Istwa across the Water:
Haitian History, Memory, and the Cultural Imagination

Toni Pressley-Sanon

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"Untwines the aesthetic, sociohistorical, and spiritual ties that bind and unbind the first black republic to the African continent."--Gina Athena Ulysse, author of Why Haiti Needs New Narratives: A Post-Quake Chronicle

"A nonlinear, creative, powerful reflection on history and the stories we tell about ourselves. What was disconnected is now remembered using the very tools and methodologies employed by Haitians themselves."--Patrick Bellegarde-Smith, author of Haiti: The Breached Citadel

"Pressley-Sanon's important book demonstrates that Haitian Vodou is a serious enterprise with its own phenomenology and epistemologies, and that the religion's unique pragmatic dimensions offer initiatory answers to otherwise unanswerable questions about Haiti's past, present, and future. A must-read."--Claudine Michel, editor, Journal of Haitian Studies

"Reveals an impressively rich cultural landscape inhabited by women and men whose legendary resilience in the face of adversity clothes a ferocious dedication to their identity as free people."--LeGrace Benson, author of Arts and Religions of Haiti: How the Sun Illuminates Under Cover of Darkness


Gathering oral stories and visual art from Haiti and two of its "motherlands" in Africa, Istwa across the Water recovers the submerged histories of the island through methods drawn from its deep spiritual and cultural traditions.


Toni Pressley-Sanon employs three theoretical anchors to bring together parts of the African diaspora that are profoundly fractured because of the slave trade. The first is the Vodou concept of marasa, or twinned entities, which she uses to identify parts of Dahomey (the present-day Benin Republic) and the Kongo region as Haiti's twinned sites of cultural production. Second, she draws on poet Kamau Brathwaite's idea of tidalectics--the back-and-forth movement of ocean waves--as a way to look at the cultural exchange set in motion by the transatlantic movement of captives. Finally, Pressley-Sanon searches out the places where history and memory intersect in story, expressed by the Kreyòl term istwa.


Challenging the tendency to read history linearly, this volume offers a bold new approach for understanding Haitian histories and imagining Haitian futures.

Toni Pressley-Sanon, assistant professor of African and African American studies at Eastern Michigan University, is the author of The Haitian Peasantry through Oral and Written Literature.
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