Three years ago, on Jan. 12, 2010, the earth under Haitian-Canadian novelist Dany Laferrière’s feet “started shaking like a sheet of paper whipped by the wind,” buildings collapsed and dust clogged the darkened sky “as if a professional dynamiter had received the express order to destroy an entire city.” Laferrière, visiting his homeland for a literary festival, abandoned his lobster dinner and fled to the safety of the hotel courtyard, where he lay under the trees. Nearby, a little girl worried aloud about school the next day. But words failed Laferrière, the wordsmith struck dumb by the horror of the earthquake.
The earthquake’s toll is well known: Hundreds of thousands killed, maimed, orphaned and widowed, the civil service destroyed, the education system ravaged, the economy devastated and millions made homeless. The earthquake and its aftermath also exposed Haiti’s gaping fault lines, the catastrophic mismanagement, exploitation, inequities, corruption and greed, and a weak and sluggish government undermined by thousands of often-competing foreign-run non-governmental organizations that deliver services the Haitian state fails to. As if all this were not catastrophic enough, Haiti entered the age of cholera.
Three years after the quake, little in Haiti has been “built back better,” and the earthquake still overshadows everything. It is likely the world’s worst natural and man-exacerbated disaster, and so its story must be told over and over. For Laferrière, the question was, what art form would that story take? And who would tell it? “Don’t forget,” he reminds us, “that the great novel of the Haitian dictatorship (The Comedians, 1966) was written by Graham Greene, an Englishman.” Because the earthquake, like the darkest days of Duvalier, “is a planetary event. It belongs to everyone.”
It belongs to Edwidge Danticat, an award-winning Haitian-American writer whose grief for family members killed and wounded by the earthquake shaped her poignant children’s novel, Eight Days: A Story of Haiti, about a boy who survived eight days wedged under his house by imagining himself playing. Convinced that literature is as essential as food, Danticat has even visited tent cities and, in Creole translation, read Eight Days to children there.
It also belongs to American physician Paul Farmer, whose non-profit health-care organization, Partners in Health, is one of Haiti’s major health providers. Farmer, bearing witness “to a difficult time,” sees the earthquake as “an acute-on-chronic event” that can only be understood with reference to five centuries of Haitian history, and his anthology, Haiti After the Earthquake, includes essays and memoirs that allow “diagnosis and prescription” for rebuilding the shattered nation.
For more than a year, however, Laferrière had no such clarity about how to write about the earthquake, and worked on other books instead. Then, as he began a short piece about the earthquake as an addendum to another book, “the Monster” of inspiration struck him like physical passion, and his earthquake testament was born. Still frightened of anything moving, even the trees swaying outside his window, Laferrière flung himself into reliving his experience moment by moment, shaping his text as a memoir for everyone who hadn’t been there. Inspired by Haiti’s famed naïf painters, he wrote impressionistically, trying to find the “the essential emotions” while resisting the trap of nostalgia, because “if there’s one thing that’s far from truth, it’s nostalgia.”
The resulting memoir, The World Is Moving Around Me, is a series of linked sketches and descriptions that capture the essence of Laferrière’s personal experience of what Haitians refer to as “the thing” or “Goudougoudou” – an approximation of the appalling sound of the earthquake as it erupted – and its aftermath. “It was my private life put into words,” he writes, “a book that could be written only in a state of emergency.”
Based on copious notes taken in Haiti and written in one frenetic week, The World Is Moving Around Me makes no pretense of analysis. Even so, the clues are often there. When Laferrière singles out concrete as the force majeur of destruction, he inadvertently offers an easy segue into how the corrupt and incompetent construction industry overlooked structural flaws that could not withstand the earthquake. “Concrete was the killer,” Laferrière writes. “The population had joined in an orgy of concrete over the last fifty years. Little fortresses. The wood and sheet-metal houses, more flexible, stood the test. … The earthquake attacked what was hard, solid, what could resist it. The concrete fell. The flowers survived.”
In describing how events unfolded in the chaotic and difficult post-quake period, Laferrière strongly rejects the popular perception of Haiti as “cursed” and “corrupt.” He acknowledges his homeland’s steady stream of misfortunes, and reproduces his mother’s list of them, including military coups and dictatorships. But misfortunes are different from curses and, he writes, “My sole argument: What did this country do to deserve its curse? … It’s not the right word.”
As for corruption, he believes that, unlike governments and elites, the mass of the people are not corrupt and, “despite endemic poverty, [they] manage to keep their dignity” even in the unimaginable destruction Goudougoudou inflicted on them.
That dignity, deep-rooted and complex, is as much a part of Haitian culture as the people’s legendary resignation, rooted in their belief in God’s mercy. The earthquake tested, and sometimes crushed, people’s faith, and Laferrière describes how one young woman refused to attend mass because “it’s up to Jesus to come and visit me. He needs to ask forgiveness.” But for every lament about God abandoning Haiti, Laferrière hears choruses of praise for His mercy: houses were destroyed, but He spared many lives.
“I’m always surprised by what intellectuals say about the role of God among the poor,” Laferrière muses. “It has nothing to do with spirituality. … [The Haitian people] use God to convince themselves that they’re not alone on this earth and that their lives are not just a beadwork of misery and pain.”
As tent cities sprang up, their residents mired in mud refreshed by nightly rainfall coursing down the nearby denuded mountainsides, that faith was both sorely tried and sorely needed. Laferrière also wonders how tent-dwellers preserve any private life, including lovemaking, the one thing that “distracts them from the brutal realities of their lives.”
Outside the camps, Haitians like the Laferrières, who lost neither relatives nor homes, must still contend with the challenges of post-quake conditions, including increased crime rates. Laferrière’s sister tells him that a local doctor had been kidnapped at least twice, “the minimum you can expect when you live here.” Laferrière also predicts that the thousands of teenagers orphaned by the earthquake could lead to a “serious crime problem … people think twice about killing when they have relationships with others. When the opposite is true, they develop a terrifying insensitivity. … If we don’t start working on the social network, the city will soon become fragmented and gangs will multiply.”
Repatriated to Montreal, Laferrière observes the earthquake’s profound effect on Canadians and other North Americans. “Haiti,” he writes, “has barged into their private lives.” As with concrete, he intuits that complex forces are at play in the world of NGOs. “On the Judeo-Christian exchange, charity is still in the top ten,” he opines. “It’s a vicious game and neophytes are quickly devoured. … And where is all this money ending up? People want to help so much that they don’t try to find out the answers.” (Julian Fantino, Canada’s Minister of International Co-operation, cited similar concerns when he froze aid for new projects in Haiti.)
The World Is Moving Around Me is unpretentious, starkly honest and good-humoured. Laferrière, best known in English translation for How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired, and a prize-winning novelist in the francophone literary world, is a masterful writer and his memoir, told in a clear and simple voice beautifully rendered by translator David Homel, is true to his vision of the essential role of culture, “the only thing that can stand up to the earthquake … intellectual culture [and] what structures a nation. If we don’t want to turn into a victim nation, we have to keep moving. We’ll cry later when things are better.”
Elizabeth Abbott, Senior Research Associate at the University of Toronto’s Trinity College, has lived in Haiti and is the author of Haiti: A Shattered Nation. She teaches at a Haitian university and has established a tuition scholarship – the Trinity College-Haiti Scholarship – administered by Trinity College.