It’s probably fair to say that a novel that Richard Heller subtitles A Can-Am Haitian Story has been fermenting for more than a half century.
Heller lived on the poverty-stricken Caribbean island from 1957-1960 as a teen when his father moved there to take a job managing a flourmill.
“Living conditions were deplorable at that time,” he said recently. “Not that they are probably that good now.”
Heller’s time in Haiti provided an education not to be found in schools.
“I was kind of a street urchin,” he recalled. “My best friend was from the Dominican Republic. He spoke Creole, so I learned the language.” Another friend was also black and as they roamed the streets they called themselves the Oreos, after the cookie that has two black outer layers encasing a white filling.
“We were all over the place. But I had lots of American friends, too—military brats. We lived not far from Guantanamo.”
In his novel, Blood in the Emperor’s Inkwell, Heller says a recurring theme is “Life is not fair.”
“Haitian natives were victims of being a black race,” he said. “They suffered from economic disparity even though slavery was abolished 60 years before it was in the US. But some slavery still exists today by way of poverty.”
As a “street urchin” Heller was exposed to experiences he wouldn’t have had as a young man in the US, where he was raised.
He got to ride around in ruler Papa Doc Duvalier’s convertible.
“He would toss coins from the car,” Heller said. “I was exposed to Voodoo. I attended ceremonies and met priests. Religion in general is kind of a mystery to me—a negative one in general. But Voodoo was active in the abolition of slavery.”
If his formal education was generally hit and miss during his years in Haiti, Heller would make up for it later. His family moved back to Utah and he would later attend the University of Colorado and the University of Victoria.
He made his way north in 1967, arriving in Coutts AB in the middle of winter.
“But there was a Chinook—the further north I got the warmer the weather got!”
He carved out a career in academia, teaching French, English and ESL in universities and colleges in Canada and even Nice, France.
“I can’t boast of a great career—I bounced around a lot, just like my father. I sure got laid off from a lot of jobs. Everytime I landed a new one it seemed like it wasn’t long before the layoffs started.”
Heller retired, living in Princeton, Keremeos and Osoyoos before moving to Creston, where he is renting for the moment.
“I sold my place in Osoyoos, and now I am looking forward to buying a house with some property.”
He has written short stories over the years, never really thinking about becoming a novelist until retirement gave him time to think back to his youth, and the imprint that the years in Haiti had left.
Blood in the Emperor’s Inkwell is the result, and Creston Valley readers can find it for sale at TulipLeaves Boutique on Canyon Street.