Plumbing the Depths and Heights of Haiti
Every great writer has an obsession, and for Bob Shacochis, I’m guessing that obsession is Haiti.
Shacochis has been writing books for a long time, but he got his introduction to the Caribbean early on when he served as a Peace Corps volunteer in the area. Whatever happened there, and whatever he has seen since, has served him well as a writer – his first fiction effort, 1985’s “Easy in the Islands,” won the National Book Award, which is about as good as it gets in the literary world, especially for a beginning effort. These stories vividly illustrate the unease roiling beneath the laid back surface of the Caribbean; in one story a hotel owner just can’t seem to get permission to bury his mother’s body, which languishes in the freezer while he fights an insensible bureaucracy. In another, two islanders find themselves at a high-class dance party one night and witness a violent encounter that suddenly threatens to escalate into something a lot scarier and more political.
Another book by Bob Shacochis that has Haiti as its subject and got a lot of attention is 1999’s “The Immaculate Invasion.” This nonfiction book looks at the 1994 “invasion” of Haiti by the U.S. that returned Haiti’s first democratically elected President, the former Roman Catholic priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide, to power after he was ousted by the Haitian military and right-wing paramilitary groups. Shacochis, who covered the invasion as a journalist, got praise for his deeply felt empathy for all sides, especially for the U.S. Marines who were assigned the hapless task of trying to put things right in a country convulsed by violence. Trying to do the right thing, these servicemen were confronted by situations that defined ambiguity. In “The Woman Who Lost Her Soul,” this is a situation that comes up again in this book.
Turning from Shacochis, I want to hop into the way-back machine and call out the brilliant Graham Greene’s 1966 novel, “The Comedians.”
Greene was, like his fellow author John le Carre, a Brit who worked for a time in British intelligence. His books, set all over the world, vividly display the tragedies that can ensue when an imperial power gets mired in a part of the world that it doesn’t really understand.
“The Comedians” is set in Haiti during the brutal era of the Haitian dictator, François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, and features Duvalier’s brutal secret police, the Tonton Macoute, who also show up in Shacochis’ latest book. A tired hotel owner, an innocent do-gooding American and a British con man (named respectively Brown, Smith and Jones) get in deep trouble as Haiti descends into barbarity. This book did not present Papa Doc in a flattering light, and among other things, the dictator issued a pamphlet condemning Graham Greene as “A liar, a cretin, a stool-pigeon… unbalanced, sadistic, perverted… a perfect ignoramus… lying to his heart’s content… the shame of proud and noble England… a spy… a drug addict… a torturer.” Among other things!
Moving along, I’m going to try to talk about three books at once: Madison Smartt Bell’s trilogy about the Haitian revolution. “All Souls Rising,” “Master of the Crossroads” and “The Stone That the Builder Refused” are on my retirement reading list – 2,000 pages in all!
Beginning with the Haitian slave revolution of 1791, this trilogy of novels follows the events that convulsed Haiti during that uprising, and the beginnings of Haiti as an independent nation, after the slaves ultimately defeated Napoleon under the leadership of the Haitian leader Toussaint Louverture.. The main character in this trilogy is a doctor who witnesses brutal violence as he follows events; violence is an integral part of Haiti’s history, and this trilogy is especially good at showing how the French, who supposedly had embraced the values of The Enlightenment, pretty much forgot them when it came to running their colonies. I thought this endorsement of Bell’s books was great, by a historian of the era: ”Bell’s books have undoubtedly brought the story of the Haitian Revolution to more readers than any of the many works academic historians have published on the subject in the past twenty years.”
Finally, I want to briefly mention a great novel by Edwidge Danticat, an author who writes about Haiti with compassion and insight.
“The Dew Breaker,” a 2004 novel, is the story of Haitian immigrants to New York and how their pasts follow them to their new country. The title character had a secret life: he was one of the Tonton Macoutes, the brutal secret police mentioned earlier who became persona non grata after Duvalier was overthrown.
The title, according to a New York Times review, came from the fact that this man and his henchmen would usually arrive “’before dawn, as the dew was settling on the leaves’ to abduct victims from their homes; he tortured and killed untold numbers of innocents, including a much-loved preacher who dared to speak out against the government.”
Danticat was born in Haiti and lived there until she moved to America at age 12. On some level almost all her books are shaped by this experience. The tragic events of Haiti do not leave people alone, even if they move thousands of miles away to escape them.
Another book she wrote, a memoir of sorts, was 2007’s “Brother, I’m Dying.” It tells the immensely sad story of her uncle, a minister who raised her until she fled Haiti, and how he died in a Florida hospital after finally trying to emigrate to America, after years of resistance. American immigration officials’ treatment of this 81-year-old man makes for difficult reading.
It’s also the story of Danticat’s father, who worked as a cab driver for thirty years to support his family, and vividly displays how immigration can involve immense sacrifice on people like Danticat’s father, who must find whatever work they can in order to help their families survive and eventually thrive.
And of course, it’s about people like the author herself, almost fully assimilated to America, but still grappling with the history of their old country and the shortcomings of their new one.