Haiti 101
July 28, 2008 2:50 PM   Subscribe

Traveling to Haiti in a few months with a medical missions org. Looking for books or authors that give a good analysis of the social, political, historical, and cultural background of the country.
posted by anonymous to Society & Culture (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Infections and Inequalities by Paul Farmer is about the social, political and economic determinants of health, particularly the spread of disease.

His primary area of expertise and major case study for the book is Haiti. Considering the work you'll be doing, I'd recommend it highly.
posted by Adam_S at 3:04 PM on July 28, 2008

Graham Greene's "The Comedians" is probably the classic book relating to the Duvalier years. It's a must. I've also read Tracy Kidder's book "Mountains Beyond Mountains," which is about Dr Paul Farmer's heroic attempts to better the country . . . it gives a very realistic-seeming (I've never been to Haiti) sense of the country and the real conditions. You have to get these two books.

And Edwidge Danticat is a fairly young writer from Haiti whose shorter stories have been amazing. I'd imagine she's the best known Haitian writer, and she writes mostly about Haiti. I wish I could recommend a specific title, but I'm bad at remembering them, and much of what I've read by her has been in anthologies. I can't imagine that any book of short stories wouldn't be amazing.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 3:06 PM on July 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

Amy Wilentz's The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier is getting old (aren't we all), but is a haunting read.

There's a nice profile of Paul Farmer in the New Yorker (Tracy Kidder, Profiles, "The Good Doctor," The New Yorker, July 10, 2000, p. 40), which became a book by Kidder in 2003.

This week's Crossing Continents, on BBC Radio 4 deals with recent local issues in Haiti, focused on kidnapping (fun!). Listen again until Thursday, I think.
posted by sagwalla at 3:28 PM on July 28, 2008

In addition to the Farmer book Adam_S suggests, I'd add his book Pathologies of Power and the biography of him, Mountains Beyond Mountains.
posted by Forktine at 3:39 PM on July 28, 2008

Zora Neale Hurston's Tell My Horse is a fascinating study of voodoo/voudoun in Haiti and Jamaica. She was an anthropologist before she was a novelist--her gifts are very evident here, even though it's nonfiction.
posted by orrnyereg at 5:05 PM on July 28, 2008

I bid you beware, there is alot of mistruths about that country. The history layout is dubious in what you are likely to find. In addition to all these books, for contemporary political tides, I heartily recommend the unequivocal, the definitive, and final word on journalistic portrayal on recent events in that country. Aristide and the Endless Revolution. I wish I could lend you my copy. Know what your role is in all of this, don't just fill a resume.
posted by Student of Man at 9:16 PM on July 28, 2008

posted by Student of Man at 10:09 PM on July 28, 2008

It's not a book... but I thought this article - Haiti: Mud cakes become staple diet as cost of food soars beyond a family's reach - I read this morning was fascinating (and horrifying) incite into the country's current problems
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 2:50 AM on July 29, 2008

I spent a lot of time in Haiti as a kid in the 1970's and 80's, The Comedians is a good book, on one hand still relevant, on the other hand it has nothing to do with the Haiti of today.

I'm sure you've been informed, but the Haiti of today is scary and a dangerous. In the 70s and 80s under Papa and Baby Doc it was a dictatorship and also scary and dangerous, but less obviously so. As 12 year olds, my cousin and I wandered around the city occasionally, this would be unimaginable today.

I haven't been back there for years, but I have relatives who have and say that Port-Au-Prince is a serious danger zone if you are white and on your own. (Or even if you're not white and in a group- hell it's just dangerous!)

The Comedians was set in the Hotel Olaffson, which is still there and worth a visit. A good way to a approach Haiti is also through it's art, primarily iron sculptures and paintings. This page offers an excellent synopsis of Haiti's artistic background. I don't know if the Centre D'art still exists, but if it does, it is worth visiting.

To answer your question, a good book about the end of the Aristide days is Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti. I haven't read any of the books recommended at the bottom of that Amazon page, but they look like a good trail to follow.

There is also recent documentary worth watching, Ghosts of Cité Soleil. It's an ultimately flawed film, but it undeniably offers a glimpse at the inner chaos of Haiti.

With all of it's tragedy, I remember Haiti as a place of beauty and I met incredible creative souls there. Say hello to that place for me.
posted by jeremias at 5:49 AM on July 29, 2008

I have a friend who was a medical missionary in Haiti a few years ago. He is a voracious reader. I'll ask him. Check back here in a week or so. Better: send me a mail.
posted by neuron at 11:18 AM on July 29, 2008

I asked my wife who worked with Paul and co in Haiti and elsewhere. Her recommendations, which echo the above:

1. The Comedians (Graham Greene)
2. The Uses of Haiti (Paul Farmer)
3. The Rainy Season (Amy Wilentz)
4. The Farming of Bones (Edwidge Danticat)

Sorry only #4 is by a Haitian-born person; 1 and 4 are fiction. 1,2,4 are
all short, and 3 is excellent, written by a journalist on the ground in the
time of the popular movement (Lavalas) that led to Aristide's emergence as a
political leader of the majority.

I would add that, having had all the Farmer books (and Kidder's) in our house over the years, Uses of Haiti still stands out as the best groundwork for actually understanding how the country got to where it is today.
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 5:20 AM on August 1, 2008

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