history rolls in and out and back with the tides

First published in 1993, Lillian Allen’s collection of poetry “Women Do This Every Day” included this not-so-blind item, made less scathing — and, in some ways, sadder — with events and non-events of this past year and a half:

Dictator
(for Haiti)

the dust that makes you will someday
turn to mud in the rain
and fertilize land for the peasants
its fruit shall bear no resemblance of you
only a song of the past about evil days
long gone
shall we remember your name
dictator

Evil days, not long gone, but parallax. A long conversation on a longer car trip recently had me listening to these words come out of my own mouth:

“I don’t know how I feel about right and wrong anymore.”

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welcome to somewhere

Being away from West End Toronto for the bulk of Euro2012 made me terribly homesick. I’ve spent most of my adult life away, but that scrappy cement patch of autobody shops, faded warehouses and parkette drug deals will always be my most primary of homes. No one does international futebol championships quite how we do. The flags! The honking! The aggro traffic-stopping revelry! The drunken giddy shouting at strangers! My current home of Port-au-Prince appreciates a good match, and while I was warmed to hear the neighbourhood men yelp as though collectively wounded with every near-goal and near-save, this soccer crowd just didn’t cut it for me. I wanted excessive public rowdiness. I wanted to be home.

Maybe distance has made me nostalgic, but I now look through love-lidded eyes at my old immigrant-enclave hood. I smile at the Portuguese sports bars (and the Super Bock-tipsy aging construction bachelors), recall the corner store where I used to buy patties after school, and take delight in the dilapidated discount strip mall that has slowly emptied over the years. I used to scowl at the noisy gino-mobiles, the ugly flat-top buildings, the dull desolation. The drug dealers made me furious for taking over the playground (also my shortcut to the bus stop), coming and going in a constant cycle of street, arrest, jail, street. I often had the feeling that I lived in an abandoned space, one where people were resigned to carry on because they didn’t have the heart to give up completely. Tired faces, low wages, drop-out kids. Our area didn’t even have a name, like the Annex or Corso Italia, presumably because no one could be bothered to coin one.

It was so depressing it became funny.

“This neighbourhood is where dreams go to die,” I would tell my brother, and he would crack up. “Yeah,” he’d say, forcing a straight face, “I went to the Galleria a few days ago, and I’ve been depressed ever since.” The strip mall was the apex of this mini-empire of hopelessness. My classic illustration: every December the mall would set up Christmas decorations and a modest throne for Santa to sit in —- to take gift requests and snap photos with little mall rats, as is the great mall tradition — but Santa never came. In the 20+ years I lived in the area, the Galleria’s Christmas chair was always empty. I laughed when I got older. Why would he come here, anyway? Not like anyone on this block was getting presents.

The neighbourhood is changing, though. The Zellers discount department store in the mall is slated to shut down this month, skeevy off-track betting joint PM Toronto is already boarded up, and the rest of the Galleria is to be demolished and built-over with condos. On recent visits I’ve started to notice people jogging, bike locks have sprouted, and there are now creative-class espresso shops and hipster bars up the block from the working-class bakery/cafes and sports dives, competing for new residents’ attentions. I have mixed feelings about this. Not bad, just mixed.

 

 

 

On my last Toronto visit, I spent time at the first official hipster bar on the Geary strip, chatting up one of the owners about his choice of locale. I had never bothered to hang at the spot’s previous incarnation — a decidedly manly bar named Copas, where the rare client who pulled up on bicycle had probably just gotten a DUI. This new space was beautiful, filled with art and vintage speakers, the pants tighter and beards longer than on the previous regulars. The new owner said that most of his friends now lived in the area, refugees from the increasingly pricy Queen West scene they had helped make popular, and that they were hurting for a decent hang out spot. So, it made sense to open up, he said, here in the middle of nowhere.

Hey, I said. I grew up here. It’s not nowhere. People live here. Families live here.

Both his words and mine fell awkwardly, because here we were — him, opening a front-line gentrifying bar, and me, sipping a pint of Steamwhistle while contemplating gentrification. I read through articles and blogs about this bar, rejoicing its arrival in “the middle of nowhere,” heralding a Williamsburg-esque transformation that by some is seen as inevitable. What?

