You lived in Port-au-Prince until you were 12. Can you describe the Haiti of your childhood?
Everyone, including my parents, idealizes the Haiti of their childhood; and lately, we’ve all been idealizing the Haiti of before January’s earthquake.
I’ll try not to do that here. I grew up in a very poor hillside neighborhood called Bel Air in Port au- Prince. We woke up to the sounds of street peddlers singing about their wares and to the radio blasting the news from the neighbor’s house. School was strict, and we were made to speak French there even though we spoke Creole at home.
I saw my aunts and grandmothers as goddesses. One of my aunts sold notebooks, pencils, and books in downtown Port-au-Prince. She managed to put five kids through school and buy a house all on her own. My Aunt Denise helped raise me. If someone gave her $100, she would increase it five fold in a week, in a way that still seems magical to me.
I’m realizing now that I haven’t given due credit to their stories—the stories these women lived; their ingenuity; their entrepreneurial skills; their intelligence despite a lack of book learning.
How has your image of Haiti shifted over the years, especially in the aftermath of the earthquake?
There is a Haiti that lives in my imagination, the Haiti I write about. I think all writers, all artists have that. But Haiti is very complex. You can say that my image of Haiti is ever-changing, just as Haiti is ever-changing.
Since the earthquake, there is a constant ache in my heart. When I visit family members and they’re in tents in front of their houses, in the countryside, or when you get dozens of calls a week from people saying they are hungry, or they fear rape, or need to go to school, it’s not about image or nostalgia anymore. I ask myself every day when things will change, and what I can do about it.
What was it like to watch the earthquake unfold from the US?
The evening of the earthquake itself, when there was so little information, I had a sense that the whole country had been flattened, that everyone was lost. The weight of that possibility was overwhelming. My cousin and his 10-year-old son died that day. Many friends died.
I have two small children, and I was offered opportunities to go back right away, but I couldn’t get there. My youngest was not eating, so I had to stay with her. I’ve never had such a pressing question of loyalty in my life. It’s the eternal female dilemma, I think. But then there was also this feeling of helplessness. Like what could I do? I’m not a doctor. I’m not a rescue worker. People were saying that going back meant eating food that survivors could otherwise eat.
When I did go back 23 days later, you had the feeling that you just wanted to hug the ground, wrap your arms around everyone, every broken place. But in a situation like this, there is very little room for sentimentality. Everyone does what little he or she can. And looking at wounded people or the dead bodies that were still all coiled up and dried on the side of the road, you felt really helpless and guilty that you could leave.
Soon after the quake, I went to church in Miami, and there was a man there who survived. He was talking about what he saw and how he survived. There was a woman who was inconsolable listening to him. She had lost 25 family members, and she could not go back to find and bury her parents.
There are degrees of trauma, and sometimes, if people can hear you, or read you, your trauma seems more pressing. But there are people who suffered so much more; I render this space to them.
In terms of earthquake recovery efforts, what has been disappointing to you and what has given you hope?
I’ve been encouraged by the smaller efforts that I see everywhere: People who have decided that they are not going to wait for the billions of dollars the international community has promised in aid.
I have been very proud of the Haitian-American community: the doctors, nurses, teachers, young men, and young women who have returned to do what they can. Churches, hometown associations are working harder than ever. That’s the part we don’t hear a lot about.
The saddest part is that even in the middle of hurricane season there seems to be no more urgency to it. The tent cities are looking more and more permanent. There is a new wave of trauma as Haitians begin to realize that nothing is going to change anytime soon.
A lot has been said about Haitian resilience, but sometimes I think that is being used to let people continue to live in these deplorable conditions. So much rubble is still in the streets; so many people are still homeless. You see so many hungry people; so many hungry children; people with no job prospects. People feel abandoned. Those in power tell them to be patient, elections first. But will the elections change anything? Will they change the lives of the poorest?
We’ve hit bottom, so we have to hope that it will get better. We have to make sure that Haitians are empowered to rebuild their country. They ultimately must be unified in building a more egalitarian Haiti with more opportunities for the poor, for women, for the disadvantaged, which now includes thousands and thousands of disabled people as well.
What is the situation for women like now?
The last time I was in Haiti, I saw all these little girls with big bellies. I had never seen that before: little girls walking in the neighborhoods with big bellies. I was in Jalousie, one of those precarious neighborhoods perched on the hills, and I saw all these little girls in corridors and alleys with those bellies. I asked someone what was going on and she said, “phenomene de tente”—the tent phenomenon. Young girls have been raped and are now pregnant. A health worker I talked to said she had treated a pregnant 10-year-old. And there is gang rape, what people call “beton.”
But we have some extraordinary women leaders rising out of these same camps. There are some you will never hear about. I know a woman who had 100 people in her yard after the earthquake, and she fed them and gave them water. She would have never considered herself a leader before but she organized everyone.
Women want to take charge, but they need our support.
What is your vision for the future of Haiti?
Ultimately, we should be asking the people in Haiti what they would like to see, what their vision is. But if I’m being Utopian, I’d like to see a society emerge out of this rubble where every child can go to school, where every person can eat every day, and have a roof over his head that won’t blow away or crumble at the slightest wind.
What many don’t know is that the women of Haiti have been trying to build this for years; they try to work miracles. The people who are in charge of this “rebuilding” should study these efforts very well. I believe recovery efforts can learn a lot from the way women have been recovering for years—from droughts, from floods, from hurricanes. Let’s not leave those folks out of the conversation.
As a mother, what do you tell your children about your country?
My children—they are 5 and 1-year-old—have been to Haiti many times, and will always know the good and the bad because that is the way we have experienced it.
I will continue to tell my daughters the stories of the great historical and everyday women (and men) of Haiti. I will probably drive them crazy, but they’ll know all about them.
People often pity or idealize Haitians: They are seen as either “poor Haitians” or “super-resilient Haitians.” Somewhere in the middle lies the truth.
It’s worth remembering that Haitians have a lot to teach the world. I will continue to teach my children that we are often in positions where we need a lot from others, but as Haitians, we also have a lot to give to each other and a lot to contribute to the world.