Author Bio: Laura Rose Wagner is the author of Hold Tight Don’t Let Go, Marian’s 2015 all school read. She is also a cultural anthropologist and experienced the 2010 earthquake firsthand while doing research in Port-au-Prince. Wagner has returned to Haiti several times since and is currently working on an archive of Haiti’s first independent radio station.
Q: What was your experience in Haiti like, and how did you draw upon that in the book? Is it difficult to write about the earthquake since you experienced it firsthand?
A: I lived in Haiti for around three years, from 2009 to 2012. I went there during a period of relative calm, originally to do research on human rights and household servitude in Port-au-Prince.
In the relatively short time I was there, the country saw an earthquake that killed perhaps hundreds of thousands of people, the displacement of perhaps 1.5 million people, an unprecedented cholera epidemic, and a massive, largely failed attempt by the international community to “save” and “rebuild” the country. That was the big, macro context.
But what I often write about is ordinary life amid all that crisis. From the perspective of someone in the U.S., reading the news, it probably seemed like Haiti was in a constant state of chaos and unrelenting misery, and that all Haitian people are powerless, voiceless victims.
And while the suffering and the injustice are unquestionably real, there were lots of other things going on. People went to school, went to work, tried to find work, raised their families, told jokes, watched soap operas on TV, followed the World Cup, got dressed up and went dancing, read books, fell in love, went to church, checked Facebook on their phones… Ordinary human things. So few foreigners think of everyday life when they think of Haiti.
My personal story, which I’ve written about a bit, is that I was in a house that collapsed in the January 12, 2010 earthquake, and I was buried in the rubble until later that evening, when I was rescued by Haitian friends—Frenel and Bòs John, two men who worked for my landlady. I was injured and evacuated to Miami two days later.
The part of the story I like to emphasize is that in that moment of total disaster—which really, truly felt Biblical, like the end of the world—most ordinary people behaved incredibly decently and heroically.
Most people, including me, were not saved by foreign search-and-rescue teams, but by their families, friends, and neighbors. Of course the standard and frankly racist story that a lot of U.S. news outlets were peddling was about chaos, criminality, and looting rather than the heroism and solidarity of ordinary Haitian people.
It is not particularly difficult or upsetting for me to write about the earthquake. I started writing about the earthquake almost as soon as I could, when I was still in the hospital in Miami. At that time, I felt pretty numb but also knew it was important to tell a different kind of story about Haiti and Haitians than what a lot of the media were reporting at the time. And I think by now, I have told the story so many times, talked and written about it so much, that it’s as though it happened to someone else. I compartmentalize a lot of it and don’t engage directly with my own emotions around it very often.
Q: What was your writing/research process like for HTDLG? What was the most difficult part?
A: My experience was unusual: I was a doctoral student in anthropology living in Haiti and conducting research about how people lived after the earthquake, and how they coped with what had happened to them.
For a cultural anthropologist, doing research means you live in a place for a long time, observe how people live, participate in daily activities, and interview people about their lives and experiences. Being a fiction writer also means being a good observer of character and place, so it was for me a very natural transition. (My anthropological writing tends to be literary and focused on individual lives and characters, anyway.)
Actually, the hardest part for me was (and is!) the editing process. It can be hard to send your manuscript off to someone else (your editor) who may not agree with all of your choices, and you may yourself feel very strongly about some of the things you’ve written, but your editor doesn’t think it works. It can be hard not to feel defensive in that situation, but good editors know what they’re doing and know how to make a book better (even if the writer can’t always see that).
I had an uncommonly wonderful, patient editor who knew how personal this project was for me; she was always willing to discuss and work with me on turning Hold Tight into something that we both loved.
Q: How can high school students get involved and help poorer countries like Haiti or provide aid during big crises?
A: You know, this question doesn’t feel that much easier once you get older. I still don’t know the best way to help after a disaster; I still feel almost completely powerless when something like this happens. But here goes.
In terms of raising money to donate in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, the first step is to do your research. Identify smaller, reputable organizations that have a long history and a good track record in the country, rather than newcomers who may not have the background, knowledge, and connections to do the work. Make sure that most of the money goes directly to the people who need it, rather than to institutional overhead.
