“Haiti Urban Voids,” from Emergenc(e-y): Design Tactics for Post Traumatic Urban Landscapes
Last year at about this time, The Public Archive posted a summer reading list of “those daunting, guilt-inducing, impossible to finish accumulations of never-read classics, recently-published near-sensations, and occasionally-frustrating volumes you feel you should read if only to say you’ve read them.” A year later, most of these books remain unread. This year, with somewhat diminished ambitions, we’ve shifted our focus. We’ve compiled a list of notable books on Haiti or by writers of Haitian descent published since January 2010. The list is incomplete. It does not, for instance, include those works by missionaries, aid workers, journalists, UN grunts, or relentlessly chipper college kids who have penned “helping Haiti” memoirs after a brief trip to the Black Republic sparked an internal crisis of the White Soul. A good list of such titles is available here, while if you’re looking for an allegorical treatment of the Haiti redemption story we’d recommend the late Kathy Acker’s rather disturbing Kathy Goes to Haiti (Grove). A Haiti variant of Three Cups of Tea it ain’t.
Probably the most acclaimed Haiti-related literary work from the past year is Edwidge Danticat’s Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work (Princeton). Yet Danticat’s edited collection, Haiti Noir, published by Akashic Books, the wonderful independent press out of Brooklyn, New York, also deserves a mention – as do two other recent publications. Writer and Tande blogger Nadève Ménard has pulled together Écrits d’Haïti, Perspectives sur la littérature haïtienne contemporaine (1986-2006) (Karthala). Écrits d’Haïti contains twenty-four essays on Haitian literature and eleven interviews with Haitian writers and will certainly set the standard for critical studies of contemporary Haitian letters. Meanwhile, in Haiti Unbound: A Spiralist Challenge to the Postcolonial Canon (Liverpool), Kaima L. Glover offers the first sustained account of the neglected Spiralist literary group. The Spiralists included writers Frankétienne, Jean-Claude Fignolé, and René Philoctète but they have generally been overshadowed by both their Indigenist forebears and their Caribbean Artist Movement cousins.
Moving from literature to law, Kate Ramsey traces the genealogy of legal sanctions against vodou in The Spirits and the Law: Vodou and Power in Haiti (Chicago). Long-time Haiti observer Colin Dayan’s The Law is a White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons (Princeton) examines the legal deprivation of personhood from colonial Saint-Domingue to contemporary Guantanamo. Erica James’s Domestic Insecurities: Violence, Trauma and Intervention in Haiti (California) also examines deprivation — and violence — though in the context of military and humanitarian intervention in Haiti in the aftermath of the 1991 coup.
Colonial Saint-Domingue and the impact of Haiti on the revolutionary Atlantic have also been subjects of sustained interest among professional historians. Jane Landers’ Atlantic Creoles in the Age of Revolutions (Harvard) recounts the histories of a handful of African-born and African-descended Atlantic world freedom fighters, including that of General Georges Biassou, an early leader of the 1791 revolt. Jeremy D. Popkin, like many others, implicitly builds on the path-breaking work of CLR James in You are all Free: The Haitian Revolution and the Abolition of Slavery (Cambridge). Millery Polyné examines Haiti’s foreign relations in African Diaspora and pan-American contexts in his From Douglass to Duvalier: U.S. African Americans, Haiti, and Pan Americanism, 1870-1964 (Florida), available, unfortunately, in hardback only.
While perhaps too specialized for the general reader though undoubtedly essential for the specialized scholar, two new digital collections have just been published. Haiti’s Société haïtienne d’histoire et de géographie has made available back issues from the 1930s of both their Revue, as well, with the Banque de la République d’Haïti, the Collection des Trente Ans de la BRH: a series of historical texts on Haitian banking and political economy that includes works by Anténor Firmin, Fréderic Marcelin, Alain Turnier, and others. The first volume – stretching from 1904 to 2004 – of Le Moniteur, the official publication of the Haitian government has also been digitized. It’s an absolutely incredible resource that contains more than 10,000 copies of the paper and close to 300,000 images. The issues of Le Moniteur from the nineteenth-century and those following 2004 should be released soon.
There are surprisingly few new works that directly approach the question of reconstruction. Architect Steven Holl’s New Haiti Villages, published through Princeton’s excellent Pamphlet Architecture Series, is one of them. It’s an unfortunately-titled book; its implicit nod to some rural pre-modern Haitian lifestyle ignores the fact that Port-au-Prince is hardly a “village.” Even so, it is, we suppose, better than New Haiti Projects and Holl at least proposes a model for reconstruction. All proceeds from the sale of the book go towards implementing his “Dense-Pack Villages” scheme: the building of “small communities of two hundred or so people with homes constructed of concrete recycled from the rubble, built by local labor and craftsmen.”
And at least there’s hope with Holl. Other assessments of post-earthquake Haiti paint dismal pictures of the reconstruction process and describe the repeated bungling – at a horrible cost of both lives and money – by the international community in their efforts to “help Haiti.” The UN report on cholera is well known: it points to the UN peace-keepers as the source of the bacteria while refusing to take any responsibility for their actions. We’d also do well to read those reports on Haiti’s reconstruction issued by the United States Government Accountability Office, the Clinton-Bush Haiti Fund, the Interim Haiti Recovery Committee, and the Haiti Reconstruction Fund. They may not be the most exciting accounts of Haiti published over the past year but they are surely among the most important.
Happy reading. Enjoy the summer.
The Public Archive