Book review - Haiti: The never-ending struggle
Glenville Ashby, Contributor
- Title: Haiti Rising: Haitian History, Culture and the Earthquake of 2010
- Editor: Martin Munro
- Publisher: UWI Press, Jamaica, West Indies
Battered and impoverished, many have written off Haiti. A blighted nation, forever caught in the jaws of doom, they have concluded. But in this deftly edited compilation of essays that captures the history and culture of a people after the devastating earthquake in 2010, such apocalyptic musings are clearly absent.
This seminal work is compartmentalised. Essays fall under four categories: Survivor Testimonies, Politics, Culture, and Society, History, and Haiti and Me. The slew of brilliant and articulate 'presenters' are understandably nostalgic, in wrenching pain, but markedly optimistic and defiant, almost in lockedstep with the people of whom they write. No doubt, Haiti will rise again, they predict.
Notably, there is no one single offering that eclipses another. Every writer soars, each perfecting a chosen theme and serving as a passionate griot and a reservoir of social conscience. They complement each other, avoiding a trite, repetitious and laboured endeavour.
Jason Herbeck's When There Is No Echo sets the stage with a loud depiction of the unyielding fury of that fateful day. His writing is edgy, raw and alarmingly vivid. It's revelatory, capturing the depth of human suffering. Its prosaic brilliance is unmatched. He pricks the senses, leaving readers confounded and disturbed. How can a nation, already painfully bruised, be at the receiving end of more misfortune? His opening salvo captures the chills he experiences long after the earthquake. "Two months later, the voice still rings clearly in my ears. At once haunting and now strangely familiar, it is that of an older woman whose shrill, raspy cry carried into the deep blue sky over Port-au-Prince during the days following the earthquake. Although I heard it from a small courtyard surrounded by cement walls, the piercing refrain reached swiftly and without refrain."
But there are some themes that are indelibly cemented long after the last page is turned. In Religion in Post-Earthquake Haiti penned by Leslie G. Desmangles and Elizabeth McAlister, a riveting interreligious dynamic is clearly defined. Indeed, an event of biblical dimensions as echoed by then secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, deserves an explanation, especially in a region steeped in religiosity, if not superstition.
Act of fate or nature
Was it an act of fate, of nature, or of God? United States evangelist Pat Robertson is convinced that God is the puppeteer of Haiti's holocaust, a punishment no less for a nation culturally drenched in Voodoo. This is an essay that showcases the hubris and self-righteousness of evangelical groups that offer help, but for a price. A shameless and repulsive quid pro quo. And there is their penchant to use force, to erase Voodoo from their midst. This speaks volumes. Theirs is a vexing, vacuous, and medieval approach to a mundane issue. Ironically, the belief of Voodoo practitioners: That deforestation and pollution were the undercurrents of the disaster, appears more realistic. The Roman Catholic Church, hit hard by the maelstrom, also offers a more sobering explanation.
Masterfully, Desmangles and McAlister have examined enculturation and the emergence of syncretic religious beliefs as reflected in Catholic-Voodoo relations, and the degree to which religious beliefs are driven by natural disasters.
In Port-au-Prince, I Love You, writer Matthew J. Smith serves up a chronicle from the top drawer. It is emblematic of the paradox that Haiti has become. There was an era when Haiti was that fountain, quenching one revolutionary thirst after another. It was a one-time showcase of ethnic pluralism and a theatre with unimaginable artistic and literary appeal. Haiti mesmerised and inspired politicians, activists and notable writers, even amid economic embargoes, invasions, diplomatic isolation, and a slew of dictators that pillaged an already wobbling economy.
Haiti was the citadel of regional consciousness, indirectly affecting politics in Jamaica through J. Robert Love and the pioneering work of writers such as J. Montaque and Rudolph Bonitto. "Haitians," Smith writes, "never needed the affirmation of others to realise how special their capital was." And although there is an undercurrent of hope, his words are cautious: "This is their Port-au-Prince: a broken shell that can no longer protect them. The children of history now live a dystopian nightmare choking on the smell of death around them."
And in Art in The Time of Catastrophe, Madison Smartt Belle delves into the Haitian artistic archetype. It reads more like the psychoanalysis of a people than an art review. The writer's observation is telling as it raises questions on the collective consciousness of a nation, from which inspiration is tapped. Haitian artists subconsciously feed off each other, surrendering their individuality for a singular cultural identity.
Liberating attribute of art
Bell discusses the liberating attribute of art and how it serves as a panacea for a pained nation. Of the shared consciousness of the artist, he states, "The presence of a shared unconscious creates an opportunity for the soul to be freed from the self, from the egoistic limits of the I." In Haiti, it's an extraordinary force, one of which the First World is no longer familiar, the force which has brought and will bring Haiti back from the worst of disasters."
Other renditions of the Haitian experience follow with like colour, mood and authenticity. The result is a compelling statement on a nation's existential struggle. But an overriding question remains: Can Haiti really untie the knots of oppression? The writers featured in Haiti Rising surely hold fast to an optimistic view. A leap of faith, some might argue. But surely, the resilience and creativity of the Haitian people should be enough to discredit naysayers. That Haiti will emerge from the ashes of despair may not be illusory, after all.