Lehman Professor Honored with the ‘Gardien du Livre’ Prize at Annual Festival

Lehman College Prof. Thomas Spear of Languages and Literatures was honored late last month at the annual Livres en Folie book festival, held in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, with theGardien du Livre—or “Keeper of the Books”—prize for his work promoting Haitian literature. He was one of three recipients of the award.

“This is the first time that the prize was given to someone who is non-Haitian, so it was a complete surprise and quite an honor for me,” says Spear, a scholar of Haitian and Francophone literature and the founder and curator of the award-winning website,île en île .

Spear was initially invited to the Festival to speak at the Bibliothèque Nationale of Haiti’s special daylong program, devoted to the works of Marie Vieux-Chauvet. The Festival and the program were dedicated to the works of the great Haitian author in honor of the centennial of her birth. Chauvet is best known for her trilogy, Love, Anger, Madness, a masterpiece of world literature that presents the horror of the Duvalier dictatorship through fiction.

In January, Spear penned an article on Marie Chauvet in a special issue of Yale French Studies, where he traces the complicated publishing history of the author’s works and the silence that surrounds it. In addition, he published a text in a new book, titled En amour de Marie, which includes testimony from Haitian authors and scholars. The book was released just in time for theLivres en Folie festival and the Chauvet centennial.

Franck Helmcke presenting Professor Thomas Spear (l.) with the Gardien du Livre prize for his work promoting Haitian literature. Professor Spear was one of three to receive the award.

Franck Helmcke presenting Professor Thomas Spear (l.) with the Gardien du Livre prize for his work promoting Haitian literature. Professor Spear was one of three to receive the award.

Last March, Spear organized and spoke at an event honoring the author at the Graduate Center, CUNY, with specialists and a performance of Chauvet’s work by the poet Michèle Voltaire Marcelin. The centennial celebration will continue in New York on October 24 with a program of “Marie Vieux Chauvet’s Theater of Revolt” at the Graduate Center.

“It was especially exciting to see all her major work, for the first time, available in Haiti, in new Haitian editions,” explains Spear. “Marie Chauvet was an exceptionally talented and daring writer—provocative in her often graphic portraits of the dynamics of politics, race, religion, sex, and power.”

Overall it’s been a busy spring for Spear, who in April was invited to Rabat in Morocco for the 50th Anniversary Celebration of the Journal Souffles, an international literary, cultural, and political journal published in Morocco from 1966-1971. In 1997, Spear launched a digitization project to disseminate the old issues.

Still available on the Lehman server, the digitization of Souffles was completed in 2004. This first textual copy will be transferred to accompany a new scan of the journal, in graphical format, that can be found on the server of the Bibliothèque Nationale du Royaume du Maroc.

“I was very pleased that I was able to contribute to the digitization of this revolutionary journal. Without my initial investment in the project, the journal would not have found its international audience of readers over a decade ago,” explains Spear.

When it comes to online dissemination of archival material from the French-speaking world, Spear is a pioneer. His website, île en île, which he launched in 1998, is popular among students and academics. The site houses a treasure trove of author bios and bibliographies of their important works.

Last summer, Spear received a grant from FOKAL in Haiti that allowed him to reformat and modernize the entire website, which is now located at ile-en-ile.org. The new format offers clean and uncluttered pages with easy access not only to the primary textual material, but also to the audio and video archives. There is no longer any need for special plug-ins, and the text and multimedia material will play on computers, tablets, and telephones.

In addition to Lehman, Spear is a professor of French at the Graduate Center.