Words by Jesse Serwer
Photos by Maria Izaurralde
Dimitry Elias Léger is the author behind one of the best Caribbean novels in a moment flush with such things. The 2010 earthquake is the backdrop for God Loves Haiti (Amistad/Harper Collins), Léger’s debut work. It centers on a love triangle that involves an impotent, cowardly Haitian president; his beautiful street-artist wife; and an idealistic young businessman. Set in the moments immediately before, during and after the quake, the book moves through Port-au-Prince as the protagonists struggle to reconcile their own personal aspirations with the shocking reality of one of the worst natural disasters ever, and their complicated relationships with “home.”
“I’ve been obsessed with death, honor, family, and Catholicism for a long time,” Léger says of the themes at the heart of God Loves Haiti. The book is, in part, the result of his own return to Haiti in 2010. In the months following the earthquake, Léger, who grew up partly in Brooklyn and now lives in France, worked with the United Nations relief mission, after two decades away from his homeland. “Once its uniquely blazing heat hit me in the face, I felt right at home, like riding the proverbial bike,” he says.
After getting his picks for this year’s best Caribbean novels, we asked him a few questions about his own book.
LargeUp: What were you doing when the Earthquake hit? Did you immediately start picturing this book after?
Dimitry Elias Léger: I was sleeping at home in France when the earthquake hit. My first reaction wasn’t to think of a novel, but to freak out about the health of my six cousins who live in Port-au-Prince and all their children. After 48 gripping hours, I learned they had all survived the disaster unscathed. Unscathed! That was, like, 16 miracles. We’ve had our tragedies, but on balance I’d always been aware of how fortunate my family in and outside Haiti has been over the past century. So this latest miracle made me want to give something back to Haiti. I began reaching out to contacts in the United Nations to offer my communications expertise to go to Haiti to help the country deal with the humanitarian disaster the earthquake unleashed. I’d been preparing for that mission all my life in many ways. In fact, the dream of such a mission was the first thing I listed in my application letter to graduate school way back in 2002.
LU: You’ve worked primarily as a journalist. Were you already trying to write a novel when the Earthquake hit, or did it set that part of you into motion?
DEL: I knew at a young age that I loved literature above all things, and writing stories was easier for me to do than math or biology or any other subject or skill. So stretching that talent to the ultimate challenge of a writing a good novel was a lifelong objective. Since writing novels was a long-shot way to make a living, I wrote about everything a kind editor and publisher offered to pay me for in the intervening years. For a decade or so, that meant music and book reviews and urban culture think pieces and profiles of celebrities in business and hip-hop for magazines, newspapers, and MTV. Since grad school in ’05, it’s meant writing and producing cool media for global foundations, UN agencies, and the odd corporate client. I liked that novelists could bloom late unlike, say, most musicians, so I read like mad and waited until the music of the right novel for me to write came to me.
LU: How long did you live in Haiti growing up? Do you still feel in step with your homeland when you’re there, or do you feel like a “full” outsider?
DEL: Off and on, I lived in Haiti my first 14 years from birth. The memories of my first loves, my first buddies, first slow dances, first carnivals, playing my first good football games, first football World Cup mass viewing experiences, first good grades, first good books read, all happened in Haiti, and like most good childhood memories never left me. I lived abroad for almost 25 years straight before returning to Haiti. Once its uniquely blazing heat hit me in the face, I felt right at home, like riding the proverbial bike. Turns out, Haiti is one place on earth I feel like a “full” insider. I can trace my family for generations from the Dominican Republic border to Port-au-Prince and the southern region of the country. Haiti is home. The other countries I live in, almost simultaneously these days, France, Switzerland, and the U.S., feel like good, long road trips by comparison.
LU: What re-acclimation did you do for this book? Did you return home for research purposes? If so, what were some of the things you learned about Haiti that you didn’t already know?
DEL: I lived and worked in Haiti from January to August 2010 straight, right after the quake. I suppose that period was a form of a re-acclimation, even though most of the emotions and memories that would inform God Loves Haiti were stirred within my first 24 hours back in Haiti. I’ve been obsessed with death, honor, family, and Catholicism for a long time.
Who is the President based on? When you have the scene in purgatory where all of the Haitian presidents are lined up, he’s right behind Papa Duvalier, as opposed to the more recent Haitian presidents. The way that’s done, it’s almost like, in the book, the earthquake didn’t have to happen in 2010, it could have been any time in the past few decades or even future.
Wow, I’m glad you feel that way. I can’t interpret the novel. But the president was not based on any presidents, living or dead. However, my father, rest in peace, might have found some good parallels.
