Amy Wilentz, Farewell, Fred Voodoo; A Letter From Haiti (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2013), 329pp.
By Dan Clendenin
This book should be required reading for anyone who wants to go to another country to "help" them, or who has tried that and needs help interpreting their experience. Wilentz has written about Haiti for thirty years. She's fluent in Creole. This is her third book on that "postapocalyptic dystopia" where three-quarters of the population lives on less than two dollars a day and most people are illiterate. It's set in 2011, after the catastrophic 2010 earthquake. Wilentz is a professor in the Literary Journalism program at the University of California in Irvine.
The Fred Voodoo of the title refers to the "average" Haitian, whatever that might mean, onto whom an outsider projects all sorts of stereotypes, presumptions, ignorance, and paternalism, and then extrapolates all sorts of crazy conclusions. Good intentions are not enough! Wilentz has become cynical about all the do-gooders who rushed into Haiti after the 2010 quake. She deplores their "condescension filled with pity." She questions the "sketchy motivations" of people and organizations — missionaries, huge NGOs, telecommunication and mining companies, Bill Clinton, and Sean Penn. She wonders just how much good and bad is really done in Haiti.
Wilentz admits that she has a "jaundiced view" of these matters after thirty years, and maybe even a "very hard heart." To her credit, she doesn't give herself a free pass. She questions her own motivations. Is she a disaster junkie? Does she somehow "need" to write about Haiti to feel good about herself? Might her books just be more poverty pornography? She profits from writing about Haiti, but has her writing really helped her beloved Haitians? In addition to her hundreds of personal anecdotes across thirty years, her memoir includes enough Haitian history, culture, language, and geography to elucidate the larger complexities of the country, beyond whatever mixed motives people have. This is a book written with authority, affection, and sensitivity for its subject. I couldn't put it down.