May 2013

Elizabeth Kiem


An Interview with Amy Wilentz

Amy Wilentz was green behind the ears when she first touched down in Port-au-Prince. It was 1985, her first time in the country, and President Jean-Claude Duvalier's last. She was a young journalist, but Haiti in the midst of political upheaval defied "information gathering." So Wilentz resisted headlines and rejected objectivity. She scored important interviews (and a close relationship with the populist opposition leader Jean-Bertrand Aristide) but she also just listened to the sounds of the street and of society. The book she brought back from her two-year stay leaned heavily on these impressions and was a better book for it. More than a historical account of a volatile period, The Rainy Season was a cultural critique of post-Baby Doc Haiti; a review of a spectacle equal parts soap opera, comedy and symphony. It was dense, despairing, edgy, and funny. It established Wilentz as someone who didn't just love Haiti, didn't just know Haiti -- but got Haiti.

It would take twenty-five years for her to produce another book about the place that made her a writer and the people who became her passion. It would take, one might venture, a shift as destabilizing as the departure of Duvalier in 1985 for a long-time observer to recognize another pivotal moment -- a fresh axis to tether her orbiting subject. Farewell, Fred Voodoo begins with Wilentz on the tarmac of Toussaint L'Ouverture airport, this time surrounded by battle-weary rescue and recovery workers, aid deliveries and traumatized Haitians anxious to escape post-earthquake Port-au-Prince. Her long history with the place has changed her. And yet it is the older, wiser, infinitely more experienced Wilentz who wonders if no matter how much she loves Haiti, how much she knows Haiti, she will never really "get" it: "It defies categorization," she writes -- shorthand for a much lengthier discourse that runs throughout this book about the ways in which Haiti slips out of the bounds of accepted explanations and conventional analyses.

Perhaps even more fascinating than her examination of Haiti post-quake is Wilentz's identification of the roles played by well-intentioned foreigners in country -- those that have much to contribute, those who have less to contribute than they have to gain, and those who, like Wilentz herself, are still doing the reckoning to justify their role. Justify is the wrong word. Wilentz is too certain of her role to justify it. She cannot contribute, she concludes definitively, to the betterment of Haiti.

Why did you title the book Farewell, Fred Voodoo? I mean, you explain that "Fred Voodoo" is this pejorative term foreign journalists once used to refer to the everyman Haitian. But why "farewell"?

It's an old fashioned thing that people don't say so much anymore. It was a name that the British journalists used under Duvalier and they were very flippant. They may not use it anymore, but plenty of foreign journalists still think it, think in stereotypes. And I wanted to use this book to end that kind of thinking. So "farewell" means, let's get rid of it. Let's say goodbye to it. Let's not call them that anymore.

You talk at length about the discomfort inherent in knowing that your writing, however astute and valuable, does not contribute to a measurable improvement for the Haitian people. Does "farewell" also mean "I've done all that I can do"?

I have heard from people in the Haitian community that there is a feeling about me, like, "Come on, stop talking about Haiti. Let us talk about Haiti. You are taking up all the real estate."

Look, my feeling is, let Haitian English-speaking journalists and writers take my place. I don't need it. I don't need to be in the print media. I have a blog now, so I can write about Haiti whenever I want without being in anyone else's way. So in a sense, that's a farewell. But who knows if I will be able to live up to it. When I get a bee in my bonnet, whether its about Haiti or not, I like to write in the place where it gets seen the most.

You said something in this vein in the book -- only about physical presence. You said that immediately after the quake you tried to keep your distance and leave room for the first responders, but that after two weeks you simply couldn't resist the call.

Yeah. We'll see. Sometimes I think if I don't write, will anyone write? Will the mainstream media publish others? I think they will. So yeah, I want to leave that space open. And I'm going to try my best to do it.

I will continue to blog. I will certainly continue to go to Haiti. I would really like to just spend time there, to go into the countryside and just re-experience what it is. I'm a little sick of Port-au-Prince and all the political machinations, and I'd like to get away from the white community. You know, I've always wanted to write a novel about Haiti. But it's too hard for me because I've written a "key" to all that and I don't think I want people to know "Oh, this is this person, and this is that person." Though it would be nice to have a trilogy.

I guess, just as you are eager to see Haitians doing the reporting from Haiti, you are also thinking, "Who am I to write the great Haitian novel?"

Yeah -- who am I -- but Graham Green did it. The Comedians is a great novel about Haiti. It's not a Haitian novel. No one can take Haitian literature away from the nation. There's fantastic Haitian literature.

Your favorite?

