Julia Alvarez: An Interview with Mark Kurlansky

In A Wedding in Haiti, Julia Alvarez takes us on a journey–a journey to Haiti, a journey to the joys and burdens of love, a journey beyond borders and between families.

“She is the ideal travel companion—witty and observant and, as in all of Julia Alvarez’s writing, compassionate and full of heart,” said Mark Kurlansky, the bestselling author of Cod and his brand new book Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man. “A Wedding In Haiti is a great experience and its unaffected prose is as true a portrait of complex Haiti as you will find.”

Mark Kurlansky has a longstanding connection with Haiti, so he and Julia set off on this interview together (initially posted on Amazon):

M.K.: As a Dominican growing up around Haitians and next door to Haiti, what was your impression of Haiti and Haitians and what surprised you when you went there?

J.A.: Actually, there weren’t many Haitians around when I was growing up in the 50s, under the dictatorship of Trujillo. The border had been closed since the massacre of 1937, when Haitians living on the Dominican side were killed by the military (from 4,000 to 40,000–the figures vary wildly).

I knew only one Haitian, Chucha, who was the nanny over at my cousins’ house. The story was that during the massacre, Chucha had walked all the way from the southwest border to the capital and knocked at my great aunt’s door, asking for asylum. My great aunt took her in. Chucha stayed for the rest of her life. When she was in a good mood, Chucha told incredible stories. So, that was my impression of our neighbor country: a place of cranky people who could tell the best stories.

What I absorbed from the culture was that Haiti was the benighted country next door, where Vodou was the religion, instead of our enlightened Christianity. Haitians were the “real blacks,” whereas black Dominicans were “indios oscuros” (dark Indians). Haiti was the enemy who had invaded us and occupied our country for twenty-two years. (Interestingly, Dominicans celebrate their independence, not from their colonizer Spain, but from Haiti.) At night, when I didn’t want to go to sleep, I’d be threatened with the Haitian cuco (boogeyman) who was going to come take me away to Haiti. Of course, this threat only served to pique my interest!

Given that I was curious about Haiti, I’m surprised that I didn’t make more of an effort to go “next door” when I returned often to the D.R. All the red tape required to cross the border discouraged me, but I think there was also a subliminal fear and shame based on the 1937 massacre, never fully acknowledged by my country. I assumed that as someone of Dominican heritage and white, I would be unwelcomed, until I was invited by Piti to attend his wedding.

What surprised me were the many similarities between Haiti and the D.R.–despite our different histories, languages, cultures. Haitians were making casave, a staple of the Dominican diet as well. Their beer, Prestige, tasted like our beer, Presidente. (Even the names had a similar ego-boosting feel to them!) The sayings, which are the way popular wisdom gets passed down in our oral cultures, were often the same ones in Kreyòl as in Spanish. These might seem superficial things, but they signaled a deep connection between our two countries.

I was impressed by how much more resourceful the Haitians were. As a poorer country, they don’t waste anything. The culture, especially out in the countryside, is less “corrupted” by Americanized and globalized influences. No McDonalds or Kentucky Fried Chickens, no ads for Coke, though we did see a big truck with OBAMA painted on the side of the trailer.

Why did you choose to reveal so much personal information particularly about your marriage? Did your husband know you were doing this and how did he feel about it? How about Piti and others in the book. How did they feel about it?

The problem with writing nonfiction, as you know, Mark, is that the people you write about are not characters safely stored away in the attic of your imagination when the book is done. They are real people who might end up not talking to you for years or suing you or writing their own version of events!

In many ways, A Wedding in Haiti is a portrait of several marriages, not just Piti’s and Eseline’s, whose marriage the book is ostensibly about, but my parents’ and my own. I was a little nervous about my husband, Bill, taking offense with those scenes in which he behaves badly, but then I don’t spare myself either! The surprise for me was that the writing brought me a renewed appreciation for my beloved and for the resilience of our marriage. I think Bill sensed that my approach was one of affection, humor, tolerance, not blame. So I think its how you write about people more than that you are writing about them that matters. Czeslaw Milosz has a wonderful poem, “Love,” that begins:

Love means to learn to look at yourself the way one looks at distant things for you are only one thing among many. And whoever sees that way heals his heart, without knowing it, from various ills–

I think that writing that that comes from this foundation of love allows you to look at yourself from a perspective that is healing. Now I’m sounding like a self-help book author! But it’s true. And only one last thing about Bill: he is amazingly confident! It doesn’t faze him–as it would me–to have his peccadilloes picked at. And really, that’s all they are. What can I say? I lucked out. He’s a prince of guy.

