There are two sections here:
The first list, a selection from my own library, is by no means complete. And what is more, I put this section of my library together quite some time ago, during my stay in Haiti between 2000-2003, I am sure there has been a lot more published since, not in the least because of the 2010 earthquake, which will have triggered a whole new stream of publications.
First, there is ‘Written in Blood’, by Robert & Nancy Heinl – University Press of America, 1996. Long out of print, but now reprinted in 2005. The classic on Haitian history, an absolutely brilliant book, but not for the faint hearted.
‘Haiti, best Nightmare on Earth’ (2001) is the story of Herbert Gold, an American who has been to Haiti on and off between the 1960s and 1990. Gold has a good eye for detail, and has a wide range of acquaintances he describes, across the years.
One of the nicest travel books is ‘Bonjour Blanc‘, by Ian Thomas, who has a very British way of describing the most hilarious situations as if they are the most normal thing on earth. My copy was published by Vintage UK in 2004, but the original book was published in 1992.
‘The Immaculate Invasion’, by Bob Shaccochis – Penguin Books, 1999. The story of the American invasion to restore Aristide to power in 1994.
‘Why Cocks Fight’, Michele Wucker – Hill and Wang, 1999. Discussed the history of the island Hispaniola, both Haiti and the DR, somewhat more lightly than Written in Blood does, but with a keen eye for the continuing conflicts between the two countries.
Then there is ‘Libete, a Haitian anthology’, a collection of one-pagers about a variety of subjects, from history and dictatorship to culture and vodoo. Edited by Chalrles Arthur and Michael Dash, published by Ian Randell Publishers, 1999
The bible as far as Haitian painting is concerned is ‘Peintres Haitiens’ (also available in English, same title), by Gerald Alexis – Editions Cercle d’Art, 2000. Not cheap, but the most complete, and best illustrated overview you can imagine.
And if you wonder how these Haitians got there, in the first place, read ‘The Slave Trade’, by a guy called Hugh Thomas – Papermac/Macmillan Publishers, 1997. A brilliant account, reads like a boy’s adventure book.
The most gifted Haitian author – who writes in English, mind you, I am sure there is a whole French, and perhaps Creole, field that I haven’t explored – is Edwidge Danticat. She lives in New York, and many of her stories are about the interface between diaspora and being back home. Worthwhile are ‘Kric Krac’ (1991), ‘Breath, Eyes, Memory’ (1994), and ‘The farming of Bones’ (1998), and quite possibly others that I don’t know about.
Also, don’t forget Graham Greene – The Comedians. A gripping novel set in Haiti, during the Duvalier dictatorship.
Some time later I obtained a copy, in Dutch, of the incredible story of Faustin Wirkus, who wrote “The White King of La Gonave” (1931), about his adventures during the American occupation of Haiti (1915-1934). A great book to get an impression about that time, and the impact of the occupation, and at the same time the most curious tale of how an American lieutenant got himself crowned a King.
The second list is all from after the earthquake.
‘The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster’ (2013) was written by Jonathan M. Katz, an American journalist who was in Haiti when the earthquake struck, and writes about the aftermath. His description of the post-earthquake period is quite good, a balance between general observation and personal drama, and brings back memories – I was there, too. As so many others, Mr Katz also vents a lot of criticism about what happened with the massive aid campaign, and to be sure, not everything went well, he does have a few points to make. But like all those others that made those points, Mr Katz doesn’t really come up with solutions on how to do better next time. His suggestions, for instance more NGO meetings in French? You simply cannot get enough French speaking people together for such an operation. More Haitians involved? There is simply not the capacity, locally, like it or not. More money to be disbursed, sooner and through local government? Here, too, history – and present day reality -really suggests otherwise. It is easy to be critical, more difficult to come up with a plan to do things differently next time. Of course mistakes were made, with hindsight things could have done better. But many, very committed people, did the best they could, in extraordinary difficult circumstances. And when Mr Katz recognises, at the end of the book, that Haiti is different, different from so many other places in the world, he fails to make the link with what has gone on before, during the aid operation.
