Julia Alvarez relates journey of empathy
by Rob Neufeld
Julia Alvarez has been publishing with Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill since her first novel, “How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents,” had received raves in 1991. Since then, she’s published five other novels—including the multiple award-winning “In the Time of the Butterflies”—and fifteen other books of non-fiction, poetry, and children’s literature.
Her loyal Tarheel connection makes her family with us.
She would be family anyway for the way she makes the world her family. Her new book, “A Wedding in Haiti,” explores an experience in which she connected with the poor half of her home island, Hispaniola, through her and her husband Bill’s coffee farm.
Foremen and laborers
“Even if in the end we’re going to be royally taken,” Alvarez tells Bill about their bad farm manager choices, “I’d still rather put my check mark on the side of light.”
The couple had decided to reclaim land and a depressed job market in Alvarez’s home country, the Dominican Republic, by planting coffee trees in Jarabacoa, south of Santiago, the home of Alvarez’s parents, who suffer from Alzheimer’s.
The entrepreneurs would do this from their Vermont home, making visits and employing on-site managers.
“It was late afternoon, and we were driving past the barracks-type housing” where Haitian farmworkers lived, Alvarez recalls, when she saw Piti, a childlike 17-year-old, fine-tuning a kite. She took a photo of him and started a friendship. She imagined his helpless mother, praying for the boy she’d “sent to the wealthier neighbor country to help the impoverished family.”
“Every time I spotted the grinning boy with worried eyes,” Alvarez continues, “I felt the pressure of that mother’s prayer in my own eyes. Tears would spring up and a big feeling fill my heart. Who knows why we fall in love with people who are nothing to us?”
After working for Alvarez for a while, Piti invites her to his and his bride Esseline’s wedding in the mountains of northwest Haiti, 175 miles and 18 driving hours away. Alvarez sets aside her plans to go a world conference of grandmothers in order to respond to the more personal call.
On the road
The first half of “A Wedding in Haiti” relates the sometimes comical, often moving adventures of a ragtag group of Dominicans and Haitians navigating checkpoints and potholes in Bill’s Ford pickup. It’s 2009; Haitians are treated like aliens by ruling Dominicans.
As the section closes, Alvarez says, “When we have seen a thing, we have to tell the story.” Her new familiarity with Haitian life has been a soaking.
Coming home, she finds it is a different place, not because it has changed, but because she sees it differently. Her deferential watchman, Don Ramón—he’s a former soldier. Her guide on her Haiti trip, Homero—he’ll go home and tell a private version of their story.
“One thing is certain,” she wraps up. “Like the Ancient Mariner, we will feel compelled to tell the story, over and over. As a way to understand what happened to us.”
“A Wedding in Haiti” is a memoir with the structure and impact of a novel.
The story that Alvarez tells in Part Two picks up a year later, after the earthquake of 2010 has devastated Haiti. A trip back to Piti’s region is necessary, and Bill wants to stop in Port-au-Prince to help.
Alvarez puts reflection aside, except for a brief account of Haiti’s riches-to-rags history, and kicks into another adventure trip—the facing side of her mirror into Haitian society.
Interactions with a convenience store proprietress; Esseline’s godmother; an impromptu tour guide through a flash flood; cool Charlie who has come a-courting; Piti’s mother; and Esseline’s younger sisters follow.
One sister produces a school notebook that her elder sister, Lanessa, has filled with exercises—“a catechism,” Alvarez writes “of what a young person should know.”
It comes in the form of lists: “symptoms of AIDS” and “three ways to prevent getting AIDS”; “the great countries of the world,” including West Germany, “which hasn’t existed since 1991”; the great problems of the world,” and a prompt to name solutions for each one.
“Not surprisingly, the pages after this last question are blank,” Alvarez notes.
She applies the lesson to her own late-life education. After a frightening encounter with a violent gang at a flooded part of the road, she thinks about “the great problems of the world,” including and especially, “the inequitable distribution of goods.”
Heart of generousness
Alvarez’s theme—how following the heart leads one across boundaries and plunges one in politics, personal and national—has infused many great books: Nadine Gordimer’s “My Son’s Story” (South Africa); Olive Tilford Dargan’s “Call Home the Heart” (Southern Appalachia); Graham Greene’s “The Power and the Glory” (Mexico); and others.
“A Wedding in Haiti” joins that list. It is hopeful, folksy, sobering, and graceful with good story-telling.
A Wedding in Haiti: The Story of a Friendship by Julia Alvarez (Algonquin Books hardcover, Apr. 2012, 295 pages, $22.95)