Reviewed in this essay: A Wedding in Haiti by Julia Alvarez. Algonquin Books, 2012.
Throughout her travels into Haiti and Port-au-Prince, novelist and memoirist Julia Alvarez is haunted by the question, “Once we see a thing, what then is our obligation?” She sets out to answer the question in her new memoir, A Wedding in Haiti.
Julia Alvarez began her relationship with Haiti in 2001 when she met Piti, a young Haitian man working at Alta Gracia, the coffee farm in the Dominican Republic that Alvarez operates with her husband, Bill. She developed feelings for Piti that were “unaccountably maternal” and when he invited her to his wedding to take place in Moustique, she found she could not say “no.”
Alvarez renders what follows—a confrontation with abysmal poverty—in clear, resonant prose, and in detail that brings us face to face with those who need more than they possess, victims of the lingering effects of a cruel history that many countries, including the United States, are implicated in.
At a stop in Bassin-Bleu, the gulf between rich and poor becomes apparent when Alvarez is approached by a young man and woman so poor, they “disappear” Alvarez, reducing her to no more than her possessions. The girl points to Alvarez’s medallion and then to herself, and the young man simply asserts, “I am hungry. Give me something.” Alvarez experiences the “insult of her presence.”
Alvarez also notes the rather sobering generosity and hope of the people she encounters—sobering not because any reader would be surprised (the observation is often made), but because Alvarez captures moments in photographic detail. In Moustique, a family of ten sleeps on mats “spread out under trees” so Alvarez, her husband and fellow travellers can sleep inside the house on beds. In Bassin-Bleu, the words, “Lika Obama Vote # 1,” are “scrawled” on a truck—keep in mind that the generator in Bassin-Bleu has been broken “for months.” Even in Port-au-Prince, where she returns to with Piti in 2010, there are “hillsides…speckled with a sickly, plasticky blue” (tent cities), electrical wires “entangled with dozens of small, homemade kites,” and “masses of humanity surviving,” but also an “impromptu bookstore on a pile of rubble,” girls with “yellow ribbons” in their hair, letting out of schools.
Alvarez also articulates her nuanced relationship with Piti, adding further dimension to her story. She mentions his response to her “bemusement” that he undergoes experiences she would find too difficult: “You, his look says to [her], you have the choice to do otherwise.”
Alvarez ultimately finds an answer to her question. When we see a thing, she reflects, “the one thing we cannot do is turn away.” Alvarez’s refusal to avert her eyes allows her, ultimately, to produce a vivid account that is multi-layered and complex, as the truth always is.
Kelli Deeth is the author of The Girl Without Anyone and teaches creative writing at The University of Toronto.
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