An Interview with Edwidge Danticat

Editor’s Note: Edwidge Danticat, author of six books including Brother, I’m Dying, was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. She now lives in the U.S. Danticat engaged in an e-mail interview with Sojourners associate editor Rose Marie Berger.

Sojourners: Describe how you heard the news about the earthquake and what happened after that.
Edwidge Danticat: I was at the supermarket with my two young daughters and my sister in law called and asked if I'd heard that there had been an earthquake in Haiti. I was a bit stunned. “Earthquake?” I said. Are you sure? She said it was 7.0. That didn’t quite register for me.
Then she said it was catastrophic.
It was dark already, so they were not sure of the damage, she said. I rushed home and parked myself in front of the television, but there wasn't much information coming through. Immediately we started calling every family member in Haiti non-stop. The phones were not working. My brother in law came over and he worked the Internet for information while answering calls. Then another friend came over and did the same.
Between calling Haiti, we kept calling other family members in the U.S. and Canada to find out what they had heard, which was nothing at that point. Someone pointed out to me that my friend Richard Morse, a musician in Haiti who runs the Olofson Hotel, was on Twitter giving updates. Even though I'm not on Twitter, I was told how to follow his updates and we did. At some point, he seemed like our only link to the situation.
Then some media people started calling and that night I was on the Anderson Cooper show with Wyclef Jean. At that point I was still numb, because frankly I was assuming the worst. It just seemed so bad from what little was coming through. I was numb and scared and I don't even remember, frankly, what I said there.
I was just thinking of my relatives who don't necessarily live in the most secure or affluent parts of Haiti. I knew they would be very vulnerable to this. Like millions of other Haitians in and outside of Haiti, I was nearly out of my mind with worry.
What are you hearing from contacts in the region?
We are talking now exactly two weeks after all this happened. I think everyone has seen the images. The fallen buildings. The dead bodies covered with sheets on the street. The amputees. The orphans.
We have also seen the resilient Haitian spirit. People singing during their worst hours. That’s one of the things that Richard Morse first tweeted as night fell on a crushed Port-au-Prince, that people were singing. Now the world is more intimately acquainted with that Haitian spirit than it has ever been in the past. The best of Haiti, I think, has been on display even as the country has suffered and continues to suffer a great deal.
What I hear from the people on the ground is that they are sleeping outside for the most part. Some of them are still hurt or waiting for their wounds to heal. Many are hungry or thirsty. The very young and the very old have a hard time in the food distribution lines. Those who live outside of the capital have still not gotten a lot of aid.
My mother-in-law, who lives outside of Port-au-Prince in a town called Gros Marin, has seen the population of her town double with people who are fleeing Port-au-Prince. Of course, many people have begun to worry about the rainy season, then the hurricane season that are only a few months away. With so many people homeless—the U.N. now says, a million plus people—the hurricane season can become another huge catastrophe for Haiti.
What misconceptions are you hearing repeated in news coverage?
The news media keeps stressing looting and violence--almost inciting it at times when a news reporter throws himself in a crowd of hungry people who are, of course, eager to get something to eat. We saw it with Katrina. When black people get desperate and some lose their calm, it’s seen as the most menacing thing in the world.
Given what everyone has suffered and lost, given the level of desperation that exists and can exist, I think the population in general has acted very dignified. When I speak to my relatives, even those who have homes, but are too afraid to sleep in them, they are saddened and humiliated to have to wait to be given food. They want to buy or earn their own food, but that’s the situation some of them find themselves in now after this disaster. Whether they are getting help from the international community or from relatives who themselves might be in a precarious financial situation during these hard times in the United States, they would rather be earning their own way. They don’t want to fight for food. They would rather earn it as they had been trying to do before.
What’s the most important piece of information that is not making it into the media coverage?
I suppose it depends on what you watch. If you watch Amy Goodman of Democracy Now, for example, she has the time and inclination to tell a larger story. The history of Haiti, for example, with so-called “donors and debt,” the neglect of the countryside. No matter what you feel is missing from one outlet though, you can find in another.
The Haitian Times, for example. Haiti Liberté and other Haitian newspapers that publish in the United States and have some English articles can give you a different perspective.