I felt alarmed. I was pleased to have spicy mojitos within walking distance, but worried that these new residents would dismiss the area… much the way I had, growing up. Guilty. Would they be the kind of migrants who flush in, dismiss the working-class community, and go about re-paving things their way? Would they see the beauty in the brokenness? Would they compliment their new surroundings? Would they shop at the Mexican bakery, the Portuguese fish market, the churrasqueiria? Would they scowl at the Dufferin bus stop like a local, or wait with mild-mannered patience?

It’s a strange thing to slip between classes and social groups. I thought I would be used to it by now, but having multiple worlds collide on my home turf has been weird, particularly because I don’t even live there anymore. So every visit will make me feel like more of a visitor. The rest of the city, the people who ride bicycles by choice, do yoga, and pay too much for watery coffee, is creeping up. I suppose am one of those people, minus the bad taste in coffee, but I sprouted from this space. The bargain stores will close. Warehouses become rehearsal spaces become lofts. More immigrants will leave, pulled to live with their children in the suburbs. I’ll fly back to see my parents, and before they sell their house and move on, I’ll get together with friends at a bar around the corner, where they play 45s and screen vintage cartoons, for cocktails and fish tacos to wax nostalgic about how my neighbourhood is gone.

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strange theatre

 

I snapped this photo at about a quarter to four on the afternoon of March 29. A friend had called me up an hour or two earlier, saying — Hey, the ex-military are going on parade, do you want to join them? We were there within the hour, the only journalists in sight. This image was taken just down the road from their base. I posted it to Twitter with the following caption: “Ex-FAdH military en route to #PAP. Crowds cheer. Just a regular Thursday afternoon in Carrefour…”

I remember hearing about ex-military training and recruitment camps in March of last year. They were called Lame Woz, President Martelly’s pink army, held up by some as evidence of his fascist, repressive tendencies. Busy with other matters, I mostly ignored the reports for a full year. When the militarized groups began to clash with the national police two months ago, I finally paid them a visit.

A few of my shots from March 29’s parade were picked up far and wide. I saw them pop up in a handful of Haitian newspapers and sites, and the above shot especially made quite a few rounds on Facebook. A neighbour emailed it to me days later, saying: “You can thank [our electrician] and his Blackberry for this photo, taken on Canapé Vert.”

The photos stirred up some panic. These men and women in army green look armed, but they were not armed. They were not aggressive. They were playing out a scenario, in the theatre of Port-au-Prince.

The military term “theatre” is apt, as so much of what I’ve seen unfold over the past two and a half months has involved some level of acting, posturing, and scripted conflict. But I no longer know who is benefitting. I no longer know who, if anyone, is controlling the curtains.

 

I put together a doc for CBC Radio One’s Dispatches, but as is always the case, a few points got left on the cutting room floor or didn’t make it into the final script at all.

One is that this military narrative has changed over time. They’ve gone from cursing the tactical units of the national police to praising them as brothers. I accompanied them to the same police station they had once threatened to take by force, and they were hugging and shaking hands with the officers, smiles all around.

Another is that they feel they’ve been lied to. They’ve long said that the current president — a long time fan of Haiti’s military — had encouraged them last year, and even paid them a visit during his campaign while they were training at a different base. These men (and women) say they were encouraged to continue drilling and recruiting so that they could be ready for when the army is officially re-instated. Now the official line is that these groups must be dismantled, and the plan for a modern army revival is to be shelved for a time.

Today, May 18th, Haitian Flag Day, they’ve promised to ride the streets again. They say they’ll bring their guns out. Some of them, feeling bolder, say they’ll meet resistance with violence. They’ve been painted variously as a menace or as a band of clowns. I’m not sure they’re either.

There’s always more to it than that. This is about pride, about past, and to an extent, about sovereignty. This is about plot twists that could have been. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that, in today’s act, nothing more than a few already-bruised egos get hurt.

 

 

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sispann pedi

For nothing is fixed, forever and forever and forever, it is not fixed; the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down rock. Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them because we are the only witnesses they have. The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.

