Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for 2013
“An extraordinarily frank cultural study/memoir that eschews platitudes of both tragedy and hope.”
KIRKUS — starred review
New York Times Book Review
From Chapter 14
I’m stirred and moved by things I see here, but I’m not sure why, and I wonder: Would you be moved? Here are the things that touch me, but a warning: they are not entirely normal. … [One is a] bone in a burned foot. The man sits in a broken wheelchair—he’s young, maybe twenty-two. He’s a friend of Jerry and Samuel’s. He was riding on his motorbike in the middle of a post-quake, pre-election demonstration when a government thug, so he says, took a potshot at him. The bullet went through his abdomen, and he was in such shock that his foot got caught in the bike’s muffler and burned. They took him to the general hospital, where doctors repaired the bullet’s damage and left a big scar along his abdomen, which he matter-of-factly shows to anyone who asks, but the foot was left to heal on its own with no skin graft, and now, three months after the injury, you can still see the entirely exposed three inches of metatarsal bone through a blood-red hole in the top of his foot, like a peek at the guy’s skeleton, as he sits there in his unwheeled wheelchair in a stony fury over his situation.
Another item in my list of what moves me here: the death of the woman who hated me. Just after the earthquake, I had a spaghetti dinner—this was the one made by the New York Times’s Haiti reporting team—in the kitchen of the half-destroyed Park Hotel. You had to walk under hanging cement and over broken floors to get to the lobby, and then tiptoe through the perilous lobby to the kitchen. One of the Haitians staying there, behind the rubble of the front rooms, was a Madame Coupet, an older, very light-skinned Haitian lady, wouj, actually, who was wearing a housedress. Her son was in America.
She had heard of the book I had published on Haiti many years earlier. How she had hated me then, she told me now—well, I had supported Aristide, she had gathered, and he was the man she held responsible for everything bad that had happened in the past twenty-five years. For this earthquake, even, it seemed. I bowed my head. What could I tell her? She wouldn’t have wanted to hear what I wanted to say. But we talked about other things—her children, her family, Haiti—and in the end, we got along. She decided that I was not a demon, and that we both loved Haiti. She was surprised that I seemed nice. Polite. Well-broughtup, is how the Haitians say it.
After I left the country, I thought of Madame Coupet often, and longed to see her again. I wanted to talk to her, because I needed to hear more about old Haiti, the lost country, the country she said she loved. I thought of her mottled skin, its fairness ruined by age and the Haitian sun, of her gracious diction, and of her generosity in forgiving me for Aristide—and of mine in forgiving her for forgiving me for Aristide. When I came back to Port-au-Prince, five months after the earthquake, the middle-aged men sitting in metal chairs on the still rubble-strewn terrace of the Park Hotel, smoking cigarettes and gossiping with one another, told me the old lady had died. They wanted to tell me gently but didn’t know how. So they told me bluntly: she died. Therefore, no interview. But I can still tell you what she might have said, or at any rate, what someone like her might have said. Here it is:
When I was a girl, there were lace curtains. The wind was sweet. I had a pet cat and she would chase the guinea fowl in the courtyard. I had a blue dress with a sash that only my mother knew how to tie properly. The frangipani tree in the corner of the garden smelled like my mother’s perfume. There was Duvalier, sure: Papa Doc. But we children, me and my brothers, we paid very little attention. My parents tried to keep out of his way, I suppose. My father was a professor at the university, an engineer. My brothers and I, we read poetry, Durand, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Morisseau-Leroy, Roumer, and meanwhile the bougainvillea tumbled over the front wall and there were plants in pots in the gardens and two servants, and one poor distant girl cousin who helped with chores. She was from the deep country, and did marry, finally. In summers we went to my aunt’s house in the mountains and picked flowers and rode donkeys and helped make the morning coffee. I went to school in a checkered uniform that I loved. I read French literature until I met my husband, who was in the import-export business. I was beautiful, and he loved me until I grew old. We had two children, and a third who died in childbirth. Now one is dead and the other lives in New Jersey. I prefer to be here where I understand things.
Here’s something that got to me: the last time I saw Filibert Waldeck. The last time I saw Filibert, I was standing in front of the ruined cathedral downtown. It was January 12, 2011, the first anniversary of the earthquake. People were praying under the statue of Jesus that still stands outside the rubble. A man rushed up and exhibited his little daughter to me. She had, to put it nicely, failure to thrive. She must have been five but she looked two, with huge eyes, reddish hair, bone-thin limbs. The man told me they’d been homeless since the earthquake. A person nearby told me, while the man was standing there in front of me with his silent child balanced in his arms, that that fellow came to the cathedral ruins with the kid every day looking for some visitor to beg from. Did that make his story less true? I asked myself. The crowd pressed on us and the man and his daughter were shoved away. There was a band playing, and there were priests and nuns seated, waiting for the service to begin. I was standing off to the side near a white man I’d never seen before, an older man with thinning hair.
