Poster Djenane Saint Juste
Djenane Saint Juste's book 'The Mermaid and the Whale' tells Haitian history through a traditional folk song.

Djenane Saint Juste's 'The Mermaid and the Whale' shares Haitian history through word and song

She's a singer. She's a dancer. She's a choreographer. She's a writer. She's an educator.

But above all, Djenane Saint Juste is a cultural ambassador for her native land, Haiti.

Djenane Saint Juste
Djenane Saint Juste's book 'The Mermaid and the Whale' tells Haitian history through a traditional folk song.

Her abundant gifts for storytelling, and for melding that with music, are manifest in The Mermaid and the Whale. Available at Red Balloon Bookshop and Saint Juste's website, Afoutayi, the Mermaid package includes a children's book and a CD, to be enjoyed together, or not.

"[Children] can listen to my mom singing as they're reading, or they can just lay down and imagine the book, a picture in their heads," she said. "The song was very traditional, while the story was new and unique but attached to the song."

That attachment springs from the Haitian folklore that continually has been infused into story and song. Inspired by the song "Lasirèn ak Labalèn," which has been performed in Haiti for generations, the plot follows a man searching for riches but finding something more rewarding.

The responses have been similarly rewarding for Saint Juste. At one school, she said, "The children were listening to my mom singing [in Creole], and when I explained the translation, they were so excited. The teacher said they talked about it for a week."

The goal is to edify as well as entertain, to engage her audience to delve into an often-misunderstood country. She wants the world to know that Haiti is about much more than poverty, natural disasters and Voodoo (Vodou, in her native language) — and what better place to start than with children?

"I really want the kids to have a different perspective," Saint Juste said. "We have issues, but we have a lot of beautiful things to offer the world, the language, the music, the art."

And, yes, Vodou is part and parcel of Haitian society. But the doctrine is not built so much around the clichés associated with it — witch doctors, Satan and black magic — but rather, Saint Juste pointed out, to a significant degree about the kind of connections with nature and spirit guides that play a part in her book.

"My mother is a Vodou priestess," she said, "so I grew up attending many Vodou ceremonies, traditional Vodou song and drumming. I was always on stage with her learning and teaching Haitian folk music."

Still, the stigma lingers, and Saint Juste considers it responsible for the lack of a vibrant Haitian community in Minnesota.

"A lot of [Minnesota Haitians] came from different religious sects," she said. "It's hard because they don't want to associate themselves with Vodou, the devil thing. No one wants to be associated with the devil. All those movies didn't do justice to the cultures or the religion."

That means that "there's a lot of Haitians but not a big community," she added. "It's all spread out. My company is trying to reach out, to create more of a community."

Community is at the heart of Saint Juste's work in many ways, and she comes by it naturally. Her mother, Florencia Pierre, said she knew early on — very early on — that Djenane would have a creative musical bent.

"Since I was pregnant," Pierre said, "I knew I would give birth to an artist. She was dancing in my belly when I was performing. It's a generational thing. Even before my mom was born, storytelling was part of our identity as a family. It's a beautiful tradition that we have where every night the adults gather around the fire and they educate the children with stories and keep up the legacy of the families.

"That's the way I started learning about storytelling. I grew up seeing my grandmother, my auntie, my community not only telling stories but singing. My daughter is putting those stories into writing and using the storytelling to make it available for more children to be aware of the past, the tradition, the history of our beautiful country."

Sharing that history has been curtailed by pandemic-driven measures limiting classroom interactions. As a Classical MPR Class Notes Artist, Saint Juste had relished frequent school readings and performances, and she looks forward to a future when something resembling "the old normal" returns.

But she has other vocations, in particular as a dance instructor at venues like the Cowles Center and in such disciplines as ballroom, Zumba and hip-hop. That diversity comes naturally, as Saint Juste speaks four languages and even has translated her book to them: Lasirèn ak Labalèn in Creole, La Sirène et La Baleine in French and La Sirena y La Ballena in Spanish. Pierre sings in Creole on the CD, and the book launch took place at Alliance Francaise in Minneapolis.

Here is a 2017 performance of the Creole version for the Class Notes program:

"I grew up in Haiti, so French and Creole were part of my background," Saint Juste said, "and then I traveled to Cuba for music education for five years before moving to the U.S. in 2009. I feel so connected to all these cultures."

But her homeland is at the forefront in sharing the book and its music.

"My hope," she said, "is to have this book in schools so children can have some positive information on Haiti and also learn more about a different culture.

"I hope people can be inspired by this. This is a time we need to be together."

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This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment‘s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.