“Still, too much rubble continues to clog the streets, too many people are still living in tents, and for so many Haitians progress has not come fast enough. As we have said all along, helping the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere recover from one of the worst natural disasters ever to strike our hemisphere will take years, if not decades.” – President Obama on Haiti, One Year Later (Jan. 11, 2011)
helping the poorest nation in the western hemisphere, helping the poorest the poorest, nation in the western hemisphere
He is speaking of us. Of other Haitians and I. I reach for these words thinking they are solid, that I can pick them up and paste them on myself however and wherever I please. Every time I try to grasp them, they slip through my fingers, and take on different shapes.
hem his sphere
hem his fear
“I came into this world anxious to uncover the meaning of things, my soul desirous to be at the origin of the world and here I am an object among objects.” -Frantz Fanon, “The Lived Experience” (Black Skins White Mask)
Haitians—meaning people of the land of Haiti. It is uncanny to hear such a word and realize that it—Haitian—is on you, in you and yet away from you. In Obama’s speech, there is we and there is Haitians. We: American citizens, American government. Haitians: they, the people of Haiti. There are over 10.1 million people in Haiti. Those are the Haitians, right? What about the 830,000 people from the land of Haiti who emigrated to America? And the illegal immigrants from Haiti? Are these Haitians or part of Obama’s we?
Maybe we are both. Or somewhere in between.
Listening to him away from the rubble, and the dust, I realize just how far I am from Haiti. I must go back. Travel through Haiti and Haitian to return to Ayiti and Ayisyenne. Maybe there I will find a we that I recognize.
Etre: to be. Mot: word. Logi: study, logic, reason. Etre-mot-logi: to throw oneself into the being of a word for the purpose of grasping and letting go of its logic.
Being Haitian among other Haitians in America, gives me both a sense of belonging and a feeling of isolation. Both of which interact with each other in a way that makes me wholly empty. Like a bowl or a cup or a hand.
Sometimes I feel like I am playacting at being Haitian. Like Haitian is a costume I wear wherever I am around fellow Haitians. I say mezanmi, monkompe and makomme (exclamation point! roll eyes, twist mouth into “haitian” attitude). See, I am method actor; even outside the play I am still in character.
Sometimes, for a brief moment, I step outside my body, and hear myself trying too hard. I think to myself you sound like a foreigner, a spy trying to infiltrate the Haitian culture.I wonder if I would be able to wear Haitian—and all its social and historical accessories—closer to my skin if I spent more time there before I came here. Like if I came in my teens instead of when I was seven or eight. Maybe then, I would carry the Haitian proverbs on my tongue like my own saliva and when I hear Haiti, she would not be to me like a mother who sent me to live with a rich family friend.
I carry my love for Haiti in the same place I carry my nostalgia; sometimes I reach for one and get the other one instead and I can’t tell the difference because they feel the same to my heart’s fingers.
Chien: French for dog.
We had a dog in Haiti, Poppy. It belonged to us kids, my siblings and I. Not because we bought it or could buy it food. Because we loved it. This is what ownership means when you are a kid: love. Our dog died because my older cousin, Carmelia, hated it. She spent a couple of months at our house and her time, in my mind, is marked by how long it took Poppy to suffocate to death. I tell my mum about this a few months ago, over decade since it happened. It does not have the surprising effect I intended. She gives a small nod and says that Carmelia was cruel, cruel because she was sad, her parents sent her at a young age to be servant for my grandaunt. I never knew until then that she was not my cousin. I try to imagine what it is like to be sent away from my family at a young age so I could be a servant, a means of income. I think of the chain around Poppy’s neck, how his neck was so swollen because the chain was too tight, how she would tie it tighter and tighter each day. I think about his eyes. When he looked at me all swollen-necked it looked like something was swimming in his eyes. Tears, I imagined as a kid. Also love. Poppy’s suffering gnawed (gnaws) at my insides.
Hanes. The factory my mother worked during our first year in US produced Hanes T-shirts. I thought it was pronounced haine. French for hatred. If you look inside the label of a crisp, white Hanes shirt you might find in small black letters: Made in Haiti.
Frantz Fanon, my friend: “… any ontology is made impossible in a colonized and acculturated society”
I say to myself, you are of Ayiti. You are Ayisyenne. Hold on to these words. Don’t let them slip away from you. Yet they are already falling—
We have an infinite number of teas in Ayiti. Each with their own blend of leaves and dry fruit, and each propose treatment for one or several illnesses. I had a substitute teacher in high school. He called himself Mr. E. (“Get it?” he’d wink). He had white hair and striking blue eyes and never enforced the curriculum left by the absent teacher. Upon finding out my heritage, he sat with me and told me about a book he read that showed how different first world countries would steal natural cures from third world countries, process it and call themselves innovative scientists. He proceeded to give details about a case where such an incident occurred between an American scientist and Haitian farmer. I have forgotten these details now. But I remember his face and the way the light made it seem like the blue in his pupils were constantly shifting from one shade to the next. He seemed lonely, I remember thinking. Like a man who belonged to no land. A ghost.
