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Literary Haiti

booksfictionHaitiliterarynonfiction
Haitibus

Since last week's devastating earthquake in Haiti, the world's attention has turned to the country as it rarely has before. Yet it's been the focus of literary explorations for decades.

In the 1930s, Zora Neale Hurston traveled to Jamaica and Haiti with two Guggenheim grants. The result was the cultural study "Tell My Horse," published in 1938. Devoting two of the study's three sections to Haiti, Hurston looked at politics, poverty and religion up close; she carried a camera, recorded songs and joined an overnight pilgrimage. Even when describing historical events, her narrative was evocative, as in her account of the death of then-President Cincinnatus Leconte:

Early in the morning of August 8, 1912, the city of Port-au-Prince was rocked by an explosion that completely wrecked the palace. Other buildings near by were also injured. People were thrown out of their beds in Belair and even in PĂ©tionville, approximately six miles away. Nearly three hundred soldiers, the palace guard, were belched out of the eruption, headless, legless, armless, eyes burnt out by the powder and just bodies and parts of bodies, mangled and mingled.

The people of Port-au-Prince awakened like that out of their sleep all rushed out doors because everybody thought it was an earthquake. When they got outside they saw it was the palace and came running, putting their cries of surprise and terror with the hurt and harmed who were crawling off from the wreckage.

Born almost 50 years after Hurston, Madison Smartt Bell is also an American who traveled to the country and then wrote about it. In a trilogy of novels -- "All Souls' Rising," "Master of the Crossroads" and "The Stone That the Builder Refused" -- he brought to life the Haitian revolution, the only one in which black slaves liberated themselves from white rule. In the New York Times Saturday, Bell excerpted works illuminating Haiti by former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Ben Fountain, Yanick Lahens, Joseph F. Bentivegna, Jacques Roumain and Edwidge Danticat.

Danticat is perhaps the best-known contemporary Haitian American writer. Her debut novel, "Breath, Eyes, Memory," was an Oprah Book Club pick; she was awarded the Dayton Literary Peace Prize for her nonfiction book "Brother, I'm Dying" about the difficulties and injustices of immigration; and last year she received a MacArthur "genius" grant. In the Wall Street Journal, Danticat recommends three books -- and two songs -- to get a deeper picture of Haiti. Her list features nonfiction books by Amy Wilentz and CLR James and a trio of novellas by Marie Vieux-Chauvet. In the first of the novellas, titled "Love," the narrator says, "Hurricanes, earthquakes and drought, nothing spares us."

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: A woman leaving Port-au-Prince on a minibus in the aftermath of last week's earthquake. Credit: Juan Barreto / AFP/Getty Images

 
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For this entry, another bravo to you, Ms. Kellogg, for offering information about a people who deserve far more than the limited treatment they are typically given by most U.S. media.

In the wake of the tragedy in Haiti, I, too, was reminded of Zora Neale-Hurston's anthropological research in the region, and was delighted that you mentioned it in your entry. As author of "Their Eyes Were Watching God," Hurston was a woman and writer far ahead of her time; while her anthropological work also cues readers to the fascinating depth and range of her interests and vitalities.

Thank you, too, for highlighting the work of other, perhaps less well-known writers on Haiti. As U.S. Americans, we now have an opportunity to learn more about our island neighbors, and expand and enrich our views of a shared hemisphere thereby.

Lastly, you and other readers may find the website below as moving as I have. It offers more raw and compelling coverage of the temblor's aftermath than anything in the U.S. news media, but as reported and produced with greater sensitivity and authenticity by Haitian film students.

www.cineinstitute.com/news/

To see and hear accounts of what's happening on the ground -- through the dignity, courage and perspectives of the Haitian people themselves, rather than through the limited and limiting eyes of outsiders -- is cause for tremendous good feeling and hope in what is possible when the 'digital divide' is challenged. It invites us to help close that gap for the sake of global humanity's greater exchange of more unfiltered knowledge; and, in doing so, offer others the chance (and necessity) to flourish through art as much as anyone. For it to mean anything, survival is far more than food, water, and shelter -- what Ms. Hurston herself knew a little something about. As certainly do many of your readers here.

A link to a recent write-up of the CineInstitute by Salon.com:

www.salon.com/ent/movies/film_salon/2010/01/15/haiti


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