As a writer, it is little wonder that I first fell in love with Haiti through its literature. Jacques Stephen Alexis and his “Romancero aux Etoiles” just rocked my world. The language was luscious, musical, and magic. I had discovered the “réalisme merveilleux.” As an interesting aside, I searched the Internet to link to a wikipedia article in English about “magic realism”, and found zero mention of Haitian writers. Latin American authors like Alejo Carpentier, who coined the term “real maravilloso”, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez and his “Hundred Years of Solitude,” as well as Isabel Allende or Jose Luis Borges are all there, as they should be. But not one Haitian author. Why ?
Having recently moved to New York, I didn’t quite know how to find other works by Haitian authors, in French, but a friend found several books for me (that friend is Haitian, and has since become my husband) : “Général Compère Soleil” (translated into English as “General Sun, My Brother”), “L’espace d’un cillement…” And then, Jacques Roumain and his “Gouverneurs de la Rosée.” (Masters of the Dew.”)
These were the years 1994 and 1995 : Aristide had just been restored as President, with the help of the Clinton administration. I started reading about Haiti’s history, equally astounded and ashamed that during all my school years in France I had never heard anything about Haiti. Why ? This little country which shared the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic had once been the richest French colony, “The Pearl of The Antilles,” and they had kicked us out of there, too. Is that the reason French children don’t see it mentioned in their history books ?
The history of the Haitian Revolution is extraordinary (Madison Smartt Bell has written a beautiful trilogy of historical novels about it : “All Souls Rising,” “Master of The Crossroads,” and “The Stone that The Builder Refused.”
Haiti was the first independent nation in Latin America ! It was the second independent nation in the New World after the United States of America ! It was the first nation in the world to gain its independence from colonial rule through a successful slave rebellion, on January 1, 1804 !
Unfortunately, this remarkable victory was followed by a history fraught with struggle, turmoil, coups d’état, and more abuse from countries like France – in the way of debts supposed to repay for the loss of profits from the slave trade (as if the Haitian people had not already paid enough with their work and their blood during the atrocious colonial rule) – the Dominican Republic – with its 1937 massacre of Haitian emigrants. (read Edwige Danticat’s beautiful novel, The Farming of Bones) – but most of all, the US – with its occupation of Haiti from 1915 until 1934, or its shady involvement in coups from people they supported. You can find out more about the role of the U.S. in Haiti’s history in Naom Chomsky’s paper “The Tragedy of Haiti” or this more recent article published in the San Francisco BayView about “How the U.S. impoverished Haiti.” Another bone-chilling perspective on the way the U.S. deals with Haitians can be found in Edwige Danticat’s haunting memoir, “Brother, I’m Dying,” where she describes the inhuman treatment that, to this day, befalls Haitian people seeking asylum in Florida. For years, Cubans have only had to set foot on US soil to be welcomed as political refugees. But if you’re Haitian, you get sent to the Chrome detention center ! Why?
I couldn’t stop reading about Haiti. Books about the Duvalier dictatorship. About Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and how this charismatic priest carried so much hope at the time. And more novels from Haitian authors : René Dépestre, Emile Ollivier, Louis Philippe d’Alembert, Marie-Vieux Chauvet… And then, as of 1996, Edwige Danticat…
In October 1997, I went to Haiti for the first time with Dr Belenky, his wife, renowned developmental psychologist and author Mary Belenky, and a group of volunteers. In the span of three weeks, I lived and experienced more things than anyone does in a whole lifetime : I rode tap-taps and spent time with children in an orphanage ; I travelled to Cap Haitien, slept on the concrete floor of an empty house in the little village of Moustique, and visited la Citadelle, le Palais Sans-Souci, and Cap Haitien ; I walked the dusty streets of Port au Prince, and travelled by bus to the beautiful town of Jacmel and its black sand beach (of which I brought some back.) Incidentally, I also finished a translation, and because I walked past dark with my laptop, I was held at gun point, twice in a few days. But even that could not spoil my experience.
Haiti is so much more than the “poorest country in the Western hemisphere,” which is what one reads, usually in the first paragraph, whenever there is a piece of news about Haiti.
Haiti is a vibrant country with an extraordinary cultural heritage. Music that makes you want to sing, and dance. Literature that transports you, as mentioned above. And, last but not least, there is Haitian art : painting, sculpture, vodoo flags. (The picture below was taken in a street of Petionville, a suburb of Port-au-Prince. I always marvel at the talent of Haitians for visual arts. Give some paint, a brush and a canvas to almost any Haitian, and they will create something beautiful.)
Haitian people are joyful, and dignified. They are beautiful, spiritual, strong, resilient and resourceful. The country, in spite of erosion, hardship, and abject poverty, is gorgeous, its potential, enormous. Just ask the Americans who go on Caribbean cruises and stop at Labadie, a beach in the north of the country. More often that not, the tourists spend a day of leisure there, enjoying the white sand, the crystal clear water, and eating lobster, and they have no idea that they are in Haiti. Nor are they told that a few kilometers away stands the amazing Citadelle Laferrière, a world heritage site, the ruins of the Palais Sans-Souci, and the interesting city of Cap-Haïtien.
Recently, Bill Clinton was appointed as the UN Special Envoy for Haiti. Security had improved, and things were looking up. The country was still poor, there was still a staggering amount of work to do, but there was also a renewed feeling of hope – something that had not been experienced in years. And suddenly, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake strikes !!?? It is tempting to look up at the sky and, again, cry : WHY?
But it doesn’t resolve anything. In the midst of all the devastation – and because I’m sitting far away, safe, and well fed, and feeling hopelessly useless, I’m very much aware of that – I want to try and search for ways and reasons to think positively.
Clinton wrote an essay in The Time about how to better direct the efforts, and his words do reflect the kind of hope that all people concerned with Haiti and its people can cling to, I think. The earthquake hit Port au Prince and areas around it all the way to the picturesque town of Jacmel, but the rest of the country is as usual. If only the people who move to PAP in hopes to find a job and a better life decide to go back home, now that there is nothing much left in the capital city, and the efforts to develop the north, with its amazing touristic potential, can be focused on and sustained, might all that suffering turn out to not have been totally in vain ? Both my husband and I were thinking aloud, yesterday, and he said : maybe they should build a new capital elsewhere, somewhere there is nothing, like in the center of the country. From scratch. It would decentralize the whole government, help develop areas which are empty and unused, decongest Port au Prince… Well, these are thoughts…
The tremendous outpouring of sympathy and good will is comforting ; as is Obama’s strong decisions to send massive help. Both Clintons are very attached to Haiti. Let us hope that all the money and help coming from all over the world doesn’t dwindle in a week or two, once the news starts getting old. The efforts need to be sustained in the long term. Maybe, then, a stronger Haiti can raise from it own ashes, and the world would finally get to see what all those who’ve spent time there already know. Haiti is very, very special.
To prove it, I’ll be posting pictures that we have taken during our times there, over the years. Pictures that will show something different from what most people see when they’re shown Haiti on TV. The Haiti that we love. And I’ll continue to do that for a while, in the hope that the situation will not be forgotten again in a few weeks or even months…