by Amy Wilentz
Simon & Shuster, New York, 320 pages
Amy Wilentz has spent more than 30 years traveling in Haiti and writing extensively about the country. Her works include the award-winning book “The Rainy Season” about the post-Jean-Claude Duvalier years. Yet even with all this experience, Wilentz is emphatic that she is an outsider simply because she is non-Haitian, a condition that will never change and that makes her choices unfathomable for most Haitians. Her status ironically places her among the hordes of aid workers, missionaries, celebrities and assorted “do-gooders” who have descended upon Haiti.
It is a status to which she clearly does not belong. Amy Wilentz knows Haiti better than most because of this honesty about who she is (and is not). This enables her to hear the deeper stories of the people of Haiti, whom she loves. This memoir — she calls it a letter from Haiti — captures the complexity of Haiti by stripping away the romance of the well-intended missioners, philanthropists and aid workers and exposing the worst of the various government interventions by the U.S. and other countries.
Wilentz is an eloquent writer who is able to get inside Sean Penn, describing the best of his post-earthquake work while not flinching at the celebrity magnet that he has become. “He’s a peculiar and unexpected person, in an unexpected situation, and all those who predicted failure and combat fatigue for him were wrong.” With searing honesty, she recounts a conversation with a Haitian friend about those who step in and out of Haiti so easily. “Her point was that poverty, or even just some discomfort, is not so bad when you know that with a snap of your fingers, it can come to an end, and you’ll get up that morning, inch through traffic to the airport, hop on your flight, take off, plunge into a well-deserved nap, and, on waking, change into fresh clothes, only to find yourself that evening ordering a dozen or so small plates and drinking large cocktails with some friends.”
Wilentz has no respect for those who use Haiti for their own “agendas” and impose ideas upon the people as if they were ignorant and unable to do anything for themselves. It is this arrogance about “development” or “protection” that has had disastrous consequences in the complicated history of Haiti. And she notes that Haitians know their history. She lifts up several people for particular critical scrutiny, like Bill Clinton and former President Bertrand Aristide, both of whom she has interviewed numerous times.
Wilentz is careful to shine a light upon the unknown noble ones who are doing remarkable work, like Megan Coffey, a young physician who came after the earthquake and remains to this day. To her patients, Dr. Coffey is “miraculous, a kindly, heavenly phenomenon, even though she never puts on airs and is always matter-of-fact and responsive, rather than grand or godly.” This quality sets her apart from others who come to Haiti and often leave bewildered and tired.
Of the memoirs written about Haiti, this is the most eloquent and truthful.
ROY W. HOWARD is the pastor of Saint Mark Presbyterian Church in North Bethesda, Md., and the Outlook book editor.