Reference Entry

Depestre, René

Richard Watts

in Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, Second Edition

Published in print January 2005 | ISBN: 9780195170559
Depestre, René

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René Depestre was born in Jacmel, Haiti. Following the death of his father, he was raised in dire economic circumstances by his maternal grandmother. He later spent the last years of secondary school in the capital of Port-au-Prince, where in 1942 he encountered one of his future exemplars, Alejo Carpentier. The Cuban novelist's conception of magical realism would have a profound effect on Depestre. Soon thereafter Depestre was thrust into the literary and political spotlight. His first collection of poems, Etincelles (1945), published when he was just nineteen, won him considerable praise.But it was a journal founded by Depestre and Jacques Stéphen Alexis, La Ruche, that established Depestre's reputation as a political radical. Following the government's seizure of an issue of La Ruche from 1945 devoted to André Breton, Depestre and Alexis helped to organize a general strike that led to the eventual overthrow of President Elie Lescot in 1946. The government of Durmarsais Estimé that replaced Lescot's dictatorship was leery of Depestre's extreme left-wing tendencies (his second book of poetry, 1946's Gerbe de sang, was as violently political as Etincelles) and sent him to Paris on a government scholarship. He was expelled from France in 1951 following his involvement in anticolonial demonstrations, but not before he had published Végétations de clartés.Following a short stay in Prague, Depestre accepted the invitation of Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén to come to Havana, but was almost immediately expelled by the government of Fulgencio Batista. After several years in South America, Depestre returned to Paris, where he worked with several activist journals, including Présence Africaine.In 1959, Depestre returned to a Haiti controlled by François Duvalier and immediately began decrying the latter's “totalitarian Négritude.” He was forced to leave Haiti that same year and arrived in a Cuba under the leadership of Fidel Castro. Although he was named adviser to the Cuban national publishing house by Che Guevara and received a teaching post at the University of Havana, Depestre was critical of the Castro regime. He left Cuba and the Communist Party in 1978. Two poetic works published during his time in Cuba, Poésie cubaine (1967) and Poète à Cuba (1976), nonetheless focus on the heroism of the Cuban Revolution and the dangers of American imperialism. From Cuba, Depestre went to Paris to work for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), where he remained until his retirement in 1986.The creative work from his prolific second stay in France includes one book of poems, En état de poésie (1980); two novels, Le Mât de cocagne (1979) and Hadriana de tous mes rêves (1988; Prix Renaudot); and two collections of short stories, Alléluia pour une femme-jardin (1981) and Eros dans un train chinois (1990). It is also during this time that he wrote one of his best-known works, Bonjour et adieu à la négritude (1980), an essay that suggests some of the shortcomings of the Négritude ideology. His later titles include Ainsi parle le fleuve noir and Le métier à métisser: essai (both 1998).Depestre has been called a “rooted nomad,” for even though he has spent most of his life in exile, his work is firmly rooted in Haiti (he became a French citizen in 1991). For all their revolutionary ardor, Depestre's poems also manage to evoke the myths of Haitian Vodou. They are likewise replete with images of a sexuality that is divorced from guilt and sin. For most critics of Depestre, it is in Un arc-en-ciel pour l'occident chrétien (1967) that these three poetic elements—political commitment, eroticism, and Vodou—are most harmoniously expressed.

Reference Entry.  611 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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