Haitian writer Dany Laferrière: "What saved this city is the energy of the poorest people"

Peter Costantini

Haiti is the fertile mother of a prolific diaspora ranging across the Dominican Republic, United States, Canada, France and beyond. One of her sons, Haitian-born Canadian novelist and journalist Dany Laferrière was in Haiti for a festival when the earthquake struck. Laferrière won a major French literary award, le Prix Médicis, in 2009 for his 11th novel, L'énigme du retour (The Enigma of Return).

Christine Rousseau of the French newspaper Le Monde interviewed him on January 15 after he returned to his home in Montréal. In the interview, Laferrière makes some important points on how foreigners and foreign media perceive events in Haiti.

The original interview in French is on the web site of Le Monde:

"Haïti : le témoignage bouleversant de l'écrivain Dany Laferrière". 16 janvier 2010. http://www.lemonde.fr/ameriques/article/2010/01/16/haiti-le-temoignage-bouleversant-de-l-ecrivain-dany-laferriere_1292475_3222.html

I did the rough, unofficial translation that follows.

Haiti: the devastating testimony of writer Dany Laferrière

Where were you when the earthquake struck?

I was in the Hotel Karibé, which is in Pétionville [a suburb of Port-au-Prince], with the editor Rodney Saint-Eloi. He had just arrived and wanted to go to his room. Since I was hungry, I dragged him to the restaurant and perhaps saved him ... We were just having dinner when we heard a very loud noise. At first, I thought it was an explosion that came from the kitchen, but then I realized that it had to do with an earthquake. Immediately I went out into the courtyard and lay down on the ground. There were sixty interminable seconds when I had the impression not only that it would never end, but that the ground might open up. It's huge. You feel like the earth becomes a sheet of paper. There's no more density, you don't feel anything anymore, the ground is totally soft.

And after sixty seconds?

We got up and said to each other that we'd better get away from the hotel, which is a fairly tall building, and so not very safe. So we went down to the tennis courts, where everyone was gathering. Two or three minutes later, we began to hear cries ... Near the hotel, which was not badly damaged, there were some little buildings in the courtyard where people were living temporarily. They had all collapsed. We counted nine dead. Since we were afraid of aftershocks, some people got up to begin helping them.

An enormous silence fell over the city. Hardly anyone moved. Everyone tried to imagine where their loved ones might be. Because when the earthquake happened, Tuesday, January 12, Port-au-Prince was in full movement. At 4 p.m., students hang around after class. It's the time when people do their final shopping before going home, and when there are traffic jams. The time when society bursts with activity, when it scatters. Between 3 and 4, you know where your loved ones are, but not at 4:30. There was total anguish. It created a deafening silence that lasted for hours. And then, the search for people began. We went back to the hotel and thanks to American radio and word of mouth, we learned that the presidential palace had collapsed but that the President was safe. But no one around us had any news of their family.

How did you find out about yours?

Thanks to my friend, the admirable novelist Lyonel Trouillot. Although he has some trouble walking, he came on foot all the way to the hotel. We were on the tennis court, he didn't see us. He came the next day in a car to bring me to my mother's. After that we went to see the great Frankétienne [playwright and writer] whose house was cracked and who was in tears. Just before the earthquake he was rehearsing one of his plays that involves an earthquake in Port-au-Prince. He told me: "This piece can't be performed anymore."

I replied: "Don't drop it, culture is what's going to save us. Do what you know how to do." This earthquake is a tragic event, but culture is what gives structure to our country. I urged him to go out, telling him that people needed to see him. When physical points of reference fall, human points of reference remain. Frankétienne, this towering artist, is a metaphor for Port-au-Prince. He had to come out of his house. On the way to my mother's place, I was in anguish because I saw seemingly solid buildings totally destroyed, and also innumerable victims.

Even in Pétionville, which wasn't as hard-hit?

Yes, many. I started counting them, then I stopped. There were piles of corpses that people were caring for carefully, all along the roads, covering them with sheets or pieces of cloth. After the period of silence and anguish, people began to come out and organize, to patch up their houses. Because what saved this city is the energy of the poorest people. Trying to help, to look for something to eat, all these people created a great energy throughout the city. They gave the sense that the city was alive. Without them, Port-au-Prince would have remained a dead city, because people who had enough to live on stayed in their houses for the most part.

Was it to testify about this energy that you came home?

Sure, but not just because of that. When the Canadian Embassy proposed that I leave Friday, I accepted because I was afraid this catastrophe would provoke a lot of very stereotyped commentary. They've got to stop using this term "curse". It's an insulting word that implies that Haiti has done something bad and is paying for it.

It's a word that doesn't mean anything scientifically. We've suffered hurricanes, for precise reasons. There hasn't been an earthquake of this magnitude for two hundred years. If it was a curse, you'd also have to say that California and Japan were cursed. It still happens that American televangelists say that Haitians made a pact with the devil, but not the media ... Better they should talk about this incredible energy that I saw, about men and women who helped one another with courage and dignity. Even though the city is partly destroyed and the government is decapitated, the people remain, work and live. So please, stop using the term "curse". Haiti didn't do anything, isn't paying for anything, it's a catastrophe that could have happened anywhere.

There's another expression that shouldn't be thrown around carelessly, which is "looting". When people risk their lives to go into the ruins searching for something to drink or eat before the cranes come and clear everything away, that's not about looting, it's about survival. No doubt there will be looting later, because every city of two million has its share of bandits, but so far all I've seen are people doing what they can to survive.

How do people perceive the international mobilization?

People feel that this time, this aid is serious. It's not the theatrical gesture that it had been in the past. You can see that foreign governments really want to do something for Haiti, and also that in this country no one wants to embezzle this aid. Because what just happened is much too serious. There's so much to do, beginning with collecting the dead. This will no doubt take several weeks. Then, the whole city will need to be cleared out to avoid epidemics. But the biggest problem is water, because in Port-au-Prince it's polluted. Normally you boil drinking water, but there's no more cooking gas.

Haitians are hoping for a lot from the international community. If some things are decided on a very high level, in the framework of a vast reconstruction plan, then Haitians are ready to accept this last suffering. Given that the representation of the state, through the decimated government, has been affected, it's time to go directly to the people and to finally do something audacious for this country.