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Literary Haiti

January 18, 2010 | 10:42 am
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 Pétionville, 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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