- Remembering Haiti
The recent intensification of the unending tragedy that is Haitian history poses a challenge to writers: how to respond? It is both a new challenge and one as old as the written word. The challenge is new because Haiti’s story since the December 1990 election won by Jean-Bertrand Aristide renders newly obvious certain truths about rich and poor, might and right in our world—truths that had been partly obscured by decades of Cold War cant. That is why the chapter that sort of ended with the September 1994 U.S. occupation of Haiti is immensely important and telling; it goes far beyond the phenomena we too glibly call “race” and “racism.” We do well to recall the words of C.L.R. James, from The Black Jacobins: “Had the monarchists been white, the bourgeoisie brown, and the masses of France black, the French Revolution would have gone down in history as a race war.”
But the challenge is an old, even eternal one because the more things change, the more they stay the same. All prose is occasional prose; talent responds to its situation. Predictably, most of the coverage given Haiti in the institutional American newspapers and popular magazines has genuflected before the power of the American state in one way or another. Writers whose assumptions can be described as “leftist,” for their part, have written about Haiti as though the possibility existed, if only hypothetically, that U.S. government policy and behavior might change radically; see Amy Wilentz’s comment in the August 22/29, 1994, issue of The Nation, carefully couched as it is in the conditional tense.
What kind of literary response does Haiti merit? The topic has become so politicized that the question sounds odd, even dangerous. At least one recent novel failed badly at walking the fine line between literature and political advocacy, in this writer’s judgment. But where does “the literary” end and “the political” begin? How to write about appalling realities without succumbing to futility and impotence or acquiescence? An answer is suggested by Wendell Berry, who writes: “Protest that endures, I think, is moved by a hope far more modest than that of public success: namely, the hope of preserving qualities in one’s own heart and spirit that would be destroyed by acquiescence. . . . What we do need to worry about is the possibility that we will be reduced, in the face of the enormities of our time, to silence or to mere protest.”
The several superb novels of Isabel Allende are excellent examples of literary writing in response to political repression. Allende’s uncle, Salvador Allende, was the leftist president of Chile toppled and assassinated in a 1973 military coup (a coup abetted, it must be repeated, by the CIA). Yet Isabel Allende does not write “political” [End Page 524] novels in the suffocating strict sense. She writes with a novelist’s sympathy about human beings of all descriptions and persuasions surviving, loving, and remembering in a country groaning under military terror. No body of writing points more directly to what the recent history and present situation of Haiti call for.
Into the breach confidently strides Edwidge Danticat, an immensely promising young writer born in a village in Haiti, now living in New York. Breath, Eyes, Memory clearly is a Bildungsroman, a necessary first effort in what one hopes will be a long and productive American literary career. It is the very personal story of Sophie, first a girl in a Haitian village, later a young woman living with her mother in Brooklyn. Danticat’s poise and grace with language and narrative are (pardon the pun) rather breathtaking in someone just twenty-four at the time of her book’s publication; she writes with richly suggestive diffidence and uses paragraphing and elision to excellent effect. She also—to use the cliché—writes about what she knows. She is sure to enjoy commercial good fortune in years to come not only by virtue of her “multicultural” background in the vulgar sense, but because her large talent has been blessed with a subject—Haiti...