PORT-AU-PRINCE has always been baffling and mysterious for outsiders. As it slowly rises from the detritus of the 2010 earthquake, the city can seem, to the casual visitor, once again colorful and lively, as well as crowded, politically charged, and difficult to navigate. For a place that never stops bustling with public activity, and I mean never, Port-au-Prince, or Lavil (meaning “the city,” which is what Haitians often call it) also has a hidden side, one that is hard to penetrate, especially if you don’t speak the language — and that language is not French. I’ve had my troubles getting in, even as a limping Kreyol speaker. As the Haitian-American novelist and commentator Edwidge Danticat once told me: In Haitian culture there’s the front room, and you’re very welcome. You sit down; you have a coffee. Then the inner room: you might not be admitted, or you might be. And then there’s another room, in the back: you won’t even know it exists. You’ll never go through that door.
I love Port-au-Prince, although I will readily agree with Haitian friends who assert that the city is worth hating. The poverty is cruel, the crowding inhumane, the housing often awful, the sanitation mostly nonexistent, the infrastructure crumbling (where there is any). The electricity goes on sporadically for an hour or so here and there. That’s it for public services. Almost all schools are private, but that doesn’t mean they’re any good. Did I mention the heat?
As you circumnavigate the town, you can’t tell, often, whether structures are going up or falling down. And this was true before the disastrous earthquake of 2010, which Haitians call Goudou Goudou for the terrible knocking sound the shaking city made as the ground beneath it rumbled and roared. The quake flattened much of the place and killed between 160,000 and 316,000 Haitians. Those round numbers and that wide gap between them speak to the extent of the catastrophe and the lack of any reliable method for counting so many dead.
Meanwhile, the rich live at the top of the mountain that overshadows this city, in sprawling villas and mansions, with private water service, private generators, private everything, and a cohort of servants from the shantytowns that nearly engulf the wealthy neighborhoods. This elite runs everything, if you can call it running.
You feel, as you walk around Port-au-Prince or try to drive around it (the traffic jams are now architectural), that this is a place that demands its spot in literature. As you move through the city, you see stories unfolding that you cannot quite follow — a man running and clutching a hooded rooster, say, or a woman shouting on a corner, or three street kids laughing and crouched together over some kind of fire and smoke — and then you’re on to the next thing. But although Lavil has been memorialized in the works of many, if not every, Haitian writer, the vast majority of its citizens — those who experience it at the most organic and microscopic level — are often people who are virtually illiterate, and who certainly don’t have the time or an inclination for scribbling.
That’s where Peter Orner and Evan Lyon’s eye-opening new book, an oral récit of ordinary Haitians’ lives from average Port-au-Princiens, comes in. No other nonfiction book I know of, by Haitians or outsiders, has been exclusively devoted to the lives of Port-au-Prince residents. Lavil’s researchers traveled around Port-au-Prince between the summer of 2012 and early 2016, collecting narratives “about a city of 2.6 million […] that experienced the most devastating […] disaster in recent history. […] But […] this book does not revolve exclusively around the earthquake.” No, it doesn’t, although, as Orner writes in his introduction, “the catastrophe plays a profound, life-altering role in many of the […] stories.”
The reason the stories of these lives are important to others than those living them or those studying Haiti is that they closely resemble the stories of lives of the billion or so other people living at the bottom of the current cruel global economy. The stories include — as they might in Bangladesh or Indonesia or a variety of Asian and African countries; or Brazil, or Guatemala, or a variety South and Central American countries; or Skid Row in Los Angeles and other such neighborhoods in the United States — tales of privation, hunger, unemployment, illiteracy, prostitution, disease, and even enslavement, as well as tales of triumph, of perseverance, of endurance, of hardheadedness, of refusal to be crushed.
So often, people working in and along the streets of Lavil and the tens of thousands of children and elderly and chronically unemployed whom they support are lumped into the pile called “the poor,” or poverty-stricken, their individual voices never heard by the outside world, and rarely even by Haitian officials, merchants, traders, or elites. But “[t]o say a person is poor tells us very little about who someone is,” Orner writes. In Lavil we have the chance to hear their stories. There are tales from all sorts of people, from a fishmonger and a mattress reupholsterer and a basket maker, and two deportees, to a young mother and an older grandmother, to a radio reporter and a gay rights organizer and an attorney.