I first saw E.T. in Ayiti, in French. Poor guy. He sure is ugly. But he just wants to go home.
In Spanish it is part of the frustrated exclamation ay ya yayy. This exclamation is also used in Kreyol. Vestiges of our Spanish colonization. Spanish. I am learning to speak it. Sometimes when I speak Spanish I say ay. As in: ay dios mios or ay me duelo mucho. (¡exclamation points! arched eyebrows). I do it to sound authentic. Is it part of another character I play, with the Spanish language as a costume that allows me to reassert the character? Was learning English part of yet another character?
In Ayiti, we learn French when we are entering primary school. If someone doesn’t know French, it is assumed that they are uneducated, poor, stupid or all of the above. French is the language of the rich, the bourgeois, the educated, the intellectual, or all of the above. Another vestige from another colony…
Ayisyens play a lot of characters, including themselves. Our ancestors were imported West African slaves and the remaining Taino Indians that survived the ravages of disease and violence. And there were times when French or Spanish blood entered (or pushed through) our veins. When the slave revolution succeeded the French left, they bled we bled.
We’ve been trying to find ourselves ever since.
Ayyy e t
In Ayiti, I heard this joke told by a neighbor: The Ayisyen, the American, the Hispanic and the French make a bet to see who could make an elephant move. On his turn, the American offered the elephant money. I don’t remember what the others did. By the time it’s the Ayisyen’s turn, the others have given up the idea that the elephant will ever move. The Ayisyen gets on the elephant, pricks it with a needle and the elephant starts running with Ayisyen on its back laughing victoriously. Ayisyen, with a capital A, is a common character trope of narrative humor in Ayiti. He—always male—is the clever, scrappy character that the other characters, coincidently the American, the Hispanic and the French underestimate.
Even in our humor we are trying to define ourselves.
It seems, on the surface, that the Ayisyen is to himself what he can show to others. Yet somewhere between the self and the others, there is a secret place. A place that only he can live, and he comes out of that place everyone once in a while to show himself. To hide himself in this place is to show wit and wisdom; because people can’t control you if they don’t understand you. But, do you understand yourself, Ayisyen? What is this place that you hide to?
I wish I knew. Or, at least had been given directions in how to reach it. I don’t know if the Ayiti I once knew exists in spite, despite or because of… of what? Of my memories? Of my living in America? What is it that I am struggling against or towards?
Maybe Ayisyen doesn’t know either. This in between, this not-knowing, maybe it is there that I give my best performance of Ayisyen.
In Haiti, chickens are killed in the yard several hours before dinner. Their neck are broken then slit open so the blood could be poured out. Some cooks release the chicken after slicing its neckline. Then on to the next kill. Meanwhile, chickens running around with head bent backwards, neck split, blood spurting
where were they going
why would their feet still want to go
somewhere their heads don’t know
I eee see hen
Ayyy E C yen
The kreyol word gives me gender. The ne means I am Ayisyen and I am female all at once. These two identities that carry multitudes within themselves are squashed into one word. In Ayiti, as a little girl, my meaning was squashed by that state of childhood. A phase of life that is defined only by its potential to develop into another phase. I was waiting to meet myself, and my life existed in the pauses and breaths in between. When I arrived in America, I was still that but no longer little or girl. I was away from little and girl: I left them or they let me go. In America (through America), I am mud huts, missionary work and little children with ashy knees and misshapen bellies; I am “five cents a day will feed a Haitian family for a week,” and hurricanes. All these, I learned to lace together with strings of humor and irony and wear them like a necklace.
The Earthquake in 2010 scattered me. I watched myself on cable television. The American is talking about me, how sad I am, how I need help, I am homeless, I need food, I need shelter, I need the U.N., Captain America and his multinational friends, look how nice they are, how heroic, how noble: the Haitians, the U.N., the earthquake, all together lovely noble beautiful disheartening devastating.
I cannot watch.
The American’s words are separating me. I am never more aware of the separation. Up until then, I allowed myself to be anything but that little girl, because I knew that she was waiting for me. I never told her if I was coming back and she never asked. The little girl is broken. Not lost but broken. I cannot watch the American tell me of her brokenness. I will carry her brokenness in me, so as to make her last eternally.
Photo: Earthquake Debris Continues to Clog Port-au-Prince Streets (Dec. 8, 2010, Port-au-Prince, Haiti. UN Photo/Marco Dormino)