/james baldwin

I landed back in PAP a few weeks ago after a short time away, and returned to a city floating in a strange, grey, time warp limbo. My American Airlines flight hadn’t bothered to update to Haiti’s new timezone, so their clocks were still behind. When its plane full of clapping passengers touched down, joyed to arrive alive, they were already an hour late. President Michel Martelly’s office had announced the timezone switch late on a Friday evening in early March — a heads up of 30 hours for a population mostly deprived of electricity — to match the springing-forward of the north. None of this seemed to matter to the airline; early, late, it was all immaterial. The sky looked heavy as I walked outside. Thick air, humid and choked with car exhaust, smoke. It was uncomfortable. The long, uneasy week that followed was without sun, flush with rowdy rains day and night. Everything seemed more tense. Everything seemed more weird.

It wasn’t always like this. There had been some optimism early this year, a different energy, a feeling that, slowly, things might get better. I know I didn’t imagine it. I hope I didn’t imagine it. That mood began to wobble around Carnival, in February. A slap on the wrist for ex-dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier after a year-long investigation, gossip-fueling feuds between the president and prime minister, defiant bacchanale excess in Les Cayes, and finally on the 24th, the resignation of the four-month-term head of government. Political turmoil, it was called. A string of high-profile murders. An early start to rainy season. But that wasn’t the worst of it. I can pinpoint when it fell apart.

It began the week the earthquakes came back.

The evening of March 7 , a Wednesday, I was at a friend’s place in the high hills of Petionville when the quake hit. I didn’t feel it, but even if I had, I don’t have traumatic memories to draw on. This small tremor sent people running into the streets, panicked, the apocalyptic horror of douz janvye flooding back like no time had passed. It was enough to give many Port-au-Prince residents a sleepless night and to keep them on edge for the days that followed.

And like clockwork, two senators went on the radio the next day to stoke that tension. They announced, separately, that there would be a mad panic in the capital soon, and advised listeners to be home by 4 pm for the sake of their safety. Rumours had already swirled for weeks that former President Jean Bertrand Aristide would be arrested, and the announcement of a sudden, mysterious press conference at the National Palace did nothing to allay the frightened chaos. When I went out later that evening, the streets were ghostly. Not a single police patrol in sight.

After that came Friday, the 9th. The day played out slowly, gingerly. There had been no catastrophe the night before. People went back to work. Vendors spread their fruits and cell phone cables and dried biscuits out to sell. Tap-taps and taxis laboured up and down their usual hills. Another minor earthquake hit — and this one I felt. Another high-profile assassination. That evening, at 8:23 pm, an abrupt announcement from the office of the president landed in my inbox, decreeing the adoption of a new timezone the following night. The chatter over the left field time change overshadowed another drama — a standoff between national police and rogue paramilitaries in Carrefour. The bizarre scene played out for hours on 104.9 FM: demobilized soldiers and their new recruits from three bases spread across the metropolitan area threatened to storm a police station where one of their own was being held, arrested on a traffic violation. A nameless national palace representative ordered the police to release their suspect, a former sergeant went on air to order the enraged paramilitaries back to their respective bases, and a temporary peace was declared. Not their last public flexing of power.

A weekend of disquiet.

Monday morning opened with a morbid editorial digest in Le Nouvelliste: “Haiti is open for… crisis?” The insecurity, the murders, the political bickering, and the unsubtle “Trojan War” being scripted by so many professional tragedians had convened to crush the last remaining optimism of a new year. Haiti’s positive re-branding campaign seemed empty. There was a heavy, disappointing sense of being trapped in a familiar time warp. The mood “is gloomy, and the old demons will come back to haunt this country if we do not take lessons from history.”

Two months later, I don’t know how to measure the mood anymore. I do not revel in the negative. My mind often wanders back to those intense 72 hours in March, though there have been many more highs and lows since: a new prime minister and Cabinet, a surge in cholera, a reduction in IDP camps, increased settlement south of Titanyen, disappearing rubble piles, a corruption scandal involving the president and a DR senator, more kids in school, road-choking protests over a police officer’s murder, gold medal beer, rain, rain, rain. I’m told that American Airlines has adjusted its timezone for Haiti by now. At least the time, if not the timing, is right.

