This year, the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking news Photography went to a series of Washington Post photographers who captured in no small detail the chaos immediately ensuing Haiti’s January 2011 earthquake. Photographers of this nature are absolutely necessary in order to show the world the true extent of devastation caused by such natural disasters. Many donors are motivated by these heart wrenching images, and these are the donors that financially contribute to the on-the-ground organizations working round the clock to save lives. At the same time, did you know Haitians can write books?
A few weeks ago I participated in a book club discussion with some colleagues on Love, Anger, Madness, a three-piece novel set in Haiti’s early 1900s, capturing the overt and simultaneously subtle brutality one faces during times of a dictatorship. The novel is a must-read for anyone looking to know a little more about Haiti and begin to understand how the country got to where it is today. And yet, at the same time, what kept my attention rapt more than the novel was the discussion itself. I made the mistake of participating in the book club, believing that it was for my benefit, that the book club was a chance for me to flex my opinions on fine literature. A chance to wax poetic, if you will. On the contrary, the book club , whether by accident or design, primarily serves to allow Haitians to discuss, well… Haiti. A novel concept (excuse the pun) given the fact that Haiti is a country where the story is often narrated for Haitians rather than by them.
I sat in rapt fascination as I watched my Haitian colleagues discuss the details of the book and then inevitably drift into pontifications on the root of Haiti’s many ill fortunes. At numerous times I felt like the white outsider described in the book, a foreigner who lives in Haiti and who burns with internal rage at the injustices witnessed and desperately urges Haitians to demand better. I was desperate to interject with my own life experiences and guide the discussion at least somewhat based on my worldly knowledge. No, there was none of that. This book club, this moment in time as we sat inside the Canne a Sucre clubhouse insulated from the drone of the heavy rains, belonged to Haitians, and I was in no position to appropriate that time for myself.
So I sat and I listened. I listened to Haitians debate on whether or not Haitian culture lends itself to community building or if Haitians are inherently selfish. I listened to theories on why the country took so long to overthrow its own dictators. I hurriedly took down quotes such as “instead of democracy they should’ve started with education” thinking to myself I would have a rebuttal for this statement later on. The opportunity never arose, for soon thereafter someone responded with “how can you have democracy when you impoverish the entire country?” They were having both sides of the debate. All sides, really. My role at this point was to… I’m not sure I had a role.
I enjoyed my time listening to Haitians hash out their own details, defining their own life and culture and future. While I applaud journalists who capture the big picture of Haiti for those of us looking to learn more the country, I invite others who have access to Haitian friends, to invite them over for coffee (or Barbancourt rum, preferably) and listen to their thoughts on the country. It’s inspiring.