Almost all of these people are, by our standards, living in or on the edge of extreme poverty, or working with people who do. The editors usefully let us know what the US dollar equivalent is for the number of Haitian dollars or gourdes that various subjects cite when talking about the pay they receive for work, or money they shell out for various goods and for rent. (The shifting difference between the value of gourdes and the very theoretical but current “Haitian dollar” is one daily reminder to outsiders of their absolute incomprehension in Port-au-Prince.) The editors also include a glossary and appendices on Haitian history and on health and justice after the earthquake that will be useful to readers coming to this book without prior experience of the region.
One student, Denis Clermont, tells of having only 100 gourdes, or five US dollars, in his pocket for the day. He uses the money to buy a book he sees in a stall on the street (thus, a used book), knowing that this will mean he won’t be able to buy food, or eat, for 24 hours. His older half-brother, Johnny Destanville, who has always taken care of him since they moved from the countryside to Lavil, talks about the apartment they rented in an area called Delmas for $90 a year: “Life in Delmas is more luxurious than life in [other places], which also means life in Delmas is more expensive. But […] [w]e couldn’t stay inside [the house I rented] when it was raining because water would get inside.” The reader has to fill in here, according to the reader’s own economic reality. What constitutes luxury if your luxurious house leaks rain and you can’t stay inside? What’s the next step down?
Still, for Johnny and Denis, those were the days. Ninety dollars proved too expensive for the two men’s budget, given the high cost of food: 56 cents for a market cup of rice in that neighborhood. So they moved down the economic scale to a place where they could buy the same cup for 44 cents, relocating from upscale Delmas at $90 per annum to Cité Castro, where rents are lower. It’s hard for Americans to imagine penury at this level. Hard to imagine, as Johnny does, working a construction job “and other odd jobs” so that you can “save for a plate of food every day. A plate for me, a plate for my brother.” Johnny goes on to describe the brothers’ life after the earthquake, when he and Denis moved to a displaced persons camp near a cemetery and the international airport and stayed there for four years. “If we didn’t die from the earthquake, there’s something waiting for us,” he says. “So we were living day by day.”
Compared to some of the others who are interviewed in Lavil, Johnny and Denis have a realistic sense of what they can pull off, and they work tirelessly to do it. Together, husbanding their meager earnings, they can eat a meal almost every day, the brothers let us know proudly, and they can also send Denis to school with a few books, a notebook, and his uniform, none of which is subsidized by the state. They get their money together, and they are building something, they hope, based on Denis’s hoped-for future. Other people interviewed for the book confront the world with which poverty presents them by daydreaming of great future opportunities while they suffer daily in the relentless economy. Those who do not dream are often equally storm-tossed by conditions, living solely by that ominous rule of shrug and submission: whatever happens happens.
Marielene Lene, for example, sells dried salted fish in the street. She hawks her wares as she goes. She buys the fish from a wholesaler, and, as she says, if she doesn’t get out on the street and work, she’s not going to make it. Sometimes, she says, you earn 50 or 60 Haitian dollars a day. Other times, you might only take in $30 HD, which comes to about $3.50 USD. She has four children now. In earlier days, Marielene and her sister were adjuncts of Haiti’s charcoal-making business — until that became ostensibly illegal when the government decided to protect Haiti’s trees from rampant deforestation. In the wood business, the two women were making about $12.50 USD a day, going back and forth miles from home in the countryside to the tree-choppers’ place, then cutting up the wood and traveling on to the spot on the road where they could pay for a ride into Lavil and sell their small packets of wood to customers for cooking fuel. They had to watch every sou, though, because one miscalculation about the cost of transportation or the market price of their wares could mean starvation for the week for their family back home.
