Three Women from Haiti

[This page by Douglas Irving]

Drei Frauen aus Haiti; Three Women from Haiti (1980)

Ever since journeying into Mexican exile via Martinique, and setting foot on the Dominican Republic, Anna Seghers had been preoccupied with the Caribbean. She had dealt at length with this subject matter in her Caribbean trilogy: (1) Die Hochzeit von Haiti; A Wedding in Haiti; (2) Wiedereinführung der Sklaverei in Guadeloupe; (3) Das Licht auf den Galgen; The Light on the Gallows. Now, in her last work published in her lifetime, she returns to this subject matter and her early roots as a revolutionary writer.

The protagonists of these three short, interrelated stories are female. This is characteristic of Seghers’s shorter fiction, which can be considered a minor literature within her wider oeuvre. The reader is presented with the fates of three separate Haitian women in three separate eras, namely Toaliina during the conquest by Colombus; Claudine during Napoleonic times in France; and Luisa in present-day Haiti under the dictatorship of Bébé Doc Duvalier. All three female protagonists are used to represent the fates of black people during these specific time frames, and in all three cases their situation is characterised by oppresion and constraint. The second story, ‘The Key’, provides a slightly more positive ending than the first and third stories which present portraits of women as sacrificial characters in the revolutionary struggle, helpless to avoid their inevitable demise. However under highly oppressive conditions Toaliina and Luisa both show quiet, dignified defiance, perhaps a truthful reflection of women’s place in the world at the time of writing in the late 1970s. The outlook is bleak, but the message is clear – these women should be allowed a place and a voice.

Seghers’s starkly beautiful, purposeful prose is here at its most minimalist and constrictive, perhaps reflecting the constrictions of her protagonists. The three companion pieces are also fine examples of the short story form, with the power of Seghers’s writing and the revolutionary message she wishes to convey being kept in reserve for the final sentence of each story.

This minimalist collection deserves to be published in English translation as an important addition to 20th-century women’s literature.

English Translation

Three Women from Haiti, unpublished translation, Douglas Irving (2014)

Further Reading in English

Vibeke Rützou Petersen, ‘Revolution of Colonization: Anna Seghers’s Drei Frauen aus Haiti’, The German Quarterly 65:3-4 (1992), 396-406

Janet Swaffar and Eileen Wilkinson, ‘Aesthetics and Gender: Anna Seghers as a Case Study’, Monatshefte 87:4 (1995), 457-72

Further Reading in German

Christiane Zehl Romero, Anna Seghers. Eine Biographie 1947-1983 (Aufbau: Berlin, 2003), pp. 320-23