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Novelist Edwidge Danticat: “Haitians Are Very Resilient, But It Doesn’t Mean They Can Suffer More Than Other People”

StoryJanuary 12, 2011
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On the anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti, we go to Carrefour to speak with Haitian-American novelist Edwidge Danticat. “Haitian people are very resilient, but it doesn’t mean they can suffer more than other people,” Danticat says. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: On this first anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti, the tè tremblé , the earth trembles, we continue with Edwidge Danticat. She is the Haitian American novelist. She is speaking to us from Carrefour, Haiti. Her latest article in The New Yorker is called “A Year and a Day.” Her latest book, Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work. Among her other books are Krik? Krak!

Edwidge, I know that we don’t have a great phone line, but we just felt, no matter what, we wanted to speak to you as you return to Haiti. You say, “Haitians are tired, but they are not defeated.” How are you feeling today?

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Thank you so much for having me, Amy, and thank you for having this program.

I think [inaudible] people, both here in Haiti and in the Haitian diaspora today, we feel a great deal of sadness, because today we remember, you know, so many people that this country lost, so many people lost to us personally. So there’s the sense of sadness, the sense of commemoration. Today here is a national holiday. Schools and offices are closed. But there’s still — you know, the streets are busy. People are trying to go about their days, and even though there are many religious ceremonies and prayer services planned, small and large. But there’s still a sense that, because people don’t have any choice, you know, they still have to wake up today and go about the daily business of survival.

AMY GOODMAN: You begin your piece in the Miami Herald talking about the Greek myth Sisyphus. Can you take it from there?

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Well, you know, the most recent former prime minister of Haiti, Michèle Pierre-Louis, and this Miami Herald-directed documentary called Nou Bouke —- We Are Tired -— talks about this myth of Sisyphus, of, you know, this Greek myth of someone rolling a rock up a hill and then finding that when you get up the hill, the rocks roll back down again, and it’s a repetitive process. And the most sort of optimistic view of that story is that every time you do it, you think it’s the last time. And she actually says it’s an incredibly apt, at this moment, metaphor for Haiti and what Haitians are going through. But, you know, the upside of that is that — we’ve heard so much this year about it, in part because it’s so true — Haitian people are very resilient. But it doesn’t mean that they can, you know, suffer more than other people. And I think — and that’s what also one needs to emphasize.

A year later, there are a million-and-a-half people still living in tents. There’s these reports of women being raped, and now, at this point, where some of the settlements are on private land and the owners are becoming tired of people being there and are intimidating them into relocating. So, even though, you know, there are still some great symbolic signs that we — for example, the reopening of the open market yesterday — but there’s still a lot of suffering here. A lot of people are suffering. And as we remember the dead today, it’s important to remember that, to this, there’s a long suffering of the living that will continue past this day and to tomorrow and, sad to say, perhaps into next year and the following year. So we have to also remember the suffering of the living which continues here.

AMY GOODMAN: And how cholera is affecting the people there, with some 3,600 people dead of cholera, 170,000 or so infected?

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Well, what’s — there’s been a stall in the conversation about cholera, in part because of the election stalemate here and as the anniversary is approaching, but it remains a very large problem. And potentially, you know, as the CDC and other organizations have declared, is that it can — cholera can potentially kill more people than the earthquake. And cholera can spread quickly, and has spread quickly in this country. And it was borne out of the circumstances that have been discussed, through — you know, whether one believes that it was through these Nepalese soldiers, but it can spread pretty quickly. And it’s something also, as we look at these potential disasters, including the potential for lack of food security, because we have farmers in the Artibonite who refuse to go into the rice paddies, because they are afraid of the bacteria-infected waters there. So, there are a host of other issues also looming ahead, as we commemorate this day.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, the figures are stunning of how little money has made it to reconstruction in this year, of the $9 billion promised. I wanted to play for you a clip of President Clinton. I know he is back in Haiti right now. We were there right after the earthquake, and then Sharif Abdel Kouddous and Nicole Salazar and I, along with Kim Ives, went back for the sixth [six-month] anniversary. It was a ceremony they held, and then President Clinton gave a speech and talked about how important Haiti was to him.

