“Marie-Denise, do you speak Arabic?!” »
We had just gotten into a taxi from Rabat. At my side, Marie-Denise Douyon, Montreal artist and writer of Haitian origin, with whom I participated in the last International Publishing and Book Fair of Morocco highlighting Quebec literature. To my great surprise, she gave instructions in Darija to the driver with an ease that I did not have.
The secret of his well-spoken Moroccan Arabic was neither Berlitz nor Duolingo. It turns out that Marie-Denise grew up in Casablanca. From her Moroccan childhood, she keeps a few words in Darija which enrich her stories.
Born in Haiti, Marie-Denise Douyon was 3 years old when she left her native land for North Africa. It was in 1964. Fleeing Papa Doc’s Duvalierist regime, his parents first went into exile in Algeria, where a position as a doctor awaited his father. They then decided to settle in Morocco, where they stayed for around fifteen years.
That evening, in Rabat, we had the pleasure of sharing a meal with the journalist and producer Mohamed Lotfi, well known for Anonymous sovereignsa fabulous radio show recorded in the Bordeaux prison.
While Mohamed told us anecdotes from prison and evoked the magical power of art for prisoners, Marie-Denise nodded discreetly, an enigma in her eyes. The air of saying “I know, I know…”, with the modesty of those who have experienced things that cannot be told.
It was only later that I understood that Marie-Denise knew too well what it was like to be in prison and only be able to escape through her imagination.
As she tells it in Radu Juster’s moving documentary Create to recreate yourself1Marie-Denise was the victim of an arbitrary arrest upon her return to Haiti.
His name appears for the first time in The Press on January 23, 1990. In a dispatch reporting a wave of arrests in Port-au-Prince and the expulsion of several leaders of the democratic opposition, officially “to combat terrorism”, it is mentioned that “Mshe » Marie-Denise Douyon, “known publicist”, was also arrested.
Marie-Denise bursts out laughing when she hears this outdated “mademoiselle”. “I was young then!” »
But what happens next is obviously nothing funny.
Marie-Denise was on her way to the beach with her chum of the time when they were arrested. She had nothing to reproach herself for. Which did not prevent her from being thrown in prison after an interrogation coupled with a torture session.
“As I was very frail and small at the time, I fainted when they started hitting me with a baseball bat. This triggered a hemorrhage which ended the torture session. »
She remembers that the first cry she uttered under the blows of her torturer was “Ya Rabbi!” ”, that is to say “My God” in Arabic. As if the memory of childhood was coming to the surface and it was the little girl in her who was screaming.
Marie-Denise spent about a month in prison. There she rubbed shoulders with detainees who were victims of injustice and who had no means of defense. Women who, unlike her, did not have the chance to count on a network in the Haitian diaspora working to have her released. She listened to their stories, wrote down some of them, and also drew, trying to find a form of refuge in art.
As horrible as it was, his time in prison was not all horrors. She also remembers beautiful moments. Solidarity between women, singing, prayer, laughter, confidences… The love letters that she also wrote to men she did not know, at the request of inmates who were for the most part illiterate.
After the torture, prison and threats that followed her release, Marie-Denise requested political asylum in Canada. She left her suitcase in Montreal one spring day in 1991.
She was welcomed there with open arms by members of her family already established here. “I was surrounded and pampered in that regard. »
But like anyone fleeing persecution, she lived with the fear of having her asylum application rejected. With the help of a lawyer from Julius Gray’s office, she carefully prepared her file to be able to tell what cannot be told. What if we didn’t believe it? What if we sent her back to her torturers?
Accepted as a refugee, Marie-Denise continued to create in order to recreate herself. In addition to painting, writing and drawing, in 2020, in full confinement, she founded Muzikiddy editions.2offering children’s books and educational programs that raise awareness among young people of cultural diversity.
In her albums with funny titles, she uses proverbs to playfully tackle difficult subjects like discrimination or bullying.
The most recent one is called Nanane, the mythomaniac iguana and addresses the subject of lying inspired by the Haitian Creole proverb “Twou manti pa fon…”. Literal translation: “The lie hole is not that deep. “.
From prison in Port-à-Prince to her exile in Montreal, Marie-Denise set herself the challenge of not sinking into a form of “inner obscurantism”. She feels like she’s gotten there, managing to maintain a certain level of optimism despite life’s ups and downs.
How do you manage it, Marie-Denise, with the news being so desperate these days?
“I would say that the unexpected gift is to be an artist and to create. »
This gift is for Marie-Denise intimately linked to the encounter, which is at the heart of her artistic approach and a journey impossible to compress into a small box, from Haiti to Quebec via the Maghreb where she grew up and the United States, where she studied.
She talks to me enthusiastically about the creative workshops she recently led in the libraries of Côte-des-Neiges, in Montreal. As part of the Proverbiart project, she invited young and old people to tell a story that they carry within them, drawing inspiration from proverbs from around the world.3. A most enriching experience which gave rise to magnificent encounters.
“When I have my coffee while listening to the news, I say to myself: “My God, things are bad!” And afterwards, I go to give my workshops and I say to myself: “My God, beings can be beautiful and luminous.” »