‘There Is No More Haiti’ (2019) by Greg Beckett, is perhaps more for the insider, for people who already know Haiti well. Mr Beckett talks to many people, from different social layers of society, and looks at what it takes for them to survive. In focusing on the day-to-day challenges, he projects Haiti’s overall problems on its individual citizens. In the process he paints a country that wrestles with increasingly serious difficulties, every next crisis seems worse than the one that preceded it. But like everybody else, Mr Beckett also doesn’t come up with real solutions. Outsiders are to blame, foreign governments, first and foremost the Americans. And the NGOs, who have done so much wrong, and even the tourists, who don’t come anymore. Oh, and don’t forget the UN, and their peace keepers. Of course, outsiders made mistakes – including the UN peace keepers, who carried cholera into the country after the 2010 earthquake -, but Haitians carry some responsibility, too. The business elite, who try to keep a stranglehold on the country to protect their interest, the politicians over the years, few of whom can be accused of having the ultimate interest of the country in mind; the never-ending stream of criminals, involved not only in drug trafficking, but – even more paralysing for a country – in large scale kidnap for ransom. And all the normal people, the people Mr Beckett talks to, who have let it happen, who have let the situation run out of control until there is no way back anymore.
The first four chapters are a good read: the link between how the various crises in the country reflect on crises in individual’s lives, whether intellectuals chasing a botanical garden project or taxi drivers and souvenir sellers trying to survive in a tourist-less society. Including some historical context, from both the Duvalier dictator years as well as the early days of democracy, the rise – and fall – or Aristide. Mr Beckett himself experiences the second fall of Aristide, the coup that was coming, the uncertainties, the crime wave and the UN peace keepers intervention. The fifth chapter, written much later, comes a bit as an afterthought: I suspect the book, which covers interview from 2002 to 2006, was almost ready, when the 2010 earthquake stuck, and this had to be covered too. Which is, unfortunately, a lot less convincing, Mr Beckett is not an authority on disaster relief, and mostly seems to quote what others have written, or said, about this next crisis in Haitian history.
I enjoyed reading the book – as much as you can enjoy reading about misery -, but as I said earlier, those who know Haiti well will probably find this more interesting than those who don’t.
‘Killing with Kindness: Haiti, International Aid, and NGOs’ (2012) by Mark Schuller, also on the impact of development aid and on how well, or not, the international scene understands the needs and the culture (initiated already well before the earthquake). But for the time being, I have read enough about the failings of outsiders, so I leave this for a later date – perhaps.
And only in Dutch: ‘Haiti, een Ramp voor Journalisten’(2010) is het enigszins kritische verhaal van Hans Jaap Melissen, een Nederlandse journalist die onmiddellijk na de aardbeving van januari 2010 ter plekke is, en datzelfde jaar nog een aantal malen teruggaat naar Haiti om de voortgang van de rampenhulp te beschrijven. Kritisch, omdat hij serieuze, en valide, vragen stelt bij de verslaggeving van rampen in het algemeen en die van Haiti in het bijzonder – hoe dramatischer hoe beter voor het publiek, en voor de fondsenwerving, hoewel dit weinig met de veel genuanceerdere realiteit te maken heeft. En kritisch bij het dodental van 230,000, of 300,000, dat door de Haitiaanse regering genoemd wordt, en waar ik zelf, in de zes maanden dat ik na de ramp op Haiti geweest ben, ook al vraagtekens bij stelde: Melissen doet onderzoek en komt op een veel lagere schatting uit.
Toch maakt de journalist Melissen zich van tijd tot tijd ook schuldig aan het inflateren van de ramp, naar eigen zeggen vanwege de ongemakkelijke verhouding tussen wat werkelijkheid is, en wat zijn opdrachtgevers willen horen. In ieder geval verdient hij wel complimenten voor het uberhaupt bespreekbaar maken van dit onderwerp.
Mijn eigen kritische noot is dat Melissen, als hij over Haiti in het algemeen schrijft, zich er iets te simplistisch afmaakt, over bijvoorbeeld de verhoudingen tussen rijk en arm, de positie van de elite, en de rol van de NGOs, die in zijn ogen weinig goeds kunnen doen. Ik denk, uit eigen ervaring, dat de werkelijkheid iets genuanceerder is. Maar ik weet ook, uit eigen ervaring, dat iedereen zijn eigen mening heeft over Haiti, en dat zijn vaak heel persoonlijke, en heel eigenzinnige meningen. De mijne incluis.