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Featured Story - Joanne Hyppolite 

Joanne Hyppolite is a shining star among the few - successful, U.S. published writers of Haitian descent.  She was born in Haiti and migrated to the United States at the age of four. Ms. Hyppolite grew up in Massachusetts. She received her master’s in Afro-American Studies at the University of California and is currently enrolled in the Caribbean Literature Ph.D. program at the University of Miami.

          The 33 year old discovered her passion for the written word when she was 12 years old. This love prompted her to pursue a bachelor’s degree in creative writing from the University of Pennsylvania. She published her first book, Seth and Samona, when she was 24 years old.  The story about the relationship between Seth, a young Haitian-American, and Samona, an African-American girl, is set in Dorchester, Massachusetts, the city in which Ms. Hyppolite grew up.  Unlike most aspiring authors who tell tales of hundreds of rejection letters and self-doubt, Ms. Hyppolite’s road to publication was not so gory. She submitted her manuscript to a publisher but never received a reply.  After months of wondering what happened, she heeded the advice of a professor and entered the same manuscript in the Second Annual Marguerite de Angeli Contest sponsored by Delacorte Press.   As a testament to her craft, the novel was awarded first place.  With her first place prize – a publication contract – in hand; Ms. Hyppolite was on her way to that magical place where words become tools of exploration and comfort.  Her second novel Ola Shakes it Up was published in 1998.  The book is about a nine-year old girl whose family, move to a community where they, along with their Haitian immigrant housekeeper, are the only blacks. She is currently working on a third book, A Brighter Sun, which deals with the Civil Rights Movement in Florida. Like her previous books, the novel focuses on the relationship between young adults of within the racial and political context of 1960’s Florida.   

Most of the ideas for Ms. Hyppolite’s books center on themes that deal with Haitian and African-American identity and the challenges of overcoming stereotypes and cultural differences.  Ms. Hyppolite states that one of the most surprising things she learned in creating her book is that writers are funnels of their culture.  She considers herself a both a role model and representative for her culture, not necessarily because she is Haitian, but because she is an author. She feels that as a young author, she “debunks stereotypes” and “makes and impression.” Ms. Hyppolite admits that her parents, in their sense of conservatism, were at first wary about her chosen profession. They were a bit worried that writing could not provide a substantial living.  However, after the publication of her first novel, they became her greatest fans and task masters.  They are proud and ambitious for her, constantly asking, “When is the next book coming?”

          Like most writers, Ms. Hyppolite has a ritual that she follows. She writes only on week day mornings, usually for two and half to three hours at a time. She prefers to write on her laptop, away from the PC and the lure of the internet.  In addition to cultural environment, her muse includes a pebble that she found when visiting Gelée Beach in Les Cayes, her hometown in Haiti.  Whenever she feels the dreaded writers block coming on, or when a character refuses to reveal him/herself, Ms. Hyppolite rubs the little pebble, negotiating with it by saying, “What are you trying to tell me?”  She believes that this little pebble, which she loves, does indeed “speak” to her, for seems to rejuvenate her writing process. She considers Seth and Samona her favorite book because of its “organic” quality.  The book is close to her because it was written with a neophyte writer’s “state of unconsciousness” where ideas flow and characters bloom within her mind without the recital of an motivational mantra. Ms. Hyppolite says that she “would like to get back to that place.” Her second favorite book has yet to be published or completed. Unlike the young adult books for which she is known, the unpublished manuscript is an adult novel.

          Ms. Hyppolite likes hearing from her readers and receives a good bit of letters from students and teachers. Some fans even ask for responses. She is happy to oblige these requests which.  To Ms. Hyppolite, a good story is created from, “nuanced characters, a good plot, a great first line, and something that is finely drawn, whether it is the character or setting.”  Her advice to aspiring writers is, “Write, write, write! You have to translate the desire to action.” She also suggests that they attend workshops and writing conferences not only to develop their skills, but also to network.  Knowing and contacting the right names in the business can make a big difference. She supposes, for example, that had she addressed the Seth and Samona manuscript to “Mr. Joe Black at XYZ Publishing” instead of to a general office, her original manuscript might not now be in an a box labeled “unread.” But as luck and talent would have it, the book now sits on bookshelves in the young adult section of libraries all over the country.

          When she is not writing, Ms. Hyppolite is involved in her other love – teaching. She has taught undergraduate classes at the University of Miami. She is inspired to teach because it gives her a chance to share her interaction with literature with others. It is a great way for her to expose people to the power and importance of literature, not only as entertainment, but also as socio-cultural discourse. She finds joy in helping students develop an appreciation for the talent and craft of writing.  As relaxation, she works out, does yoga, and belongs to a book club, and watches sit-coms and her two favorite shows, 7th Heaven and ER. She also visits Haiti about once or twice a year.

          Ms. Hyppolite’s community service mostly consists of her involvement in the organization Women Writers of Haitian Descent (WWOHD). In 2000, she co-founded the non-profit organization with fellow Haitian women writers Maude Heurtelou and Liliane Nérette Louis. The organization’s mission is “to use literature to educate the public about social and cultural issues facing Haitian women and girls, to provide forums for Haiti’s literary daughters to connect and to preserve works written by and about Haitian women.”  Last year, WWOHD went the Leogane, Haiti to compile a social needs assessment of women who are afflicted with the condition, lymphatic filariasis (elephantitis).  They also sponsor literary salons and book readings. Ms. Hyppolite believes that Haitian women writers need “their voices to be heard.”  Too many times, she says, their “voices get broadcasted and fall into void, with a lack of publicity and appreciation.”  Another difficulty facing Haitians writers is the low literacy rates among Haitians both at home and abroad.  The country has had hundreds of literary magazines that, yet the power of the words continue to be accessed by the few who realize that “access to language is access to power.” Ms. Hyppolite believes that Haitian parents, specifically the mothers, are responsible for instilling emergent literacy in their children. She suggests that they take their children to books stores and libraries, expose to the written word in all its forms so that they can know that, “books are important.”

          Teacher, writer, and community activist - all of these labels can be aptly applied to Joanne Hyppolite.  This dynamic young women uses her God-given and academically honed talents in many ways.  As a educator she helps young adults develop and appreciation for the art and power of literature. As a writer, she draws upon her cultural reservoir and heartwarming humor to expose young adults to the themes of growing up, belonging, and the importance of family and community values. As community activist, Ms. Hyppolite uses literature to educate people about the issues facing Haitian women at home and in the diaspora while campaigning for an end to illiteracy and social debilitating prejudices.  Joanne Hyppolite is truly a rising star whose brilliance shines in many ways.