I read Danticat’s introduction and then put Haiti Noir away. Did I really want to read about misery and wretchedness (which I presumptuously decided would be chief themes of these 18 stories)? I should have got Delhi Noir instead, I thought to myself. Last week, it dawned on me that I was being a schmuck so I picked up where I left off ... at the very beginning.
I expected the earthquake and vodun to dominate. Only a couple of stories deal with le tremblement de terre. Danticat had largely finished collecting stories for the anthology when that frightful disaster struck. The first of Haiti Noir’s entries, Odette written by Patrick Sylvain, is an intersection of both this fate-altering event and the system of belief that shapes the lives of many Haitians and certainly moulds their image abroad. An old woman with the gift of “double-sight” is abandoned by her daughter who joins a protestant church. She finds solace in her five-year-old granddaughter who has also been left behind. When the earthquake hits, her granddaughter is found in pieces and the old woman is compelled to seek refuge in a tent city where neighbours spread rumours about her. When the lynch mob arrives to kill the witch, you realize with a sort of tragic detachment that you have plunged headlong into a violent and abject world.
In M.J. Fievre’s Rainbow’s End, a comely eighteen year old realizes too late that she has got herself mixed up with the wrong boy with the ominous conclusion “I suck in my breath, I can’t taste the sunrise. I am looking over my shoulder. Because Ben knows where I live.” Gary Victor’s The Finger, a paranormal tale of posthumous revenge, was one my favourites. Where noir means gritty crime fiction in the rest of the world, in the land of Baron Samedi, the surreal is never far behind. This opinion was validated by the next story, Gokal by Kettly Mars about a Hotel California like inn for special visitors from the capital. What fun, you remark. You expected City of Joy but got Mulholland Drive instead. But Evelyne Trouillot’s Which One? quickly brings you back to reality as a mother must face the pain of switching her daughter with her nearly identical half-sister to give her the promise of a better life with a rich relative in the US (TB – la tante Brooklyn).
The stories become progressively more tragic and affecting. Edwidge Danticat’s contribution, Claire of the Sea Light was particularly moving. An impoverished fisherman struggles to raise his daughter alone. “During those first moments with his daughter, there were times when he had visions for which he detested himself, fantasies about letting her starve to death. He’d even considered dropping her in the sea, but these were things he was dreaming for her because he could not do them to himself. He could not poison himself like he so desperately wanted. He couldn’t hazard the possibility of leaving his child totally parentless, of having her end up in a brothel or on the streets.”
It isn’t for nothing that Danticat was selected to edit this anthology. What a skilled writer, I must look up her other work. I loved the creepy but comic ending to Katia D. Ulysse’s The Last Department and the odd Jewish boy from Miami who becomes a crusader for the Haitian cause in Mark Kurlansky’s tongue-in-cheek The Leopard of Ti Morne. The sagest comment in the collection comes from this last story, appropriately from a vodun priest- “Ah, justice. Justice costs. Justice is very expensive.” That really sums up Haiti, a cruel but whimsically opportunistic place like no other.