Visual Art

Storytellers Bring Hope and Resilience to Little Haiti Book Festival

Written By Sergy Odiduro
April 29, 2024 at 6:28 PM

The 2024 Little Haiti Book Festival on Sunday, May 5 at the Little Haiti Cultural Complex features dance and music performances, traditional Haitian games, and storytelling to celebrate the rich culture and literary talent of Haiti and the Haitian diaspora. (Photo courtesy of Miami Dade College/ Miami Book Fair)

It was just after the 2010 Haitian earthquake and Ketsia Theodore-Pharel was feeling helpless.

“I was devastated,” says the Miami-based author. “I wanted to go help Haiti.”

Everyone around her had a clearly defined role, but it seemed a bit more elusive for her.

“I have cousins who were nurses, they went to help. I have friends who were doctors who went to help, and I even had a friend who is in social public policy who was helpful. And I felt like as a writer and educator what can I do?”

Eventually she realized that as a storyteller her strength lies in capturing the imagination of those around her.

With tales inspired by her Haitian grandmother she can, if but for a moment, whisk a captive audience to a place far away from a turbulent present or a painful past. Therein lies her magic.

“I feel like I am an ambassador, a cultural ambassador of Haiti. I can’t nurse the sick. I can’t operate on the injured. I don’t have money to feed people, but I can feed minds. I can feed souls and I can feed attitudes with my stories. And that’s what I do.”

Pascale Millien of Sosyete Koukouy reads to attendees at last year’s Little Haiti Book Festival. (Photo courtesy of Miami Dade College/ Miami Book Fair)

Theodore-Pharel will tap into her gift and join forces with other storytellers at the 10th annual Little Haiti Book Festival.

In partnership with the Miami Book Fair and Soyeste Koukouy, the free festival will be held on Sunday, May 5 at the Little Haiti Cultural Center and will cater to lovers of Haitian literature, food and culture.

“It’s a family-oriented event,” says M.J. Fievre, the festival’s program director. “It is an opportunity to reconnect with all those aspects that are important in life: family and community.”

With music by Inez Barlatier and DJNicky Mixx, attendees can participate in a range of activities including a traditional Haitian dance workshop, yoga sessions, a HistoryMiami Story booth, panel discussions, art projects, and even a comedy show.

The theme for this year’s festival is Ansanm or Together and through their program, organizers are seeking a common ground between Haitian culture and the larger community in Miami.

Alexandra Jeanty-Leclerc leads a meditation and yoga session at the Little Haiti Book Festival. (Photo courtesy of Miami Dade College/ Miami Book Fair)

“Everything is universal,” says Fievre. “Whether you’re taking a yoga and meditation class, whether you’re learning how to play dominoes, or whether you’re learning to draw. Whether you go to the children’s room for storytelling, you will find an activity that suits your interests and your language.”

And of course, there will be books. Lots of them.

“We always have books in all languages,” adds Fievre.  “In the Marketplace, you will find a book that is of interest to you in a language that you can speak.”

Organizers have also made sure to address potential language barriers in other areas. Though a planned panel discussion about Haiti in the media at 2 p.m. will be conducted largely in Haitian Creole and another panel addressing artificial intelligence at noon will be held in English, interpreters will be on hand. (The panels will be recorded and then streamed at noon and 2 p.m. on Sunday, May 19 on Miami Book Fair’s Facebook page and at miamibookfaironline.com.)

The festival will showcase numerous Haitian artists and exhibitors featuring Haitian inspired art like VZA by VEE. (Photo courtesy of Miami Dade College/ Miami Book Fair)

Art is a major component of the festival, too, and one project in particular, led by Haitian artist Asser Saint-Val, will be used to engage children at the event. Saint-Val has an ongoing relationship with the festival through a partnership with the Museum of Art and Design at Miami Dade College.

“For the past few years we’ve actually been working with the same artist because the kids keep falling in love with him,” says Fievre“Every year he comes up with a curriculum where he tries to connect the art that is being created with either the children’s books that are featured in the festival or some aspects of Haitian culture that people care about.”

Saint-Val’s current project will be to build ti kays, or little houses, in a tribute to the Little Haiti Cultural Complex. Fievre said the complex is particularly important since it has withstood efforts of gentrification in the area.

Sandra Jean Charite, an author at the Marketplace at the Little Haiti Book Festival. The festival features books available in several languages including English, Haitian Creole, and French. (Photo courtesy of Miami Dade College/ Miami Book Fair)

“It’s a symbol of resistance, for the community, because if you know the history of Little Haiti, they’ve been trying to get rid of Haitians for the longest time and that center has been how we continue to be anchored to the community. And for the 10th anniversary we wanted to come up with an idea that honored our Haitian roots and honored this center so ti kay will be reminiscent of the architecture of the center,” says Fievre, adding that the little houses participants build they can take home.

Festival organizers say that the event serves a dual purpose — an opportunity to present positive aspects of their culture especially given the political climate in Haiti.

“It’s community engagement,” says  Weiselande “Yanui” César, executive founding director of Tradisyon Lakou Lakay, which launched in 2004 and whose mission it is to leverage Haitian performance art. César is also a master storyteller at this year’s event.

The Little Haiti Book fair is held in partnership with Sosyete Koukouy, an organization dedicated to preserving Haitian culture. Pictured is Pascale Millien, president of the Connecticut branch of Soyeste Koukouy. (Photo courtesy of Miami Dade College/ Miami Book Fair)

“It’s community building. “It’s just supporting each other, it’s supporting the arts and it is needed more so now. it’s more important to hold space and to share  in the light and the positivity of our culture.”

Fievre would like to see a more even-handed approach when it comes to Haiti and believes that the festival will help to provide a fuller picture when it comes to her native homeland.

“Nobody’s denying that terrible things are happening in Haiti,” says Fievre. “We hear about it. Many of us have witnessed it firsthand. But where is the balance? Where is the portrayal of all the beauty that there is in Haiti.  To begin with, Port-au-Prince is not Haiti. The country is not a city and there’s a lot of beauty outside of Port-au-Prince and even in areas of Port-au-Prince so where is the focus on that?” She continues: “So we have events like this one because we want people to see yes, we understand that terrible things are happening. But let’s not forget to do wonderful things that made us the resilient people that we are today.”

Theodore-Pharel agrees.

“Haiti is not hopeless. Haiti is experiencing birth pain and is about to give birth to the greatest intellectual, social, physical, cultural and geographical renewal that the world will see.”

César hopes that those who support Haiti and its people will find a way to connect through the Little Haiti Book Festival.

“It’s the culture that holds us together. That’s our superpower. So everyone needs to come out and support us and, in that way, you will get the full flavor of Haitian culture.”

WHAT:  Little Haiti Book Festival.

WHEN:  11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sunday, May 5. 

WHERE:  Little Haiti Cultural Complex, 212 NE 59th Terrace, Miami

COST: Free

INFORMATION: 305-237-7258 and complete schedule at miamibookfair.com/littlehaiti.

ArtburstMiami.com is a nonprofit media source for the arts featuring fresh and original stories by writers dedicated to theater, dance, visual arts, film, music, and more. Don’t miss a story at www.artburstmiami.com.

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