“Could we have not done much better?” Essays on Post-Earthquake Haiti

Martin Munro, ed., Haiti Rising: Haitian History, Culture and the Earthquake of 2010 (Mona, Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press, 2010), 200 pages, ISBN 978-9766402488 (paper).

• February 2011

Haiti Rising: Haitian History, Culture and the Earthquake of 2010 orchestrates individual voices into a moving composition on what contributor Deborah Jenson poignantly characterizes as “the quake in the Haitian world, [which] has rearranged not only heaven and earth but Haiti and its geopolitical neighbors in shattered slabs of international relations” (110). Twenty-four scholars, artists, writers, and humanitarian aid workers—including internationally renowned public intellectuals such as Raoul Peck, Yanick Lahens, Maryse Condé, Madison Smartt Bell, and Michel Le Bris—contribute essays and personal narratives for which the collaborative result is an incisive analysis, a pragmatic inventory of solutions to reconstruction, and a moving tribute to both the ideas and the realities that “Haïti chérie,” after the “Goudougoudou—as we now derisively call the earthquake”—represents (143). Within such a shattered world, the anthology itself embodies the cooperative harmony that may exist, exemplifying what Smartt Bell describes as the “Kreyòl ‘nou’, which can mean both ‘we’ and ‘you’” (166).

This synergy renders the collection resoundingly successful as it explicates, and offers precise analyses of, common discourses on Haiti. Given the short turn-around time with which editor Martin Munro assembled the essays, and the temporal proximity to the 12 January 2010 earthquake (most essays were written between February and May 2010), it is astounding that, in such pithy texts (each article is between two and ten pages), the twenty-four authors could contribute such lucid and poised accounts, analyses and projections of Haiti’s historical, political and cultural position after the earthquake.

The book is divided into four parts. The first is “Survivor Testimonies,” which gives accounts of survivors both who know Haiti well and who were visiting for the first time. Lahens’s opening essay sets the stage for the collection: Haiti is “not a peripheral place. Its history has made it a center” (11). She poignantly speaks to the patience that makes Haiti exemplary of a culture that has learned to deal positively with the onslaught of “misery,” an inevitable outcome of its history. Laura Wagner, an anthropology graduate student living in Port-au-Prince at the time, portrays her own survival along with the field notes that record the “normal things” before the “unthinkable event” (21). She describes those persons who saved her from under the rubble of her apartment and writes forcibly against the unfathomable means of identification (i.e., “unidentifiable local female”) that official aid workers used for the bodies of those who perished (22). Jason Herbeck, who was in Haiti for the first time attending Etonnants voyageurs, an international literary and film festival, describes the relationship that he creates with a voice that belongs to a body that perishes, a counterpoint to his own survival.

Also in this first section, Le Bris, writer and friend of Jean-Paul Sartre, adapts Sartre’s famous question (and the title of his 1947 series of essays)—What is literature?to the context of Haiti, asking, What can literature do? One of Le Bris’s many responses is that literature “offer[s] evidence of a creative power that the journalists had up to that point denied or ignored—that power from which something could be rebuilt in Haiti” (32). Like Le Bris, Peck also identifies what becomes one of the resounding themes of Munro’s collection: the media’s inability to depict Haiti as it is. He speaks of friends who are journalists who know Haiti well, and yet whose articles report that which will sell. As Beverly Bell states in a later essay, “One man’s disaster can be another man’s profit” (163). The writers’ reflection on the media, what Marlène Rigaud Apollon names the “maze of horrors” (12), inscribes itself into a larger consideration of flat representations of Haiti in which “the notion of complexity seems left out” (Peck, 46). Thomas C. Spear expresses the various layers to his “anger” regarding the historical and political circumstances that allow for such tragedy, and the “laughter” and “love” that define not only his relationship to Haiti, but Haitians’ resilience to such unavoidable suffering. Nadève Ménard provides a list of concrete solutions from the point of view of a person who lives and works full-time in Haiti. She writes, “While the prime minister decries the fact that dozens of young professionals left the country after the earthquake, he doesn’t make use of the ones that are still here. I should know. I am one of them” (53).

