01.14.10

Speed Read: The Best Books on Haiti

With everyone’s eyes on Haiti after the massive earthquake, The Daily Beast and our contributors recommend books, a documentary, and music that will help readers understand the besieged country.

With all of the world’s eyes turned on Haiti after the terrible earthquake that has taken tens of thousands of lives and left millions homeless, some readers may be looking for more information on the country and its people. The Daily Beast and a few contributors have put together a primer on books, articles, documentaries, and other resources to help our readers better understand Haiti’s history and its current tragedy.

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Mountains Beyond Mountains
By Tracy Kidder

One of the people leading the rescue effort in Haiti is Dr. Paul Farmer, whose Partners in Health is by all reports one of the few functioning medical services left in the country. Farmer has been a longtime champion of AIDS victims and other public-health problems in the country. Tracy Kidder’s profoundly moving and inspiring account, Mountains Beyond Mountains, of Farmer’s work in the country is necessary reading for anyone wanting to understand what the Haitians have already faced and what one brave man was doing there before the world was galvanized into action.

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The Agronomist
Directed by Jonathan Demme

Oscar-winning filmmaker Jonathan Demme has been fascinated by Haiti for years. His stunning documentary, The Agronomist, about civil-rights leader, journalist, and political activist Jean Dominique, who was assassinated in 2000, examines Haiti’s tortured efforts to find stability and democratic rule. Through his independent radio station, Dominique was one of the most outspoken critics of the autocratic regimes of “Papa Doc” and “Baby Doc,” and in Demme’s film his life becomes a prism to view Haitian history over the last 40 years.

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Toussaint Louverture
By Madison Smartt Bell

Think of a combination of George Washington, Robespierre, and Bolivar and you’ll get Toussaint Louverture, the leader of the only successful slave revolt in history that freed the Haitians from French and Spanish control. Little is known about his life, but novelist Madison Smartt Bell brilliant recreates the life and times of Louverture in his biography. Readers interested in Haitian history should also check out Smartt Bell’s superb trilogy about the revolution.

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Brother, I’m Dying
By Edwidge Danticat

Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat’s National Book Critics Circle Award-winning memoir, Brother, I’m Dying, is the mesmerizing story of Danticat’s and her family’s immigration from Haiti when she was a young girl and the tragic death of her uncle. It is a story as much as about coming to the U.S. as it is about remaining connected to her birth country and its remarkable culture.

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Gerald Posner Recommends

Little Haiti in Miami might look like Port-au-Prince, but nothing captures the essence of the Rhode Island-size country than some great writers who spent years there gaining an affinity for the poverty-stricken strip of Caribbean sand. Graham Greene's 40-year-old classic novel, The Comedians, is about a world-weary hotelier in the darkest period of the Duvalier dictatorship. It’s a remarkably grim and moving look inside a country controlled by violence and corruption. Writer Herbert Gold first visited Haiti as a 22-year-old student in 1952. In his many subsequent trips over the years, he dined with Graham Greene, met Duvalier hooligans, had booze-soaked evenings with loose-lipped diplomats, ex-Nazis, and voodoo priests. The result is Gold’s Haiti: Best Nightmare on Earth. Gold's entertaining Haiti is that of the country’s elite. Greene’s moving novel on the other hand captures the despair closer to the grind most Haitians have endured for far too long.

Listen to Boukman Eksperyana

One of the most important music bands in Haiti, their name is an echo of a revolutionary figure in the country’s history, and they played their own role in the democratic movement around Aristide in the early 1990s. Try their appropriately named album Revolution for an amazing mix of dance hall and political agitation.

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Sarah Crichton Recommends

Amy Wilentz’s splendid book, The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier, vibrantly captures the unique flavor of Haiti and its tangled history. The book is 20 years old, and it focuses on the tumultuous era after the fall of “Baby Doc” Duvalier, but I have no doubt that reading it today would be as revealing and rewarding as ever.

Best Introduction to Haiti’s Writers

The single best introduction to Haiti’s writers and literature is Madison Smartt Bell’s superb essay in the July 17, 2008, issue of The New York Review of Books. In one sitting you’ll get a taste of the incredible range of the Haitian literary tradition and helpful pointers about what to read next.

Plus: Check out Book Beast for more news on hot titles and authors and excerpts from the latest books.