March 13, 2008

Happy Birthday, Felix Morisseau-Leroy (2008)

Félix Morisseau-Leroy.Although the controversy still rages in Jamaica about English vs patwa or "nation language" as Kamau Brathwaite has dubbed our tongue, from as early as 1958, Felix Morisseau-Leroy was writing plays and poems in Kreyol.

In one of my favorite poems by "Moriso" or "Lewa," the poet shows his allegiance, and we are all better off for it.

I still remember the defiance and the fire when he used to read this poem, and especially when he said, "I don't want any priest/ To speak Latin over my head."

There was no room for genuflection to the metropolitan cities in Lewa's world, and it is sometimes sad to see the young Haitian men and women in Miami walking around with their heads bowed down because they lack the knowledge/memory that a great poet like Lewa came from among them and was the champion of their language for most of his life.

Give thanks, Lewa and Happy Birthday!

New Testament

In 1954
I wrote my will
I said I don't want any priest
To speak Latin over my head

I don't have that problem today
Because priests don't speak latin anymore

Even God
Had to learn Creole
Like any other white man
Coming here
To do business with us

From "Boat People" from Haitiad & Oddities by Félix Morisseau-Leroy. Copyright © 1991 by Félix Morisseau-Leroy.

Felix Morisseau-Leroy was born in Grand-Gosier, Haiti and had degrees from the University of Haiti, Columbia, New York City College, and the New School of Social Research. He was exiled in 1959 and lived in Africa, France, Jamaica, and the United States.

In Ghana, he served as national organizer of drama and literature at the Arts Council and in Senegal, as Technical Adviser of the Senegalese Federation of People’s Theater.

He wrote numerous books of poetry, novels, and plays including “Ravinodyab,” “Plenitudes,” “Recolte,” “Diacoute,” and “Antigone in Creole” which was performed at the Theater of the Nations in Paris. His works have been translated into French, English, Spanish, German, Russian, Fanti, Twi, and Wolof, and his plays have been performed around the world.

Although he was multilingual, Felix Morisseau-Leroy preferred to write in Creole, because he wished “to express the deepest feelings, emotions, and aspirations of the people for whom he claimed to be a mere “scribe.”



Rethabile said...

I'm smiling here, Geoffrey. I love the message and the manner.

Geoffrey Philp said...

He really was an inspiration and a very wise man.


Richard said...

Growing up in Brooklyn and hearing Kreyol all the time (including in my own house, since we had a Haitian babysitter -- later I became a babysitter for her kids!), I didn't discover Morisseau-Leroy till I moved to South Florida. I wrote about his work in a "Report from Florida" that appeared in Coda: Poets & Writers Newsletter (the predecessor to today's Poets & Writers Magazine) in 1982. Back then, most of his work was totally unavailable in translation. Good to see his work in English these days.

Geoffrey Philp said...

Yes,it certainly is good to see more and more of his work translated. And give thanks for being a pioneer in those early days.


Richard said...

I learned about Morisseau-Leroy from Jeffrey Knapp, who was then (maybe still is?) teaching at FIU. I think Jeffrey was translating some of his poems back then, in the early 80s.

The last time I saw Jeffrey was in the mid-1990s when we were both serving on a literature grant panel for the Florida Division of Cultural Affaris. We had a summer meeting in Tallahasse, and I recall I dropped him off in Lake City (for a friend from Jacksonville to pick him up) on my drive home to Gainesville.

Lake City was the scene of a big censorship battle in the public schools back then. Not all parts of Florida are literature-friendly places.

Just a few years ago, I was sent back the grant panelists' comments on a story submitted for a fiction fellowship (I shouldn't have been greedy, as I'd had a few before). A well-known writer who teaches in the FIU MFA program (his initials were on it, so I knew who it was) seemed to really get upset that some parts of my story were not in English.

Imagine my nerve: having characters in Miami speaking Kreyol and Spanish!

Thanks to you, too, Geoffrey, for being one of the good guys. I have told my Saturday morning short story class at Brooklyn College (nearly all the students are Caribbean) about your work.

Geoffrey Philp said...

Richard, first, again, give thanks for spreading the word about my work. A brother needs all the help he can get....

Yeah, those grant panelists can get pretty mean. If you have the time, look through the blog and find my poem,"not another aids poem," which was inspired by a rejection by one of these arts council panels.

Richard said...

Geoffrey, I was a grant panelist four times and I was never mean!

I've gotten three fellowships from Florida and been rejected more times, but getting the comments was a new thing for me. I don't think it's good that Florida sends out the comments to writers who don't get the grants. They didn't used to.

I wish I had grant money to bring you up to NYC and read for my classes!

FSJL said...

I remember the first time I heard him speak, when I was a student at Mona, and he started speaking in French, slowly and clearly. Then, after a couple of minutes he said 'now I switch to English', there was a deep sigh of relief in the audience, even from those who could follow the French easily (like Cheryl Dash who was sitting near me).