Mark Danner

Ben Fountain’s top 10 books about Haiti

Author: Ben Fountain

Ben Fountain’s top 10 books about Haiti

The novelist chooses the books that best explain a fascinating, baffling, tumultuous country

My first visit to Haiti was in May 1991, four months into the initial term of Haiti’s first democratically-elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. At the time, it seemed that Haiti was on the cusp of a new era. “We are learning to live in the world again,” as President Aristide said, reflecting on what might be called the miracle of his presidency, coming as it did after the corrupt, brutal reign of the Duvaliers from 1957 to 1986, and the string of military juntas that convulsed the country until Aristide’s election in 1990.

It was that tumultuous recent history that had drawn me in, and the suspicion I’d formed that Haiti might be the paradigm –perhaps “boiling point” would be a better term – for the ways in which global power and politics had played out in the latter half of the 20th century. I thought, however, that I’d come too late – that I’d be studying the dynamics of blood politics in retrospect, as an exercise in historical inquiry. A few months after my first visit, Aristide was deposed in a violent coup, and in the years since, power in Haiti – who holds it, how they keep it, and how they use it to their profit – is as raw and ruthless as ever. In one way or another, all of the stories in Brief Encounters with Che Guevara deal with matters of power and profit, usually in what might be called the world’s “hot zones” – Haiti, Burma, Colombia, Sierra Leone. But Haiti is the place I return to time and again. What follows is a list of books that have helped me gain some understanding of a place that remains as fascinating and baffling to me as the day I first set foot there.

1. Stripping Bare the Body: Politics Violence War by Mark Danner

The first section of this multi-part book – other sections focus on the Balkans conflicts of the 1990s, and the “war on terror” – is drawn from Danner’s award-winning reportage on the chaotic years of 1986 to 1990, when Haitian civil society was trying to gain traction against a well-entrenched complex of reactionary powers. But Danner goes far beyond the events of the moment, and digs deep into Haitian history and culture; these chapters are the best primer on Haiti available, a thoughtful and vivid overview that is as relevant now as it was when first published some 20 years ago.

2. Kanaval: Vodou, Politics and Revolution on the Streets of Haiti; photography and oral histories by Leah Gordon; commentary by Don Cosentino, Madison Smartt Bell, Richard Fleming, and others

“Haiti,” as Leah Gordon writes in the introduction to this extraordinary book, “seems to be on the fault line of history,” and it’s during Carnival that the ghosts, spirits, devils, and clowns of history and present times erupt from the cracks in all their jokey, obscene, satirical glory. The photographs can, at first look, be unsettling; the oral histories serve to humanise the photos, showing the purpose and even sweetness that underlie many of the images. The essays tease out the simmering historical and cultural roots of Haiti’s Carnival tradition.

3. Hadriana of All My Dreams by René Depestre

A delirious, brilliant novel by the Haitian-born Depestre, who should be on every shortlist for the Nobel prize in literature. The story of young, precociously horny Patrick’s love for the beautiful Hadriana is a blast of high-octane language, headlong storytelling, and weirdly plausible implausibility. Alas, poor Patrick’s chance at love is thwarted by Hadriana’s untimely death. Or is it? Depestre’s narrative unfolds like an MC Escher-designed hall of mirrors.

4. “Lecture On Haiti” by Frederick Douglass, delivered at the World’s Fair in Chicago, January 2, 1893

The text of Douglass’s lecture can be found in the useful anthology Haiti: A Slave Revolution, 200 Years After 1804. Despairing that slavery would ever be abolished in the US, Douglass and his family were preparing to relocate to Haiti when word came of Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Douglass decided to remain in the US, and later served as the country’s ambassador to Haiti. In its analysis of Haiti’s role in world history, of the manipulations of foreign powers and business interests in its internal affairs, and of its future prospects, Douglass’s lecture is so prescient that it might have been written last week.

5. Divine Horsemen by Maya Deren

An essential book for anyone interested in Haiti. Deren traveled to Haiti in the late 1940s with the intention of studying ritual dances, a project that morphed into a profound investigation into Haitian voodoo, that much-maligned and misunderstood religion that Christians love to hate. Deren’s study of the voodoo gods and goddesses, voodoo’s rituals, and its pervasive role in Haitian life, is not simply one of the best books on the subject, but one of the most perceptive books ever written on the nature of human experience. Yes, it’s that good.

6. Nan Dòmi: Le Récit d’une Initiation Vodou by Mimerose Beaubrun

This new and valuable book delves into the “interior” experience of voodoo, as opposed to the usual outsider focus on ritual and cosmology. In telling the story of her own initiation and painstaking education in voodoo, Beaubrun takes us into the mystical dimensions of this ancient religion. Nan dòmi (which translates roughly as “second sight” or “lucid dream”) is a book crying out for an English translation. (An English translation is due from City Lights Books in September 2013.)

7. All Souls’ RisingMaster of the Crossroads, and The Stone That the Builder Refused, all by Madison Smartt Bell

OK, I’m cheating here, sneaking in three books as one, but Bell’s historical-fiction trilogy of the Haitian revolution needs to be read straight through. As only the great novelists can, Bell makes the story of those distant, tumultuous years come alive in the most essential way – reading it, you feel like you have a vital personal stake in the outcome.

8. The Rainy Season and Farewell, Fred Voodoo, both by Amy Wilentz

Yes, I’m cheating again, but these compelling, intensely personal books deserve to be read together. Wilentz’s experience in Haiti begins in 1986 with the fall of Baby Doc Duvalier, and continues through the aftermath of the January 2010 earthquake. Brooding, vivid, merciless yet full of mercy, Wilentz’s writing is some of the most insightful around.

9. Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou, edited by Don Cosentino

This exhaustive compendium of image and word is well worth the hernias one risks by carrying it around. If I was going to choose one book to serve as a single-volume encyclopedia of Haitian history and culture, this would be it.

10. Island Possessed by Katherine Dunham

Founder of a world-renowned eponymous dance troupe, Dunham traveled from the University of Chicago to Haiti in 1936 as a young graduate student in anthropology – like Deren, her chosen field of study was dance – thus beginning a lifelong relationship with the country. Dunham’s memoir of her time in Haiti is a model of close observation, scholarship, plain good sense, and refreshing candour about all things human, sex and love among them. An extraordinary book by a truly extraordinary woman.