Monday, April 23, 2012

A Meltingpot Book Review & A Giveaway Too: "A Wedding in Haiti"

Hello Meltingpot Readers,

I have a confession to make. When I received my advanced reader's copy of Julia Alvarez's slim new memoir, A Wedding in Haiti, I was not impressed. In fact, I was a little put off by the concept. Alvarez, a prolific and award-winning Dominican poet and novelist, had written a book about her friendship with her Haitian farm worker. The broad brush strokes of the story are that Alvarez befriends young Piti when he comes to work on her organic coffee farm in the Dominican Republic. When Piti comes of age and decides to marry, he invites Alvarez to the wedding which takes place in rural Haiti. Alvarez has to leave the comfort of her home in Vermont to go to the wedding and of course her life is altered by what she experiences in a place that's almost always referred to as the poorest country in the western hemisphere. Cue the violins and call the cliché hotline.

So, I didn't read it. I didn't think I'd have to read it to know how the story begins and ends. What's more, considering Alvarez is Domincan, I guess I expected her to know more about Haiti than her story suggests. And if she really never had visited the country that is attached to her birthplace, I guess I didn't want her to admit that either. At least not out loud. I am a big fan of Alvarez and didn't want to lose respect for her work. So, like I said, I didn't read it.

But dear readers, the book just sat there, mocking me with its pretty cover and the temptation of a good Alvarez read. Finally, one morning, I just picked it up and started reading, figuring I'd put it down if even the slightest hint of "The White Man Learns the Meaning of Life from the Poor Black Man Who Has Nothing Yet Can Still Smile Every Morning," came through the text. But it didn't.

Alvarez is pretty honest about her lack of knowledge about Haiti, as well as her inherent privilege and relative wealth. And it is that honesty that comes through the book as she narrates her journey to the wedding and then a subsequent trip to Haiti post earthquake. As I said, the book is slim, the story covers less than two years, and there is no great aha! moment. Instead, we get a travelogue of a journey most of us will never make because we don't have the resources and because we don't have to. We can send money, rail at the injustice and even pretend things are actually better than they really are in Haiti.

Alvarez doesn't use the book to preach a sermon or shame us readers into flying straight away into Port-au-Prince. She does one better. She allows herself, a middle-aged American college professor with good intentions, to be our eyes and ears in Haiti. She recoils at sights and smells but puts on a brave face because she knows it is the right thing to do. She smiles and uses charades to communicate because she doesn't speak French of Kreyol. She offers what comfort she can, be it a box of spaghetti or a hug to a grieving mother. In a nutshell, Alvarez bears witness to Haiti's despair, but also and just as importantly, to Haiti's dignity.

"We ride into the downtown area, full of ambivalence. To watch or not to watch. What is the respectful way to move through these scenes of devastation? We came to see, and according to Junior, Haiti needs to be seen....You tell yourself you are here in solidarity. But at the end of the day, you add it up and you still feel ashamed...You haven't improved a damn thing. Natural disaster tourism -- that's what it feels like."

Despite its premise and the author's lament, A Wedding in Haiti doesn't feel like natural disaster tourism. On the contrary, this book reads like an honest account of one woman's experience in Haiti. Yes, there is unspeakable poverty and heartache, but there is also humor, love and random acts of kindness that reinvigorate your belief in hope.

This book probably won't change your life. But it might change your opinion about Haiti and the people who live there.

If you'd like to win a free hardcover copy of A Wedding in Haiti, tell me what you think about when you think of Haiti in the comments section. I'll randomly select a winner from the comments on Thursday, April 26 at midnight.



Dusky Literaii said...

I think about Haiti being the first independent nation in the Carribean and paying a heavy price in reparations to France

Anonymous said...

I am a huge fan of J.A. and I am very excited to read this book. My stomach was in my throat thinking that you had brushed the book off!!!!

I am glad that you gave it another chance. I have actually spent a portion of this semester talking about the El Corte or Masacre del Perejil where former dictator of the DR Trujillo ordered the killing of some 20,000 Haitians.

Wendy, Colombian Mami, Anon

Erin Michelle said...

AND again, is yet another reason why I LOVE your blog Lori...

I think about the scenes of war and heroism, slavery and wealth, and the unseen/unspoken-of strength of Haitian women.

I've had a weird love affair with Haiti for years. Before the earthquake, after the earthquake and still today. Maybe it's the country's tremendous story, but I've been infatuated with the country since I first learned about the county's history as a teenager.

Thanks for your honesty and transparency and for rightfully bringing this book into the discussion.

Alicia Anabel Santos said...

Excellent. I am so excited to write about Haiti. I probably won't read the memoir since I have already visited Haiti. My hope is that more writers write about the strength of Haitians and the love story that is found there. I do like reading work that changes the world. Thank you for this.

The Golden Papaya said...

I love Julia Alvarez. Hadn't seen this new one. I understand your hesitation about it, but sounds like it's worth reading. I also love Edwidge Danticat's books, and recently read Create Dangerously. Also had a student last semester who was descended from the Haitian ruling class, and a very interesting guy.

Waiting for Zufan! said...

I, too, have had a nearly life-long fascination with Haiti. When I think of Haiti, I think of a little girl, beautiful sweet Jenite, who speaks with the most adorable Haitian accent.

I think of Paul Farmer and his images, I think of the Haitian artists selling their incredibly beautiful work in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.

I think of injustice and pain and beauty and strength and religion, beaches and deforestation and sometimes -- quite unfortunately -- I think of the overpowering evangelical Americans who try to be do-gooders and soul saviors at the same time.

OK almost done here...I think of the Haitian Kreyol "Mwen Renmen Ou," which I pronounced (in my head) entirely incorrectly until I heard this:
Ha! Oh, I also think dreadlocks and muscular, hot men. ;) THAT last one may be my overactive imagination. Just being silly.

PS. I'd love a copy of the book. Thanks for finding it!

David Duncan said...

When I think of Haiti, I think about all that they have endured. From the Parsley Massacre to the 2010 earthquake, Haiti has hope like no other country.

I would love to win this book for my wife. She loves Julia Alvarez and loves reading books by Edwidge Danticat.

Anonymous said...

You know, I am rereading your write up and I have to ask about this line, "And if she really never had visited the country that is attached to her birthplace, I guess I didn't want her to admit that either. At least not out loud. I am a big fan of Alvarez and didn't want to lose respect for her work. So, like I said, I didn't read it."

How many Americans have visited Mexico and/or Canada? How many of us can name all the Mexican States or Canadian Provinces? Then it would follow to ask, Why would she know more than just the very bare basics about Haiti? Just because they are attached/share an island doesn't mean that Alvarez be well versed in Haitian life.

Colombian Mami

Rose Anne said...

when I think of Haiti I have only to look at my son! We pray for his birthmom everyday, the thought of having to give up my wonderful son so that he could have enough food and the right to have schooling is mind numbing! We love her more than she can know...
Haiti is very real in my home!
Rose Anne

LT said...

I appreciate your question and it's funny because I asked myself the same thing. Am I holding Alvarez to some ridiculous standard? Because clearly many Americans have never visited neither Canada nor Mexico. But Haiti and the DR are much closer than much of the US and its neighbors. We're not talking about the distance from Wisconsin to Mexico. Maybe it's not a fair request, but maybe it is.

Anonymous said...

After living in Arizona, I can tell you that many of those living right along the border, don't know squat about Mexico? Wisconsin, being not far from Canada, could you honestly name the Provinces of Canada?