In the end, they had to give up this lucrative business under threat of arrest. Understandably, Marielene has often surrendered to the “shrug and submit” rule. Back after she had just married, she says, “we had very little. The little bit that we could find, we resigned ourselves to it. There were many days we passed without eating. You have no choice but to sit with this truth.” The countryside meant starvation, so she and her husband, with three children at that point, one of them ill from birth and suffering from what sounds like intermittent kwashiorkor, came to Lavil for its medical services and the possibility of making a tiny bit more money. Marielene saves up, and with that money she builds herself and her kids a standalone house (really just a room with a roof) while her husband continues to try to raise crops from a small patch back home. Then comes the earthquake. The house falls, but she and the children emerge alive.
Some others from whom we hear in the book, just to give you an idea of its scope and timbre: a day jobber; a construction worker; several students or would-be students; a young mother suffering from tuberculosis; a young rape victim and her lawyer; a grandmother who used to make and sell jewelry; a radio reporter; a mother of disabled children; a young mentally ill woman; a pastor who is also a mason; a basketmaker who is also a farmer; a founder of a gay rights organization; a cemetery worker; a former housekeeper and sex worker; a medical assistant ill with TB and HIV; a mother living under a tarp on top of a mass grave; a graffiti artist who is also a teacher; a deportee who is also a fixer and translator for journalists, and who on the side sells Coca-Cola, runs a charcoal business with his wife, and freezes and sells gulp-sized water bags (for drinking), all adding up, for him, to what is considered a good living in Lavil.
The cumulative effect of these stories is powerful. We come to see the huge and terrible earthquake of 2010 as just another of the problems poverty has generated in Haiti. In Port-au-Prince, gigantic movements of countryside populations to the city, plus endemic poverty there, created unbelievably poor infrastructure, which in turn led to catastrophic death tolls in the quake. A 7.0 earthquake under a major population center where every heavy concrete roof falls down will produce three or eight times more casualties than it might in places with some seismic standards for construction. Consider the death toll in Mexico City in September, which currently stands at 370, versus the hundreds of thousands killed in Port-au-Prince in 2010. One can argue that the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, with more than 10,000 dead, made the Distrito Federal more stringent in its building codes than Haiti, which hadn’t experienced a major earthquake in the lifetime of today’s residents. But even today, post–Goudou Goudou, people in Lavil are still forced to build without bolting and other seismic controls because they don’t have the wherewithal or the knowledge to do otherwise. Only the wealthy can afford to build according to code.
One hates to say that stories of suffering like the ones recounted in Lavil give one faith in humanity’s capacity for survival and hope, but they do. I like to put myself in their shoes: Could I possibly do what these people do to survive? Could you? The answer is probably not. Yet these are, for the most part, not extraordinary people. They are not geniuses or brilliant craftsmen or amazing builders (though they might be, in an economy that allowed each and every one to blossom and prosper, to read and write): they are simply struggling people who are managing to keep body and soul together in unimaginable conditions.
Orner and Lyon’s book is tragic, looked at one way, because it implies that Haiti, for all its glorious revolution and early independence from France, remains, in a sense, a death camp of the world, as it was during slave times. The greatest opportunity for its people is still escape, yet now it’s not just escape from the plantation to the mountains, but escape from the island itself. And that voyage — sometimes in leaky ships, sometimes on foot across great swaths of the Americas — is just as fraught with possible death as the old flight from the master was.
But Lavil is not just a recitation of complaint and tragedy, though those are certainly included within it. It provides, instead, a chorus of stubborn and lively persistence — of a kind one can usually only imagine. Here, we are privy to real voices shouting about human survival in the wasteland the global economy has created, about piecing together a life filled with humanity, charity, and familial love in the midst of grinding hardship, in the care of a state whose gaze is elsewhere. It’s amazing that these people persist in such conditions: “[S]urvivors, [and] narrators of their own stories,” as Danticat writes in her stirring foreword. It’s very important, too, that the researchers, translators, and interviewers for Lavil thought to put these stories together in a book, so that we can learn in visceral terms that the way we live now is part and parcel of a worldwide situation where this, this, is the way they live now.
Amy Wilentz is the author of The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier and Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter From Haiti, among other books. She teaches in the literary journalism program at the University of California, Irvine.