 

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takeoffs and landings

Tomorrow marks 10 years since peace returned to Angola. From 1961 to 1975, the war of independence. Then, nearly three decades of cold, cold civil war. But stretched out before either were hundreds of years of Portuguese occupation, colonization, slavery. A successful ceasefire agreement between former nationalist-guerilla-groups-turned-civil-war-rivals on April 4, 2002 changed all of that. This is the simplified version of events, in any case.

It’s been a very long road.

If you know me, you know how badly I wish I could be in Angola right now. My family’s history is tied to that place, tied to those wars. But for lack of finances, and at least a few unlucky missed opportunities, my time to visit has not yet come. In the meantime I read things like Judith Matloff‘s “Fragments of a Forgotten War,” a warm, beautifully written memoir of Angola’s false peace ten years earlier, in 1992. It took months (and at least two unscrupulous eBay sellers) to track down a copy, but it was well worth the effort. Matloff, a former Lisbon correspondant now based in Apartheid-era South Africa, arrives in post-ceasefire Luanda. Roads, railways and buildings had been obliterated during the wars, vast swaths of the country were littered with slumbering landmines, but offshore oil infrastructure remained intact. The ceasefire brought with it a frenzy of activity, new hopes, old demons, opportunism, and an uneasy chaos that I’m well familiar with in my own corner of the world:

Suddenly, small shops were opening and people were plastering over the bullet holes and painting their houses. Foreigners were coming in, looking for good business deals. Suddenly, too, there was a proliferation of cars–and traffic jams.

Bars were opening everywhere. The favoured one at the time was the Bar Aberto, or Open Bar, which was on a rooftop and played the latest techno-rap music from New York. I never ceased to marvel at where all these trendy people in tight black outfits appeared from; you never saw such hip well-dressed characters on the streets during the day.

The optimism that followed the Biçesse accords led to talk of physical reconstruction. Consultants and experts flew in to calculate how much it would cost to repair the shattered country. The World Bank estimated it would take a decade to fully rebuild the roads, bridges and other infrastructure. One of the more ambitious projects was reviving the Benguela Railroad (estimate: $340 million). Portuguese citizens visited factories and farms that had been nationalised with a view to buying them back.

Another negative side of peace, for the MPLA at any rate, was that it could no longer blame the ills of urban life on the enemy. Earlier it was UNITA which had thrown the city into a waterless dark by sabotaging electricity pylons and water tanks. But now that the rebels were in Luanda the MPLA had to assume responsibility for the deficiencies of city life.

These deficiencies were myriad. The MPLA as administrators embodied the worst of Portuguese bureaucracy, African lack of training and Marxist-Leninist inefficiency. Luanda had become a monster of a city.

For most of the population — and one-fifth lived in Luanda — there was no proper health care or education. Public services had all but broken down. I saw this most clearly at the city morgue, which I visited by accident. I was suffering from symptoms of malaria and a friend took me to the military hospital to be tested. I was advised to take my own clean needle to avoid the possibility of contracting Aids from the used ones they had at the hospital. When one entered the clinic one became keenly aware of one’s mortality: it was right next to the morgue. The building emitted a terrible stench. As the Cuban doctor pricked my finger for blood I heard what sounded like a small explosion.

“What’s that?” I asked. Another noise followed.

“Oh, it’s probably a body at the morgue,” the doctor said nonchalantly. “When the electricity goes off the refrigerators go warm. Then the bodies swell up and pop.”

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konstitisyonally speaking

With the possible exception of the interpretation-obsessed U.S., I’ve never lived in a country so devoted to its constitution as Haiti. The 25th anniversary of the 1987 manman tout lwa was marked on Thursday by marches–by grassroots activist groups, by people under ex-President Aristide’s Lavalas party banner, and by former members of the demobilized national army. The first group called for citizens’ basic right to housing under article 22, highlighting in particular the plight of the hundreds of thousands living through their third rainy season under ratty tarps and tents. The second group protested for Martelly to step down due to his alleged dual nationality, which is forbidden under article 15. The third group defied government “orders” to stay confined to their (illegally occupied) military bases, and paraded their constitutionally-enshrined right to exist, citing articles 263 through 266.

In honour of these and other ongoing constitutional quarrels, here are some “scans” (er, photos–if you live in PAP and have a scanner, kindly let me know) of an illustrated Creole guide to the constitution. Click the right/left side of the image to go forward/back. Decentralization, dual nationality, the division of powers, provisional vs. permanent electoral council, physical abuse of cheeky journalists, it’s all laid out. Thanks, National Democratic Institute!

