Jacques Stephen Alexis is one of Haiti’s best known authors and political activist. He was born in 1922, the son of an established writer and diplomat, Stephen Alexis. His father’s career as a diplomat and historian led to many discussions in the family home regarding the government and civil liberties, giving Jacques a strong foundation for his own political leanings. His father was perhaps best known for his writings entitled Nègre masque (Masked Negro).
Jacques Stephen Alexis was a descendant of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, a military leader who rose above slavery in 1791, overcoming the existing rulers and giving the name of Haiti to the French West Indian Colony of Saint-Dominique. Although Dessalines was considered to be a harsh ruler, he is an important part of Haitian history.
During his father’s stay in Europe as a diplomat, Alexis attended the Collège Stanislas in Paris. Once they returned to Haiti, he attended and graduated from Collège Saint-Louis de Gonzague. Although Alexis studied medicine in school, he followed his love of writing before entering a career of political dissonance.
At the age of 18, Alexis wrote a well-received essay about Hamilton Garoute, a notable poet. The essay earned him early recognition as a gifted writer.
Shortly thereafter, Alexis completed several novels, all of which focused on the life of Haitian peasants living in the city. His writings offered lifelike portrayals of the people of Haiti, providing enjoyable stories that captured the interest of many people.
His Haitian upbringing had a strong influence on his writings as did the Marxist views of Jacques Roumain, a prominent Haitian writer and political activist. Roumain fought for Haitian nationalism and was exiled for a time because of it. Alexis met Roumain during the 1940s. At that time, he also met several other Communist writers and journalists. Shortly thereafter, he created an opposition literary group as well as a journal (La Ruche).
In 1955, Alexis wrote a novel entitled Compére Général Soleil, which was published in Paris by Gallimard, a leading French publicist. In English, the title translates to General Sun, My Brother, and it is one of his most famous works because it depicts Haitian life during the 1930s. The novel offers intricate descriptions of what it was like to live under the American Occupation as well as during the massacres that took place in the Dominican Republic. This is the novel that drew international attention to Alexis.
In 1957, he completed his novel Les Arbres Musiciens, and in 1959, he wrote L’Espace d’un Cillement. His novels were huge successes, partly because he had a real talent for blending human nature and poetic writing into realistic storylines. In his novels, the protagonists experience life through all five senses, enabling them to fully access emotional climaxes that take the reader on the journey throughout the novel. Alexis makes his characters come to life in a realistic fashion, drawing upon the knowledge he gained throughout life from the individuals who influenced his perception of the world.
Politics and Exile
His political leanings were strong and took him on a deadly course that began with the creation of a left-oriented political group known as the People’s Consensus Party (Parti pour l’Entente Nationale-PEP) in 1959. Alexis chose to challenge the current administration publicly due to his distaste for it. He spoke out against the tyranny and oppression practiced by the existing regime, which placed a target on his back. Shortly thereafter, he was exiled by the administration of the Haitian dictator, Francois Duvalier.
During his exile, Alexis attended a meeting of representatives from 81 communist parties located across the globe. The meeting took place in Moscow in August of 1960. At that time, he chose to represent Haitian communists, signing his own name to a document known as The Declaration of the 81. During that year, he wrote his collection of short stories, Romanceros aux Etoiles.
Mao Zedong, China’s Communist leader in 1961, invited Alexis to meet with him. The meeting was part of an effort to strengthen the Communist Party and its ties throughout the world.
Return to Haiti
Two years after he was exiled, Alexis returned to his country with a small group of his supporters on April 22, 1961, his 39th birthday. They landed in Mole St-Nicolas. Despite the fact that they did so in secret, their presence was quickly discovered by soldiers who were accompanied by Duvalier’s Tonton Macoutes (personal police force). The entire group was captured by Duvalier’s underlings and tortured until they were finally killed in 1961 by Duvalier’s men in the public area where the soldiers took the people who they intended to put to death. Unfortunately, his final resting place is unknown.
In his novel, General Compere Soleil, Hilarius Hilarion, the main character, made a comment that one must close an eye when arriving in a one-eyed people country. The intended meaning of this statement had nothing to do with having an eye punctured. However, it seems to foretell an incident in which the soldiers punctured one of his eyes during an episode of torture when he returned to Haiti in 1961. Although Alexis could not have known this when he wrote his novel, it does seem to be an ironic twist of fate.