When an earthquake struck Haiti in 2010, killing thousands, Amy Wilentz tried to stay away.
This wasnt easy for her to do. The Haitian people, their language and the unique beauty and madness of their country have been her obsession for a quarter-century. Indeed Wilentz, a Los Angeles writer and award-winning journalist, knows Haiti as well as any American writer has known a country thats not her own.
Wilentz, author of the acclaimed book The Rainy Season, didnt go to Haiti because she couldnt stand the idea of seeing that country of proud dreamers treated as just another group of pathetic disaster victims. She knew shed have to witness the sheer awfulness of all the aid groups that would be fighting one another for a piece of the Haitian action.
I was trying to outrun Haiti, to evade it before it took me over once again. In vain, she writes in her excellent and illuminating new book, Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter From Haiti.
Two weeks after the earthquake, she hopped on a flight to Port-au-Prince.
She describes her re-encounter with the orphan boys shed first met a generation earlier now middle-aged men navigating a rubble-filled city. She wanders, unafraid, into familiar old shantytowns and new refugee camps, including one thats been built by a Hollywood movie star.
Farewell, Fred Voodoo is a love letter to and a lament for Haiti, a country with an already strange and tortured history that became even more tragic, interesting and convoluted in the months after the earthquake that killed 316,000 people.
Actually, Wilentz writes, that figure probably isnt right, even though it came from the Haitian government. The earthquake may have killed as few as 30,000 people. Or maybe 158,000. Or 85,000. All those numbers have been floated by various officials and agencies.
In Haiti, certainty is always elusive. Or, as they say in one of the many Creole adages Wilentz scatters delightfully through her book, Tou sa w we, se pa sa. Nothing you see is what it seems.
Take, for instance, the photograph of an earthquake survivor that appeared on the cover of Time magazine. He looks, Wilentz writes, like some kind of demented vision of a zombie a man with dust-colored debris and pieces of cement adhering to his face and a ragged blue T-shirt wrapped around his head.
A full year after the earthquake, Wilentz is entering a Port-au-Prince shantytown in search of a friend when she suddenly spots this man with his zombie-like face still painted with debris, the same blue shirt still wrapped around his head.
I notice right away that this apparition from history has singled me out as, for the moment, the only stupid white person available who might want to take his picture for money, she writes. Hes turned himself into a living tourist attraction.
Wilentz not only appreciates the full absurdity and instrumental aspect of Rubble Man and his costume, she realizes that the original Time photograph is itself a kind of mystery: Had Rubble Man really just climbed out of the rubble, or was it all just a show right from the beginning?
Time and again in Farewell, Fred Voodoo, Wilentz recounts events and meets people who inhabit that uniquely Haitian space between what is and what may be and what may have never been.