LU: I recently saw Raoul Peck‘s Murder in Pacot, which also deals with Haiti’s privileged class in the aftermath of the earthquake. And it was a very interesting way of looking at things. Did you see it? Curious to hear your thoughts on that vis a vis God Loves Haiti.
DEL: I haven’t seen it yet. But I would suggest you hunt down another Raoul Peck film, 2009’s Moloch Tropical. Like God Loves Haiti, that film also revolves around a Haitian president and has good deadpan humorous touches.
LU: Do you think having “fortunate” or privileged characters instead of downtrodden ones, as in most other Haitian reportage, allowed you more freedom to tell the story? Why is that?
DEL: I don’t know about freedom, but I can concede that imagining the world of a President of Haiti dealing with an international crisis was great fun. It amused me enormously to write and share. Taking the literary fiction reader into a world they hadn’t read about before is something I took pride in. I’ve always enjoyed reading novels and comic books that work as travelogues into brave new worlds.
You wrote, “It’s a good time to be a writer from the Caribbean.” Were you thinking this would be the case when you sat down to write God Loves Haiti.
DEL: No. When I sat down to write my first novel, I was pushing 40. So I was thinking I might as well enjoy the writing process, the detailed world-building, and the humor of it all, as much as possible, since I may never find a good publisher for it afterwards, and after that, it might get ignored by critics and readers. I wanted to prove to myself I could do it and publish it to make my family proud. My nod to Caribbean cultural history during the writing process was that, one, I sought the humor of a Bob Marley song, and secondly, I desperately wanted to write a novel worthy of the standard of excellence set by Edwidge Danticat and Junot Diaz, the trailblazers of the best Caribbean literature of my generation, since the mid-‘90s. I asked them to read the novel before I found a publisher. If they told me it didn’t work, and to try again, I would have tabled it and tried [to write] another. Very happy they said the opposite!
LU: Now that Marlon James is a bonafide literary celebrity and is shouting people like yourself out in interviews, in your view, are more opportunities already arising for you and your peers?
DEL: Depends on what you mean by opportunity. Marlon’s my dude. You have to remember, A Brief History of Seven Killings was his third novel. It caught lightning in a bottle and conquered the world. But his first two novels, John Crow’s Devil and The Book of Night Women, were dope too. The oldest parlor game in the world is figuring what made a piece of literature, art, film, or music become popular after the fact i.e. where the opportunities to follow suit are. There are no wrong answers! I appreciated Marlon’s props deeply. Over the past year, as good news about peoples’ positive reactions to God Loves Haiti poured in, the two words I overused the most are, “Wow, thanks!”
The lessons aspiring and established Caribbean novelists living in the islands and abroad can take from the positive responses to a novel about a Haitian president’s complicated humanity is that there really is no aspect of our history and politics that we cannot write about, and no stereotype about our people and cultures we can’t play with in our art. Literary fiction, to me, is not supposed to be familiar, comfort food. Caribbean writers willing to mash-up big or different ideas about their people, families, and heritage should note that there’s an audience waiting for them, whether that audience knows it yet or not, and whether publishers and critics know it yet or not. At my book-reading in Paris, a reader of my novel asked me why I only mentioned voodoo twice in God Loves Haiti and only in passing. I remember thinking, the candid answer is, because I wanted to disappoint expectations like that.
You just shared your picks for 2015. What are some older Caribbean novels we should be reading?
DEL: Hmm, well, I recommend you read the back catalogues of every writer I mentioned in this interview. Edwidge Danticat has been particularly prolific over the past 20 years. Don’t sleep. I also recommend Earl Lovelace’s classic The Dragon Can’t Dance from 1979. The best, most loving depiction of Trinidad’s Carnival you’ll find. Also George Lamming’s In the Castle of My Skin from 1953. From Barbados, the great title alone tells you you’re in for a treat with Lamming. Jamaican historian’s Matthew J. Smith’s recent Liberty, Fraternity, Exile: Haiti and Jamaica after Emancipation took ten years to research and write and has the brilliance to show for it.
I enjoyed veteran Dominican writer Julia Alvarez’s A Wedding in Haiti: The Story of A Friendship from 2012 a lot. Chilean author Isabel Allende’s The Island Beneath the Sea (2009) about colonial era Hispaniola is yet another classic in her oeuvre. I turned to it a lot when I was writing God Loves Haiti. She writes about madness so casually. I remember reading Oonya Kempadoo’s Tide Running in 2001 and delighting in the unabashed creole her character’s spoke. She’s from Guyana. You should read every word ever written by the great Haitian writer Dany Laferriere that you can find in English, and then learn French just to read the yet to be translated rest of his 30-odd book catalogue of good humor and good sex. I read Derek Walcott’s poems whenever I can. They make me want to write. That dude knows the Caribbean’s soul like few others.