As usual with any big Haitian event, huge numbers of people were all shoved together in a giant bubbling human mass. The white man near me was at least five people away. Although we were outside, there was barely room to inhale where we stood, but uncannily, up in front of my face popped someone I recognized. At first I wasn’t sure who he was, exactly. Then he spoke in his familiar growl of a voice, the same rasp he’d had as a child, only deeper. It was Filibert, wearing some kind of satanic red and silver T-shirt and old dirty jeans. He was too thin.
I said, “Filibert, what’s wrong with you?” He wasn’t making sense. The white man standing near me was watching. He pushed his way forward and took Filibert by the arm and rattled him, shook him up a bit. I was astonished. Filibert looked astonished, too, if you can look astonished while looking sullen. The white man, whose self-assured demeanor I now recognized as that of a lay Christian brother of some kind, was interrogating Filibert. He called him by his full name: “Filibert Waldeck, what’s wrong with you?”
Filibert just shook his head, looked down at the ground. The man looked at me and back at Filibert. “You’re on crack or something, aren’t you?” he asked him. “I know it. I know it.” The man shook his head and tried to peer into Filibert’s eyes, but Filibert looked away.
“You stop that stuff, do you hear me?” The man was speaking fluent Creole.
I took Filibert aside and he began that same long rant I’d already heard about his sons and their mother and about how he had to keep them inside so she wouldn’t get them, and how his motorbike had broken down and he didn’t have money to get it fixed. Throughout the whole long saga, which was much more detailed and a lot less comprehensible than what I am putting down here, he would look at me sideways, slantwise, assessing my potential. Half the time he had the demeanor of a person on drugs or in the throes of mental illness of some kind, which I’ve always suspected with him. And the rest of the time, he looked like a smart old market lady sizing up her client. Finally, I asked him if I could help him in any way, and he just looked at me.
“Amy, you ahr my mozzer,” he said to me, in English. So I gave him some money. And then he disappeared into the crowd. I saw a splotch of red fading away down toward Grande Rue. My child, I thought. I tried to imagine it. I wondered if there had really ever been any connection between us, other than monetary. Because of where I was from, I had always had the power in our relationship. Because of where he was from, Filibert was always the weak one, poor, needy, desperate. Of course we each bore some responsibility for who we were and how we had ended up, but we were also prisoners of our fates, each of us locked in our individual history and geography. I was from the U.S. and he was from Haiti. That was it. I always had and gave money; he always did not have it and needed it. It was always my choice: would I give him something? How much, this time? It was easy, even pleasurable, for me to give it to him; but it was all cruel for him.
The crowd around me was singing a spindly soprano hymn as the memorial service began. But where was Filibert going now? Why didn’t he have a cell phone? Why didn’t he have my number? And now that speck of red had vanished. I squinted into the sun, trying to find him again, but he had slipped back away into the heat and darkness, and was lost to me.
As I am writing this, at around five in the morning, I hear gunfire and screaming outside my window. Two shots. Ridiculous, it cannot be, but it is. Freelance fire, I figure—meaningless gang shit. In the old days violence had political meaning in Haiti, but, as elsewhere in the world, now it’s often pretty pointless. More gunfire now. Definitely gunfire. And screaming and a rumble of low shouting, as if a whole crowd is yelling far away. Carnival is coming, I remember; that can be a violent time. And elections are coming: that also means violence. First I get up to go to the window to look: when I peek out from a sharp sideways angle, I see a crowd down on the street below, pushing and shoving, and screaming. It’s violent, and that’s definitely where the shooting has been coming from. Maybe it is some kind of political protest, I think now. I retract my head as another round of shooting begins, and return to my desk.
Later, when I interviewed some acquaintances in the neighborhood, I discovered that the reason for the shooting and screaming and the angry nub of a crowd in the street was that the pharmacy down below my window had announced the previous day that it would be offering to fill children’s prescriptions for free today, in a one-day trial program. The crowd was composed of mothers, all fighting to get in before the place stopped serving. The shooter was the pharmacy owner, trying to protect his place from the poverty-maddened consumers. I’d mistaken the mothers for a politically motivated riot. And, in a way, they were.