Voices of Haiti was published in July 2012 by the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting. The contributors to the book are the poet Kwame Dawes, the journalist Lisa Armstrong, the photographer Andre Lambertson, and the composer and writer Kevin Simmonds.
Voices of Haiti takes place in Port-au-Prince less than a month after the fatal quake; in Tombs, the first chapter, the authors illustrate their initial impressions of the loss of life and security, and reflect on the ways in which the earthquake deepened existing fissures in Haitian society. The next two chapters, Mother of Mothers and Storm, delve deeper into local life in Haiti; authors interview aid workers and local doctors and spend time in squatter camps, churches, and houses of local informants. The final four chapters—Ganthier, Job, Boy in Blue, and Bebe’s Wish—focus on the stories of particular individuals and the ways in which they exercise agency through improvisation.
This book has two stated aims. The first is to draw “intimate portraits of individual Haitians;” the second is to “explore critical issues affecting Haiti’s future [such as] development, poverty, displacement, [and] HIV/AIDS”. While both of these aims are admirable, I initially wondered if they might be at cross-purposes. Art as activism is always tricky business; when a text simultaneously seeks to produce both formal merit and social advocacy, it typically achieves neither.
On the whole, however, Voices of Haiti does an admirable job. It is aided in its dually aesthetic and ethical goals by two primary strengths. The first is the intimacy between author and subject. In Voices of Haiti, informants bring the writers into their homes, share meals with them, and introduce them to their children; they confess their most shameful secrets and reveal their hopes about the future. These are not the sorts of details outsiders are typically privy to. Perhaps Haitians are simply very open; maybe artists just make the best ethnographers. Whatever the reason, the trust between participant and observer in Voices of Haiti is palpable, and adds much to the project.
Another strength of the book is its format. Voices of Haiti is a multimedia document that brings together text, sound, and image in a carefully organized way. Each section begins with a poetry reading that is accompanied by a slide show of photographs and a short musical score. Every chapter ends with an article or story. Interspersed throughout the book are additional clips of personal interviews and 1-2 minute musical performances. While each individual photo or poem might be assessed on its own independent artistic merits, this is hardly the point; the document is meant to be understood holistically, and its parts are knitted together in a fashion uncharacteristic of most cross-disciplinary collaborative artistic endeavors.
The cooperative spirit of the project and its successful integration of many divergent types of media makes Voices of Haiti a fine read (or should I say, experience) for anyone seeking a humanistic portrayal of the post-earthquake Haitian world and the people who inhabit it. That is not to say, however, that this document is an easy read. The book raises some difficult issues and asks important questions about development, cultural history, and especially agency in Haiti.
AGENCY AND VICTIMHOOD:
At its core, Voices of Haiti is an exploration of what agency is (from both a philosophical/historical standpoint and a more practical, localized one) how it is expressed, and how it is achieved.
There is a conflict between the world’s perception of Haiti and Haitians perception of themselves. The authors assert that Haitians do not think of themselves as helpless, and actively fight against the status of victimhood that is constantly imposed on them by foreign governments and even well meaning aid workers.
Some of the informants seem to acknowledge that it is difficult not to internalize expectations of helplessness; in Chapter 4, a frustrated informant named Andre (responding to a Christian sermon on the power of suffering) states the following: “So we must just accept this suffering and not do a thing about it? I can’t accept that. We have become passive; we have let the feeling that we must be cursed like this take a hold of us.”
At the same time, however, few of the Haitians interviewed or portrayed in the book describe themselves as victims or dwell on their personal misfortune. One woman in Chapter 3 states resolutely: “Crying cannot make us better. Crying cannot help us rebuild.” Similarly, Dr. Jean William Pape of GHESIKO and Dr. D’ Meza of PIH, for example, stress that it is “solidarity not charity” that builds relationships between doctors and patients and leads to sustainable solutions.
Where, then, does the myth of Haiti’s perpetual victimhood come from? The authors suggest that the myth is derived not from Haitians themselves, but from the seemingly impossible situations into which they are placed; they acknowledge in the first chapter that part of the reason the earthquake was so bad is that it exacerbates pre-existing fissures in Haitian society, and that Haitians are “as puzzled by the vicious irony of their circumstances as we are.”
I would contend, however, that any Haitian person who knows the history of Haiti is not quite as puzzled as the authors might suggest. If we want to know where Haiti’s problems come from , we need only to look at history to understand the answer. Since its inception as the first democracy founded by a slave rebellion in 1804, Haiti has been punished by regional powers for beating the odds. Case in point: Haiti’s liberation debt to France, it’s U.S. backed dictators, and it’s occupation by the U.S. military between 1915 and 1935.
While the authors of the book never directly connect Haitian defiance of Western powers to the country’s subsequent economic and political marginalization, they do allude to it indirectly, particularly in their discussion of the statue of Neg Mawon, a Haitian Freedom Fighter. They note that Dr. Joia Mukherjee rejoiced when, in the post-quake rubble, she saw the statue still erect because it reminded her: “the free man can never be destroyed.”
