In Djenane Saint Juste’s new children’s book, The Mermaid and the Whale, we follow a beloved fable arc: A man travels to a distant island (this time called La Gonâve) to find gold, and with the help of some spirit guides, he learns that he already has everything he needs for a happy life. It’s a classic tale, one that teaches a good lesson, and in Saint Juste’s hands, it helps her share her Haitian culture in a new way.
Most people know Twin Cities-based Saint Juste for her performing arts company Afoutayi or for her work as a dancer and instructor for places like the Cowles Center, but with this new project, she became a writer, creating the story behind the Haitian folk song “Lasirèn ak Labalèn.” She didn’t stop there, though. She also translated that story into Creole, Spanish, and French to reach out to more non-English speaking children. “A lot of time children get offended or they refuse to speak Creole because no one will understand them, so we have this growing community where they refuse to speak their native tongue,” Saint Juste says. “This will give them an idea with how beautiful it is.” The book also comes with a CD where she, her family, and her friends read the story in all its languages and play the song for all to learn and sing along.
Published in August and celebrated with a launch event at Alliance Francaise, The Mermaid and the Whale begins with “Krik, krak!” the traditional Haitian way to begin a story, and it takes readers along pages of blue ocean. Really, it’s only when you get to the glossary that you realize how much information about Haiti Saint Juste packed into the simple story. Vodou religion is woven into Haitian culture, in part because of its syncretism with Catholicism, and while Saint Juste took deliberate measures to keep the book away from religion, the mythical creatures of the mermaid and the whale, the idea of finding higher wisdom from the spirits, is from this lore. “It’s a cultural book, and I wanted to make sure to honor the culture. Vodou is one of the elements attached to the culture,” Saint Juste says. “[Vodou] is not what people think, usually—the devil king and stuff like that, I didn’t grow up with that. It’s that deep connection with nature.”
Through a quick note in the glossary, you also learn that La Gonâve, or Gonâve Island, is where Saint Juste’s mother was born. Hearing Saint Juste describe her childhood visits to her grandmother who lived there, you can get a sense of the inner gold that the man in her book finds: “The freedom you have to walk around the island and see the ocean, and go and have fruit, and living in the tiny mud house with my grandmother—for me it was the perfect vacation ever. … People were there with each other and talking to each other and community building.”
Saint Juste knows that underneath Gonâve’s veneer of paradise is a lack of infrastructure and a lack of schools, but she wants people to invest in an island—and a country—whose culture they recognize as worth upholding. She wants long-term fixes that help build up the community there instead of taking them away to find success. She wants Haitians to be proud of who they are. And to help accomplish all that, people need to understand what Haiti is.
“I think I wrote the first draft, if I’m not mistaken, around 2011, 2012,” Saint Juste says. She was living in California at the time, and her Haitian performing arts company Afoutayi was performing at her son’s school. Everyone was singing and dancing along to the words of “Lasirèn ak Labalèn,” including the principal, and she could see her son light up as people were seeing how vibrant his culture was. After the performance was done, a little boy came up to Saint Juste and said, ‘You know what? Thank you so much for the performance. I’m Haitian too,’” Saint Juste recalls.
It turns out that his parents didn’t want him to tell people that he was Haitian because they wanted him to be completely Americanized. Saint Juste says, “I’m like, ‘Okay—why are you telling me this now?’ And he said, ‘I’m so proud. I didn’t know we had all of that in our culture.’ He had no idea that we have some beautiful dances, language, this and that. The people around him or on the news, when they talk about Haiti, they talk about the poverty. They never show what this beautiful country has: independence since 1804; a mixed culture; people who are writers, artists, athletes. They never mention that so [kids] never have that as a reference when they want to talk about it with their friends, so that’s why they’re not proud. After my conversation with that kid, I was like, ‘No, I have to do something and make a tool when I present to go and give a teacher.’”
You can find The Mermaid and the Whale at the Afoutayi website or for sale at Alliance Francaise, but for some more insight on everything that went into the story, check out this quick Q&A with Saint Juste:
The song “Lasirèn ak Labalèn” is a folk song, correct?
The song was there for who knows—generation to generation—and was being passed through oral tradition because most of our folks didn’t know how to read and write for a long time. They try to keep their tradition to singing and dancing and storytelling. My grandmother especially loved to tell stories at night after they finished work and gathered everyone around the bonfire. We at night, without electricity—you use the daylight to do everything you need, and at night before sleeping, grandparents, parents, aunties tell stories and encourage you to create your own or listen and pass it down in a different way. …
My mother lives with me, and she would always go and teach dance class with me. At one of my dance classes, my student was kind of all over the place, and [my mother] started singing, and all the kids were immediately listening to her not knowing a word she was saying, but we get mesmerized by the words, by her face, the way she would light up when she doing the moves and the melody. … After, I had a teacher say, “Oh my gosh, I don’t know what you did, but the song has been in my head for the last two weeks—ta ta ta!” like okay [laughing]. So that’s how I chose this particular song—because the story was aligned with my goal, my mission, about finding your inner gold. I felt, “Oh, I can create upon that song because it’s catchy, it’s happy, and as you sing it you want to dance, you want to do some movement.” This is what my goal is: to give people that piece of joy and piece of finding themselves.
I read somewhere that in Haitian culture, it was said that the mermaid would bring someone to her world and then they would return with new powers. Can you expand on that?
Haiti is an island, so there’s travel a lot from one island to the other, and people always ask for permission from the mermaid and Met Agwe [her husband] so they can have a safe travel. And water is a blessing, so the element of water is about cleanings, rinsing, renewing. When you use that kind of energy, it’s about “How can I become a better person? How am I going through my life? Watch me and help me grow or change in a different way.” So the idea of “konesans” [wisdom] is like having the power to discover your inner self and your true purpose in life. We flout the social connotations, the barriers or labels people are putting on you. When you’re going into that deep journey underwater, it’s you and the universe and the water spirit discovering yourself and becoming the person you were meant to be. So that’s the idea. I kind of borrowed this idea from the Vodou religion, and I really liked the way it worked with my explanation about true gold.
Did you know you wanted to have the story in four languages from the get go?
Yes. I really, really wanted to have it in four different languages. I think that’s one of the things that slowed me down because I didn’t want to have an exact translation. I wanted to be inspired the way I will tell the story with my connection with that language. You might see some of the writing in Creole is longer than the others. That’s because the first time I heard this story, I heard it from my grandmother, my mom, my auntie’s, and I am picturing the way it was when they were singing—the joy and the emotion in their face … Also, I wanted to address the blind people, but I didn’t have the funds to have braille writing in the book. So I thought, “Okay, maybe we can have the CD and they can listen to it and still be a part of the story in a classroom with everyone listening and having fun so they’re not left out.”
This interview was edited for style, clarity, and length.