About Piti and Eseline, I think it’s fair to say that they are thrilled to be the subject of a book. Eseline (With Ludy, we’ll have to wait a few more years to get her opinion.) To be seen, to be heard, to be celebrated–this is fertilizer on the little seed of self no matter who you are.

But truly, what Piti and Eseline are most excited about is not this book, but their first CD! Years ago, Piti learned to play the guitar from one of the volunteer teachers who came down to Alta Gracia, our coffee farm and literacy center in D.R. The volunteer left Piti his guitar. We brought another guitar down, then purchased a third. Soon, Piti had taught other Haitians how to sing and play, and they started a band. Every kid in the world wants to be a rock star, right? This past January, Piti and Eseline and friends taped their songs; then, Bill with the help of my stepdaughter, Sara Eichner, “produced” the CD using DiscMaker online. As we’ve gone across the country on a book tour, Bill has been peddling Piti’s CD, Rise Up, Brothers; one hundred percent of the proceeds to go to Piti and his band.

You have never written this kind of memoir? At what point in this journey did you realize that this was a book and why?

I have never written this kind of memoir; though, come to think of it, the commissioned book I did for Penguin, Once Upon a Quinceañera: Coming of Age in the USA, has memoir material about my own coming of age interlaced with a study of the tradition. But it’s not a full-fledge memoir, more of a hybrid.

With A Wedding in Haiti, I never intended to write a book about the experience of going to Piti’s wedding. I tell all my students to keep journals in order to keep their writing muscles limber and to develop the habit of writing. But this advice is one of those instances of “do as I say, not as I do.” I myself don’t keep a daily journal, except when I travel. I find that away from my daily writing practice, I lose my bearings, and keeping a journal helps me to understand what is happening to me. So during my trip to Piti’s wedding, I kept my usual journal, which went in my box of travel journals once we got home.

But the experience stayed alive and luminous in my imagination and in Bill’s. It seemed disproportionately absorbing, given one short trip. Maybe it was that the journey turned out to have an extensive root system, connecting many current preoccupations in my life (elderly parents, my own aging, love in the long term, the responsibilities that come with knowing and seeing, the uses and abuses of narrative, the role of the storyteller in the circle of social activism, and on and on). So already, in the fall of 2009, a month after the first trip, a book began to take shape in my imagination, and I began writing.

Then, in January 2010, the horrible earthquake happened. The casualties kept mounting: 316,000 dead, 300,000 injured, 1.3 million displaced, 97,300 houses destroyed. I admit that at a certain point, these became mind-numbing figures, “hard to compute unless broken down to one life at a time, one story at a time,” as I write in the book. Writing was myway of being with Haiti, in solidarity with a people who had seen “the end of the world,” as one young woman screamed in a short clip taken during the earthquake. To begin again, to create way out of the destruction, to tell one story. “After the final no there comes a yes, Wallace Stevens writes in “The Well Dressed Man With a Beard,” “And on that yes the future world depends.”

Just one last thing about the word “memoir.” When the book was going into production, we had such a hard time deciding on a subtitle. My publisher wanted to subtitle the book “a memoir,” but I resisted. This wasn’t a ME-moir, I argued, but an US-moir, a story about many of us: a young Haitian couple, my parents, my own marriage, a friendship, a troubled history between two countries, and more. But no one at Algonquin thought it wise to subtitle a book with the name of a genre that no one would recognize.

Haiti, as you capture in your book, is always a raw and forceful experience. How has it changed you?

Actually, I think every book we write, and every book we read and get absorbed by changes us. We come out of a book a slightly different person than when we began reading or writing it. After all, in the process we’ve become someone else; we’ve entered other realities, become someone else: small, significant shifts have happened in our imagination. But because this all happens below the radar, it looks like “poetry makes nothing happen,” to quote W.H. Auden.

The experience of traveling in Haiti and also the friendships Bill and I have made with Haitians living and working in the Dominican Republic have definitely impacted our lives. For one thing, our family has grown–Piti and Eseline and Ludy are now our godchildren. Given the injustices suffered by Haitians in the Dominican Republic, we have become advocates for the Haitian migrant community around the farm and beyond.

