While Amy Wilentz was talking to me over the phone from her home in L.A. about her latest book on Haiti, Farewell, Fred Voodoo, she received two gifts from the country—a place she has covered for more than 25 years. One was a package from Sean Penn, containing a brick-sized piece of the Haitian National Palace. He had inscribed on it: “What comes down, must go up.” Wilentz has a fraught relationship with Penn; she thinks he’s a narcissistic actor and sometimes questions his motives for working in the country. But in her book, he comes off as one of a few people in the post-earthquake aid community willing to learn about Haiti’s culture and, most importantly, to accomplish concrete goals—like clearing away the remains of Haiti’s National Palace, or helping Haitians move back into their old neighborhoods from temporary camps.
Midway through our conversation, Wilentz received the other gift: a call from a friend in Haiti brought good news. One of Wilentz’s subjects for the book, a child who had lost both hands in the earthquake and had later gone missing, would be taken tomorrow to a clinic to be fitted for prostheses. On her last trip to Haiti a few weeks ago, Wilentz climbed a mountain—literally—to find him, locating him at the top, in the small town of Léogâne. It was surprising yet telling that she took the news with a big grain of salt: “Of course now I’m worried I’m going to ruin his life. They could go there and something will happen, and the Americans will lose interest, and the kid thinks he’s going to have hands and it doesn’t happen.”
Wilentz is a tough critic. You’ll perceive this in Farewell, Fred Voodoo. She’s not only hard on members of the international aid community and the American government, but on Haitians—both the country’s elite and her poor subjects living in the camps—and, especially, herself. But she combines this hard-won skepticism with a far-ranging curiosity about Haitian culture, and openness to revising her opinions. Her book, a deeply modern work of non-fiction, dives into a thicket of Haiti’s post-earthquake predicaments, some of which have led other writers and pundits to dismiss Haiti as a hopeless cause. The legacy of the Haitian revolution, the often-seeming impossibility of full self-determination for the country, the influence of the voodoo religion on Haitian culture: Wilentz is fascinated by all these, by the intricate, unusual ways that the past and present combine in Haiti. As she puts it, she’s writing for history.
—Alexia Nader for Guernica
Guernica: Some of the characters that give the book its unique texture are supernatural, rooted in voodoo. Why focus on voodoo, especially in a book about post-earthquake Haiti?
Amy Wilentz: It’s eternal. It’s the belief system of not just countryside Haitians. All the Haitians I know have some level of childhood faith in it, whether from actual practice or from nursemaids or housekeepers who helped raise them up, in case of the country’s elite. I was also interested in it because since all of Haiti’s dysfunctions and problems in the world and the global economy stem from the Haitian revolution, which was inmixed with voodoo, I think that it’s a foundational system for Haiti that can’t be ignored. My object in talking about it is to both show how much it hurt Haiti that outsiders have painted it with a brush of black magic and superstition and to show how powerful it is among Haitians. That’s why I use the English word voodoo instead of vodun.
I believe in Haiti taking control of its own destiny, but I don’t know if that’s possible anymore. It has been interwoven into a kind of global stitch-work for so long.
Guernica: One major voodoo figure you explore is the loup-garou, the werewolf. Why was it attractive to you as a subject?
Amy Wilentz: I picked the werewolf because what I did the whole time I was there was ignore such things. People would start yammering to me about loup-garou, and I would think, OK go ahead, but I’m not putting that in my story. But then, finally, I realized that it was a meaningful thing. That it wasn’t nervous, babyish blather, but about something that was felt but had not been systematized or analyzed by the speaker. So often it was a young person or an old person living in bad conditions who would start talking to me about werewolves. Or I would read in the newspaper that someone had been beaten to death for being a werewolf. And at first I thought, well, it’s hard to explain and I didn’t really want to think about it because it’s folklore. But then I thought, actually, it’s important, especially in this moment. The original title of the book was “Werewolves in the Camps.”
Guernica: I sensed another quasi-supernatural figure in the book, the ghost of Aristide. You seem to be deeply ambivalent about him. How did you decide where and how much of him to include in the book?
Amy Wilentz: I’m ambivalent about him for a lot of reasons. I felt that he had so much potential for Haiti, and that he didn’t live up to it. He never had an easy time of it when he was in power. He had character flaws that led him to do less well than another person would have done in that situation. But I think he was in a very hard position with the international community, trying to move Haiti forward in a way that was arguably farther left than anyone had done before.
