NONFICTION Wilentz writes not as an outsider chasing disaster, but as someone who loves and tries to understand the country of Haiti.
'Fred Voodoo" was the name foreign journalists gave to the Haitian everyman years ago. It still reflects the typical outsider's view of Haiti: a nation filled with seemingly interchangeable faces, heirs to a convoluted history. Their religion alone -- voodoo -- conjures powerful connotations for outsiders, mostly of black magic. Voodoo is not the only thing outsiders don't understand.
In "Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter From Haiti," author Amy Wilentz borrows a Creole phrase to describe Haiti: Tou sa we we, se pa sa. Nothing you see is what it seems.
Wilentz is not a disaster-chaser, flitting from one crisis to another. Instead, she has been faithfully returning to Haiti for decades, grappling with the position of outsider in the country she loves. She was there when Jean-Claude ("Baby Doc") Duvalier, Haiti's dictator-president, was forced to flee. She writes that it was "as if I had been whisked into Haiti's history book. The big car, the now former president-for-life at the wheel, disappearing into the cargo bay of the black plane. This was the moment when I began to belong to Haiti. (As might be expected, the favor has never been returned.)"
Outsiders might think of Haiti as impoverished, desperate, filled with piles of post-earthquake rubble, and in need of international help, but Wilentz is not afraid to expose the ugly underside of the international aid machinery and the privileged "compound lives" aid workers lead there. This at a time when many are questioning the effectiveness of international aid in its current form. Even the World Bank admits defeat in Haiti.
But Haiti is more than disaster and poverty. Wilentz argues that Haiti has always stood apart. It was the world's only successful slave revolt, shunned as a fledgling republic, and continues to be a combination of European, African and Caribbean cultures. It is still shunted to the side of the world stage, and is still a place where other, bigger powers act out their vision for what Haiti should be. Haiti has a long history of meddling outsiders: those who don't fit in at home but can be kings in Haiti; those trying to atone for their privilege; those there to pad their résumés; doctors there to save lives; and journalists, there to take stories from the everyman to bring to the rest of the world. And that is to say nothing of the political meddling and military occupation on the part of the U.S. government.
The book's literary journalism is part history lesson, political analysis, travelog and personal journey. Wilentz's informed commentary is sobering and witty, her analysis insightful and her descriptions of the people and places of Haiti riveting. A must-read for ex-pats in developing nations, or for anyone who has an interest in Haiti.
Emily Walz is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis.