Celebrating Shithole Literature

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In my enviable role as social-media manager, I get to pick through old issues of The Paris Review to find interesting, overlooked pieces to surface. Nestled in issue no. 78 (Summer 1980), among Bobby Anderson’s “Edie Sedgwick: A Reminiscence” and Mallarmé’s poem “A Tomb for Anatole,” I discovered three folks tales by Paulé Bártón, a writer from what the president vulgarly referred to yesterday as a “shithole” country.

Little information about Bártón is available, but according to the issue’s contributor’s note, he was born in Haiti in 1916 and spent most of his life as a goatherd. He was imprisoned in Saint Dimanche under the Duvalier regime and subsequently exiled. I stumbled upon this trio of narrative pearls when I was an intern here last summer. The writing is immediate and compact, stunning in its musicality and plick-plock rhythm. Reading “The Woe Shirt” for the first time—not having any idea what it was, where it came from, or how to find more of it—I nearly wept at my desk. Today, we’ve unlocked it from our archives in celebration of writers from shithole countries the world over.

“The Woe Shirt” by Paulé Bártón
Issue no. 78 (Summer 1980)

Bélem did tinker repair his bicycle by the stink-toe tree. Better to work there it smells so bad, work gets done no lazy quick. Then he rode to buy a woe shirt. He saw Mari then, standing. She said, “You going to buy that shirt, I know! You’ll go buy that beggar shirt Bélem, I know. Oh it will cost you all your little money all your goats and old friend parrot to get it! I tell you clearly, look at what you do! Spend everything on a beggar shirt, no sense!” but Mari saw that Bélem felt the shirt on him already, too late, “O.K. then, say good-bye twice to your parrot,” she said.

Subscribers can also read two more of Bártón’s short stories in our archives:

“The Broom Is Busy” by Paulé Bártón
Issue no. 78 (Summer 1980)

Boki was watching Álse Odjo with a twig broom sweep the floor. The twig-ends were breaking off and Álse Odjo kept sweeping them up. “You losing broom all over the floor!” Boki said, “I see that broom creating its own work!”

“Just like everyone on this island!” Álse Odjo said back, “That’s the island way,” she didn’t laugh, “This broom born and raised here, you know.”

“Emile Plead Choose One Egg” by Paulé Bártón
Issue no. 78 (Summer 1980)

Bélem he says, “The salt sea will find this wound on me, it always does when I swim in it, always clean my wound.” But Emilie knew the wound of confusion and no-choice was too deep inside for the salt sea to sting it clean for Bélem right now.

Brian Ransom is the social-media manager for The Paris Review.

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