Right now, it's Marie Vieux-Chauvet's Love, Anger, Madness. Edwidge Danticat, who is the most valuable person to mediate between Haitian reality and what Americans perceive to be Haitian reality, had it translated and wrote the introduction. It's fabulous. It was written in 1967 and not published in English until 2010.

How about more contemporary work?

There is so much culture that is oral. It's in the countryside and in the shantytowns, and not so much among people who are going to be writing a book. I wish they were. But they're not. Many don't write and don't have quality education. So much of the speaking of Haiti in literature has been from the upper class, which is not abnormal in a country that's medieval -- where there is an elite and a lower class.

Maybe you can be a ghostwriter?

Go around and collect stories? That would be fun. That could happen. Again, you know, I'm an outsider. I can't be a Haitian. That's my sad fate. Still, some outsiders are valuable. That's the whole point of Fred Voodoo. Many of the outsiders I talk about are valuable. They are decent people who want to do good things. But, then you have to look at what it really results in and how your behavior is contextualized in history and what it means for the people you are "helping."

But yeah, in a way Haiti needs translation. From an outsider. It needs to be translated fairly and get out from under the old stereotypes.

The Rainy Season, your first book on Haiti was a page-turner, a great story.

Thank you, Aristide!

But in Fred Voodoo, you can sense more emotion and, maybe, more anger. What's that about?

It's like I'm drumming my fingers on the tabletop. I'm going, Stop being cool. Stop having your adventure and start thinking about where you stand in relation to this country. Stop being romantic.

Also, there's something new in this book, which is the "crisis caravan" that goes from one stop to another funded by huge international organizations. It's that part that I talk about in Fred Voodoo that's like, "Oh, I met him in the tsunami and we were in Japan for the earthquake and we broke up in Haiti." The adventure that you have while everyone else is in poverty, I don't love that. The Rainy Season was maybe a little like that. It could have been that narrative of an outsider having her adventure, except that Aristide hijacked it.

What about your feelings for Aristide. Are they sentimental?

I wouldn't say sentimental. I have mixed feelings. I really admire what he did as a priest, and I admire his courage in taking on the presidency. I don't know that he was really capable of being president of Haiti at that time, representing what he represented at that time which was the will of the disenfranchised Haitian people. There were so many objections to that, ideologically, in Haiti, and I'm not sure he was the person best fit to be that leader because you have to make so many compromises. But I still have a huge sympathy for the Haitian people, and maybe I'm retro; I still think Aristide represents them.

It was interesting when I went on book tour to Miami and to Boston. In Miami the sentiment of the Haitian community is largely conservative and even Duvalierist. In Boston everyone is an Aristide supporter. It was really interesting to go from one to another. To hear the people in Boston talk about Aristide reminded me, as though I needed reminding, of how important he was as a historical figure and how important he could be again.

It's so incredible that both he and Duvalier have both returned to Haiti. And yet they seem to have kept quiet. They don't seem to have made an effect politically.

Aristide won't receive me because I don't write completely positive things about him. I haven't seen him in ten years. Which is very hard for me because we had a long ongoing relationship and I feel very bad about losing that. On the other hand, what could I do? When he decided to become president all bets were off. Once you're the president, no journalist should just totally be on your side. He still won't see me. Though I've tried repeatedly to see him. When I think back on it, I think even as a priest he was calculating his next move. But I didn't see him that way. I was romantic. And young. I guess I feel sad that I don't get to talk to him anymore. But that's life.

The fact that Duvalier is back was for me, a disaster. All the crimes committed under him and under his father. It was as if all the history that came between his fall and his return could be deleted. He's a less interesting historic figure than Aristide because he's really just a scion of a dynasty, whereas Aristide is an original. But Aristide is a figure from twenty-five years ago. For young people, I don't know how strongly they feel about him. It's their parents who supported him. Now, it's like, he's an old guy. It's hard to believe, but then, I'm an old lady.

To a certain extent, do you feel that you understand Haiti from twenty years ago better than you understand Haiti today?

Certainly. But that's where you can talk about sentimentality. Just like an old person is sentimental for any lost world.

When I went to Haiti for The Rainy Season I was really with the popular movement. With the people. Now I'm older. I don't really want to stay in the slums and walk through refuse. I also have a broader base of acquaintances. I hear from a wider spectrum of Haitians. I talk to business people now. In the old days I wouldn't bother to talk to them. I refused them. I rejected them. I wasn't interested. So in many ways, because of all the writing and traveling to Haiti I've done over the decades, I now have a better understanding. But yes, you become sentimental for your childhood. And then for your adolescence, and then your young adulthood, too. And that's Haiti for me. The place where I grew up and started to understand the world and its complications.