Alexandra Duncan

Science Fiction. Fantasy. Feminism.

Q & A: Haitian Creole in SALVAGE

I got a great question through my Ask Me Anything page yesterday:

I just finishing reading the ARC of 'Salvage' (I lovvveeeeeddd it by the way) and I'm Haitian. And I noticed that you speak French Creole in the book and even have a lullaby that I used to hear when I was younger. I was wondering where did you learn those sayings?

I'm excited to have a chance to answer this question. When I was fifteen, I traveled to Haiti with a church group to do volunteer work in Port au Prince. Our church had a longstanding relationship with St. Joseph's Home for Boys, a home for orphaned children that had just opened up a new facility to take in children with disabilities and developmental disorders when I visited. Saying it was a life-changing experience would be the understatement of the century. It changed how I thought about poverty and wealth, international economic policy, issues of race and class, and how I lived my daily life. I will never, ever take running water for granted, especially hot running water.

I've always been fascinated by languages, but at fifteen, I had never realized the world's languages were changing and growing in front of my eyes, or that they existed in such variety. My high school taught French and Spanish, and that was it. Encountering the creole spoken in Haiti lit a fuse in me that eventually sparked my interest in linguistics. We bought a language instruction book on Haitian creole while we were there. Unfortunately, I had a harder time learning from a book than from a person, and I eventually redirected my energy to learning Spanish, since I needed that more for daily life.

Twelve years later, when I was writing Salvage, I dug out the book again. I knew I wanted that spirit of inventiveness and the will to adapt and survive I had seen in Haiti to be part of my book. I had created a world where rising sea levels had swallowed up almost all of the world's island nations, but I wanted to show their cultures living on. The language book helped me with some of the basic phrases and terms in Salvage, but that wasn't enough. The heart of a culture often shows best through its music. In my work as a children's librarian, I had come across a great web site with the lyrics to children's songs from around the world. I especially loved "Dodo Titit," the lullaby mentioned above. There's something universal and sweetly funny about telling a child that a crab will bite them if they don't go to sleep.

Here's a really beautiful rendition of it,


The lullaby and language aren't the only pieces of Haiti in Salvage. The scrap metal figures Miyole makes were inspired by Haitian oil drum art. Because of our church's relationship with St. Joseph's, I grew up surrounded by these amazing wall sculptures, and still have some in my home today.

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I'm so glad the person who asked this question enjoyed Salvage. It's tricky to write about a culture that isn't your own. No matter how much research you've done and how hard you've tried, you constantly worry that you're not getting it right. I hope other readers see the respect I have for Haitian culture in the pieces of it that appear in my writing.

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