Konstitisyon 1987

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to clarify

I wrote a story last week for TIME on the second earthquake anniversary in Haiti. Specifically, about Titanyen, a new settlement on what was ostensibly claimed “public use” land just north of the capital, Port-au-Prince.  To be even more specific, it is the Titanyen that is north of Grace de Dieu, which is north of Mon St. Christophe, which is north of Jerusalem, north of Canaan, north of Onaville, north of Corail-Cesselesse, which is north of La Plaine, north of Bon Repos, north of Crois-des-Bouquets. (But that’s not the real Crois-des-Bouquets, some locals will say.) And this Titanyen is south of the tiny village Titanyen, which is where I stopped one day to have a tall Coca-Cola by the side of the road and has, I can tell you, been around for a minute.

(People began to move to not-the-village Titanyen in November from Tabarre, Delmas, Cite Soleil, Cabaret, Santo and other places after they heard via SMS and radio that free land was available. Free land! For a first family home or an escape from a camp, who wouldn’t want to come?)

This Titanyen is a mass grave site. It is not where the earthquake memorial took place this year or last (that would be Mon St. Christophe), but rather it is where the dead are (and continue to be) buried en masse. There is still an open pit; when new bodies are dropped in, dirt from the towering mounds that surround the pit is pushed in to cover them. A few metal crosses remain from memorials past, some fallen forgotten in the rocky earth, among the last solemn physical reminders of what this place is.

Kijan rele zòn sa a? “What is the name of this place?”

The answers were different each time I asked. The most popular, Titanyen, was the one that stuck. “No, I think this is Sous Pyant,” a few people said, recalling the name of the sulphur springs across the road and down the way. No one south of here seemed to want to claim the name Titanyen anymore; they had all taken on new names, baptized into their new lives. Someone had already tried to baptize this place, too.

“This is Bethlehem.” One man tried to convince me, showing off a hand-painted sign propped up on a hillside, but the name hasn’t gained much traction yet. Bethlehem. Birth place of Jesus, his saviour, and in keeping with the Biblical names taken on by his neighbours to the south. Bethlehem. Until the name sticks, adopted by a critical mass, the name Titanyen remains. Given the still-open grave, it seems fitting.

*

We are spoiled in the North/West by our expectation of hard and simple truths, boundaries, statistics, names, spellings. How big was the protest? How many dead? Who won the election? The most recent theme taken up by the international media has been this gem: Where did the money go?

Covering demonstrations is nearly always an exercise in managing manufactured appearances. So much is done for show, for influence and marketing power, but how do you report that the few hundred people that showed up with neat, pre-made protest signs in English at the anti-UN demo were actually bussed in and paid to attend by local politicians, narco traffickers and pro-army lobbyists? (Sometimes a three-for-one deal.) Is a protester still a protester if all he wants is some lunch?

My friend and colleague Maura O’Connor has a piece in the Columbia Journalism Review on the prickly dispute over the earthquake death toll that is worth a read. It astounds me, naïvely, still, how striving for accuracy in numbers can make you so many enemies. I’ve countered claims of overblown head counts by activists and journalists–claims of several thousand demonstrators at a protest when I see with my own eyes no more than several hundred–that has caused some friction, as well as one (so far) low-blow Twitter tussle. The idea that, by wanting to report a lower number, this somehow hurts “the cause.” But doesn’t reporting a flagrantly exaggerated number hurt credibility? And in the case of death or sickness counts–cholera, quake, or otherwise–cooking the numbers for political or financial reasons can have far graver consequences than a simple ego bruise. Choosing which numbers to report, and whether or not to include backstory details, isn’t always easy to navigate.

We measure the strength of movements and public opinion by how many bodies are in the street, with no distinction between the organic and the engineered. We also measure success in reconstruction, it seems, by similarly arbitrary numbers.

WHERE DID THE MONEY GO? Last week’s headlines, ledes and nut graphs screamed this question. An American reporter brought it up on a USAID teleconference, her delivery particularly indignant: where did all that money go? $10 billion pledged, $4.5 billion pledged, only half delivered, dispersed, spent, $155 per Haitian, $173 per Haitian, $200 000 for a country director salary, and people are still in tents, where did it all go?