The journeys I’m interested in reading about and writing about turn out to be more than travelogues because, as I mentioned above, they call to the fore questions and quandaries which have been stirring inside us for a while. One of these quandaries for me is what to do with all the information I now have access to: inequities, violence, natural disasters, upheavals. All of it is there, right in my face. It used to be that only in the Third World were these shocking juxtapositions “a problem,” the reason why tourists were and are still corralled into gated resorts. The trip to Haiti, especially the second trip that took us to post-earthquake Port-au-Prince, brought the devastation right into my heart and my imagination.

But I don’t have answers for Haiti or solutions for my quandaries. First, two trips do not an expert make. And I don’t think that’s what the best writing is supposed to do. Chekhov once noted that the “task of a writer is not to solve the problem but to state it correctly.” And that’s what I think I’m attempting with this little book. To clean the lens, to see Haiti and tell one story as clearly and accurately as I can.

And Haiti actually has a lot to teach us. As I write in the book: this little pariah nation “embodies those undervalued but increasingly valuable skills we will need to survive on this slowly depleting planet: endurance, how to live with less, how to save by sharing, how to make a pact with hope when you find yourself in hell.” I don’t buy that Haiti is a totally failed state. Its rich history, its culture, its arts, its values, its soul–there are other measures to use when we talk about the wealth of nations. This tiny nation has rich, deep soul, which is why it has inspired many writers, including you, Mark!

The history of the relationship between your country and Haiti is filled with distrust, racism, violence, and tragedy. Is this changing? What do you see for the future of the island of Hispaniola?

The history of the relationship between the two countries has been a troubled one, and though we don’t have the widespread violence of the massacre of 1937, still the mistreatment of Haitians by Dominicans is shameful. A Haitian–well, let’s clarify–a poor Haitian cannot count on rights in the D.R.

Sometimes there are surprises. After the earthquake, many Dominicans stepped forward to help. Clinics were set up on the border; nurses and doctors volunteered to help; there were food and clothing drives in the major cities. Even the government relaxed its tight border policies and facilitated access across the border for help coming in from other countries. There was an amazing feeling of solidarity and compassion, which tells me that despite our troubled history, Haitians and Dominicans feel a bedrock kinship.

But I’m hopeful, and one of the most hopeful developments is the key role I believe we of the diaspora can play. We have stepped out of that embedded history and culture of conflict, and we’ve gotten to know each other here on neutral ground, or rather, on ground where we are both the aliens. That’s built a bond we can then take back home.

To that end, this October, the 75th anniversary of the massacre, we are planning a gathering at the border. Years ago, Michele Wucker, author of a history of the relationship of both countries, Why the Cocks Fight, and I got together to plan a gathering for an upcoming anniversary. But we were soon overwhelmed with all that was needed to carry off our plan: funding, a staff, to do publicity, answer phones, apply for grants. This was before the advent of the Internet. But the Arab Spring uprisings and the Occupy Movements across the world gave us a new model: using the new technology to put the word out, and letting an “organic” movement formed. So, a group of us have started planning for this coming October 5-6, a gathering at the Haitian-Dominican border, at Ouanaminthe and Dajabón, which we’re calling a “Border of Lights.” We’re going to light up that border with song, dance, music, and posit a new relationship, while also acknowledging the past by creating a people’s memorial for the massacre. I keep saying “we,” but I’m now just the viejita, sitting on the sidelines, shaking her head in wonder that these young people are putting wings on what I thought was an improbable dream I would never live to see.

So, yes, I am very hopeful that the sad history can begin to go in a new direction. In “The Cure at Troy,” Seamus Heaney writes:

History says, don’t hope On this side of the grave. But then, once in a lifetime The longed-for tidal wave Of justice can rise up, And hope and history rhyme.

In many small personal instances that I write about in A Wedding in Haiti, I’ve seen “hope and history rhyme.” Now I’m hoping for a tidal wave of justice on a much larger scale. It’s back to the Margaret Mead quote: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” And with the viral nature of Internet communications, maybe this will be a large group of thoughtful, committed citizens changing the relationship between two small nations sharing one island.

Here’s hoping!

You can purchase A Wedding in Haiti at IndieBound independent bookstores, Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Powell’s.

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