Writing in the Aftermath

Phuc Pham | New University

Author and professor of literary journalism, Amy Wilentz, speaks about her experiences writing a book about the restructuring of Haiti.

Amy Wilentz, author, journalist and literary journalism professor at the University of California, Irvine, discussed her newest book, “Farewell, Fred Voodoo,” as well as her personal attachment to Haiti, last Thursday evening in Humanities Gateway.

Wilentz, an award-winning author of multiple novels who has been granted the Whiting Writer’s Award and the PEN Martha Albrand Non-Fiction Award, took part in the School of Humanities Author Series to promote her non-fiction novel — described as a “travelogue, history, political analysis, and memoir.” The author was introduced to the room of students, faculty and visitors by Barry Siegel, director of the Literary Journalism program at UCI.

Wilentz began her discussion by providing context for her memoir and explaining how she came to fall in love with Haiti. She cites her bilingualism in English and French as what initially drew her into the Caribbean country.

“You need to learn another language,” Wilentz said. “Because your second or third language is the most important tool you need to get out and travel.”

Wilentz began traveling to Haiti in 1986 to witness and report on the historic fall of the Duvalier family dictatorship. Haiti, along with its government and inhabitants, became the focus of her first memoir “The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier.”

“From the moment I watched Duvalier fall, I belonged to Haiti,” Wilentz said. “But Haiti wouldn’t return the favor … it was an unrequited love.”

But it wasn’t until after the catastrophic 7.0 earthquake struck Haiti and killed between 200,000 to 300,000 people in January 2010 that she began “feeling like a leech” — a feeling that carried into her latest book.

“I was going to and from Haiti and absorbing their stories; I was living off Haitian misery,” Wilentz said.

She went on to tell the audience about her journey with Haiti over the years, noting the relationships and observations she has made amongst the people. Wilentz reflected on the earthquake recovery efforts and lack thereof by the Haitian government and outside contributors.

While discussing the struggle to help Haiti, she commented on the confusing nature of the country, saying that many things in Haiti aren’t as they seem and are difficult to understand by outsiders.

She explained the reasoning that went behind creating the title of her memoir, which is essentially about the outsider’s view of Haiti: “Fred Voodoo” is the name the press corps use to address all Haitian men — a stereotype reflective of how  “outsiders” view all Haitians.

“My title then became ‘Farewell, Fred Voodoo’ because I wanted to say goodbye to that [stereotype],” Wilentz said.

Wilentz came to terms with the reasoning behind outsiders’ need to help Haiti: it is a dystopia, a post apocalyptic world and “the planet of the slums” that the rest of the world feels the need to change.

“We want to go in and fix Haiti so it won’t become our future. We fix Haiti to fix ourselves.”

During the question and answer portion of the event, members of the audience took time to ask Wilentz about her personal opinions of the Haitian government, writing methods and thoughts on post-earthquake refugee camps. She deliberated on these topics and took this time to offer insight into Haiti’s history with relation to their present struggle.

Wilentz also spoke of her encounter with famed actor Sean Penn, who has been devoted to relief efforts in Haiti. Much like her writing, Wilentz did not shy from criticizing both American/outside attempts to help the country that never came into fruition, as well as the faults of the Haitian government in rebuilding its nation; however, she was sure to give credit where it was due and noted the well-intentioned efforts to help Haiti.

In her closing comments, Wilentz expressed her wish that the U.S. won’t interfere in Haiti’s next election in order to establish an all-Haitian government to prevent globalization.

The discussion thus ended on a hopeful note and demonstrated the insight that the Author Series has to offer.