In this day and age of the Internet and all other media, I think we have to look for our own information. Don’t count on one media outlet to bring everything to you. One of the things I did like in the print coverage was the effort made to bring in voices from Haiti. So if you read Le Point, you can see essays there by Haitian writers in Haiti writing about what’s going on right now. The New York Times also had some Haiti-based artists on its opinion pages.
What images/stories/voices from the earthquake are already standing out to you?
The stand-out media image for me is of a little boy named Kiki coming out of the rubble with both his hands raised in the air and a mile wide smile on his face.
I choose to remember that first, but of course there are so many other sad images, of the hands sticking out of the rubble as if reaching towards heaven. The children. The dead children. The orphaned children. The wounded children. As a mother, of course, those images haunt you. That’s why Little Kiki was so comforting to see.
The stories that stand out to me are what I mentioned before. For example, of Evelyne Troullot’s essay in The New York Times, which ends with her saying that she is busy loving her country. There are so many other voices. Regine Chassagne in The Observer, describing her first reaction to the earthquake. Crying, I think she says, As though everyone she knew had died.
How much of this disaster is “human-made,” and how much is natural?
I will venture to say that it’s a natural disaster that could have happened anywhere else. The fact that this fault line was lying beneath Haiti was not something we could control. However the fact that Port-au-Prince was so crowded and had so many homes built on slopes and certainly not with earthquakes in mind, made this a bigger disaster.
Now why was Port-au-Prince so crowded? Haitian agriculture has been on the decline for years because of policies that favor import. The demise of the Haitian sugar and rice industries, and even livestock—with the United States Department of Agriculture wiping the Haitian pig population that it said had swine fever, which I suppose was a precursor to swine flu—left farmers with no choice but to migrate to Port-au-Prince and try to make a life for themselves in these houses that didn’t stand a chance against this earthquake.
What can be done, medium and long term, so that Haiti can become less vulnerable to natural and other disasters?
I am not an expert, but I think reforestation is one thing. In the wake of this disaster, you have a lot of people moving back to the countryside. I hope this will mean a renewal for Haitian agriculture, with the international community involved, with Haiti exporting, after the county has fed itself, more than it imports.
I can see now that people might be tempted to build, say, lighter houses. I have a cousin for example, who is rebuilding his house in Leogane and he says he will build it with wood only, but people were building these cement houses to protect themselves from hurricanes. So in the long run, Haitians will need help in building homes that can be both resistant to hurricanes and now these earthquakes that we are being told might continue to reoccur now and again.
How have Haitians dealt with these kinds of natural disasters in the past?
In the past we have mostly dealt with hurricanes. Two years ago, Haiti had four in a row in just one deadly summer. People rally and start again, because they have no choice.
This is a lot more daunting, this earthquake, but people have already shown in the way that they’ve organized themselves that they will rally and start again.
Think of it, as we are speaking now, two weeks after this earthquake, no one has built a single tent city for the people who lost their homes in the earthquake. They have done it themselves, a lot of them with bed sheets. They are the ones relocating themselves, mostly. Not the international community. Not the government. So Haitians have learned to be very resilient—it almost sounds like a cliché now—because they’ve had no choice but to be resilient.
How can church folk stand in solidarity with our sisters and brothers in Haiti and the whole region affected by this tragedy?
Do not malign them for one thing. It’s heart-breaking to see people of faith say things like Haiti made a pact with the devil and that’s why Haitians are suffering like they are. That’s nonsense and it’s heartless.
Haitians are very religious and spiritual people. Whether we are Catholic, Protestant, or Vodou practitioners, we believe in the Gran Mèt, a greater spirit who oversees everything good or bad. People of faith more than anyone else should not be blaming those who suffer for their suffering. Love thy neighbor as thyself is what the scripture says and in these camps where people are living outside they are truly living up to that creed.
When the financial institutions opened and we were finally able to send help to our relatives, I can’t tell you how many of them told us that they were given some food, some water by a neighbor who helped sustain them until they could get their own. How can someone who claims to be a Christian not see it when people are living the Gospel before their eyes? They are living the Apocalypse. They are each living Job. Yet they still manage to love their neighbors. I think that’s an extraordinary example for everyone who is willing to open their eyes and hearts to witness it.

Rose Marie Berger is an associate editor at Sojourners. To read more about recovery efforts and reactions to the January 12, 2010 earthquake in Haiti, please visit the God's Politics blog.

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