Haitian born writer, Edwidge Danticat published a collection of essays in 2010: Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 2010). After watching the BBC 2 programme, Caribbean with Simon Reeve, (aired on BBC 2, 22 March 2015) on Haiti, and after the earthquake in Nepal, Danticat’s evocative collection came to mind, and with it, a desire to write about the gap that exists between the writer, the academic (and travel writer/broadcaster), and the individual for whom trauma, injustice, and poverty are a daily burden.
“The immigrant artist shares with all other artists the desire to interpret and possibly remake his or her own world. So though we may not be creating as dangerously as our forebears – though we are not risking torture, beatings, execution, though exile does not threaten us into perpetual silence – still, while we are at work bodies are littering the streets somewhere. People are buried under rubble somewhere. Mass graves are being dug somewhere, shielding their heads from the rain, closing their eyes, covering their ears, to shut out the sounds of military ‘aid’ helicopters. And still, many are reading, and writing, quietly, quietly” (p.18).
In the BBC programme, Reeves shows how 5 years on from the horrific earthquake of 2010, parts of Haiti are still in rubble, still waiting for promised aid, and people still living in “makeshift tent cities”. The programme is keen to celebrate the forgotten beauty of this island and suggests that its recovery may be held in attracting more tourism to the region. I am still deciding if this programme is any different to other neo-colonial broadcasts that are dangerously invested in the exotic imaginings of the Caribbean that tell us much more about the European imperial imagination than the complex and heady mix of beauty and tragedy that make up this Island (and many other Caribbean islands).
“While I was ‘at work’ at 4:53pm., on January 12, 2010, the ground was shaking and killing more than two hundred thousand people in a 7.0 magnitude earthquake in Haiti. And even before the first aftershock, people were calling me asking ‘Edwidge, what are you going to do? When are you going back? Could you come on television or on the radio and tell us how you feel? Could you write us fifteen hundred words or less?’” (19).
Danticat’s essays reflect on what it means to be a writer whose words have evolved from birth and upbringing in a country of crisis, the exile caused by the honesty of these words, and the guilt and self-doubt about the observational practice that defines the writer’s task. And what about the reader of this work, the academic consumer, for are we just feasting on the tragedy and exile of Others? For Danticat, these are words that risk life; the stories Danticat tells mean that she will not return to Haiti to live; she is exiled, in order to create dangerously, in order to continue telling stories that share the brutality and horrors of a dictatorship but also the bravery of the people risking life and literally limbs in order for the world to hear. The stakes are high and the results are an honest and consuming collection of intelligently crafted essays. The least that I can do as a western academic/consumer/onlooker is to respond (ethically and thoughtfully) to this brilliant work, and others like it, regardless of the discomfort I feel because of my observational gaze. Because it has to be read.
One essay in particular that captured my imagination is “Chapter 7: Bicentennial”. In January 2004, Haiti observed 200 years of Independence but rather than a national celebration, the anniversary passed “midst national revolt” (100). “Perhaps, had it been given a fair chance in its beginning, Haiti might have flourished and prospered” (100). Danticat draws on the tragic ironies and contradictions of colonialism and slavery that saw North America flourish and Haiti disintegrate post Independence. Thomas Jefferson celebrated the French Revolution and the power and importance of insurgency, yet he was fearful of Haiti and its bloody, twelve-year revolution for Independence, and refused to acknowledge Haiti’s Independence when it finally came: “How could the man who wrote about freedom in such transcendent terms have failed to hear echoes of his own country’s revolutionary struggle, and victory, in the Haitians’ urgent desire for self-rule?” And instead “declaring its leaders ‘cannibals of the terrible republic’” (98).
At the centre of Haiti’s communal re-memberance of this twelve-year slave uprising is a man, Toussaint L’Ouverture and the vodou god, Ogoun. L’Ouverture begins a Vodou ceremony and calls upon the God of war, Ogoun; he is transformed into a warrior and leads his soldiers in a twelve-year battle against the French colonial masters, which, against all the odds, achieves Independence. This is what the people remember. This is what is passed from mother to daughter, father to son. This is also recorded by the historian C.L.R. James in “The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution” (Penguin Books: London, first published 1938, 2001 edition).
Danticat refers to Cuban author Alejo Carpentier and his 1949 novel “The Kingdom of this World” in which he combines myth and memory, “magical realism with historic facts” to write this story of Haiti’s journey to Independence, which he describes as the ‘real maravilloso’ the real marvellous.
“the real marvellous [sic], which we have come to know as magic realism, lives and thrives in past and present Haiti, just as Haiti’s revolution does. The real marvellous is in the extraordinary and the mundane, the beautiful and the repulsive, the spoken and the unspoken. It is in the enslaved African princes who believed they could fly and knew the paths of the clouds and the language of the forests but could no longer recognize themselves and the so-called New World. It is in the elaborate vèvès, or cornmeal drawings, sketched in the soil at Vodou ceremonies to draw attention from the gods. It is in the thunderous response from gods such as Ogoun, the god of war, who speak in the hearts of men and women who, in spite of their slim odds accept nothing less than total freedom.
Whenever possible, Haitians cite their historical and spiritual connection to this heroic heritage by invoking the names of one or all of the founders of the country: Toussaint L’Ouverture, Henri Christophe, and Jean–Jacques Dessalines” (103).
At the heart of this country’s painful journey through enslavement and Independence, dictatorships and national revolt, natural tragedy and crippling poverty is a spirit of resistance that is insightfully summarised by Danticat in this paragraph. The real marvellous is etched in the very fabric of their beings, to give hope, freedom, survival. I hope that those in Nepal reeling from nature’s painful blow are given glimpses of the ‘real marvellous’ in the horrors that they face, to empower them with a spirit of resistance, so maybe they can “read and write quietly, quietly” long after the media has left and the aid helicopters have ceased to come.