The second part of the anthology is titled “Politics, Culture and Society,” and offers scholarly readings of Haiti with the earthquake as a prism. J. Michael Dash, who has a deep and longstanding relationship with Haiti and its place in the Caribbean, relates the current event with the historical context: heexplains that “Haiti’s tragedy is not natural, but manmade, not destiny but history” (63). Leslie G. Desmangles and Elizabeth McAlister look at the contemporary state of the three major Haitian religious practices—Protestantism, Catholicism, and Vodou—thoroughly contextualizing Pat Robertson’s infamous statement about Haiti’s “pact with the devil.” They also suggest that post-earthquake Haiti might offer an opportunity for unprecedented universal religious tolerance. Régine Michelle Jean-Charles writes a eulogy to Myriam Merlet, Magalie Marcelin, and Anne-Marie Coriolan, women who were pillars of the rights of girls and women in Haiti, all of whom perished in the quake. In the second part of her essay, Jean-Charles interrogates the problems associated with the narrative of “martyr rather than victim” that underlies many of the stories of rape of Haitian women and proposes initiatives that make women central to any successful rebuilding of Haiti (85). LeGrace Benson gives a compelling account of the current state of the national artistic treasures, offering an inventory of what remains, while reflecting on the strange triangular relationship between art, trauma, and business. Later, in the closing section, Smartt Bell ponders the validity of saving art: “So a great part of the heritage of Haitian art is simply getting washed away. How much does it matter, next to two or three hundred thousand dead?” (167).

The third part, “History,” provides the reader with analyses from the most acclaimed historians on Haiti, living and working between the United States, Europe, and Haiti. John D. Garrigus offers an exhaustive list of facts, covering a history of Haiti through the prisms of race, urbanization, the environment, and the global economy. Jean Casimir and Laurent Dubois take a little spoken perspective: that of the exemplary organization and calm “in the face of the magnitude of the catastrophe” (126). They offer reasons for Haitians’ ability to self-provide faced with the historical lack of “state.” Their essay looks at the role of the elite as well as the relationship of Haiti to France and the United States, and finally identifies language as a source of “empowerment” for Haitians (132). Patrick Bellegarde-Smith draws on his mother’s iteration at the selection of François Duvalier as head-of-state: “Could we have not done much better?” (138). He offers his own pilgrimage throughout the Haitian twentieth century, offering an interdisciplinary look at the close relationship between Haitian and US leaders, the disillusion of failed communism, a moving account of Aristide’s presidency, and a consideration of the “Haitian constitutions [as] small literary masterpieces, and paragons of liberal thinking” (139). It is Evelyne Trouillot who best answers the question that Bellegarde-Smith’s mother asked in 1957. Trouillot analyzes the complex relationships between social classes and looks at how post-earthquake Haiti might have offered the “ruling classes” the opportunity to create a Haiti “that would put all children on the same level” (57). In so doing, she uncannily responds point-blank to the question of Bellegarde-Smith’s mother: “We have missed an important opportunity here” (57).

The fourth and final part is titled “Haiti and Me.” In a sense, it offers distressing answers to another of Bellegarde-Smith’s questions, while also illuminating the title of Munro’s anthology: “How many times does a phoenix rise from his ashes before being given a ‘pass’?” (139). Acclaimed writers, artists, and humanitarians, including Condé, Bell, Smartt Bell, Bill Drummond, Leah Gordon, and Matthew J. Smith, celebrate the impact that Haiti has had on their own lives—whether spiritually or professionally. Yet in so doing, they also speak to the frustrating helplessness that besets the lives of any individual—even experts—who work intimately with Haiti. And so, the anthology ends with the bittersweet celebration of a country whose resilience resembles that of the phoenix and yet whose geopolitical reality keeps it constantly in the process of “rising.”

Note that all royalties of the book go to the Haitian Art Relief Fund.

 

Alessandra Benedicty is an assistant professor of Caribbean and francophone literatures at the Division of Interdisciplinary Studies at the City College of New York.

 

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