So, what do the free people of Haiti do in cataclysmic circumstances like these? The book abounds with examples. In Sou Piste, a group of 40,000 displaced people have constructed improvised housing on an old airstrip. Here, many Haitians are doing what they have always done; fetching water, bartering for food, and flying kites. In Ganthier, a woman named Malia Jean (upon the discovery of her positive HIV status) started her own activist group for women. Similarly, in Carrefour, the preacher Joel Sainton, ousted from his congregation for refusing to reject his HIV-positive wife, makes home visits to others affected with HIV/AIDS. In his community
Finally, in Petionville there is the indomitable Bebe, an assertive sex worker/beer brewer/hair stylist “who moves through the world as if she owns it.” Bebe of the contagious smile and the confidence that borders on defiance is a promise incarnate; the poem at the beginning of her chapter teasingly asks “How much do you think I am worth? How much for a piece of me.” While this questions is quite serious (after all, Bebe must provide for her young sons, and her business has taken a hit since the quake) it is also playful and hopeful—“Her view is for tomorrow; calmer days, no more riots, streets filled with expats, money in her pockets, a chance to make a go at something else.”
PERFORMANCE, TRAUMA, AND MEMORY:
While reading Voices of Haiti, I could not help but think of a very different book written several years ago by the theater historian Joseph Roach. Called Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic performance, the book proposes an interesting concept: that in societies that experience great hardship, where the voices of the many (and the suffering) have been silenced by official record-keeping and where both bodily and cultural oppression are widespread, the rituals of daily life, which are themselves a kind of performance, can serve as the site of new identity formation through a process he calls surrogation. In other words, the bodies of the living elegize the passage of the dead not only by sustaining particular rituals (burial, dance, familial structures, religion) but also by improvising new ones. The restored body, performing a new task, is a substitution for what is lost. Roach argues that this is why performance and trauma are inextricably related:
In the life of a community, surrogation does not begin or end, but continues as actual or perceived vacancies occur in the network of relations that constitute the social fabric. Into the cavities created by loss through death or other forms of departure…survivors attempt to fit satisfactory alternatives.
Roach understands “community” as a rhizomatic entity; vibrant but center-less, it is in a continual process of substitution and restitution. Arguing that performance is “restored behavior, twice-behaved, and always subject to revision.” Roach suggests that all definitions of performance offer it as a substitute for something that pre-exists it.
Performance stands in for an elusive entity that it is not, but must vainly aspire both to embody and replace. Hence flourish the abiding yet vexed identities between performance and memory, out of which blossom the most florid nostalgias for authenticity and origin.
Performance, which Roach defines as both “remembered motions… [and] imaginary movements dreamed in minds” is what the authors of Voices of Haiti are documenting in their book. They examine practical formulas of daily living, death and burials, laws and disobedience, commodification and violence. They explore moments of celebration and activity that go “beyond survival” and seem to recognize a cohesive, connecting force that transcends the finite problems of weak human bodies: “When I sing, I know how to fly, and how to reach where the water eases the spinning in my stomach/ this blood is not my enemy when I sing.”
In Voices of Haiti, moreover, it is certain individuals (frequently women) that act as keepers of culture, oral historians, caregivers, and community philosophers. It is their efforts that sustain and reshape the Haitian cultural identity; “Mother of mothers, in your bandana and with your holy testament, you must draw a line of defense around beleaguered souls/and speak a torrent of curses/ on the beasts lurking in the shadows.” By performing daily acts of kindness and stabilizing rituals, Haitians emerge from the tragedy as a reimagined people. Their persistent commitment to life is an elegy to the dead and an act of defiance against those forces (real or abstracted) than conspire to break apart and destroy bodies and lives.
Voices of Haiti is a book about the experience of freedom and trauma, and the complex ways people process both, weaving them into narratives and identities. This book, which is quite literally embedded with voices, is only an artifact of many performances; it documents the authors experiences in Haiti, but also their subsequent poetry and musical performances of the piece in Miami and Washington D.C., among other places.
Thus, the book effectively analogizes the Haitian experience, in not only content but also form; Voices of Haiti encapsulates the interplay between text and orality that is so essential to understanding the cultural development of all contemporary societies—in particular those societies in which the voices of the suffering, the poor, and the abused, are so often silenced by official histories.
At times, this multiplicity of voices and formats makes the piece seem incomplete; however, the book is a peace with its fragmentary nature and acknowledges the snapshot-like quality of its endeavor. Voices of Haiti is a synchronic document, the proverbial Bermuda grass of sensory experiences; it has no fixed center, no predominate bassline, and no resounding agenda, other than that of presenting the shimmering diversity of lives in the post-earthquake world of Haiti. This is somewhat of an accomplishment for a book that delicately straddles the line between activism and art.