Haiti: 'The Sister I Hardly Knew' Tell Me More's summer reading series, 'Island Reads,' highlights authors from the Caribbean. Guest host Celeste Headlee talks to Julia Alvarez. Her book A Wedding In Haiti gives readers a peek into the county that Alvarez calls 'the sister I hardly knew.'
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Haiti: 'The Sister I Hardly Knew'

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Haiti: 'The Sister I Hardly Knew'

Haiti: 'The Sister I Hardly Knew'

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This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. It's summer and if you're looking for something to pick up while you're on the beach, you are in luck. We are the midst of our summer reading series. We're calling it Island Reads, and we're speaking with authors of Caribbean descent. Earlier, we travelled to Barbados with Andrea Stuart's nonfiction book "Sugar in the Blood." Before that, we took a trip to Trinidad with Oonya Kempadoo's novel "All Decent Animals." This week, we go a little off the beaten path and veer over to the Dominican Republic and Haiti. The two nations share an island, but they have an uneasy relationship, one might say.

It's a journey to go between the two. And for a very special day, Julia Alvarez made that journey and it's the subject of her latest book published last year. "A Wedding in Haiti" began as a promise to a young Haitian man who was working on a farm that if he ever married, Julia and her husband would attend the wedding. Little did she know what that would actually entail and all that would follow, but she's here to tell us about it. Julia Alvarez, welcome to the program.

JULIA ALVAREZ: Thank you for having me.

HEADLEE: I mean, I first have to say, this is a beautiful book. I wonder at what point, when you were making this journey, did you realize it was fit for a memoir?

ALVAREZ: That's an interesting question because each book comes to you so differently. This was never ever intended to be any kind of a book. It was just, as you mentioned, I made a promise to a young Haitian boy that was up in the mountains of the Dominican Republic that he was going to get married. I foretold that he was going to get married to a beautiful girl and I would be at his wedding. Eight years later, I get a phone call in Vermont that he was getting married in a week. And so, at first, I said I couldn't make it, and then it was a pebble in my shoe and I scrambled to get to Haiti in time. So I was just focused on that.

And, you know, I always keep a journal when I travel. I say it's to keep me sane. Writing is how I know what I think and who I am, and so I kept a journal. And it wasn't 'til six months after we made this journey, when the earthquake - the horrible earthquake happened in January 2010 - that I was hearing all these pundits have all these opinions around Haiti, that I remembered another Haiti. And I went back, and rereading the journal, I thought, there's a story to tell here.

HEADLEE: And in fact, you also tell the story of going back to Haiti after the earthquake. Why were you comfortable going to Haiti in the first place? I mean, the Dominican Republic - there's a lot, as you say, of stereotypes - negative stereotypes about Haiti. The journey itself was physically exhausting, and yet, you not only made the journey once, but twice. Why?

ALVAREZ: Well, it's amazing. We were on a little island, and Haiti was, as I mentioned in the book, like the sister that I never knew. Growing up in the Dominican Republic, as a little Dominican girl, you know, the boogie man was the boogie man from Haiti. He would come and he would take Dominican children and they ate them over in Haiti. That's how I would be scared as a kid. We have this, as I said, problematic relationship. There had been horrible moments in the history - the massacre of 1937, when upwards of 20,000 Haitians living on the Dominican side were massacred by our dictator. So I was ashamed to go there as a Dominican. I wouldn't welcome a Dominican if I were a Haitian. So I was a little afraid, but I knew that I had to cross that border, which was also an internal border, a historical border, a cultural border. And I think one of the things that the book is about is what happens when you keep a promise and you surprise yourself and there are no guarantees. There were very scary moments on the trip - going where there were no roads, fording rivers. At one point, there was even a minor earthquake while we were there. So, you know, it was not an easy journey, but I think, you know, now, part of my work as a storyteller, as a Dominican-American, is to help others cross that border, too.

HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Julia Alvarez about her latest book "A Wedding in Haiti." As I mentioned, you made the second trip to Haiti just after the earthquake - well, close to the earthquake. And when you were in Port-au-Prince, you met a man - Junior, I guess his name was - in a bakery. And I was hoping you might read from that section that begins on page 266 with the line, my next question.

