Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A letter from Haiti
(Simon & Schuster, 2013)
In 1986, after dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier was whisked out of Haiti on a U.S. cargo plane, it was as if the entire country had “burst out talking,” writes Amy Wilentz in Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter from Haiti. The foreign correspondents had a name for Duvalier: “Fred Voodoo”—a pejorative for Haiti’s prototypical straw man. Wilentz had just arrived in Haiti to write her first international dispatch, and she was eager to speak to everyone: market women, taxi drivers, doctors, Vodun priests, aid workers, tailors, politicians, street kids, journalists, missionaries, and the former dictator’s goons. At the center of what would become her first book, The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier, was a country priest whose weekly sermons were translated by staff at the American Embassy, who were still jittering about Communism. “Everything was at a boil, and I couldn’t stay away,” Wilentz wrote. In doing so, she captured a portrait of a nation as it cast off the fetters of 29 years of father-and-son autocratic rule.
The years since have been a reminder of how fleeting a writer’s—and a nation’s—satisfaction can be. The country priest gave up his pulpit for the presidency. There were coups and cyclones, mudslides and murders, and American rice subsidies that flooded Haitian markets and benefited constituents in Arkansas.
There were signs of hope. In 2009, Wilentz wrote an article about Haitian tourism for a luxury travel magazine. Six months later a 7.0-magnitude earthquake destroyed the swankiest hotel in Port-au-Prince—not to mention the national palace, the national nursing school, the Ministries of Justice, Finance, and Foreign Affairs, and the tens of thousands of people who happened to be inside them or in their homes or on the streets. Tent camps bloomed along roads and in public squares. Exiled dictators and presidents returned, Wyclef Jean ran for president, and another musician won. American pop culture was not to be outdone—Kim Kardashian, Sean Penn, and countless other foreigners appeared among the ruins.
Farewell, Fred Voodoo,as Wilentz describes it, is her attempt to “put Haiti back together again for myself.” She captures life after the quake with ranging detail: a hip-hop artist making “music in the midst of all the chaos, blood, and misery”, tuberculosis patients at the general hospital clinging to the tent poles of their not-so-temporary ward during a windstorm, well-established paths worn through the rubble. Wilentz, bound for Haiti two weeks after the earthquake, confesses that, “even in such conditions, even for such reasons, I was so happy to be going back.”
But as she sits in tent camps and talks to friends old and new, “hanging out on terms of unearned equality with people who will sleep tonight three or four in a bed,” Wilentz begins to wonder why, exactly, she is there. She sheepishly recalls a moment during one of her first visits to Haiti, when after an “exhilarating” day—a demonstration, a shooting—she sat drinking soda in the relative cool of the evening with a group of Haitian women. “I love Haiti,” she declared. One of the women smiled knowingly and said, “Well, then, I will give you my Haitian citizenship and you give me your U.S. passport. You can stay here, but I’m leaving.” Wilentz wonders, in other words, if her attachment to the country is merely a form of voyeurism.
As she roams over the post-disaster landscape, Wilentz returns to this question again and again. Farewell, Fred Voodoo may be a letter from Haiti, but it is primarily about those like Wilentz, who cannot stay away. Part of Haiti’s pull, she concludes, is that the country
defies categorization […] At every corner, in every conversation, with every new event, Haiti makes you think, it challenges you. Here in this stray corner of the Caribbean, many worlds and many times collide with one another: Europe and Africa, North America and Latin America, the colonial period and the age of technology, the era of slavery and the era of globalization.
In this sense, Haiti is a “harbinger of the modern world.” Yet despite—or perhaps due to—its position on the global stage, Haiti is reduced to simplistic narratives and conventions, leaving a country, and its people, deeply misunderstood.
Wilentz details the outsiders that poured in after the 2010 disaster: the missionaries and the doctors, the open-source mappers and the sustainable architects, the journalists and the Haitian-American girls in shorts and halter-tops “on a post-quake tour of the homeland.” She disparages the “kind of people who can say ‘I met him in the tsunami, and then we were dating again when we were both posted to a refugee camp in Pakistan after the earthquake there, and then finally we broke up after the earthquake in Haiti.’” The disaster, the people, and the conditions become merely a backdrop, a means of action, fundraising, and sustenance for humanitarian groups themselves. Ultimately, what is troubling is that the “new Haiti that’s being put into place now is a Haiti reimagined by us.”
Even before the earthquake, however, Haiti was known as a republic of NGOs. The disaster has only made such governance more popular—and lucrative. Wilentz calls foreigners the “white kings of Haiti,” and their bloodlines trickle back to conquistadors and Crusaders and Kurtzes. Indeed, notes Wilentz, foreign mining companies now have access to 15 percent of Haitian national territory. (Under the established mining permits, the country stands to receive only 2.5 percent of the value of any minerals extracted.) This is an ancient script, with a new chapter entitled “Building Back Better.” As Wilentz wryly observes, “there are many words in Haitian Creole for fraud and deception.”
With her diverse connections and studied eye, Wilentz is poised to draw a rich portrait of a vibrant, fascinating, and complex place. She notices cobwebs in the rubble, the ever-increasing heights of security walls, a street kid with his “boulevardier fizz.” But her critiques are scattered and sweeping, and her writing is both breezy and forced. A rape victim “starts freaking.” Then-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide is “tossed” out of the country. More specifically, on the matter of political history, she writes: “Anyway, Duvalier fled, and, as I said earlier, eventually Aristide was elected and then he was ousted, and then he returned, and then he was elected again, and then he was ousted again. Get the picture?”
It is the task of the writer to keep her readers engaged. But one feels Wilentz is writing for her caricature of an American reader, whom she describes as “classic, slightly overweight, not overly young...sprawled across his couch somewhere in a leafy suburb,” paging through a 2010 coffee table book entitled Haiti: Tragedy and Hope. (Wilentz, who notes she has made one-eighth of her income writing about Haiti and the earthquake, contributed one of its essays.) If we are to cast off our old habits of soft imperialism and disaster capitalism, we will require more rigor, nuance, and thorough self-analysis.
Wilentz offers one such model, for both herself and her readers: Megan Coffee, an infectious disease specialist who came to work in Haiti for two weeks in January 2010, and has remained there since, tweeting and taking crowded tap-taps to the hospital where she works. She pays for her patients’ food by donations from her Twitter followers. Her dispatches read like haikus from Haiti: “Can you give me a pill, he asked, for appetite? It seemed unkind. I knew he had little money for food.”
Wilentz gleans hope from those like Coffee, and, of course, Haitians themselves:
“If Haitian history shows one thing, it is that Haiti—and Haitians—are exceptional, especially in extremis. So it’s possible, just marginally possible, that Haiti’s voiceless will start speaking for themselves again soon—not through Aristide […] not in my books or on Anderson Cooper’s show […] but in some new Haitian way that you and I cannot predict.”
SARA VERSLUIS is a freelance writer and editor currently living in New York City.