Underlying much of this talk are a few major assumptions. The first, and most revealing, is that spending fixes things. The money that was pledged — Was it not enough? Was it too much? If all those billions of dollars had been spent, rather than just some of them, would Haiti be in top shape by now? There is no nuanced breakdown of how money is spent in a program, of how much is actually needed to deliver specific services or supplies. I’ve seen NGOs struggle with enormous AmCross grants, overwhelmed over how to spend tens- or hundreds-of-millions of dollars in a set period. Other programs, meanwhile, have languished for lack of financial support–not to speak of the chronically cash-starved state.

The money must be spent! Restricted funds, unrestricted funds, emergency response funds, development programme funds. There are submenus to be explored in this monetary breakdown, and sub-questions to pose. Stepping back further: What does the charity spending impulse reveal? What does the bang-for-your-donated-buck demand reveal? Pouring money into a fractured aid system and then being upset that bothersome problems like homelessness and poverty haven’t been solved after two years is a cocktail that gives me the worst kind of headache.

The self-directed resettlement and reconstruction happening in Titanyen struck me as extraordinary for a number of reasons, one of them being that it is not extraordinary at all. In the face of everything, in the face of mismanagement of funds and expectations, life must go on. People must eat. People must sleep. Some of the most striking personal stories I heard had little to do with the earthquake. The man who had his arms and head disfigured in a machete attack in Freres two decades ago. The woman who put her two children in an orphanage after her husband died, losing all contact with them after they were sold away in a German adoption years ago. At least, she thinks they’re in Germany. Information, she said, has been hard to come by.

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a-ris-to-ter

Mines ahead, behind, to the left, to the right. Mines inside us. Mines in our sleepy, exhausted eyes, trembling and worried, trying to stay awake. Seeking out objects of death whose characteristic is that of never being seen—they wait their entire life and are born only for a second to die with you.

Move by day. Move by night. Eat cornmeal or eat nothing. Save the last can. Boil tea gathered from bushes. Cook in black pots in the earth plowed by tires. Eat the last can. Eat with your hands from flaking enamel plates. Fantasize about fresh water. Salivate salt. Shiver from the cold an hour after the moon rises. Suffocate from the heat an hour after the sun rises.Dream about a bed.Wake up with rats.Go to sleep with fear.

Disdain tears.

Avoid dogs.

Defecate in front of others. Bathe in the river, swim during the crocodiles’ siesta, keep away from snakes, dry your body with your hands, extract the shudders from your bones, cover your skin with filthy clothes. Vomit your own smell. Sleep in the open air, sleep on the alert, in transit, in abandoned houses, on mattresses of straw and lice, on blankets with holes and mange. Listen to the wind beneath the divan. Listen to the sound of leaves laughing as they scrape the cement on the ground.

DANGER MINES. Do not touch anything, tread on existing tracks, walk backward retracing your steps, the same steps, exactly, or —

On short breaks in the True North, I eat books. While in this imaginary world I slip in and out of others, good ones and bad ones, slogging through the dull and lapping up the delicious. I met the author of this one before I knew the words were his. Read them in our native Portuguese first, Baía dos Tigres, conversed in our adopted French, but reading an excellent English translation has brought it to life anew. It, as in death taste, death smell, mortality, but sinewy and vivid and locomotive. This is non-fiction.

“The problem is basically a political one… You say you’re on a journey, but there are various kinds of journeys, as you know. Is it to gather information?”

“No. It’s to meet people.”

“But you’re a journalist. People give information. A journalist investigates. You’re on an investigation.”

“No, I’m on a trip. That’s different. Working on my own. People tell stories. I’ve already said I’m not here for my newspaper. I’m not even interested in the peace process.”

“But later you’re going to write about this and make good money; it’s always like that with foreigners.”

I’m still so inspired and grateful, friend. I had to share.

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you’ll never believe what happened

“We live by stories, we also live in them. One way or another we are living the stories planted in us early or along the way, or we are also living the stories we planted — knowingly or unknowingly — in ourselves. We live stories that either give our lives meaning or negate it with meaninglessness. If we change the stories we live by, quite possibly we change our lives.”

