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.