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PEN World Voices Festival Dispatch: Haiti in Two Acts

By Geoff Wisner

When an earthquake struck Haiti in January 2010, among the 300,000 killed were Georges Anglade, the president of PEN Haiti, and his wife Mireille Neptune.

Today novelist Jean-Euphèle Milcé and poet and novelist Emmélie Prophète, his wife, serve as president and vice president. The newly opened Maison Georges Anglade in Thomassin provides a center for cultural exchange, with the goal of offering a retreat for visiting writers.

Both Milcé and Prophète were on hand at Cooper Union to respond to topics raised by Amy Wilentz, a long-time student of Haiti whose book Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter from Haiti was published in January.

Milcé is the author of Alphabet of the Night, a novel described by the Independent as “terror and poetry from hell’s laboratory.” It was published in 2007 by Pushkin Press, in a translation by Christopher Moncrieff. Prophète is the author of three novels and several volumes of poetry, none yet translated into English.

As happens so often when Haiti is the subject, literature was trumped by the politics of tragedy. Amy Wilentz began by sketching the appeal of Haiti for outsiders, “a place of sensory overload for people who are used to the boring North.” When she first started visiting Haiti, Wilentz was usually the only blan on the plane. But since the earthquake, Haitians flying to Haiti have been in the minority. Instead she encounters “fresh-faced, corn-fed American kids” wearing pink and powder-blue T-shirts with the names of missionary projects.

Few would argue with the idea that immediate relief was needed in the wake of the earthquake, Wilentz said. But how much good had come of the reconstruction efforts that followed? “Would Haiti be better off without me, and people like me?”

Speaking through a translator, Milcé said the situation reminds him of the Magritte painting that carries the message “This is not a pipe.” It is a surreal response to a surreal situation. Haiti began with certain natural vulnerabilities, he said. Crossed by earthquake faults, situated on a hurricane path, subject to drought and flooding, it is a place where an hour’s rain can put a school out of commission for a week. But in addition to that, the country has “a vulnerability that is socially and politically constructed.”

The Haitian government may be corrupt, Milcé continued, but not because its officials are more venal than usual. After passing from one dictatorship to another, then becoming a narcostate, Haiti has ­­become a place where the NGOs of the North wage war against each other. Of every dollar raised after the earthquake, he said, 60 cents went to the US military to maintain security. Thirty cents went to support US companies and only 3 cents for actual reconstruction. (I didn’t catch where the final 7 cents went, or perhaps it is another Haitian mystery.)

Prophète was even more plainspoken, though reluctant to criticize the US directly. Of $100 million spent by “Canada” for Haitian relief, she said, perhaps 0.001% was actually spent in Haiti. The rest went to wet-behind-the-ears “Canadian” functionaries, to pay for their white SUVs, their $10,000 apartments, and their $25,000 per month paychecks.

There are no success stories. The Red Cross received millions, yet never bought an ambulance. Money was never spent on anything that would be left behind. “You cannot rebuild on corpses,” she summed up.

So would Haiti truly be better off without Amy Wilentz and those like her? Milcé parsed the question more carefully. Not all outsiders are the same.

“There are people who are truly of goodwill,” he said. They are affectionately known as the ti blans or little whites. “These are people who went to top-flight schools, who work among us. These are often the first victims of the new state of affairs. These people of goodwill need to be protected. We can benefit from them.”

After the event, books by Wilentz and Milcé sold out quickly. Unable to buy Farewell, Fred Voodoo, I gave Wilentz my copy of The Rainy Season to sign.

“I still like this book,” she said. “But I’m not that romantic anymore.”

Published May 5, 2013   Copyright 2013 Geoff Wisner

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