Friday, September 2, 2016

Five Short Stories Set in Haiti

Title: The Blue Hill
Author: Rodney Saint-Éloi
Translator: Nicole Ball
Where I Read It: Haiti Noir

With the government's permission, toxic garbage gets dumped near a village. It renders the dirt an unnatural blue and covers people in blue pustules. The story is basically the ravings of a local detective. Sick from the toxins, he lies in bed gripped by visions. And what he shares is compelling: apocalyptic and poetic, with historic flavors and images of dragons and demons. It's a cry in the dark, at once futile and necessary. ("We will at least have the elegance to bear witness.") A story written as a prolonged fit may have dragged or come across as belabored. But it's powerful, and it pulls the reader along through hellish landscapes and images of a battle that the broken people, like the detective, don't have the health or power to engage in physically. It's their souls sending up a cry that no other person hears.

Title: Claire of the Sea Light
Author: Edwidge Danticat
Where I Read It: Haiti Noir

Claire is a young girl whose mother died giving birth to her. After she spends a few years with her mother's relatives, her father takes her back. She wants to stay with him, but he's more ambivalent. He cares for her but feels he can't properly raise her. As a fisherman, he knows he might die at sea or have to move elsewhere at a moment's notice for work. What will happen to her then?

The story is told from his point of view, but still shows some of what Claire experiences, not knowing where she belongs and whether or not her dad wants her. He's holding her at arm's length, because he doesn't know what to do. Along with the fear of being lost to her, I also got the sense that he fears becoming too attached to her, after having lost her mother. (The mother is very much present in her absence.) To Claire, her father's ambivalence may come across as rejection, especially when a wealthy fabric vendor who lost her own daughter expresses interest in taking her in.

There's a beautiful scene in the story, set before Claire's birth, where her mother is swimming among glowing fish in the ocean as Claire's father looks on with concern and wonder. Claire's strongest ties may be to her mother, who in being dead can be safely loved with the assurance that, in a way, she isn't going anywhere.

Title: Lélé
Author: Edwidge Danticat
Where I Read It: The Book of Other People

As adults, a brother and sister live in their late parents' home. The sister is pregnant and (temporarily?) estranged from her husband. The brother took over the job of Justice of the Peace from their father, though the sister would have been better suited for it. She's given her brother the strength to step into the father's shoes, though it's clear the father didn't think him worthy of the job.

The story explores how unprotected people are against misfortune. Home may have once seemed a stable place, and the characters may have considered their dreams and course in life secure. But years of painstaking investment or care can go nowhere. Life can derail in hideous ways. People fumble towards each other for some comfort as they deal with tragedy, or they tend quietly to what they can nurture and fix. They may try to seclude themselves to avoid more hurt. (One image I couldn't get out of my mind from this story: the savage heat, and frogs exploding.)

Title: Rêve Haitien
Author: Ben Fountain
Where I Read It: Haiti Noir 2

"... a dense, scumbled antheap of cinder-block houses and packing-crate sheds, wobbly store-fronts, markets, mewling beggars underfoot."
Mason is an OAS (Organization of American States) observer in Haiti. He spends his days reporting state-sponsored murders and feels useless. (He also mentions that, among his colleagues, the more principled ones operate with low-level depression, while the less principled just use their positions to engage in debauchery.)

He connects at one point with a Haitian referred to in the story only as the "mulatto" for his mixed race parentage. Though Mason never learns the man's name, he finds out other things - that the man is trying to raise some money for a rebellion by smuggling art out of the country and selling it to a connection in Florida. Mason agrees to be the smuggler, as he'll be able to leave the country under much less suspicion. For a time, the art remains in Mason's apartment, and a beautiful part of the story is how his understanding of it develops. His relationship with the art mirrors the one he has with the nameless Haitian - a fierce bond formed under brutal circumstances.

Title: A White House with Pink Curtains in the Downstairs Windows
Author: Jan J. Dominique
Where I Read It: Haiti Noir 2

In this disorienting story that speaks of domestic traps, the narrator buys a house that no one wants to go near because the former owners disappeared. The narrator is a young woman who's about to get married to her childhood friend, Michel. Her relationship to Michel involves ambivalence and suppressed rage. ("When he ran out of arguments, he tried to aggravate me, so he wouldn't look bad.") I sensed she was marrying him because it's expected. Buying the house, however, is a surprising decision.

Questions swirl through the story (Who or what do you let into your life? Who you do release? Who are the ghosts, or demons, you're carrying in you? What demands do they make?) The narrator experiences some rupture between what other people would consider real and what she sees and does.