” (in English), the story of the Haitian occupation with a twist on dumpling soup.
“In addition to writing books, I am committed to preserving the oral storytelling tradition that is so precious and cogent to Haitian culture,” the author says.
Photo: Acclaimed Haitian American author Edwidge Danticat, a frequent guest at the fair, will be at the 2023 Little Haiti Book Festival this year. (Photo courtesy of Miami Book Fair)