ALVAREZ: My next question is one that I'm sure everyone in Port-au-Prince must be asked, were you here when the earthquake happened? Junior's face clouds. He nods slowly. Yes, he was. The land became the sea. He sways as if reliving the moment. He managed to escape, but it was crazy, crazy - the streets full of frantic people, the dust, the cries. As he talks, the crowd around us grows quiet. Even though Junior is speaking in English, people know that he is talking about Gudu-Gudu, the onomato-poetic name that Haitians have given the earthquake, imitating the sound of the ground shaking, the buildings crumbling. Junior must assume we're missionaries or aid workers because as he is leaving, he thanks us for coming to Haiti. I feel embarrassed to be getting credit for something we're not doing. By the same token, it seems coldhearted and not totally accurate to say we didn't come here to help. We just came to see, I explained. He looks me in the eye, and I'm bracing myself for a moral scolding, but what he says surprises me: Haiti needs for people to see it.

HEADLEE: What was he talking about? What was it that you saw that made a difference?

ALVAREZ: I think to bear witness, to see a place accurately, to listen, to come in without any preconceptions, without any solutions and really be present can be transformative not just for you as a listener, but for the person telling the story. And I think one of the real ways to help Haiti is to be present and to listen and to see, and not to come in with a cookie-cutter, with a, what sometimes I call, moral colonialism, you know, with a solution from the outside, with "we know better" because I think that there's a resilience and beauty and a nobleness to the Haitian people that - they got a lot to teach us.

HEADLEE: Earlier in the book, you're talking about this very topic, visiting and what you can teach or take away or do. And you quote, I guess, a friend of yours from the U.S. who said, about Brazil, when we see a thing, what then is the obligation? That's a really big question and I worry about the answer. I wonder what your answer is, after you left Haiti. Is the writing of this book the fulfillment of your obligation?

ALVAREZ: Oh, it's, I think, the beginning. You know, if I were to give you a little pat answer of what my obligation is, I would be making it safe into a little package, like giving a donation and then you're done with it. I think it's a question to live with constantly. And I think, for me, with Haiti, as I said, I think part of my obligation now is - I mentioned in another program of TELL ME MORE - that now every year, a group of us from the disapora, on the anniversary of that Haitian massacre, we gather at the border. And the border that once flowed with blood - in fact, the river is called the Massacre River - you know, we're present. We give testimony, and we acknowledge what happened and we call it Border of Lights. And I feel that's one of the small ways that we can begin to shine a light on the relationship between the two countries, and also to move forward into the future of solidarity. So that - I mean, that's something that I feel came from the experience of knowing Piti and that friendship and visiting Haiti.

HEADLEE: Since you mentioned Piti, I mean, we're talking about a lot of serious issues, and the book does grapple with all of these things, but I would be doing the book a disservice if I made it seem like it weren't also very uplifting and funny in many places, and enjoyable - simply a joy to read, and one of those things is your portrayal of Piti. How is he and his family doing and his young daughter?

ALVAREZ: Well, we just talked to him to remind him that Ludy is now in a preschool. We have her in a bilingual preschool. So she's learning Spanish and English and she's got Creole. I should say that now Piti and Eseline are living in the Dominican Republic.

HEADLEE: Eseline is his wife.

ALVAREZ: The young wife whose wedding we went to in Haiti. We're now working on getting him his Dominican residency. So the relationship continues. I mean, it's - as I say in the book, who knows why we fall in love with these certain strangers that come into our lives? And that certainly has happened with Piti. But thank you for saying that because as I was talking about all these big, weighty issues, I thought, oh, Lord, who's going to want to take this book to the beach? This sounds like something you, you know, you need to brace yourself for, and it is an invitation to a wedding. So I hope it is also entertaining because part of the thing is that when you talk about big issues, I think they work best one story at a time, one character at a time. The Japanese haiku writer, Issa, has a beautiful little haiku where he says, I look in the dragonfly's eye and I see the mountains over my shoulder. So I think the way to deal with the big, weighty issues - the big mountains over your shoulder - is to look at a particular story, you know - the dragonfly's eye - to look at Piti, the drama of his life, his family in Haiti, the kinds of things that happen to a young boy who's in a migrant work crew in the mountains of the Dominican Republic - funny things, sad things. And, you know, what happens when a relationship with this Dominicana-Americana and her husband, what happens when that relationship plays itself out.

HEADLEE: Well, Piti plays his guitar and sings through many portions of the book. So we wanted to go out on this conversation with a little bit - a taste of Piti singing.


HEADLEE: A little music for you. You might want to listen to that while you're reading the book. It's called "A Wedding in Haiti," and the author is Julia Alvarez, author of many books, not just this one, but "In the Time of Butterflies" and many others. She was kind enough to join us from the studios at Middlebury College in Vermont. Julia, thank you so much.

ALVAREZ: Thank you, Celeste. Thank you for doing this.

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