The Ugly Side of Haiti

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The images are apocalyptic, the destruction almost too great to fathom. It is telling that our immediate terms of reference are often Hollywood films. “It’s just like a movie,” we say in the wake of the hell that is Haiti. The before-and-after photographs of the collapsed Presidential Palace — the second floor a missing wedding-cake tier — conjure up images of computer-generated special effects: now you see it, now you don’t.

When we do migrate from images to words we risk getting snarled by statistics and moving no further. Haiti ranks 149th on the UN's Human Development Index, between Papua New Guinea and Sudan. One child in eight doesn’t live to celebrate her fifth birthday. Piped water reaches just over 10 per cent of the country’s households. Seventy-two per cent of its people know only extreme poverty, living (if you could call it that) on less than $2 a day.

If Haiti is a country that is synonymous with deprivation, we risk being deprived of its complexities and colours by limiting ourselves to soundbites and sentence-long testimonials. We owe it to the people of Haiti to do what we can: a donation, a gesture of solidarity. But we owe it to ourselves to move beyond headlines and discover that the people of Haiti are not walk-on extras on a film set, far more than two-dimensional characters that make cameo appearances on the nightly news.

And so it is that I turn to Edwidge Danticat. She has been described as “America’s first Haitian woman to write in English” (though it’s worth noting John Ralston Saul’s requiem for Georges Anglade in today’s Globe and Mail; Anglade perished in the earthquake with his wife Mireille when their Port-au-Prince home collapsed). Danticat lived in Haiti until she was 12, when she joined her parents in the U.S. Her works include the novels Breath, Eyes, Memory, The Farming of Bones and Krik? Krak!, novels for young readers and a memoir,Brother, I’m Dying.

I’m tempted to begin with Krik? Krak!, a collection of nine short stories. The title is a nod to Haitian storytelling. “Krik?” is the storyteller’s way of asking an audience if they’re ready for a story. “Krak!” is the playful reply. I’m drawn to Krik? Krak! not simply because of the genre — a collection of stories can take a new arrival all over the map – but because the first story has been described as “a long prose poem capturing the profound pathos of contemporary Haiti.”

I don’t have to wait for the opening pages of Krik? Krak! to learn more about Haiti. In 1996, Danticat wrote an essay published in The Caribbean Writer titled “We Are Ugly, But We Are Here” which includes the following passages:

Watching the news reports, it is often hard to tell whether there are real living and breathing women in conflict-stricken places like Haiti. The evening news broadcasts only allow us a brief glimpse of presidential coups, rejected boat people, and sabotaged elections. The women's stories never manage to make the front page. However they do exist.

…There is a Haitian saying which might upset the aesthetic images of most women. ‘Nou led, Nou la’, it says. We are ugly, but we are here. Like the modesty that is somewhat common in Haitian culture, this saying makes a deeper claim for poor Haitian women than maintaining beauty, be it skin deep or otherwise. For most of us, what is worth celebrating is the fact that we are here, that we against all the odds exist. To the women who might greet each other with this saying when they meet along the countryside, the very essence of life lies in survival. It is always worth reminding our sisters that we have lived yet another day to answer the roll call of an often painful and very difficult life.

That painful and very difficult life became even more painful and difficult this week. It’s hard to imagine what it must be like to wade through the war-like rubble that was once a city. When our imaginations fall short, others step in to fill the void: the writers, the poets, the songwriters. It is not enough to read Krik? Krak! Haiti’s agony calls out for practical, pragmatic solutions. But it needn’t be either/or. After we open our eyes we can open a book by the likes of Edwidge Danticat. We can eavesdrop on a conversation on a dusty road. We can peek behind the curtains that separate ‘them’ from ‘us’. We can listen to what the women of Haiti have to say. They are ugly but they are there.

You can hear Edwidge Danticat in an interview with the inestimable Eleanor Wachtel on CBC Radio’s Writers & Company here.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Emil Sher

Emil Sher’s works include stage plays, screenplays and radio dramas. His published works include Making Waves, Mourning Dove and Hana’s Suitcase on Stage.

Go to Emil Sher’s Author Page