As we all shudder through news of the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti, pausing to send money though text messages on our cell phones to well-established NGOs such as the Red Cross or Partners in Health, we’ve also been hearing from the literary voices that for many of us first brought Haiti alive, such as MacArthur “genius grant” winner Edwidge Danticat (who turned 40 last year). Danticat’s work, most of which feels written in poetry, includes The Farming of Bones; Breath, Eyes, MemoryKrik? Krak; The Dewbreaker, and her family memoir Brother, I Am Dying. We thought of her as soon as news of the island’s devastation came clear — and so, as the Christian Science Monitor notes, did everyone else:

Danticat still has family ties in Haiti and remains a powerful advocate for that country. Since Tuesday’s earthquake she has given interviews from Miami to both The Wall Street Journal and National Public Radio. She says she has been able to reach her mother-in-law by phone but adds that most of what seems to be coming out of Haiti right now are “layers of bad news.” She refers to the earthquake as “an apocalypse for this small and often tried country.”

The Wall Street Journal asked Danticat for a reading list, to put this week’s news in a deeper context than the media or even her visionary work could provide:

•    “The Black Jacobins” by C.L.R. James: A groudbreaking account of the Haitian revolution of 1791-1804 that examines that leadership of the rebel commander Toussaint L’Ouverture. Other slave uprisings in the Americas ended in defeat; James looks into why the slave rebellion in Haiti was victorious.
•    “The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier,” by Amy Wilentz: This nonfiction book documents the period between 1986-1989 when Haitian dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier was forced to flee the country and mass strikes, government-sponsored vigilante groups, and other kinds of chaos swept though the streets. The book, which blends current events with cultural history, seeks to detail the society beyond the headlines.
•    “Love, Anger, Madness: A Haitian Trilogy” by Marie Vieux-Chauvet: This triptych of novellas, recently published in English with an introduction by Danticat, was initially suppressed when it was first released in French in 1968 during François “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s Haitian reign of terror. The trilogy offers portraits of people struggling to survive dictatorship and oppression. “Hurricanes, earthquakes and drought, nothing spares us,” says the narrator of the first novella, titled “Love.”


Felix Morriseau-Leroy.


And while most of Danticat’s sentences count as poetry, in keeping with Poetry Friday we offer below two poems chosen, if not written by her. Danticat read these aloud last year at the PEN World Voices Festival, honoring their author the late Haitian/Creole poet Felix Morisseau-Leroy. (Click on the link to hear her read them, and/or see the clip underneath of Danticat talking to other Haitian-Americans in Brooklyn a while ago.) Read now, the poems stand  as a caution to those who might try to generalize about those whose lives have been upended by the earthquake.

Tourist

Tourist, don’t take my picture
Don’t take my picture, tourist
I’m too ugly
Too dirty
Too skinny
Don’t take my picture, white man
Mr. Eastman won’t be happy
I’m too ugly
Your camera will break
I’m too dirty
Too black
Whites like you won’t be content
I’m too ugly
I’m gonna crack your Kodak
Don’t take my picture, tourist
Leave me be, white man
Don’t take a picture of my burro
My burro’s load’s too heavy
And he’s too small
And he has no food here
Don’t take a picture of my animal
Tourist, don’t take a picture of the house
My house is of straw
Don’t take a picture of my hut
My hut’s made of earth
The house already smashed up
Go shoot a picture of the Palace
Or the Bicentennial grounds
Don’t take a picture of my garden
I have no plow
No truck
No tractor
Don’t take a picture of my tree
Tourist, I’m barefoot
My clothes are torn as well
Poor people don’t look at whites
But look at my hair, tourist
Your Kodak’s not used to my color
Your barber’s not used to my hair
Tourist, don’t take my picture
You don’t understand my position
You don’t understand anything
About my business, tourist
“Gimme fie cents”
And then, be on your way, tourist.

Boat People

We are all in a drowning boat
Happened before at St. Domingue
We are the ones called boat people

We all died long ago
What else can frighten us
?
Let them call us boat people

We fight a long time with poverty
On our islands, the sea, everywhere
We never say we are not boat people

In Africa they chased us with dogs
Chained our feet, piled us on
Who then called us boat people?

Half the cargo perished
The rest sold at Bossal Market
It’s them who call us boat people

We stamp our feet down, the earth shakes
Up to Louisiana, down to Venezuela
Who would come and call us boat people?

A bad season in our country
The hungry dog eats thorns
They didn’t call us boat people yet

We looked for jobs and freedom
And they piled us on again: Cargo—Direct to Miami
They start to call us boat people

We run from the rain at Fort Dimanche
But land in the river at the Krome
Detention Center
It’s them who call us boat people

Miami heat eats away our hearts
Chicago cold explodes our stomach
Boat people boat people boat people

Except for the Indians—
What American didn’t get here somehow
But they only want to call us boat people

We don’t bring drugs in our bags
But courage and strength to work
Boat people—Yes, that’s all right, boat people

We don’t come to make trouble
We come with all respect
It’s them who call us boat people

We have no need to yell or scream
But all boat people are equal, the same
All boat people are boat people

One day we’ll stand up, put down our feet
As we did at St. Domingue
They’ll know who these boat people really are

That day, be it Christopher Columbus
Or Henry Kissinger—
They will know
us
We who simply call ourselves
People