Sometimes, a misreading of your own work just deflates you. Just one little line, and you want to throw in the towel. Instead: let me rectify matters here.
In her interesting, smart, and necessary book on Haiti, Why Haiti Needs New Narratives, (2015 Wesleyan University Press) Gina Athena Ulysse writes about, among many other subjects, Mac McClelland, the Mother Jones human rights reporter who covered Haiti briefly in the wake of the Haitian earthquake of 2010.
At the time, McClelland notoriously appropriated the gang rape of a Haitian woman, revealed the woman’s name on social media, and then wrote very publicly and personally about her own terrible suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder because of the Haitian woman’s rape.
McClelland had been with the victim when they saw one of the rapists on the streets in Port-au-Prince, and the victim was visibly very upset. Although they did not confront the rapist (McClelland and the woman were in a taxi at the time), the woman was screaming in the taxi, while McClelland live-Tweeted the story for her followers.
The incident understandably upset McClelland. Upon her return to the Bay Area, McClelland wrote, she felt she had to engage in fake rape, described in unintentionally hilarious detail, with her boyfriend, in order to dispel her PTSD pain about another woman’s suffering.
Ulysse takes McClelland to task, asking, quite rightly, “Who is the victim here?” She approvingly quotes Marjorie Valbrun’s commentary on the McClelland piece, which attacked McClelland for appropriating the rape and also for casting Haitian men as, for the most part, ready to force sex on women. (This by the way was a common thread in outsider stories about post-quake Haiti.)
This is all old stuff, and I wouldn’t normally be writing about this right now.
In fact, I covered the McClelland story quite thoroughly, I thought, in my book Farewell, Fred Voodoo (2013), in a chapter entitled “The Violent-Sex Cure.” As I wrote in that chapter: “It’s not a simple thing to appropriate the pain of others for your own personal gain…” The book, indeed, is a reproach to all who use Haiti in this way.
But although she and I agree almost absolutely on the subject, Ulysse takes the opportunity to attack me tangentially and gratuitously for signing a letter on Jezebel in July, 2011, objecting to the piece. More than thirty women writers signed the letter, including Valbrun and Edwidge Danticat, whom Ulysse also cites admiringly. But for a quite peculiar reason, Ulysse sees my signature as, I guess, hypocritical.
Because, she alleges, “the veteran journalist [that’s me] …not too long ago metaphorically referred to Haiti, in the New York Times, as a pile of shit.”
I was a little shocked by this, although I knew which piece she was referring to.
Hers is, as you might expect from her allegation, a complete misreading of a story I wrote in advance of the post-quake Haitian presidential elections of 2010. Ulysse must know this — if she bothered reading the story. This New York Times story was published long before I signed the Jezebel letter, for anyone who can follow the now obscure timeline of all this.
I have to say here that many of my Haitian friends were upset by the headline that topped this story. It was called “In Haiti, Waiting for the Grand Bayakou”. My Haitian friends were upset because of the use of that forbidden word, bayakou — upset until they read the story, that is.
A bayakou, in Haitian Creole, is a person who cleans outhouses and latrines for a living. It’s a very tough job and not too respectable… but someone’s gotta do it. Many houses in Haiti, especially in provincial towns, and also in the countryside, do not have indoor toilets or facilities connected to public sewers.
In any case, the stuff that was ready to be cleaned out by a metaphorical bayakou, in my piece, was corruption in Haiti, most notably the corruption of the foreign organizations who had come in to “save” Haiti after the quake.
It’s beyond thinking that I would ever refer to Haiti in the way Ulysse claims I did, and the reason I bother to object — thus committing the well known journalistic mistake of repeating a slur — is that it is very sad for me to see my whole engagement with the country wrapped up this way by someone I respect.
I’m not whining: I understand why this happens. I understand the whole political thought process underlying this easy, nonchalant slur.
But it’s painful, nonetheless.