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.