In her latest book, Why Haiti Needs New Narratives: A Post-Quake Chronicle, feminist artist, anthropologist, activist and Ms. writer Gina Athena Ulysse digs deep into Haiti’s history, exposing the myths surrounding the country’s cultural identity while offering new, more nuanced stories. With the centennial observance of the United States’ occupation of Haiti this month, the Ms. Blog seized the opportunity to converse with Ulysse about Haiti’s troubled past, its shaky present and how artful and educated storytelling may be a force to stabilize its future.
Why Haiti Needs New Narratives compiles your written work—including articles from Ms. and the Ms. Blog—about Haiti post-earthquake. What inspired you to release this book?
I want people to ask questions. It’s so funny because someone asked me, “Do you provide new narratives [in your book]?” and I said, “Hell no!” If I provided new narratives then that would undermine my entire point. My point is I don’t even know all the narratives. But I can point to the ones that are in front of me and say they’re limited. And if they’re limited, then what else is out there?
What is the most damaging narrative affecting Haiti today?
I think the biggest misconception is that Haitians are not doing enough for themselves. What we tend to hear about Haitians is their dysfunction. We don’t hear much about Haitians’ creativity, perseverance and work and commitment. So when I say Haiti needs new narratives, [I’m asking], what are other Haitians’ stories that we don’t even know that existed before these more or less racist stereotypes we’ve inherited? Are there ways that we can expand and diversify our perceptions?
What is the impact of racist stereotypes on the world’s perception of Haiti?
It’s the same stereotypes we see about black people in the U.S. right now. We get outraged. What’s happening in McKinney, Texas—that burns. That’s brutal. But how many times have we talked about this story? To me, that’s not any different [with regard to Haiti]. Nothing is more difficult to challenge than these archaic ideals. Whiteness doesn’t know what it is without its black other.
What role does education play in shaping narratives about Haiti?
We’re getting ready to commemorate the centenary of the American occupation [of Haiti] in July. Most people aren’t even aware that the U.S. occupied Haiti [from] 1915 to 1934. [We don’t talk about] the ways through which the occupation first occurred, was justified and how has that relationship of indifference been maintained, [or] how Haiti [was] conceived in relation to the U.S. What are some of the dominant ideas we have about Haiti? Haitians can’t help themselves; Haiti’s doomed; Haiti’s cursed. It’s not cursed! It is a country that freed itself from slavery in 1804 and began its sovereignty economically dependent on foreign loans and aid. So, part of the challenge for me then in thinking all of this through is how to make this palatable to people so that they become aware of what the [old] narrative actually is. I have students who had no idea Haiti had a revolution. Didn’t even know Haiti [was] a French colony!
A recent exposé revealed Haiti’s 2010 earthquake relief funds have been grossly misappropriated. How has this revelation changed the nature of Haiti’s relief effort?
Haiti has a lot to teach the world and this is an opportunity for international bodies to really understand how we [administer] relief and aid right. What’s happening with the Red Cross is telling us something other people had already talked about: the potential manmade disaster that was going to follow this natural disaster. [Over the last five years,] The New York Times and other papers have repeatedly [published] pieces asking, “Where did all those billions go?” It has to do with Haiti insofar as Haiti was on the receiving end of funds that didn’t quite reach Haiti. When you think about how those processes are structured, they’re meant to get the capital back to the donor country more often than not. In Haiti, we have historically had an absence of structure. This earthquake happened [and it] literally exposed the absence of structure and infrastructure to the world, which is why people went deep into their hearts and into their purses and gave. [But] that [historic] absence of structure and infrastructure was going to be Haiti’s Achilles heel regardless of how much money poured in. And until you address that, I don’t think any [relief] efforts will succeed.
How has the exposure of Haiti’s lack of infrastructure in the wake of the earthquake affected meaningful change in the country?
I think there has been more demand for and a little bit more transparency. Something is amiss and it’s important that we realize something is amiss because we [tend to] talk about Haiti in very simplistic terms. For the longest time, part of the reasoning of giving money to the NGOs [directly] was because [Haiti was] marred with this narrative of corruption. [As] we’re finding out, Haitians might not have a monopoly on corruption. For me, what’s happening now is a [necessary] transparency if in the future things are to be done differently.
Another thing that happened that’s very concrete and that’s very real is there’s a lot of building that has been done, especially in terms of roads, so that’s really good. There are some hospitals that have been built [as well] and I think that those are good examples.
What I am concerned about, in terms of unfinished business, is the basics. In terms of issues pertaining to women, for example. There’s been some gains made because there’s been more conversations about the situation for women in general in terms of representation, political participation and political power, issues around violence and there’s been international attention around certain things, [but] I don’t think we’ve had the impact that we could’ve had.
What do you hope Why Haiti Needs Narratives adds to the conversation about Haiti?
I would like to inspire and engender a curiosity because we don’t know Haiti. We really don’t. What we hear about what’s happening in the capital—which is more often than not what we hear in the news—tells you nothing about the other 10 departments [for example]. It’s like saying, this happened in McKinney, Texas [so this happens] in all of America. We do know that for every one of these horrible, horrific moments, there are other moments where people are working in solidarity with each other. So, if we allow ourselves to just fall into these narratives, we end up with very, very simple terms and ways of understanding the world—and it’s a world that is far from being simple.