Laura Rose Wagner, author of Hold Tight, Don’t Let Go, contemplates how her life has changed through her experiences in Haiti and by founding a creative writing group for young people there.
This is an interesting question, because I'm resistant to the quasi-religious notion that living in Haiti, or any poor and unjust place, is somehow redemptive or salvational to the middle-class white foreigner who chooses to be there. I did not find peace or God or meaning, and even if I had, it would not be very interesting. The suffering is not about me. The injustice is not about me.
All that said, the experience of the earthquake [in 2010] and the immediate aftermath affected my beliefs about human nature. The quake was a horrible event – an incalculable setback for Haiti, and a terrible personal loss for so many people – but it was also a moment in which we saw what individuals and a society are truly made of. Ordinary people responded to the disaster with extraordinary decency and heroism. Most people who were, like me, trapped in collapsed buildings and buried in rubble, or otherwise injured, were saved by ordinary people. An undeniable courage and selflessness shone through that night and the days that followed. For maybe two days, it was as though there was no social class in Haiti. People stopped being afraid of each other, and shared whatever they had, and stayed with one another in the streets. There was instinctive kindness and effortless solidarity. For a brief, terrible moment, the walls came down – both literally and figuratively.
Naturally, predictably, one of the dominant narratives of the international media right after the earthquake was of "looting," disorder, and violence, which is the standard racist story North Americans expect to hear when law and order "break down" in poor places populated by people of color. But that's not what I saw.
Working with a group of young Haitian writers from 2010 to 2012 was a huge honor and a revelation. Creole is a beautiful, lyrical, playful, and evocative language even in everyday situations. There are so many examples, I can't even decide which one to give, but just to give you an idea: The word "tchouboum" means a deep, dark abyss, a hopeless, irretrievable place. And doesn't the word just sound like what it means? So if Creole is so poetic in everyday situations, it is all the more inexpressibly lovely and powerful when used to write texts, stories, and plays. I learned a lot about Creole by working with the writers, particularly the expressions and language of young people in Port-au-Prince's poor neighborhoods. And obviously I learned a lot about how they conceptualize their own experiences. There was one young man who wrote this fantastic poem called "Ghetto" about the ways people in Cité Soleil share, collaborate, and enjoy life together, even as people outside their community wrongly assume they're all criminals. There were a lot of critiques of NGOs and the international community. There was a lot of nostalgia for a beautiful, verdant, prosperous Haiti that those young people have never themselves known. The fact that a group of young people from those marginalized areas of Port-au-Prince cared as much as they did about creative expression flies in the face of what a lot of people might believe about human needs – that creativity can be a priority, even as basic, bare life remains uncertain.
A lot of people might ask, "Why write poetry when life is precarious? Why write poetry when you're hungry?" The short answer is that expression matters. Community matters. Being heard matters. Being human matters. It is not enough to merely remain alive.
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