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  • Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter from Haiti by Amy Wilentz
  • Adam Kaiserman
Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter from Haiti. By Amy Wilentz. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2013. ISBN 978-1451643978. 352 pp. $27.00 hardback, $16.00 paperback.

In 1936, the writer James Agee and the photographer Walker Evans went to Alabama on assignment for Fortune magazine. The two men spent eight weeks in the Deep South in order to understand the brutal poverty experienced by white sharecroppers. After living among the destitute, the [End Page 125] pair found themselves unwilling and unable to transform the misery of their subjects into the slickly produced journalism that Fortune demanded. Instead, Agee and Evans published Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), a combination of Agee’s words and Evan’s photographs and a landmark text in the history of literary journalism. Early in the text, Agee reflects on the process of making the book:

It seems to me curious, not to say obscene and thoroughly terrifying, that it could occur to an association of human beings drawn together through need and chance and for profit into a company, an organ of journalism, to pry intimately into the lives of an undefended and appallingly damaged group of human beings . . . for the purpose of parading the nakedness, disadvantage and humiliation of these lives before another group of human beings, in the name of science, of “honest journalism” (whatever that paradox may mean), of humanity, of social fearlessness, for money, and for a reputation for crusading and for unbias . . . and that these people could be capable of meditating this project without the slightest doubts of their qualification to do an “honest” piece of work, and with a conscience better than clear, and in virtual certitude of almost unanimous public approval. . . .

All of this, I repeat, seems to me curious, obscene, terrifying, and unfathomably mysterious.1

Obviously uncomfortable with their assignment, Agee and Evans produced a dense, elusive work that sought to transcend the sickening clichés of magazine journalism. They hoped to offer up their subjects as they actually were in all their humanity.

Amy Wilentz’s latest book, Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter from Haiti, makes use of the above Agee passage as an epigraph. The book does so to raise a question, however indirectly, about Wilentz’s own relationship to Haiti. This question, which she articulates more forcefully some two hundred pages later, is simply this: “What am I doing here, what possessed me?” (203). Although Farewell, Fred Voodoo recently won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography, Wilentz’s question is not merely personal. The text is a meditation on Haiti and the relationship it has with journalists, development workers, international organizations, and the whole Western world. The story of Haiti’s fraught interactions with the wider world is a long one that predates both modern journalism and the advent of NGOs. In some ways, the story goes all the way back to Haiti’s independence in 1804. However, the earthquake of 2010 has given this story a special urgency. [End Page 126]

Wilentz began writing about Haiti in 1986 when she was as a reporter for Time, sent to cover the fall of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier and the rise of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Covering that story took far longer than the eight weeks that Agee and Walker spent in Alabama and resulted in the publication of The Rainy Season: Haiti since Duvalier (1989). Her first book mixed travelogue with ethnography, campaign biography with political thriller. It gained the reader’s interest by immersing him or her in the dangers experienced by everyday Haitians in a time of political tumult and in the intrigues of the Haitian elite. In contrast, Farewell, Fred Voodoo is a more diffuse book. In The Rainy Season, Wilentz used The Comedians, Graham Greene’s 1966 novel about the Tontons Macoutes, as her initial guide both to understanding and to writing about the country. While Wilentz still sprinkles references to The Comedians throughout her latest effort, clearly Greene’s novel is less serviceable than it once was. Focusing on Haiti after the January 12, 2010 earthquake, Wilentz has no narrative form...

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