Farewell, Fred Voodoo : A Letter from Haitiby: Amy Wilentz
IN 1963, The Sunday Telegraph ran a feature on Haiti written by Graham Greene titled “The Nightmare Republic.” Haiti’s association with shadows and nightmares, with death, has only grown since. The Tonton Macoute death squads of the mid-20th century took their cues from the dark magic of Voodoo rituals, and their name from an ancient folklore bogeyman, a creature thought to be responsible for the deaths of children who were, in fact, dying from hunger and disease. Such visions of bogeymen, both real and imagined, plagued Haiti long before the earthquake that killed thousands of its citizens in 2010. The country is regularly shrugged off by both politicians and pundits as “The poorest in the Western Hemisphere,” and in these words are intimations of further death — the death of the country’s statehood and economy, and of even larger swaths of its population. David Brooks, writing in The New York Times in 2010, put this unsettling sentiment bluntly: “Haiti and the Dominican Republic share the same island and the same basic environment, yet the border between the two societies offers one of the starkest contrasts on earth — with trees and progress on one side, and deforestation and poverty and early death on the other.”
Two recently released nonfiction books offer more in-depth perspectives on Haiti; each is respectful and not overly deterministic. Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter from Haiti by Amy Wilentz, a veteran correspondent to the country for Time and The Nation, among other journals, explores the legacy of Haiti’s revolutionary history and its influence on the country’s contemporary culture through a blend of reportage, social criticism, and personal writing, a journalist’s cri de coeur. The second book, Jonathan M. Katz’s The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster, provides an investigative counterpoint to Wilentz’s literary effort. An AP correspondent and the only embedded American journalist in Haiti at the time of the earthquake, Katz exposes the machinations behind the international reconstruction effort, weaving in a firsthand account of the day of the disaster. Reading the two books together, a fairly balanced picture of Haiti takes shape; it is much more nuanced than the prevailing clichés, those that tend either to circumscribe the country as an irredeemable mess, or to glorify it as superhumanly resilient. What emerges from Wilentz’s and Katz’s books are stories of a vibrant country struggling with, but not giving up on, the complex problem of how to achieve and sustain independence.
In Haiti, the past infiltrates the present to a degree that many outsiders cannot fathom. This idiosyncrasy, Wilentz observes, explains much of the country’s cultural and political life. Farewell, Fred Voodoo opens in a helicopter, the author peering down at the Citadel, a fortress built by the Haitian revolutionary Henri Christophe between 1805 and 1820. The stone stronghold was meant to protect the Haitians inside against, in particular, foreign invasion from the sea. A recurring motif in the book, the stronghold appears in one chapter in its literal reincarnation, erected by Haiti’s ousted president Jean-Bertrand Aristide in the 1990s. The Citadel represents a distrust of fo...read more