BILL CLINTON: I intend to spend the next seven weeks, except for the time it takes me to marry my daughter off, making sure the donors who have made these commitments give us a simple schedule: when will they deliver the money? How much and when? When they do, then we will get as much as we can for budget support for the Haiti government, and Prime Minister Bellerive and I will do everything we can to then push these projects through the reconstruction commission so the people of Haiti can feel and see them being done.

AMY GOODMAN: That was President Clinton in Port-au-Prince, standing in the shadow of the rubble of the palace, which at that point had hardly been touched, right in front of the Champ de Mars, where we were speaking to Patrick Elie today, the big plaza where thousands of Haitian refugees still live. Now less than 10 percent of the $9 billion pledged by foreign donors has been delivered. It’s six months after that speech, a year after the earthquake. Patrick Elie was just talking about the country being run by foreign interests. Is that your assessment, Edwidge Danticat?

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Well, there is certainly a lot of foreign interests here, you know, both, I think, in the NGO sector and the sort of potential inevitable flood of disaster capitalism that follows situations like this. I think we need to keep reminding not just the donors, but other witnesses, about this sort lack of [inaudible] you know, the pledges have been made, but that these have not been delivered, because often there’s this impression that this has happened, and it’s been consumed by corruption. But I think that’s one thing we need to keep reminding other people. The foreign interests, I think, will always be there, but we also have to focus our attention on the Haitian people, as Patrick was just saying, on Haitian men and women who ultimately will be the ones to rebuild the country. And these donors and the NGOs and all the — even the disaster capitalists must remember that, that that’s who will ultimately build this country, the men and women of this country. And they have the will. And sometimes they are portrayed as sort of passive receivers and not active enough. They have the will. They have the ability. All they need now is this opportunity by those both inside Haiti and outside of Haiti who control the purse strings of this country, that they have to remember that these men and women here need to be able, and want to and are willing to, rebuild their country, if they’re given the opportunity to do so.

AMY GOODMAN: Jean Saint-Vil, in Ottawa, your response to President Clinton saying this was his top priority, and also to the election, the Haiti Provisional Electoral Council releasing preliminary results and saying that Célestin is out and the runoff will be between the musician Michel Martelly and the former First Lady Mirlande Manigat, with Lavalas excluded from the election?

JEAN SAINT-VIL: Yes, I think, again, in both of these instances, the key word is “accountability.” If, five years from now, 10 years from now, President Clinton comes on TV and says, “Oops, I guess, you know, I did not succeed,” what’s going to happen? Nothing. President Clinton is not accountable to the people of Haiti. And this is exactly the challenge that Haitians are facing today. We have players who have lots of power, decision-making power, yet zero accountability, making the key decisions about the lives of Haitians, whether it is with regards to the reconstruction money or with the elections.

We had a major scandal at the end of the year, where a Brazilian diplomat, Ricardo Seitenfus, came out and made a couple of interviews where he explained that not only did the international mission in Haiti fail, but that there are illegal things that are being discussed in plain sight. For instance, he mentioned that the day of the election, November 28th, he went into a meeting which involved the head of the U.N. mission in Haiti, Mr. Edmond Mulet, representatives of the donor countries — he didn’t mention who they were —- but they were discussing looking for a plane so they can put the current president of Haiti, René Préval, and expel him from the country. I mean, this is grave accusations from -—

AMY GOODMAN: Five seconds.

JEAN SAINT-VIL: —- the OAS special representatives to Haiti. So I think what needs to happen is that people should play their key role. The U.N. must be forced to mobilize resources to fight cholera in Haiti. Whether they caused it or not, it is clear that the Nepalese camp near Bel Air was not treating their excrements the proper way. And -—

AMY GOODMAN: We must leave it there, but we’ll continue to follow Haiti, of course. Jean Saint-Vil, Edwidge Danticat, Alex Dupuy, thank you so much.

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