November 28, 2011
Reading Dangerously the Writings of Beverly Bell & Edwidge Danticat to End Violence Against #Haitian Women

Beverly Bell's "Walking on Fire: Haitian Women's Stories of Survival and Resistance"

 

I am a “blan” and will always be a “blan.”  As a white woman of privilege I have to work at absorbing the souls, the laments, and the cries of triumph of my Haitian sisters.  Unless I do, I know that my meager gestures of solidarity will always be off the mark.  This past weekend which coupled Thanksgiving and the International Day to End Violence Against Women, I was grateful for the soul-witnessing of Haitian emigre Edwidge Danticat and “Blan” Beverly Bell, who is indeed Haitian in her soul after a lifetime of living and struggling on behalf of her people of Haiti.

 

It never occured to me before talking with Beverly Bell over lunch last week that writing could be so dangerous — or listening or reading as well.  Bell’s collection of “istwa” (personal stories in political context) of Haitian women interviewed during Haiti’s military coup period of 1991-1994 is just as disturbing, inspiring, relevant and subversive as it must have been when published eleven years ago.  In “Walking on Fire:  Haitian Women’s Stories of Survival and Resistance,” Bell conveys the oral histories of 38 of  Haiti’s “griyo,” Haiti’s wise women — brave, brilliant and often illiterate —  who gift other women with their pain and power around a charcoal fire or down a dark, muddy alley.  

 

We spoke about Bell’s interviews with market woman Alerte Belance, wife of an election organizer for popularly elected Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was deposed after only nine months.  When paramilitary henchmen invaded her home and her husband escaped to distract them, they captured Alerte instead.  Literally chopped to pieces, Alerte was left for dead in the killing fields called Titanyen outside of Port-au-Prince.  Alerte’s story of survival is searing, as is Bell’s work to help her relocate to Newark and appear on radio and TV in the U.S.  Despite a tongue cut in two, a face half-gone, a missing arm and only three fingers, Alerte as a “Dyaspora” became a mouthpiece in the U.S. of opposition to the military regime in Haiti.  She called on the Clinton Administration to intervene, which it finally did only after more than 8,000 had been murdered.  

 

For more about Beverly Bell’s “Walking on Fire,” see http://www.haitisupportgroup.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=340%3Areview-of-qwalking-on-fire-haitian-womenas-stories-of-survival-and-resistanceq&catid=97&Itemid=189

Edwidge Danticat's "Create Dangerously: the Immigrant Artist at Work"

 

When I read Edwidge Danticat’s just published collection of memoirs/essays, “Create Dangerously:  the Immigrant Artist at Work,” I was riveted by her interview of Alerte Belance, on camera for a documentary, “Courage and Pain.”  Of her tongue she said, “It healed…so I can tell my story, so people can know what happened to me.”  She told her story on the Phil Donohue Show, ” at rallies and press conferences, while debating paramilitary leaders on Haitian radio in New York, and while helping to file a lawsuit against FRAPH, the same paramilitary organization that had attacked her and so many others.    In a writer’s solidarity dance, Edwidge quotes from Alerte’s interviews with Beverly Bell

 

They killed mother after mother of children.  They killed doctor after doctor, student after student.  Mothers of children lost their children… The devil has raped the confidence of the people… People of conscience, hear me who is trying to wake you up.  Hear my story, what I have experienced…”

 

This is not only herstory from two decades ago — but a recurring nightmare for Haitians today confronted with the news that current President Michel Martelly intends to reinstate the Haitian army.  Poised to make an official announcement last week, he has hesitated for the time-being for who knows what reason.

  

Danticat wrote, in her words, “Create dangerously, for people who read dangerously. This is what I’ve always thought it meant to be a writer. Writing, knowing in part that no matter how trivial your words may seem, someday, somewhere, someone may risk his or her life to read them.” 

 

For an excerpt from Edwidge Danticat’s “Create Dangerously,” printed in the New York Times, see http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/10/books/review/excerpt-create-dangerously.html?pagewanted=all and for more about the book see http://press.princeton.edu/titles/9262.html