She tells anchor Marco Werman about the erosion of Haitian culture since the earthquake, including the disappearance of everyday objects that used to be made there.
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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman, this is The World. Author Amy Wilentz has a new book out today about Haiti. It’s called “Farewell, Fred Voodoo.” That’s what some foreign correspondents used to call the Haitian man on the street, Fred Voodoo. Most reporters wouldn’t use the term these days, it’s gone by the wayside, like many things in Haiti in the decades since Amy Wilentz started visiting the island nation. In her new book she chronicles those changes, including what’s happened to everyday objects, like chairs? Wilentz recalls the first chair she bought in Haiti. She says it was the model there in the 1980s.
Amy Wilentz: People made them in their own houses or there were sometimes studios where they were made by bunches of people, but they were authentically Haitian peasant chairs and everybody sat in them. And you sat in them if you were a market lady, and you sat in them if you were a tourist at a grand hotel, and you say in them if you were a rich person up in the hills or a poor person in the shanty towns, so everywhere.
Werman: A truly democratic chair.
Wilentz: A democratic chair, exactly.
Werman: So what’s happening to the Haiti chair? Why are you so dismayed?
Wilentz: Well, I guess no one in the world will be surprised to hear that the little Haitian chair is being replaced by the little Chinese plastic mold white chair that everybody knows so well. I mean there are two that sit on my corner in L.A. in someone’s garden.
Werman: That’s happening everywhere. Why do you kind of feel it’s more acute, this issue in Haiti?
Wilentz: To undercut a Haitian article of some kind, a Haitian item, you have to be selling very, very cheap, but that is in fact, what happens with the Chinese chair. It undersells the Haitian chair. It’s cheaper to make, it’s cheaper to make and take across the ocean and bring to Haiti than it is to make a Haitian chair. Also, I have to add this because of disclosure, and the Chinese chair is more comfortable.
Werman: What would Haitians rather sit in?
Wilentz: Well, wouldn’t you rather sit in a chair that’s more comfortable? Yeah, often outside observers have sentimental, and this is true of me all the time with Haiti because I’ve been going for so long, we have a sentimental attachment to something Haitian, that Haitians like roll their eyes and say, “Yeah, but the two legs on the chair were always sticking into my butt.”
Werman: What is lost by this kind of switch from the Haiti chair to the Chinese molded plastic chair?
Wilentz: Well, it’s symbolic more than the chair itself, but a Haitian, a cultural identity, cultural sovereignty control over the way your environment is and looks, and I see that eroding more and more in Haiti in so many ways.
Werman: I mean if it were just a chair that would be one thing. It would be kind of a curiosity, but as you point out, there are other things as well that kind of are emblematic of this. Talk about that.
Wilentz: I’m seeing it all over the place. One thing I point out in the book is that you can have an entire Haitian creole dinner and when you look at it you realize all the produce, the tomato paste, the rice, it all comes from another country. Then you also see it in the clothing; instead of Haitian seamstresses and Haitian tailors making Haitian clothing, very typical old fashioned clothing, you now see American secondhand clothing. You see it in the tourist icon of Haiti and in Africa also was the proud, beautiful, slender woman carrying produce in a basket on her head. You know, that’s the typical postcard, but now that same Haitian woman carries produce from the Dominican Republic in a bag on her head, and the bag is a plastic bag, overstuffed plastic bag. It doesn’t mean that Haitians are no longer Haitian, but it just means little by little the culture is eroded.
Werman: Amy, as the third anniversary of the earthquake approaches this Saturday, what images of Haiti do you flash to and which still trouble you?
Wilentz: Well, I think of the National Palace, to be honest. The National Palace was the building that was built with the help of the United States Marines during the American occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1934, which hardly anyone here remembers anymore, but the Haitians certainly do. And it was a beautiful three-domed building, where endless dictators and hopeful popular presidents had worked and ruled. And in the earthquake it was kind of knocked askew. And it looked kind of drunk and sad and the domes were leaning up against each other like you know, drug addicts on the corner. And then it stayed there for almost three years after the earthquake, looking out at the people of Haiti and them looking back at it, this symbol of national sovereignty like the White House. In fact, I sometimes call it the White House…in ruins among them in the center of the city. And now, finally, it’s been taken down. And I’m so glad it’s been taken down because I thought it was a really bad for one’s spirit and psyche to have that facing one all the time. But who was it taken down by? Another foreign group, Sean Penn’s group in concert with others took it down, so it took foreigners to build it, it took foreigners to take it down. So where does that leave Haiti really? Is this country in charge of its own fate, you know, that’s what I keep thinking about.
Werman: Amy Wilentz’ new book “Farewell, Fred Voodoo” is out today. Thank you very much, Amy, good to speak with you.
Wilentz: Thanks a lot.
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