Monthly Archives: March 2010

Haiti After Duvalier

Amy Wilentz, The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier (Simon and Schuster 1989, 1994)

When the recent earthquake struck Haiti, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who was dismayed by the spectacle of poor Black people, sometimes visibly despairing, sometimes raging, being helped out by calm, compassionate Europeans and USers, usually accompanied by a narrative about Haiti’s lack of infrastructure and the international community’s concern – that is to say, a spectacle that seemed to confirm racist stereotypes: African heritage people emotional, dangerous, incompetent etc; European heritage people efficient, kind, well organised etc. I realised my ignorance about Haiti was vast: from Jared Diamond’s Collapse I knew that its part of the island of Hispaniola was an ecological disaster resulting from poverty and political corruption; on a good day I could have told you that Papa Doc and Baby Doc were vicious dictators named Duvalier; I was dimly aware that it was the home of voodoo, about which my main source of information was the novels of William Gibson and the obviously misleading zombies of popular culture. It wasn’t going to help the earthquake survivors, but I felt the need to do them the basic honour of finding out about them. This book was recommended by a friend.

Amy Wilentz, a New Yorker, first went to Haiti in 1986, as a journalist covering the last days of Jean-Claude Duvalier (Baby Doc) and his wife Michèle. She returned a number of times in the next couple of years and then moved there to live. The book traces events from the ousting of Jean-Claude to just before the elections in 1989: military coups, violent popular actions and non-violent demonstrations, two bogus elections, army-backed massacres, arson, random killings. It’s quite a story, and the there’s a great cast of characters: a Well Placed US Embassy Official (who gives Wilentz transparent disinformation), a senatorial candidate, a dark haired photographer (eye witness and near casualty of one of the massacres), and a host of Haitians: politicians, well off mulattoes, shanty-town dwellers, voodoo celebrants, artists, street children, and – who becomes the main protagonist – Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Aristide is a priest, a member of the Salesian order, who speaks out against oppression, becomes a figurehead for the  popular resistance, and survives a number of attempts to kill him, discredit him or send him into exile.

The 1994 edition – which is what I have read – includes a foreword that briefly covers the intervening four or five years: Haiti had had its first genuinely democratic elections, in which Aristide was elected president by a huge majority. Aristide had been ousted by yet another military coup, US-backed like its predecessors, and was the subject of CIA-assisted smears.  A quick look at Wikipedia tells me that the turbulence has continued.

Haiti was founded at the turn of the nineteenth century, the only nation to be born of a slave revolt and the first Black republic. Haitians fought off an invasion by Napoleon’s forces, and in effect saved North America from invasion, paving the way for the Louisiana Purchase. Not that this kindness has been acknowledged by the US: Haiti  was invaded and occupied by US forces from 1915 to 1937, and continues to be dependent on US aid, which of course comes with strings attached. Reading this book makes the ‘donor nations’ look a lot less benign.

Because Wilentz actually lived in Haiti for some time, and developed relationships there, she can give a richly detailed account of life there. There’s a beautiful passage on Aristide’s theology, for instance (‘I believe the Resurrection is an ongoing process … In order to continue being a force, [the Apostles] had to believe that Jesus, their leader, was still a force. … In order to survive the shock of Jesus’ death, they imagined him coming and eating with them, the simplest thing, you know, the simplest human act, breaking bread together’). The narrative is sprinkled with linguistic pleasures in the form of frequent snippets of Haitian Creole: Aristide’s nickname was Titid, as in petit Aristide; I enjoyed teasing out the French connection in sentences such as, Se lè koulèv mouri, ou konn longé-l, which translates to English as ‘Only when the serpent dies can you take its measure’, and which I had fun figuring out would translate into French as something like C’est quand le coulèvre mourit, on connaît longer-le. The countryside, and the weather, come alive in frequent passages like this:

Smoke ascended from lean-to kitchens along the way. A truck piled high with charcoal bags rumbled by, stirring up dust. A peasant sat on top of the grey load, holding his machete; a piece of plastic was wrapped around his head against the approaching rains. The road twisted on; for all my travelling, I had not left Papaye far behind. I passed down a hill and through a small stream, where a great white pig was lounging on a rock, waiting for rain. Farther on, more people seemed to be about. Peasant men were standing at their doors, while the women made smoke in the kitchen. Two boys squatted in a yard, playing marbles.

She’s been there, and she does a good job of taking us with her. The book is firmly located in a particular moment in Haiti’s history, and the author’s understanding of the meaning of things has been challenged by subsequent events – in a recent op-ed in the New York Times, she herself refers to Aristide’s own ‘little-d Duvalierist tendencies’ as having contributed to the destruction of his presidency. But it’s not dated. Wilentz’s attention to detail, to the textures and smells and rhythms of daily life in Haiti make engrossing and illuminating reading. That post-earthquake New York Times op-ed piece concludes with a passage that possesses those same qualities:

This is what I saw as I traveled around the country on foot and on motorbike a week after the quake struck: families and neighbourhood groups putting up shelters; people cooperating with aid organisations to get food for their flattened neighbourhoods; teacher’s assistants hired by parents in the newly built shantytowns to teach and amuse children whose schools fell down (about 300 teachers at a conference died during the earthquake when their meeting hall collapsed). Men working in teams to remove reusable construction materials from the wreckage. Women sweeping debris from the roads with their graceful, primitive brooms. Young people caring for the wounded in makeshift clinics. Maybe utter destruction concentrates the mind. In these conditions, do-it-yourself democracy simply works best. The quiet president, operating behind the scenes with the international community, instead of strutting before the foreign press and claiming he’ll fix everything, is perhaps at this moment not such a bad leader for Haitian democracy, after all.

