Haiti: A Long Connection

From the UC Irvine School of Humanities publication, “Between The Lines.”

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Just before Christmas, I went down to Haiti for the first time in eight years on assignment to write a travel piece and a political piece. The nights in Port-au-Prince were illuminated with fanales, urn-sized paper lanterns — in the shapes of old-fashioned Haitian gingerbread houses or churches — that are made by street craftsmen during the Christmas season and that hang from roadside trees on the hills going to the suburbs. It’s as if there are two Haitis at this time of year: a sort of Thomas Kinkade country, filled with clean little white buildings brightly lit up from the inside, and then the real place, dark, poor, hungry and often without electricity.


The latter was the subject of my first book, The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier, published in 1989. In many ways, Haiti has changed enormously since I first visited in 1985, just before the fall of the dynastic dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier. First of all, an ele democracy is in place. That’s good, although governmental effectiveness is hampered by a lack of money as well as by traditions of corruption inculcated during centuries of national penury. Second, Haiti burst out of the Duvalier era into an age of voluble freedom of speech. For example, while the cranky and weak leadership endlessly mulls over the wisdom of permitting the ousted, controversial and hugely popular president Jean-Bertrand Aristide to return to Haiti from exile in South Africa, on the walls of Port-au-Prince, the capital city, are huge scrawling graffiti proclaiming “Aristid Wa.” Which, translated from the Haitian Creole, means Aristide is King.

For me, though, the biggest difference since 1985 is that Aristide is not there.

Aristide, an outspoken Catholic priest in the slums of Port-au-Prince when I lived in Haiti in the 1980s, was in some ways the hero of my book, published just before he took the politically unwholesome step of running for president. It was odd for me to be in Haiti without him there—I felt as if I were unfairly treading on his turf, the place where, in his mind at least, he should be. We’d had a falling out in 2000 over a short profile I published in The New York Times magazine, and have never communicated since. I heard from mutual friends that he considered the piece a trahison, or betrayal. He’d come to believe that I existed to serve his cause in some way, not realizing that the fact of taking power utterly transforms a subject’s relationship to a journalist just as it utterly transforms a public figure’s civic responsibilities. With him in the presidential palace and not the priestly parish, I was less tolerant of his defects, and he, less accepting of my criticism. So my visit was tinged with nostalgia for a simpler time in my Haitian life.

On this trip I realized — as I bought up small souvenirs or ate peanut butter with hot pepper, or lit the one light in my hotel room, not by switching it on but by plugging it in, or drove over roads that felt more like jagged stairs than roadbeds, or as I watched people do laundry in street runoff or saw them marching through a country town clad all in white for Jesus — that for me there is no escaping Haiti. It’s essential to me. A part of my brain, or soul, is now hardwired (if a soul can be hardwired) to understand, or at least recognize with familiarity, Haitian politics, Haitian behavior, Haitian culture.

I wanted to take a fanale home with me. But fanales famously do not survive the plane trip back to the States. So I left them there, hanging from the trees in a Haiti that is changed and different, yet as transparent to me still as the air through which, defiantly, they shine.

English professor Amy Wilentz teaches in the Literary Journalism program. The former Jerusalem correspondent for The New Yorker and a long-time contributing editor at The Nation, she is also the author of Martyrs’ Crossing (2000), and I Feel Earthquakes More Often Than They Happen: Coming to California in the Age of Schwarzenegger (2006).