– Ben Okri

I’ve been thinking a lot these past two weeks or so about stories and storytellers, unreliable narrators, unreliable memories, and the purpose of conflict in a plot. An essay came out last week — maybe you saw? — about one person’s experience in Haiti that upset a number of people. I was one of them. Reading Thomas King’s The Truth About Stories has helped me understand my negative reaction. But we’ll get to King in a moment. First, that essay.

The crux of the piece is trauma and how one person dealt with it, but the context of Haiti (starting with graphs two and three, but really starting long before that) is what made many of us cry foul. I don’t need to reiterate why. The letter, which I did not write but supported enough to sign my name to, already covers these points.

I’ve been somewhat troubled by the sometimes vicious, mostly vapid back-and-forth on the topic. The arguments praising the author for being “brave”; the haughty, sneering references to her as a “parachute” journalist;  the claws-out attacks on the 36 signatories (among them, a highly respected Haitian author and several Haitian and foreign journalists, activists and researchers who have spent years or decades living in and writing about the country) for daring to question a victim of an ailment they likely have suffered from themselves; disputes over the veracity of the ugly Haitian context of the essay or whether the context even matters. Each side accuses the other of missing the point.

Also, I’m told that PTSD is a hot topic? And that calling someone a “liberal” is an insult? I wouldn’t know.

The point is not the trauma acquisition or recovery process. That is something personal. Everyone has a different threshold for this sort of thing, framed by their own upbringing, exposure to violence and relationship with pain, injustice, death. I’ve seen my friends break to pieces, lash out in anger, withdraw into themselves, drown their memories in alcohol and drugs. Many of them, to escape trauma, will simply occupy their minds with newer, fresher traumas, bouncing from difficult assignment to difficult assignment, layering horror upon horror. But the new images and stories and experiences don’t cancel out the old ones, do they?

(My own panic attacks and chest-gripping anxiety have subsided over the past several weeks, thanks in no small part to two passports, plane tickets, and a six hour time difference. Temporary exile, a luxury that is still accessible to me. I do have a support network, both on and off the island, but the back-home network, unless they’ve been in similar situations, often aren’t much help.

“You are so brave for going there,” they would say. It made me cringe, because there is absolutely nothing brave about it. Some of the people who expressed the most shock or admiration were Haitian friends who were either born in the diaspora or left as small children and never returned. The way they painted their motherland was stark. “You’re going to get kidnapped,” they told me, breathless, eyes wild with a brand of Ayiti paranoia I came to know well. “It is total anarchy. Please be careful.” And again, “you are so brave.”

We have strange ideas about what bravery is.)

Over a week later, I’m looking beyond the online fight-picking and feeling more thoughtful. I realize that, in part, my reaction is fed by frustration with so much of the shoddy, thoughtless, lazy journalism I watched pour out of Haiti in the first eight or nine months I spent there. Both parachute-jumpers and long-haulers have made bad judgement calls in how they describe Haiti, how they contextualize their stories, and in how they selectively — if at all — do their background homework. (I am not immune from this same criticism.) Countless journalists have published and aired stories that paint a Haiti that is far more dangerous and chaotic than it actually is. There are lots of examples. You have probably seen many of them, absorbed them, taken them as fact. I won’t even get into political coverage, or we’ll be here all night. There’s bad, sensational reporting everywhere, but Haiti seems to be spectacularly good at attracting this sort of thing.

I’ve been wondering through all of this, perhaps naively: what is the purpose of making Haiti sound worse than it is? Who benefits from making it come across as a war zone, or yes, a hellhole? Quite a lot of people, I would imagine. All of these stories mean something. They build something. People believe them. Each bad story props up the other, until a new, perceived version of Haiti is papered over the real one. Darkness.

In talking about stories, Thomas King starts by telling the one from which all the others spring: the creation myth. First, the story of the woman who fell from the sky. Second, the biblical creation story. He writes:

“So here are our choices: a world in which creation is a solitary, individual act or a world in which creation is a shared activity; a world that begins in harmony and slides toward chaos or a world that begins in chaos and moves toward harmony; a world marked by competition or a world determined by co-operation. And there’s the problem.”

