Amy Wilentz’s first trip to Haiti was as a reporter in February 1986, just as the repressive, 30-year Duvalier dynasty was coming to a turbulent end with the ouster of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. She’s been a frequent visitor and sometime resident of the tiny troubled nation ever since. Her new memoir, “Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter From Haiti,” is a rich, engrossing chronicle of not just of her personal experiences there, but of the country’s unhappy history and its continuing struggle to rebuild three years after a deadly earthquake.
Wilentz recalls the Port-au-Prince of 1994, “a glittering, gorgeous warren of tin shacks and the tiny squared-off fretwork of shantytown after shantytown” draped over hillsides with the enormous white presidential palace of the Citadelle at its center. Grandiose and extravagant, it is the biggest colonial-era fortress in the Western Hemisphere, but Wilentz calls it a hollow symbol given Haiti’s long history of repression. The author places this conundrum at the heart of “Farewell, Fred Voodoo,” which is not just about Haiti, but about its relationship to the world, especially the United States. “Haiti is like a fifty-first state, a shadow state . . . hidden in the attic . . . that bears all the scars of the two countries’ torrid twinned narrative.”
She pens a compelling tale of the country’s tumultuous development, beginning with the eradication of the Indians and the Haitian Revolution, which freed Haiti’s predominant slave population from France, creating the world’s first black-led republic at a time the United States was still grappling with a slave economy.
She characterizes “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s black nationalist movement as a direct reaction to the US occupation of Haiti from 1915-34, during the dictator’s formative years. She paints a vivid portrait of the man once considered “Haiti’s best hope,” Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the country’s on-again-off-again president whom Wilentz met when he was still a slight, bespectacled parish priest surrounded by a cadre of loyal orphans.
Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake and its aftermath consume much of Wilentz’s memoir, which she calls “my attempt to put Haiti back together again for myself.” She offers an especially astute examination of the complexities of foreign humanitarian aid in a country whose post-quake crisis makes it an alluring destination for naïve salvation fantasists as well as corrupt opportunistic profiteers, both imported and internal (from kleptocrats to “Rubble Man,” who lets tourists take his picture for money).
She turns a cynical eye on high-profile types looking mostly for media opportunities, puzzles over Sean Penn’s ongoing generosity, and singles out undisputed heroes, such as infectious-disease specialist Dr. Megan Coffee, whose humanitarian “visit” Wilentz suspects will turn into a lifelong commitment.
The book’s title comes from an odious old-school journalists’ reference to Haiti’s impoverished yet resourceful and resilient common men and women. Wilentz contends it both arouses condescending pity and reduces them to exotic stereotypes, “alluring and mysterious to the outside world, strange and impenetrable, and lovely as a visual object,” a stereotype Wilentz’s vivid portraits effectively dispel.
She credits much of that confounding allure to the seduction of Haiti’s traditional religion — “exotic, African, pagan, exciting, dangerous, deep.” She shares colorful anecdotes of her own experiences with “zombies” and voodoo ceremonies, all of which she enters into with an open mind but a critical eye. “After these encounters, I feel touched; not moved or transported or new or different, but disoriented, haunted, somewhat off. As if it’s entirely possible that my take on reality is not the only one, or not even one at all.”
Wilentz calls Haiti “my great love,” and one senses that keenly. Anchored by the central narrative of Haiti’s post-earthquake rebuilding, personal memories, descriptions, reflections, and insights spill off the page, often fractured and digressive, bouncing around in time. Throughout, the writing is empathetic, tremendously informative, and sharply analytical. “Farewell, Fred Voodoo” is not just any “Letter from Haiti,” but an intimate love letter to a country and its people that evokes a tempestuous relationship in all its flawed glory.
Karen Campbell, a freelance writer based in Brookline, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.