Additional Coverage Special Report—Haiti
This story is just one article in our special report on Haiti's women's movement.
We'll be adding more stories in the coming weeks—for now, take a look at other articles in this series.
• Read an assessment of the earthquake's impact on Haiti's women's movement in Honoring the Ancestors.
• View photographer Nadia Todres's powerful photo essay, Documenting the Lives of Girls in Haiti.
• Read Didi Bertrand's column, Bearing Witness: Girls and Women in Haiti's Camps.
• Take a look at SPECIAL REPORT: Haiti Elections—Why Vote for a Woman? to read interviews with Haiti's three female presidential candidates to learn more about their platforms.
• Read the first story in this series, SPECIAL REPORT: Haiti, Women, and the Elections, which takes an in-depth look at women on the ground and the upcoming elections.
• Read World Pulse and Anne-christine d'Adesky's previous coverage on the earthquake, Holding Up Haiti: Women Respond to Nightmare Earthquake, published shortly after news broke of the devastating earthquake.
Edwidge Danticat: Return to Haiti
Internationally acclaimed author and memoirist on her homeland, post-disaster.
You lived in Port-au-Prince until you were 12. Can you describe the Haiti of your childhood?
Everyone, including my parents, idealizes the Haiti of their childhood; and lately, we’ve all been idealizing the Haiti of before January’s earthquake.
I’ll try not to do that here. I grew up in a very poor hillside neighborhood called Bel Air in Port au- Prince. We woke up to the sounds of street peddlers singing about their wares and to the radio blasting the news from the neighbor’s house. School was strict, and we were made to speak French there even though we spoke Creole at home.
I saw my aunts and grandmothers as goddesses. One of my aunts sold notebooks, pencils, and books in downtown Port-au-Prince. She managed to put five kids through school and buy a house all on her own. My Aunt Denise helped raise me. If someone gave her $100, she would increase it five fold in a week, in a way that still seems magical to me.
I’m realizing now that I haven’t given due credit to their stories—the stories these women lived; their ingenuity; their entrepreneurial skills; their intelligence despite a lack of book learning.
How has your image of Haiti shifted over the years, especially in the aftermath of the earthquake?
There is a Haiti that lives in my imagination, the Haiti I write about. I think all writers, all artists have that. But Haiti is very complex. You can say that my image of Haiti is ever-changing, just as Haiti is ever-changing.
Since the earthquake, there is a constant ache in my heart. When I visit family members and they’re in tents in front of their houses, in the countryside, or when you get dozens of calls a week from people saying they are hungry, or they fear rape, or need to go to school, it’s not about image or nostalgia anymore. I ask myself every day when things will change, and what I can do about it.
What was it like to watch the earthquake unfold from the US?
The evening of the earthquake itself, when there was so little information, I had a sense that the whole country had been flattened, that everyone was lost. The weight of that possibility was overwhelming. My cousin and his 10-year-old son died that day. Many friends died.
I have two small children, and I was offered opportunities to go back right away, but I couldn’t get there. My youngest was not eating, so I had to stay with her. I’ve never had such a pressing question of loyalty in my life. It’s the eternal female dilemma, I think. But then there was also this feeling of helplessness. Like what could I do? I’m not a doctor. I’m not a rescue worker. People were saying that going back meant eating food that survivors could otherwise eat.
When I did go back 23 days later, you had the feeling that you just wanted to hug the ground, wrap your arms around everyone, every broken place. But in a situation like this, there is very little room for sentimentality. Everyone does what little he or she can. And looking at wounded people or the dead bodies that were still all coiled up and dried on the side of the road, you felt really helpless and guilty that you could leave.
Soon after the quake, I went to church in Miami, and there was a man there who survived. He was talking about what he saw and how he survived. There was a woman who was inconsolable listening to him. She had lost 25 family members, and she could not go back to find and bury her parents.
There are degrees of trauma, and sometimes, if people can hear you, or read you, your trauma seems more pressing. But there are people who suffered so much more; I render this space to them. . . .