Joanne Hyppolite, Ph.D.
A Sense of Community & Human Life
by Stephanie Krulik
Joanne Hyppolite, greets her visitor with a strong handshake and a welcome invitation to become part of her world. Seated on deck chairs on her 9th floor south Florida apartment balcony, a cool April breeze sweeps by and a bright Florida sun reveals the Atlantic Ocean far beyond.
The fact that Hyppolite is an award-winning Middle Grade novelist (8-12 year-olds), short story writer, Chief Curator at the History Miami museum on Flagler Street, and mother of her six year-old son, Carl, provide the integrated complexities of her everyday life.
Hyppolite's life history could be the making of great stories. In fact, it has. Her written words provide themes of American/ Haitian/African- American life and the Haitian Diaspora in the United States. She offers: "The great thing about writing for kids is they are unconnected. They don't have a lot of social decorum - the rules of how we think about people - so you can have an impression, thought, feeling, and go with that."
The word connection was found. Hyppolite was born in Aouakayes ( Les Ceyes), Haiti and at age four, immigrated to America with her parents. Her strong voice was found at age 12 growing up in Dorchester and then Brookline, Massachusetts. She read every book in the children's section of the Brookline public library. "With nothing else to read, I discovered that writing was an option for me. With an empty notebook and pen, I sat for a couple of hours each day on the yellow couch in my mother's living room."
Her literary voice - Hyppolite equates that to dance steps; learning the drills first - was defined when she earned a B.A. in African-American studies and English from the University of Pennsylvania. Her creative writing professor and mentor, Kristen Hunter Lattany, was pivotal in her becoming a children's book author. Hyppolite holds an M.A. in Afro-American studies from UCLA and a Ph.D. in Literature from the University of Miami with an emphasis on African-American and Caribbean culture and folklore. She is founder of Women Writers of Haitian descent.
Hyppolite's first youth novel, Seth and Samona (Delacorte Press, 1995) was published when she was just 24 years-old. Encouraged by Professor Lattany to enter a writing contest, Hyppolite won the Marguerite de Angeli Prize for New Children's Fiction. De Angeli (1889-1987) was a bestselling author and illustrator of children's books. "I had to get the prize," Hyppolite says, "I had to write for Kristin." Pause... "Life, it was the perfect storm."
The story is set in Dorchester and told in Seth's voice, that of an 11 year-old Haitian-American, a little like the author: traditional, quiet, straight-laced. Samona is an outgoing American black girl and Seth's classmate. Almost like Hyppolite's childhood friend, Tamika. Themes combine friendship, race and adjustment and an in-depth look at Hyppolits's own youth: her Haitian family in a predominant African/American neighborhood.
Hyppolite says, "I come from a very strong cultural community. I feel that sense of community; nurturing people, the aesthetics and the vibrancy of human life." Ola Shakes it Up" (Random House 2001) says it all. When Ola's parents move to a new all-white community, the young girl must learn, with difficulty, humor and desperation to participate.
Hyppolite's writing encompasses narrative, humor, and interesting people with interesting traits. She says, "It is not just the way they act or the way they look, but it's the back story that works." Hyppolite writes on a computer at home and often takes notes in journals. She works to the ending and must have the last chapter written. She offers, "I have to know where I'm going. I work around what some people call 'the muddle in the middle.' It is a most frustrating time."
Her short stories are published in the literary journal, The Caribbean Writer and in the anthology, The Butterfly's Way: Voices from the Haitian Diaspora in the United States, edited by Edwidge Danticat. Little Citizen was published in the former. Hyppolite's answer to Diaspora- disconnected, to move out of a place and time - when asked if she was conflicted between the two cultures, "No," she answered. "But it is easier to understand the past."
As Chief Curator of MuseumMiami, Hyppolite oversees all Exhibitions and Collections. She brought to focus, the 2009 exhibition, Black Crossroads: The African Diaspora in Miami. It was an intense exploration of different Black roots as they made Miami their home. Asked what the Museum taught her, Hyppolite says, "A strong appreciation for the power of history as a mechanism for us to measure our progress." Her imprint will pay attention to both specialization and focus.
Progress and a writer's need never to stop writing have brought Hyppolite to a new connection and the beginning of a new novel: A Brighter Sun merges history the author's love of fiction. It is a story about Azalea, an African-American girl and a white girl set in the 1950's. Azalea's mother is a domestic and brings the child to work. Hyppolite says, "It is something I've learned and inspired by Miami's historic Black communities."
Like her mementos, pebbles from the Haitian beach or the coral rock from Miami's Virginia Key beach, Hyppolite looks at them when she writes. They remind her of her physical environment. She is unsure if this book will be adult fiction. It is written in a child's voice but the themes are very adult. Hyppolite notes that Miami is such an important underwritten, understood area. This book brings reference to these matters. The story and the dialogue are intense.
Hyppolite has taken great pride in this book. She says, "It is an important story to be told about in fiction." Like her own life, the book speaks to the past and the future. As things get more intense in Miami, Azalea questions the change. When the family drives from north Florida to Miami Azalea's father quietly tells her, 'We are driving toward a brighter sun.'