The Bookshop in Miami that Has Preserved Haitian Culture for Decades

MIAMI — In 1990, Jan Mapou, the Haitian playwright, poet, and activist, rented a booth at the Caribbean Marketplace in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood. He set up 300 books, mostly in Creole, from his own private collection: books on Haitian history, folklore, religion, politics; romance novels and big, colorful children’s stories by Haitian authors. The “Haitian boat people” — as they were known in the US — had been arriving to the US since 1972; that term belongs in a story of its own. “Boat person” is both nondescript and guileless; it’s also a euphemism. Never mind that the regime from which they were fleeing was cruel; Haitian immigrants were met with governmental pushback and the development of a racist, xenophobic mythos: that they were voodoo practitioners, carriers of disease, and stole Americans’ jobs.

Mapou, however, knew that Haitians and non-Haitians alike would want to know about the history of the island, its people, their traumas and, more importantly, their artistic contributions. He set out to rewrite those spiteful myths by showcasing and preserving other, truthful narratives. You can have a taste of this at the Little Haiti Book Festival, part of the larger Miami Book Fair, taking place this coming weekend.

Mapou, however, knew that Haitians and non-Haitians alike would want to know about the history of the island, its people, their traumas and, more importantly, their artistic contributions. He set out to rewrite those spiteful myths by showcasing and preserving other, truthful narratives. You can have a taste of this at the Little Haiti Book Festival, part of the larger Miami Book Fair, taking place this coming weekend.

Back in Haiti, Mapou was co-founder of Mouvman Kreyòl Ayisyen, a group of writers, artists, and teachers who fought to implement Creole as the primary language in Haitian schools — that the school system’s predominant language was that of its colonizers (French) contributed to rates of illiteracy. For this, he was jailed by the Duvalier regime. Mapou also helped develop Sosyete Koukouy (Society of Fireflies), a group of writers who exchanged their Creole literary works. In the spirit of Sosyete Koukouy, Mapou, once settled in Miami, eventually moved the contents of his booth at the Caribbean Marketplace into a store, Libreri Mapou, on the neighborhood’s main drag (Northeast Second Avenue), where he has spent spent years hosting theater and choir performances, readings, and meetings.

Today, Little Haiti, which became a bastion of the Haitian community, is becoming rapidly gentrified. Moreover, many of its residents are losing their Temporary Protected Status (TPS). Funding for small arts organizations in the area is minimal, but Libreri Mapou still stands. On weekends, neighborhood families, writers, tourists, and artists traveling from Haiti crowd the shop.

I spoke with Mapou at his shop in anticipation of the Little Haiti Book Festival, which each year enlivens the neighborhood and restores the sheen that never really diminished..MiamiTight 4 more

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