Texas novelist Merritt Tierce on how Haiti feels
Author Merritt Tierce illuminates the alluring spirit of the most troubled country in the Western Hemisphere
by MERRITT TIERCE
Papa Gede stands at the entrance of the Hotel Oloffson in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, wearing a stovepipe hat and sunglasses. One lens is missing, and not by accident or vandalism: Gede isa vodou god of death and fertility, a psychopomp standing at the entrance of the afterlife. He’s missing a lens because he keeps one eye on the living and one on the dead. Before we sip our rum on the balcony of the Oloffson, we pour out a little for the dead. In Haiti the dead are kept close, as ever-present as the living. The Dallas writer Ben Fountain has been visiting Haiti for 20 years, and orders Barbancourt in functionally fluent Kreyòl, which even I can tell he speaks with a distinctively North Carolina accent. Senk zetwal pou madam-nan et twa zetwal pou m’: Five stars for the lady and three stars for me. The three-star is aged four years, so it’s not as smooth as the five-star, aged eight years and a gentle, golden marvel. For once I don’t mind being designated a lady.
Our friend Kim Alexander, also from Dallas, drinks Prestige, the ubiquitous Haitian brown-bottle beer. Kim is a statuesque brunette with a gorgeous smile and a full-body laugh. She is a painter who taught English as a Second Language in the Richardson ISD for 15 years, and she’s been coming to Haiti with Fountain for the past several. She knows hardly a word of Kreyòl but she speaks metaphor and image and joie de vivre so natively you’d think English was her second language. Her exuberance, fearlessness and paintings are my guide to Haiti: It’s my first visit and I’m an introvert, a loner, always trying to avoid interacting with people. Which is perhaps too easy at home, and basically impossible in Haiti. Alexander is the opposite of me. She jokes that I am an eight-eyed cat, quiet, forgotten, and thus all the more able to observe; she calls herself a Labrador retriever, always eager to connect, to love, to play, and a dozen times each day in Haiti I reap the benefits of just standing next to her, going wherever she goes.
In Haiti the dead are kept close,
as the living.
In Haiti, reality feels more permeable, as if the other side of everything is not only within reach but insistent. People don’t have the luxury of pretending any confidence in what might happen next. I check my whiteness when I have this thought, which smacks of exoticizing poverty and blackness, but then again if there is an actual, physical margin between Here and There in this world it’s bound to be in Haiti, epicenter of never-ending disaster. Evidence: Much of Port-au-Prince is still broken, unrebuilt since the catastrophic earthquake of 2010, which killed at least 100,000 people, probably more. Maybe not as many as the 300,000 the Haitian government has claimed, which is fitting since the only force to have possibly done more damage to Haiti’s people and infrastructure than the earthquake is its own perpetually corrupt and violent government.
Alexander says conditions seem to have improved since her last visit, though. I ask how she can tell, and she says there are more chickens and the pigs are bigger. Both of these indicate that the animals aren’t being eaten as early in their life spans as they were before, which in turn indicates that people aren’t as hungry. In Jacmel she orders lambi, which is a stewed false cognate: It’s not lamb, it’s conch. The firm, tongue-like texture of the sea snail’s meat is perfect in a spicy curried gumbo. Jacmel is a beautiful, bright pastel painting of a town on the coast southwest of Port-au-Prince. With one of my eight eyes I see a pretty black goat, solid-coated except for one big square of white on its side, the square remarkable for being exactly square.
I point out the goat, and Alexander says, “A Malevich goat!” as if that exists. She explains that Kazimir Malevich was a Polish-Russian painter who bridged the turn of the 20th century and was famous for a piece called Black Square, which he hung in a corner because that’s how icons, portals between the earthly and the infinite, were hung. She says, “I love it that paint is ultimately a kind of mud imbued with our hope to be more than merely mud. So great to see that idea on a goat.” We walk along the ocean, past an abandoned half-built house where a handful of children cook beans in a pot on the concrete porch, over a fire made of rubbish and found wood. Alexander says hello to the children and within moments they want to show us the graffiti on the walls inside the house: lots of song lyrics and in one corner, presented as a message on a T-shirt, I LOVE NOBODY NOBODY LOVE ME. It seems ominous, sad, but for some reason it feels mostly absurd — in Haiti this statement is almost nonsensical, because if you love nobody and nobody loves you, you simply can’t survive there. What would sound saccharine elsewhere is simply, brutally true in Haiti.
MERRITT TIERCE is the author of the 2014 novel Love Me Back, which won the Texas Institute of Letters’ Steven Turner Award for best work of first fiction. She lives in Denton with her family.