samedi 31 juillet 2010

Making the case against exile

For many people, summer means travel. My daughter and I recently left Haiti. Our first stop: Miami, Florida. We both have US passports. The immigration officer at Miami International Airport asked me if we live in Haiti, to which I responded in the affirmative. He then asked me why we live in Haiti, to which I responded “why not?” He replied he asked the questions. I told him that I was under the impression that I could live anywhere. He said “No, you can’t”. I guess my surprise showed on my face because he amended that answer: “You can with time, but you can live here now.” I was clearly getting impatient with him, especially when he tried to justify his interrogation by saying that things are so hard in Haiti, “especially with a little one,” gesturing to my daughter. In response to my impatience, he said “the sooner you answer my questions, the sooner I’ll let you go.” Okay, then. I told him I live in Haiti because Haiti has always been part of my life, because my family is there. It’s not something I spent a long time thinking about, actually. Living in Haiti comes naturally to me. The immigration officer was clearly not satisfied, but he did let us go.

Much as this particular immigration officer annoyed me, I cannot brush his questions aside as mere evidence of his ignorance. This is the third time I’ve been faced with such an interrogation upon entry to the United States. Each time with the same amount of hostility and distrust emanating from the immigration or customs officer. My sister and cousins who also travel between Haiti and the United States with US passports tell me of similar stories. So, I’ve begun thinking about what is behind these questions. (And to be clear, I noticed this trend well before 2010.)

To my mind, there are two things at play here: the image of the United States of America -- land of the brave, home of the free -- and the image of Haiti -- poor and troubled black nation. For an immigration officer whose job consists of making sure that people who don’t belong in the US stay out, it must be troubling to come across someone who is allowed to live freely in the US and yet chooses to live elsewhere. Especially when that elsewhere is the antithesis of the US in so many ways. If the US is the greatest nation in the world as oft-repeated, what does it mean when some of its citizens decide to live in a nation as poor and troubled as Haiti? Does that call into question its greatness? I think it might. Perceptions of race also factor into the equation. How can a black person (one who is clearly not wealthy) not be doing everything in his/her power to move to the United States and fulfill the American dream? And if US citizens can choose to live in Haiti, then surely there are Haitian citizens who choose to live there as well. Who would not overstay their visa or try to find illegal employment in the US. Imagine that. I doubt the immigration officer would have had the same attitude had I lived in England or Canada. I obviously don’t know this for a fact, but those countries are probably not as loaded ideologically in the average US immigration officer’s mind. What really astounds me is the suspicion. The attitude that I am doing something wrong by living in Haiti.

The more I think about my run-ins with immigration officers and custom officials, the more I make connections with theories I’ve come across in my professional life. Minus the hostility, thank goodness. But the identification of exile as the dominant trope in Haitian literature has always bothered me. In one of her essays, Maryse Condé claims that the majority of Haitian (and Cuban) writers live in exile. So many conference papers, articles and books including the recent Exile and Post-1946 Haitian literature claim that exile is the most important theme in Haitian literature, that it’s become almost a given in the Haitian studies community. But what of the works of Trouillot (any one of them), Lahens, Mars, Victor? In his novels, Dalembert seems to focus more on migration than exile per se. In fact, the term exile is often used a catch-all term, describing everything from voluntary migration to transnationalism to diasporic writers.

What is it about people’s image of Haiti that makes it so hard to believe that someone with a choice could choose to live there? I think that everyone who deals with Haiti, including those on the academic side of things needs to be willing to ask themselves that question. When people in academia claim to love and respect Haiti, what does that really mean? Because if it remains unimaginable that writers and their readers could choose to live there, then there’s a problem. We need to be willing to look at Haiti from within. Instead of saying what a difficult place it is and wondering how anyone can live there, maybe the question should be what is it about this place that makes so many people passionate about it? What makes people love it so much? Let’s talk about return migration. How can we explain that? Haitians move around a lot. Simply focusing on exile means we’re leaving out a lot of the story. People leave Haiti and they return. Then they leave again. Or not.

When fellow critics and professors talk about the number of Haitian writers living “in exile” – here I’m using quotes because I really can’t think of any Haitian writer who is in true exile today – because it is so difficult for them to live within, I automatically think of the Haitian writers I know and the vast majority of them are living in Haiti. That does not mean that there’s anything wrong with living somewhere else. But why is it so important to be able to affirm that most of our writers live outside of the country? What is really being said with that statement? To me, it seems like the underlying message is that Haiti is not good enough or worthy of these writers and their works. To either produce or nourish them. That is problematic to me.