When you stand in the rubble of Port-au-Prince – so recently an affecting and even a heart-tugging city that functioned on a complicated, hypercharged fuel of chaos, exposed wiring, pig slop, smog, gingerbread turrets, hot cooking oil, rum, cockfights and bougainvillea – you begin to see that Haiti’s soul resides in its people. Out of this horror, maybe they will finally be released. That is, if the rains or another quake doesn’t stop them in their tracks.

‘Haiti’s soul resides in its people.’ That might look like easy rhetoric in the pages of a newspaper, but it’s not a bad six-word summary of what The Rainy Season carefully, passionately, intelligently ends up saying.

[Note: I’ve Australianised the spelling in the quotes.]

Another fortuitous incident

From page 257 of Amy Wilentz’s book on Haiti, The Rainy Season (about which I’ll write more very soon):

When Duvalier fell, movements like Chavannes’, which had maintained a fairly low profile under Duvalier, burst out into the open and grew rapidly, only to discover that the network of power they thought had been undone by the Dechoukaj [literally ‘uprooting, as of a tree’, of the old regime] was still in place and ready to strike back at them when the time should prove fortuitous.

Amy Wilentz is no slouch as a writer. Her prose is finely tuned, her feel for language strong. The word as used here, as by any number of other thoughtful writers, just doesn’t mean – can’t mean – what the dictionary says it means: ‘happening by chance’. But I don’t recall seeing it used quite this way before, as a synonym for ‘opportune’.

This is why I’m fascinated by the word: it’s in such a state of flux that its meaning wanders all over the place: providential, lucky, opportune. It has an almost wild-card quality.

The Australia Pacific Triennial and other Brisbane things

It can’t be! Two full weeks since I blogged! I must have been busy.

On the weekend Penny and I went to Brisbane for my brother’s seventieth birthday party, and had a fabulous time renewing contact with my family: brother and sisters and their spouses, nieces and nephews, grand nephews and nieces, cousins, sundry dogs, as well as a number of my brother’s old friends I hadn’t seen since I was 13, who have grown astonishingly old. The highlight of the party was a video created by two of my brother’s children, featuring many interviews and greetings from Innisfail, and a performance of ‘Don’t Fence Me In’ (a song that featured in one of my brother’s colourful adolescent brushes with the law escapades) in which an extraordinary range of people each sang a single phrase.

On Saturday we went to the Queensland Art Gallery and the Gallery of Modern Art (Qag and Goma) to have a look at the Australia Pacific Triennial. Unlike the National Art Gallery current blockbuster, this fabulous exhibition was easy to get into and there was no admission charge. I say it was a fabulous exhibition, but in fact I only saw a tiny fraction of it. I spent most of my time in the galleries sitting with pen and pad sweating over a writing task with a tight deadline. This was an astonishingly pleasant experience. The galleries are high-ceilinged and full of natural light, and quiet exuberance of the punters made for a buoyant environment.

Really I only saw three pieces. The first was ‘In Flight‘ by Alfredo and Isabel Aqulizan. The artists are immigrants to Australia from the Philippines, this information may have influenced my response to their work: it’s a huge pile of recycling material, that is to say junk, reminiscent of those vast garbage heaps near Manila, but rising from it are not toxic fumes or scavenging birds but a host of model aeroplanes made by young people in a series of workshops before the exhibition. The planes – zappy little plastic creations, shaggy monsters, a couple of balloons, flappable egg-cartons, brightly coloured paddlepop sticks bound into shapes that might be aerodynamic in another universe – adorn the wall near the garbage pile, hang from the ceiling  above it, and then lead the viewer down the nearby corridor to the exit that leads to the main exhibition in the Goma building. Around the base of the pile the creativity continues, as my phone bears witness:

I also spent time in front of Reuben Paterson’s eight-metre-sqare ‘Whakapapa: Get Down on Your Knees‘. The image at the link give you no idea of the effect of the work, especially its effect on little girls. The whole vast surface of the painting is done with glitter, which clearly hit a significant nerve. One little girl in particular – I’d guess she was five or six years old – tried to take a photo. She laughed with delight for a full minute as she tried to get far enough away to fit the whole image into her viewfinder (unsuccessfully, thanks to a facing wall).

And then there was ‘Lightning for Neda‘  by Iranian artist Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian. Again, the link gives only a faint indication of the work itself. It’s an intricate mosaic – or rather six of them, each three metres tall by two metres wide – made of slivers of mirrored glass, not a piece of art that conceals the amount of work that has gone into its making. As I sat pen in hand, I felt I was beginning to know the work by seeing it interact with scores of people, remarkably free of the solemnity that often prevails in galleries, but there was an awful lot of awe just the same. Only one child couldn’t resist touching, and I wished I was her (at least, I wished I was her until her father moved in on her).

It’s a great way to see art: to sit with it while the world goes by, see it reflected in a dozen faces, watch how people respond with their hands and bodies, hear the words it draws from them. Interestingly each of these works, as well as others I saw more cursorily, was accessible to young people. Children seemed to feel at home in these galleries, or on a fun outing, and that’s surely to everyone’s benefit.

Added later:

Here are a couple more photos, these ones taken by Penny (yes the Qag and the Goma allow photos, though not flashes):

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