The foreword is written by Edwidge Danticat who herself began writing stories as a youth and had the opportunity to participate in the Youth Communication program. Danticat immediately acknowledges the Haitian issue at the forefront of our minds as she describes traveling to Haiti for the first time after the earthquake. She writes about observing children of all ages that ‘these children, in many ways, are the symbol of Haiti that is to come. We can either shield and protect them from a very difficult start or we can turn away and let their stories and voices fade…The young people of Youth Communication have decided not to let these stories fade or die…Haiti is on the mind of these young talented writers at this moment just as it has been on the mind of many others. However, even before this disaster, as these essays poignantly show, Haiti was already deep in the minds, and hearts, of the teen writers at Youth Communication.” (7) This is perhaps the strongest point of the book, that it reveals how teenagers—some recent immigrants, some the children of immigrants—conceptualize, imagine, and long for Haiti and how these thoughts translate in their daily lives.
Just as the editor Vincent does through a game of word association in her introduction, the writers share “what comes to mind when you hear the words Haiti or Haitians” (9). Few of us will not find the list familiar, “boat people, political instability, illegal aliens, refugees, poorest country in the…and [now] earthquake” (9). Throughout the book different writers express their own troubling encounters with different variations of these stereotypes. It is a reductive litany that we are all too familiar with given the dominant negative representations that saturate the media. The voices of Haiti on My Mind engage these stereotypes directly and in many cases manage to move beyond them.
For example, in “I May Not Look Haitian, But….” Marsha Dupiton recounts her uncomfortable experience with classmates who had reduced our culture to physical characteristics with which she did not identify. The story describes Dupiton’s struggle from being embarrassed about her Haitian identity to transforming into a self-assured and self-loving young woman with great pride in her cultural heritage. For Marsha the change was gradual, a major catalyst on her journey was the poetry of Prosper Sylvain Jr., who in “I Don’t Look Haitian” the author’s imagined interlocutor is someone who tells him that he does not look Haitian, to which Sylvain replies with a historical and cultural lesson that goes beyond the glare of media stereotypes. He writes, “I apologize if there is more to me than voodoo dolls, and I apologize if there is more to my country than slums, poverty and hunger, and I apologize if my poetry makes you wonder if I am really Haitian, product of years of miscegenation. I apologize if your idea and concept of me is not what I have proven to be.” By citing Sylvain’s poem and explaining its impact on her life, Dupiton displays the power of creative work to impact youth identity, just as the essays of Haiti on My Mind will surely impact the generation after her.
Sabrina Rencher details a similar trajectory as Dupiton, chronicling her journey into self-love and self-acceptance after many desperate attempts to fit in with those around her. For her the transition from Haiti to the United States involves changes on how her own aesthetics are perceived. She explains “I’m originally from Haiti, there I felt gorgeous. I felt as if I didn’t have to do anything to fit in with people at school” at the very beginning to introduce the sharp contrast with how she struggled to receive affirmation from her peers in the United States (99). The first piece by Cassandra Charles, “Tomorrow is Promised to No One,” is actually the only essay with the earthquake of 2010 as its thematic focus, and is the first essay of the book. Charles’ heart-wrenching story is about learning that her cousin had died in the earthquake and her continued struggle with that grief.
While many of the stories in the collection deal with the challenges of being a teenager, being an immigrant or child of immigrants, being cross-cultural, or multilingual, some of them simply narrate mundane aspects of life. Among these we find a story about a boy falling in love as a child, and another of a girl who loses a precious pair of earrings that her mother had given her. Another such story by Claude Fravien takes on the complexity of parent-child relationships across the cultural divide. As Fravien shares some of the conflicts he faced in dealing with his own parents, whether it was their restricted ideas about how he should dress or their stereotypical opinion about African Americans, he explains that his predicament is not unique. “So far I have never met one Haitian teenager who thinks of his parents as friends,” although he does clarify the generalization by writing “I am not trying to say that all Haitian parents are like mine”(91). As such, the stories offer a range of experience and attempt to cover Haitian youth experience in its complexity.
This book is ideal for middle and high school students, whether or not they are of Haitian descent. It is especially effective as a tool for teaching and reflection since the end of each chapter contains a “Think About it” section with detailed questions directly related to the essay but that delve deeper into the issues addressed. The penultimate essay, “Haiti’s Part in America’s History” by Cassandra Worrell reviews the intersections of Haitian and U.S. history, reframing that history by beginning, “Except for the United States, Haiti is the oldest republic in the Western hempishere,” in my opinion a welcome change from the other superlative adjective in the Western Hemisphere more commonly invoked (124). The final piece is a review essay of Edwidge Danticat’s memoir Brother, I’m Dying written by Kaela Bezard. The book also contains a timeline of Haitian history that helps to contextualize some of the time periods referred to. The purpose of Haiti on My Mind is largely educational. Part of that education is more traditional as in the detailed timeline of Haitian history and section about vodou. In the latter section, for example the authors distinguish between the term “voodoo” which is used throughout the book, the academic term “vodou” or “vodun,” and the way the religion is referred to as “serving the spirits” (138). The deeper value of this book as an educational tool can be found in how it corrects popular misconceptions about Haitian culture and uses the voice of teens to do so.
To me, the stories are especially compelling because they came from an age group that is often neglected in the sense that teenagers too old to be children and too young to be adults, can be overlooked. Earlier this summer, the International Labour Organization reported that global youth unemployment is at an all time high. Programs such Youth Communication in New York, and A Long Walk Home’s Girl/Friends in Chicago harness the energy and the talents of young people through the use of the arts. I could not help but think of the large number of unemployed teenagers in Haiti and wonder about the kinds of stories they could tell if given the opportunity as the writers on Haiti on My Mind had been given. Having worked with this age group through youth enrichment groups like AFAB’s (The Association of Haitian Women of Boston) Ayiti demen, I have been struck by the rawness and emotional realness of the experiences they share. Haiti on My Mind captures this raw and real essence without any pretense. It is an important collection in which youth not only educate others about Haiti, but also empower those of their generation to tell their own stories for themselves.