So he’s this grand, historic figure right? And yet, didn’t achieve much, except giving the Haitian people some hope, which is very big. So my choice was to write about him in the context of Haitian history and to talk about attitudes of Haitian leaders towards outsiders from time immemorial. I compared King Henri Christophe’s construction of the Citadel in 1804—it was actually a little later, but 1804 was the date of independence—to Aristide’s construction of his redoubt in Port-Salut 200 years later to protect himself from what he viewed, not incorrectly, as the threat of outside interference in Haitian government and coup d’états. You know, my favorite line in the book is the joke about why there are no coup d’états in Washington: it’s because there’s no American Embassy there. It’s a good joke, and withstands the test of time.
Guernica: Early in the book, you examine what you call Haitians’ “existential quandary” over sovereignty after the earthquake: how to attain the freedom to shape their country that they hunger for, when they are so increasingly reliant on outside help. Then, in the section on Port Salut, you revisit the issue of what freedom means to Haitians by analyzing the lyrics of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.” Do you have any ideas for ways out of this bind?
Amy Wilentz: It’s a big question, and what do I know? I’m just a writer. That’s what I like to say whenever a question is too hard. But I do think that astonishing leadership, almost implausible leadership from someone like Aristide—and if only it had been Aristide—would have been a miracle. I do think that great leadership from Haitians is what’s needed. I believe in Haiti taking control of its own destiny, but I don’t know if that’s possible anymore. It has been interwoven into a kind of global stitch-work for so long. I don’t know if a Haiti without this outside interference really exists anymore, but that’s more what I’d like to see. But I also don’t like my book, and things like it, being used to encourage outsiders never to give money to Haiti. You can’t just stop giving money after giving millions and millions of dollars for so long. I do think that dependence is a disaster in Haiti. But they’re dependent. I don’t know how to resolve that quandary either.
I don’t know what my role is: I can’t just be a clinical observer. It’s not my nature, although it’s more my nature than many people…
Guernica: In the other countries you’ve reported in, do you feel responsible for the ultimate welfare of your subjects living in poverty, like you do in Haiti?
Amy Wilentz: In Haiti, it’s different. In Haiti, I speak the language; I know the place. It’s my muse, and I’ve been there a long time. So I have a special relationship with the people there. And it’s the most desperate country I’ve been in. I’ve seen poverty in the Middle East too, especially among Palestinians in Gaza. But in other countries, people seem more free. There’s an opening quote in my book from Amartya Sen, which says that development is the removal of certain unfreedoms that stop people from exercising their full humanity. And in other places, even with poverty, the poverty is much less than it is in Haiti and the people are less unfree. When you’re dealing with people who are unfree, you want to help them get free. This is all related to the outsider syndrome in Haiti—you just don’t know what to do, and what your role could be. And I still feel that way, I don’t know what my role is: I can’t just be a clinical observer. It’s not my nature, although it’s more my nature than many people, as you can see in the book when I talk about my friend Maggie crying in the middle of the earthquake.
Guernica: Ultimately, where do you fall on the outsider-insider spectrum?
Amy Wilentz: I hate to sound grandiose, but I think I come down on the Haitian side. I just have been watching the struggle for too long and seen what’s bad about the outsider role in Haiti. I just haven’t seen a lot of opportunities for healthy, cooperative relations between especially Americans, but also French people, and Haitians.
Guernica: So as an insider, what insight can you give about the next election season?
Amy Wilentz: [President Michel] Martelly can’t follow himself. Who are they going to try to install? Will Aristide raise his tiny voice? These are all things we don’t know and there are so many actors on the Haitian scene. But I tend to believe that it’s a situation where the Americans will make the decision. And you know what’s so shocking about that to me? Haiti, again, was at the forefront of democratic movements with Aristide’s ascent to power. But then, the Americans started paying attention to the Middle East after 9-11 and they stopped paying attention to Latin America. So of course, we’ve seen a surge of democracy in Latin America, because the Americans aren’t there anymore. But in Haiti, they just can’t keep their little hands off us. They are still preventing democracy in Haiti, while it’s being allowed to flourish elsewhere.
Guernica: Are you planning on going back to Haiti for the election?
Amy Wilentz: Tell me when they are and I’ll tell you whether I’m going back. No, I’m not going to go down for the election unless there’s some really big reason why. In fact, I’d like to write with a little more distance. I can’t just let it take over my life; I don’t want to write a third book about Haiti. I’m about to start a novel, which will be set here in the U.S.
Do you think that’s bad? Do you think I’m shunning my historic responsibility?
Guernica: No. You’ve written a lot about Haiti.
Amy Wilentz: I think I’ve done my part. I think the world can say, she wrote about Haiti.
Alexia Nader is a freelance writer and an assistant editor at The Brooklyn Quarterly. Her work has been published on the websites of The Nation, The New Yorker, and Smithsonian Magazine.