Nick Lake was born in Britain but grew up in Luxembourg from the age of 4, where his father was a civil servant with the European Parliament. Nick is the Editorial Director for fiction for HarperCollins Children's Books and is the author of The Secret Ministry of Frost and Blood Ninja. In Darkness, set in Haiti, is Nick's first book for adults and older teen readers. He first discovered Haitian culture as part of his Master's Degree in Linguistics and has since been fascinated by it. Nick lives near Oxford.
Follow Nick on Twitter: @nicholaslake
This is a work of fiction. That said, nearly everything in it is true. If you were hoping that some of the more unpleasant things you have just read were made up, then I apologise.
I did not invent the character of Toussaint l’Ouverture, and I have been faithful to his story, at least in spirit and in essentials. It was necessary to simplify the history to some extent: for example, I have ignored in this book the issue of the Spanish side of the island (the modern-day Dominican Republic), with which Toussaint had a complicated relationship. However, the important things are true: Toussaint really did lead a slave rebellion at the age of fifty-three, defeating a major colonial power and freeing his people, even if only temporarily. He was a simple man, uneducated, who achieved one of the greatest and most un-recognised military victories of all time. His character was, as far as we know, much as I have presented it here: calm, wise, inspirational. He really was betrayed in exactly the way presented in this story, and he really did die in a French dungeon.
The ceremony at Bois Caiman really happened, though not much is known about it, and I have embellished the details for my own purposes. In reality it was most likely an invocation of Erzili Danto, one of the most important of the laws, to support the rebellion.
Shorty never lived – nor did his family. But Route 9 and Boston, as well as the war between them, are real, as is nearly every detail of life in Cité Soleil. It is one of the poorest, most violent slums in existence, even more so now in the wake of the earthquake. It has frequently been named as the most dangerous place on earth. People really did, and do, eat pies made of mud, such is their desperation. Babies really were, and still are, left to die on piles of trash. For years, the slum really was virtually cut off by road blocks, and – particularly during the bloody period in the first decade of the new century – police and attachés were accused many times of shooting unarmed civilians during demonstrations and home invasions. Many people simply disappeared, never to be seen again.
Dread Wilmé was a real person. He lived and died in much the way I have said: hailed as a hero by his supporters, who claimed that he provided security, education and rudimentary healthcare in a place where the government provided none; vilified by the government as a gangster and a murderer. The truth, as always, is probably somewhere in between. Fierce controversy surrounds his killing to this day, and in particular the question of how many civilians were killed during the operation. His funeral was a lavish affair, attended by thousands and marked by speeches. As far as I know, though, he wasn’t burnt and sent out to sea – I made that part up. What I didn’t make up is the belief that certain gangsters kept his remains as magical protection: this legend is mentioned, for example, in the excellent 1996 documentary Ghosts of Cité Soleil.
Two important notes:
First, Shorty belongs to a gang that is pro-Lavalas, and thus pro-Aristide. The text is inevitably informed by this affiliation, with the present-day characters blaming MINUSTAH (the UN agency set up to help stabilize Haiti following Aristide’s removal) for the majority of their problems. However, I would like to stress that this does not necessarily reflect my view. It is one of the many tragedies of Haiti that its endless coups and power-shifts have done nothing to change the lives of its poorest residents: these lives are invariably marred by violence and starvation, full of suffering, and, most of all, short.
Second, my characters are understandably ambivalent, at best, about the efforts of foreign organizations to help them. This is also informed by their subjective point of view. I do not mean to suggest for a moment that there are not charities doing extraordinary things to help the people of Haiti – this is especially true in the aftermath of the earthquake. In fact, I encourage anyone moved by this book to consider a donation to Save the Children, the Red Cross, Médecins sans Frontières, or any of the other excellent NGOs engaged in the attempt to rebuild the country, following possibly the worst humanitarian disaster in history.
Nick Lake will be appearing at a Bloomsbury Institute event with Stephen Kelman:
Gang Culture in Fiction: A Bloomsbury Salon with Stephen Kelman & Nick Lake
An interview by Julia Eccleshare, Tuesday 31st January
Q&A with Nick Lake
How did you become interested in Haiti?
It was during my MPhil that I first became interested in Haiti, via a module on creoles. I got interested in voodoo via William Gibson’s Necromancer, which doesn’t sound nearly so impressive.
How did the idea for In Darkness originate?
I was watching the news on TV when I saw a boy being dug out of the rubble in Port-au-Prince. He’d been trapped for, I think, five days. I remember thinking – how extraordinary. What an extreme experience, and what would go through your head? That got me thinking about doing a story about someone going through that, partly I think to work out how I would feel in that situation. Meanwhile, I’d always been interested in Toussaint l’Ouverture, ever since I first heard his story – I thought it was a terrible shame that his story was not widely known, and I’d always wanted to write something about him, but had never felt up to the task. I was out for dinner with my friend James, and told him both of these things. He said, ‘There must be a magical realist that could link those two stories in a single book. Drop everything else, and work out what it is.’ So I did. Thanks, James!
How long have you been at work on this book? Did the book involve special research?
I did do research for the book – online, and through documentaries and books. But research isn’t really what interests me, so much as the links and associations that research can throw up. Once I had the rough idea for the story I wrote the first draft very quickly, probably in a month or so. It just poured out of me, once I started writing, and then I filled in details later, partly with the help of a Haitian reader.
Actually the whole writing period was a very strange experience, and one that I still don’t quite understand. On several occasions I looked up from my laptop, having written thousands of words, with absolutely no recollection of what I had just written. I’ve written a couple of books before, but had never experienced anything like this – I always thought artists were talking romantic nonsense when they said that work came through them as opposed to being created by them, but with this, that was exactly what I felt. In voodoo, worshippers can be ‘mounted’ by the spirits, the lwa, and possessed. That was what the experience of writing this book felt like: it felt like Shorty and Toussaint wrote it through me. Even now when I look through the text it doesn’t feel like my book.