Saturday, May 23, 2015

God Loves Haiti--and So Do I

When I visit a place I like to know as much as I can about where I'm going, but I find that I can also immerse myself in the spirit of a place through its fiction as well as any history books.  My visit to Haiti last year opened my eyes to a part of the world I met first through Tracy Kidder's Mountains Beyond Mountains about Dr. Paul Farmer's activities in the country. At the time, we were using the novel in our classes at the community college--just the semester before the devastating earthquake.

Because of the common reading experience, students had more than a superficial concern for the victims of this natural disaster.

My preparation for my own trip to the Port-au-Prince area focused more on learning all I could about teaching methods for lower grades. Usually, I read a book set in an area when I travel, but during this trip, our team spent our days working in schools with teachers and our evenings preparing for the next day.

Only after my return to the States did I begin to dig into stories of Haiti.  My first goal was to find reading material for the Haitian students. While Creole is the native tongue, French is the language of power, so students are immediately plunged into reading and writing French even before five years old.  Finding children's books was a challenge.  Books in French has more of a Parisian context.  The Eiffel Tower had little significance in Gaunthier and Santos.  I researched and found that author Edwidge Danticat is from Haiti and her works are set there as well, so I started by trying to contact her.  When she responded, she not only gave me information about sources of books in Creole but also offered to send copies of children's books her husband had written.

In the meantime, I had gathered a number of books by Danticat, along with informational publications about Haitia and the Creole language.  Before I started reading them, though--since my reading habits follow whim more than purpose--I picked up God Loves Haiti,  Dimitry Elias Ledger's powerful debut novel.

If you want straight history, just the facts, Ledger's book is not the place to start. While the events of the earthquake are accurate--even the duration of what the citizens call "goudou goudou"--the characters are not.  The narrative moves back and forth between Natasha Robert, the young artist, wife of the president, her former lover Alain Destiné,, whom she left to marry the Haitian president, and the president himself.  These are not, however, actual historical figures.  At the time of Ledger's story, just as the earth begins to shake, the president is about to board a plane for Italy with his wife, leaving Haiti behind. Alain has been left behind in the presidential palace, escaping only to have his car thrown skyward.

While the details aren't factual, the flavor of the island, especially as the survivors work to regain their lives, gives a real sense of Port-au-Prince.  Ledger's writing moves from realistic to occasional magical realism, such as when the president finds himself in line at the final judgment behind his presidential predecessors, a scene that brings to mind Macbeth's scene of the parade of Banquo and his heirs shown him by the Weird Sisters.

The complicated interplay between Christianity, particularly Catholicism, and the remnants of traditional voodoo surface in both stories, plumbing the age-old questions about God's role in time of tragedies.  The questions are not easily answered.

Edwidge Danticat's first novel Breath, Eyes, Memory was published in 1994, when she was twenty-five.  Begun, according to interviews, as an essay about her own childhood, the book becomes a novel told from the perspective of Sophie Caco, a Haitian girl raised by her aunt, while her mother lives in the United States. Only after she is summoned to reunite with her mother does she learn of her own beginnings--when her mother was raped at fourteen by a man whose face she never saw.

The story moves back and forth between her new life in New York City, where she marries an older man without her mother's blessing to the smaller villages of Haiti, first the home of the aunt who raised her and then the mountain village where her grandmother lives where Sophie flees after giving birth to her first child, an experience that forces her to face her own past.

Breath, Eyes, Memory is as much about making peace with oneself as with one's past, especially with mothers, well-meaning, who inflict on their own daughters traditions for which they too had been victims. Running in the background, though, is the complicated political situation in Haiti.  Sophie witnesses the death at the hand of self-styled soldiers and is encouraged to keep moving and look away.

Both these novels paint a picture of an island country suffering for years and years because of outsider action, already in poverty before the earthquake, but each story keeps the focus on individual human beings and their relationships when placed in situations beyond their control, choosing to survive with the resources at hand.

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