Even before the devastating January earthquake, people professed admiration for me because I choose to live in Haiti. I always feel vaguely guilty when faced with this sentiment. Moving to Haiti was not some selfless act. I did not give up much to go there. But I did gain a lot. Yes, I do work that I think is important at the State University, but I am not under the illusion that it will change anyone’s life, even less the country. I am not a national hero because I choose to live in Haiti. Nor do I have some hidden agenda. I live in Haiti because I want to. Imagine that. Now imagine many others like me.


lundi 12 juillet 2010

Ayiti Afrik in Addis Ababa

This past week I've been in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia attending the Callaloo Conference on literature and culture entitled “Black Movements: Poetics and Praxis.” Like every time I travel to the African continent, I have been consciously and deliberately in search of Haiti. This being my first trip to East Africa, I have been particularly intrigued to uncover similarities and differences with Haiti as compared to in West Africa, where the links are far more historically and culturally rooted as a result of the transatlantic slave trade. Although both Haiti and Ethiopia inhabit important roles in the African and African diasporic imaginary in terms of their relationships to liberation and freedom from colonialism and imperialism (Ethiopia as the only country in Africa to have never been colonized and Haiti as the first country to successfully overthrow slavery) the connections between the two countries are far more tenuous.

Would I find in Addis Ababa as I had in Accra enthusiastic recognition and celebration of the Haitian Revolution and its ubiquitous leaders? Would I be able to locate, as I had in Dakar, a few Haitian writer left remaining from what had once been a vibrant community of Haitian writers living in exile that included Jean Brierre, Roger Dorsinville, and the recently deceased Lucien Lemoine? Would the Ethiopians want to claim me as their sister or cousin like the Beninois I had encountered in Paris and other places? Would they, like my friends and colleagues from Benin, remind me that Benin is ancient Dahomey where many of our Haitian ancestors had come from? Might I happen upon, in this African city known for its international presence that has designated it as the seat of the African Union, any Haitians?

Thus far the answer to all of these questions has been a resounding no. It has been interesting to watch some of my Trinidadian and Jamaican colleagues find links and affirmation of their own cultural identities. One professor from Trinidad travelled to Shashemane a few hours south of Addis Ababa in order to visit the community of Rastafarians to whom Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie had dedicated lands that have been settled by Rastas for many years now. Listening to her stories about drinking sorrel in East Africa surrounded by people who so reminded her of home, I wondered what the Haitian equivalent of that experience would look like for me. Another colleague was constantly mistaken for Ethiopian, and we discussed how for her this recognition made the entire city feel familiar and welcoming.

For me, that familiarity was for the most part visual. The roads, the signs, the landscape, the pace of urban life... At times, the tastes were also faintly familiar, the savory and spicy sauces and well cooked meats. On my first day in Ethiopia, I was reminded that I preferred to taste these sauces with rice when I looked down at my plate and noticed that two huge pieces of njera remained although all the other food was gone. Of course, there were the animals as well-- I saw goats walking down the streets, dogs that looked unclaimed as they roamed about, and a panoply of colorful birds. But it ended there. Since July is winter in Ethiopia, it was actually quite cold during my entire stay, making it difficult for me to associate the climate with Haiti. I remember descending the plane in Dakar and smelling the air for the first time, inhaling the familiar smell of the tropical air that is known only to those who have smelled it. In Ethiopia I shivered as soon as I walked out of the airport…and every day I kicked myself for not having dressed more warmly.

But none of this surprised me, mostly because of how aware I am that Ethiopia and Haiti have virtually no ties. Since one of the heavily discussed topics at the conference was Pan-Africanism, Haiti did come up in the panels as well as in discussions that I had with various colleagues. As someone whose work involves comparative literatures and cultures, I often look for the continuities in literatures, cultures, languages and texts across Africa and its diaspora. This trip has made me realize that despite my own admonishments to always account for the heterogeneity of African and African diaspora studies, I may not have fully considered just how facile our desires to link these countries may sometimes be. My underlying desire to find Haiti in Ethiopia despite my awareness that there was perhaps no reason (such as shared language, historic origin, religion, etc) for this to be so, has made me think more concretely about what we talk about when we talk about Africa in relation to Haiti. Haiti is, in many ways one of the "most African" islands of the Caribbean especially when we consider the literary legacy of Jean Price Mars' Ainsi parla l'oncle and those who followed him. The literary, cultural, religious and even linguistic links to Africa are of course undeniable, but they are also very specific.

Speaking to people I met during my short stay, I learned that Haile Selassie may have traveled to Haiti during his reign, but there was no additional information about this trip such as the year or the occasion, etc. Unfortunately, I didn't have time to look into this further and wonder if there might be archival data for me to locate in Port-au-Prince or in Addis Ababa on the topic. If anything the possibility made the point that, from a comparative perspective there is more research to be done about Haiti's connection to different countries both on the African continent and around the world, in many different fields.