Dimitry Elias Leger’s debut novel, God Loves Haiti, is set during the 2010 earthquake that rocked Haiti, and the storyline focuses on Natasha, a free spirited artist who wants to leave Haiti to live in exile with her Haitian president husband, and Alain, her lover, who is determined to stay in the country and make things better.
In the news coverage after the earthquake, it was hard to actually conceptualize that 200,000 lives had been lost. A number that large, just feels like a number. But Leger’s novel forces readers to focus on three lives, three lovers, three flawed characters, whose lives are forever changed by the catastrophe. The novel is a love story and a political analysis, as well as a history lesson set against a tiny island with a complicated past.
Leger was kind enough to answer some of my questions about returning to Haiti, the writing life, and how he hopes to raise his children with an appreciation for Haiti.
When I first picked up your book, I was drawn to the title, God Loves Haiti. In an NPR interview, you said that the title was a response to comments that were made by Pat Robertson that the 2010 earthquake was a punishment from God. “God Loves Haiti” is such a radical statement, although it shouldn’t be. Do you think that public perception of Haiti has changed at all in recent years? Does it matter?
I don’t remember at what point in the writing process the title came to me. I do know it cracked me up when it did. I knew the idea could cheer up Haitians bummed out about Haiti and also annoy haters. Making fun of the expectations of haters who are often condescending, cynical, racist, or jealous of Haiti became the most enjoyable part of the writing, even though I was writing a story filled with characters who were deeply ambivalent about the place during the country’s darkest hour.
If you’re talking about the American public, perceptions of Haiti have been pretty tough through the centuries, hardening or softening a little depending on who’s in the White House. Economically, it matters. We’ve had lousy trade relations with the U.S. since 1804. Just look at how much more developed Caribbean countries with favorable public perceptions, like Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, or the Bahamas, are. Haiti is more friendly and welcoming today than it has been since the ‘50s. It would be nice if better trade and political relationships with the U.S. also followed. It’s the only way to solve the infrastructure and economic problems that hinder the sustainable development of communities outside of Port-au-Prince.
It might not have been intentional, but I think one of the themes of God Loves Haiti is a country that is always calling her people back. As Natasha and her husband, the Haitian president, board their plane to leave Haiti, the earthquake hits, holding them hostage in the country they both love and loathe. Like you, I grew up outside of Haiti, but when I visit I feel rooted. When I leave, the homesickness hits me like a flu. You’ve talked about the same type of deep feelings visiting the country of your youth. Do you see yourself returning to Haiti long term?
Haiti is home, for better and for worse. As with any familial and ancestral home, visiting it is an intense experience. I could be anxious about a trip there. Then the sun and the heat hit me off the plane, and I’m happy. Everything makes senses to me in Haiti in an organic way that’s hard to replicate in other countries. The relationship is complicated and loving. My work and family are scattered in too many cities and countries for me to seriously contemplate living all year round in one city. Yet I’m also not immune to the common Haitian fantasy of retiring there someday. We’ll see.
One of the unique things about your book is that it’s about Haiti and it’s written by a Haitian. How important do you think it is for Haitians to tell Haiti’s stories, or do you think in the end, the art is more important than the messenger?
Haiti and the Caribbean has a long tradition of producing good writers and poets and performers. There are a lot of Haitian writers publishing novels and poetry collections and essays in English or in French and finding audiences, especially in francophone countries. And there have always been. For some magical reason, many Haitians have had a gift for writing and story-telling on different scales and in different mediums, and our stories travel well. Haitian writers compete with painters to become the country’s signature export, like Brazil and soccer players, or Cuba with cigars, and the U.S. with movies and TV shows.
You’ve said that Caribbean writers willing to “mashup” ideas of about people, family, and heritage have an audience waiting for them. You’ve lived most of your adult life outside of Haiti in places like New York and Switzerland. If you could create a “mashup meal” from the places you’ve lived or visited, what food would you include?
What a fun question! Such a delicious plate would include Haitian griot and plantains, of course, first and foremost. Then I’d toss in some fried chicken from America, BBQ spare ribs, corn on the cob, and French fries, of course. White or yellow rice and red beans from Latin America and then jerk chicken, my favorite Jamaican invention after reggae. From France, I’d want a steak with three different pepper sauces and a gratin dauphinoise and steamed vegetables, carrots and broccoli. Swiss fondue with charcuterie to conclude. We’d drink a lot of rum, of course, and coke, and ginger juice from Mali.
You have a background in journalism and worked as a reporter for the Miami Herald, along with other publications like Fortune Magazine, The Source, and MTV News. What’s the craziest story you’ve ever reported or the most interesting interview you’ve done?
The celebrity stuff was fun because I largely covered parts of popular culture that I love: tech, music, and basketball. A lot of my colleagues like those entrepreneurs, artists and athletes we covered were around my age. We were all excited about getting their stories and our generations’ stories right and presented as cleverly as possible. My favorite story was a package on the exponential rise in black teen suicide rates since 1980. It was an under the radar trend in the hip-hop community that was awkward to write about but important to confront.
Like you, I am raising children of Haitian descent in the diaspora. How can we raise our children with an awareness and appreciation for their Haitian ancestry?
One good approach is to share with them your enthusiasm about all things Haiti, including family, friends, faith, food, music, books, and art, and of course, the island itself. Warts and all. If it’s genuine, it’ll be contagious. Or at least respected as part of your family’s every day flavor. Kids dig that. One thing I discovered living in different countries in three different continents is, shockingly, no country is perfect. Everyone has their fair share of assholes. The weather is too hot or too cold. Wealth is no virtue. Poverty is no sin. The struggle for happiness on a daily basis is real, and most of us suck at being grateful, humble, and kind all the time. Yet, Black is beautiful. As Haitians, it’s cool and a privilege to be able to trace our ancestry, our particularly strain of blackness, to one groovy island.
You’ve talked a lot about legacy and wanting this book to be part of your legacy for your children. Now that you’ve written your “Moby Dick”, what does it feel like to be on the other side of publication? Personally and professionally what, if anything, has changed?
To be on the other side of publication is amazing. Sometimes I still can’t believe it. What did it change? Everything. For one, I can have a bit of distance from the other challenges in life. Life can be hard. So it’s good to have proof that dreams can actually come true. All books and art give me that charge, not just mine. I need to visit a bookstore at least once a week or buy a good record by a new artist or see a bold movie to make me feel alive.
I’ve read that God Loves Haiti is coming to the screen soon. Can you tell us more about that?
In spring 2018, some talented producers in Hollywood bought the option to make God Loves Haiti, the TV series. Prayers up that they succeed!
What’s next for you?
Life? Or, like the Drake album: More life.
Dimitry Elias Leger is a Haitian-American novelist, journalist, and humanitarian. He also has great taste in music. To learn more about Leger, like his Facebook page, follow him on Twitter @dimitryleger, and pick up a copy of God Loves Haiti here.
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