From this central story, the one that frames our world and everything in it, stems the desire for dichotomies and battles. “We trust easy oppositions,” He says.

“Perhaps this is why we delight in telling stories about heroes battling the odds and the elements, rather than about the magic of seasonal change. Why we relish stories that lionize individuals who start at the bottom and fight their way to the top, rather than stories that frame these forms of competition as varying degrees of insanity. Why we tell our children that life is hard, when we could just as easily tell them that it is sweet. Is it our nature? Do the stories we tell reflect the world as it truly is, or did we simply start off with the wrong story?”

The desire for these masculine, arrow-shaped storylines [PDF] in our own lives — we are the heroes or heroines, pitted against a cast of cardboard villains — is problematic, it is dangerous, and it is very boring.

Perhaps this is what’s bothered me most. I am disappointed with these arguments because I am bored with the flat stories they are woven around. Bored with heroes, bored with villains, bored with black and white judgements, bored of these meaningless, echoing stories we absorb without question and then act out, me versus you, every day. It is so much easier to see a place like Haiti painted in ugly, unforgiving broad strokes than it is to contemplate it in shades of grey, orange, blue, red. It’s so much easier to choose sides in wars of personality. So much easier to enjoy conflict than to question its purpose in a plot. So much easier than challenging these stories. So much easier than telling, or listening, to new ones.

Ayiti yo pa vle wè a…

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ayiti yo pa vle wè a

It didn’t rain the day of Michel Joseph Martelly’s inauguration. It didn’t rain the day after either. I would have remembered, I think. Rains are something that stick in my memory now, each downpour bringing with it a different rhythm, a different kind of destruction. I still remember the rains one Friday afternoon in September, how dark grey clouds curled across the sky, layering and pooling to turn it black. Winds whipped plants, trash, tarps and things in frenzied circles, ripping through fragile tents and makeshift wood-and-blue-plastic shelters, rain shooting down in heavy pellets to drown it all. I remember other rains in October that turned parts of Tabarre into a great, brown river, rushing and disappearing into the cracks and holes where pavement had collapsed.

The rains in May are different. The clouds come in more timidly, usually around late afternoon. They start in the mountains, drizzling down over Thomassin and La Boule first, crawling across the skies over Pétionville, until they reach the Centreville of Port-au-Prince, close to where I live. It rains most evenings, sometimes in the late afternoons. Water cascades from the sky in ribbons, though not for long, and not as aggressively as September. Not yet. On the days it doesn’t rain, the stickiness coats your skin, making it wet another way. It’s a wetness you carry with you, heavy, hiding under your clothes and trickling along the back of your neck.

Last week I marked eight months in Haiti. I’ve been quiet here, but not still. When I arrived, the election campaigning had not even begun. The first posters had not yet been pasted or hung, the first radio jingles not yet stuck in my ears, the already snarling traffic not yet crushed to a standstill by the first campaign tours, parties or parades. The walls, mostly bare for that brief two-week window, would soon have their cracks and stresses covered in blue, red, green and pink headshots of the candidates. Some walls were already dotted with spray-paint scrawl, like a never-ending news ticker: down with MINUSTAH, down with Préval, jen kore jen and fas à fas and other Wyclef slogans, pleas to Obama for help. Nou bouke, we’re tired. These gave way to messages about cholera, the provisional electoral council, and slogans and insults for the presidential hopefuls, by then whittled down to a tangled three and then a final two. “Give me my mother” battled it out with “Tèt kale,” the bald-headed slogan winning the ultimate battle: marketability. In the republic of logos, the best packaging wins.

Today it rained twice. First, mid-afternoon, while over a beer with a maybe-future Minister in the new administration, he told me he had predicted Martelly’s rise 15 years ago. “I said to my daughter in 1996,” he went on, his assertive enunciation carrying the softest of rolling French arrrrrrs, that Sweet Mickey was the only one capable of taking on Aristide and winning. Mickey had an organic connection to the people, he explained, because of his music.

It’s raining again now, rolling past with a purpose, thunder exploding over the building across the road. There is months of this to come, and storms, and after that, the hurricanes again. But for now the sticky heat has broken. The cicadas will be quiet tonight, and all over Port-au-Prince people will prepare for sleep on sheets and mattresses and ground that is very very wet.

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