A disaster such as the earthquake in Haiti is one which can bring our attention to a place we may never have thought much about in the past.
One of the poorest nations in the world, Haiti has suffered far more than is fair for any country. Haitians have been subject to violence, political instability and brutal dictatorships, and now they face a complete breakdown in law and order as they attempt to cope with this latest disaster.
These are the images we will see on our television screens, and the stories that will be told to us by journalists at the scene. There will be attempts to tell the greater story, but it is impossible to really get to the heart of a country through the short amount of airtime available in news bulletins, and amidst the constraints of a natural disaster.
So why not delve a little deeper into the stories of ordinary Haitians through a few of the novels that have been set there?
Learn more about Haiti through its fiction
In her novel The Dew Breaker, Haitian born Edwidge Danticat shares the story of a prison guard during the brutal dictatorship of voodoo physician Francois ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier. Now a U.S. immigrant, the guard, who is skilled in torturing dissidents, begins to reveal his past life to the daughter who adores him.
In Breath, Eyes, Memory, Danticat tells us the story of Sophie, a young Haitian girl who moves to New York to live with a mother she hasn’t seen since birth. It is a story that explores the suffering and courage of Haitian women, as well as the superstition that permeates much of Haitian culture.
Traveling much further back in Haiti’s history The Kingdom of this World focuses on the Haitian Revolution and the country’s liberation from French colonial rule, told through the eyes of the slave TiNoel. And violence is once again the subject matter in Rene Philoctete’s Massacre River – the story of the slaughter of thousands of Haitians along the Dominican border in 1937.
These novels may make grim reading, but they are each an integral part of Haiti’s story. This is your chance to understand a little more of the Caribbean’s first independent state and the challenges it has faced.
We will be seeing much more of Haiti on the television in the weeks to come. It is easy to see those on the screen as something far distant from ourselves, but as always, literature helps us to understand the lives of others just that little bit more – reminding us of the human face behind the tv images.