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Jean D'Amerique's novel 'A Sun to be Sewn' is his testimony to Port au Prince

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Growing up in Haiti, Jean D’Amerique found an escape from violence through hip-hop. When he was 18 years old, he discovered Toni Morrison.

JEAN D'AMERIQUE: In Port-au-Prince, you have people who sell, like, used books in the streets. And I found a book of Toni Morrison, and I started to read it in the street.

SHAPIRO: The book was "Beloved."

D'AMERIQUE: Reading Toni Morrison, I can travel away from my neighborhood.

SHAPIRO: Jean D'Amerique became a poet and playwright. We reached him in France to talk about his new book, a slim, brutal novel called "A Sun To Be Sewn." The English translation is out today. It's about a schoolgirl growing up in a slum. Her mother is a sex worker - her father figure, a ruthless gang henchman. And she's constantly searching for the proper turns of phrase to express her condition and her love for a classmate.

D'AMERIQUE: For me, this book is a testimony of living today in Haiti, being a child, and you have to grow up in a place saturated with violence - how you can become someone, how you can see the light over the night.

SHAPIRO: I asked Jean D'Amerique about the neighborhood his protagonist lives in and the one he came from.

D'AMERIQUE: The violence and the way that people live in these places - it's a lot of people who have been done by the government, and they don't have public services to live with dignity. And even that, they fight for living. And for me, it's a story of resistance also, because these people fight for their lives, even that they are in poverty.

SHAPIRO: Although the book is relentlessly violent, it is also beautifully poetic. Your main character, this 12-year-old girl, describes everything as a metaphor, especially the experience of poverty. How do you think it transforms the violence, the poverty, the experience that you're looking at to filter it through a poetic lens?

D'AMERIQUE: I think that poetry helped me to write this book because the situations are very horrible, and I need to find the language to make something of them. Poetry - it's like a victory for the main character in the book because poetry gives her the way to name the violence. And she exists by her voice, by her poetic voice. It's like a consolation for her because she's trapped in a long night, and she needs to see a little bit of light. And I think that poetry, as it can give it in the language, it can give it in the life also.

SHAPIRO: And is poetry also that for you? Does it give you a triumph, a consolation, a way of understanding violence that you experienced in your own life?

D'AMERIQUE: I think that poetry saved my life literally, because I grew up in a neighborhood where it was easier to find a gun than a book. And once I met poetry, first through hip-hop, and after in books, poetry give me the way to understand what's happening around me and also give me a powerful way to exist in the world, because poetry give me a voice. And today I can use it like a political weapon to resist and to tell the story of people from the margin. So I think that is the reason that I said that poetry literally saved my life.

SHAPIRO: We hear so often in the news about violence and despair in Haiti, whether it's about gangs or poverty or governmental dysfunction or hunger. What do you think fiction can do for us that reports on the news cannot?

D'AMERIQUE: First, I think that fiction can make us travelling in our mind. And also, fiction can be a way to make people understand better the reality. So I think it's a powerful way to raise awareness in the mind of the people. Even it's fiction, but it can open our eyes about things in the world that we get to change. For me, I was reading fiction from other writers, and it participate to make of me a human being - not only a writer, but a human being and a citizen. All this came from books.

SHAPIRO: This book almost feels archetypal, like a classic Greek or Shakespearean tragedy, where a character with little choice in life is provoked into actions that just ripple out into a chain of consequences. Were you thinking about those forms when you wrote this story?

D'AMERIQUE: Not really, because I think that I didn't care about what form it will be specifically. But what I wanted to say in this book was stronger than making a novel, or making strictly a novel in a strictly form, but only experiencing writing and let the story be told, and always with poetry around me.

SHAPIRO: So this could have been called a 150-page novella or a book-length poem or a long short story. You don't care what label it gets.

D'AMERIQUE: Yeah. It's exactly that. And, you know, they used to say to me that, oh, but it's not really a novel; it's like a long poem, or, it's not really a play; it's a poem. And it's good for me because I know that poetry - it's like my first material, so I work with it. And it can be in fiction or in other way, but it's like the light of the language for me.

SHAPIRO: Jean D'Amerique's new novel is called "A Sun To Be Sewn." Thank you for talking with us about it.

D'AMERIQUE: Thank you a lot for inviting me.

(SOUNDBITE OF ESE 40'Z SONG, "NO WAY TO REWIND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Megan Lim
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.