In the long run, beyond the moment of immediate disaster and emergency, it’s important to be aware of how the policies of our governments and other institutions that we participate in affect the lives of marginalized people both in our own countries and abroad, and to take action on a local level. Unfortunately this is harder, and might not create the same warm feelings that directly helping a person in need does.
I think that service learning and volunteer abroad programs can have their place… but they are mainly useful to the young people who participate in them, rather than the communities they are meant to serve. Participating in such programs are a way to learn about other parts of the world, and to develop one’s own sense of humility.
There’s a really good, somewhat snarky but deeply thought-provoking essay on this from the late 1960s, by Ivan Illich: “To Hell With Good Intentions.” It’s a little dated, but I read it when I was 16 and it completely blew my mind.
When you’re in high school, you can’t vote (mostly), and in a lot of ways you don’t have the power that adults have, but you can lay the groundwork for the kind of adult you’re going to be. You can learn languages. You can familiarize yourself with the histories of the places you want to help, and begin to understand how they got that way.
Oh, and don’t send old clothes and things like that. You’d be sort of amazed by some of the weird things people sent to Haiti after the earthquake. Money is a lot more useful.
Q: Why do you think it is important for teenagers to have a more personal understanding of big global events?
A: Being a teenager is an interesting time. I never would have said that when I was a teenager myself, because I could not wait to grow up and do more thrilling, meaningful things, but looking back, it was the time when my conscience and awareness were growing, and fiction touched me in a way that nothing else did.
I loved the books that made me aware of injustice and universal humanity—I remember reading Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees, Michael Dorris’s A Yellow Raft in Blue Water, and Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street in the 9th grade, and Toni Morrison’s Beloved and the poetry of June Jordan in the 12th grade—those were books that helped orient the moral compass of the person I was becoming. That sounds kind of grandiose, but it’s true.
So: being a teenager is a formative time. You are becoming analytical but are still fairly uncynical. You can at last understand the complicated ways of the world—you start to really understand your history books, or maybe suspect that there’s a lot of things your history books leave out.
And teenagers feel things deeply—their own emotions, sure, but others’ emotions, too. There is so much yearning potential in teenagers, which is both the amazing thing and the frustrating thing about being a teenager: the awareness that so much lies before you, and you can’t quite touch it yet.
In other words: teenagers are smart and they care, so it seems natural for them to have an understanding of big global events.
And the personal side is important, too—because often, when macro events (especially disasters, wars, and other crises) are depicted, it has the paradoxical effect of dehumanizing the victims. People are somehow transformed from humans, with complicated desires and internal lives, to flat symbols: the Victim, the Refugee, the Migrant Laborer, the Sweatshop Worker. Maybe one thing that literature can do is dismantle some of those assumptions.
Q: Are you planning on writing any more books?
A: I would love to! I suspect my next book will be nonfiction—hopefully a book version of my doctoral dissertation, which was largely about the long-term impacts of the Haiti earthquake on people’s lives and families (sort of a more academic, nonfiction treatment of some of the themes in Hold Tight).
Eventually I would love to write something about the project I am currently working on, which is an archive of Haiti’s first independent radio station. And, on the fiction side, I’d love to write short stories, as well. I love an elegantly crafted short story—Flannery O’Connor was a genius and you should all go read her, if you haven’t.
Q: Why did you choose to write from a teenager’s perspective, and what do you think this added to the story?
A: After I wrote my first article, right after the earthquake, an editor from Amulet (the young adult imprint of Abrams) contacted me and asked if I would like to write a YA novel. I said, “Okay, I’ll give it a shot!”
I don’t know if it would have occurred to me to write a YA novel on my own, but I’m glad I did. When I think back on adolescence—anyone’s adolescence—it’s this strange time of trying to figure out who you are and where you are going, who your real community is, what you believe, where you fit into the world. So imagining that kind of searching, set in a world where everything seems to have fallen apart, is meaningful.
Magdalie is not a child anymore (and if she was a child before the quake, she is very suddenly thrust out of childhood), but she is not yet an adult who can completely take care of herself. But after the earthquake, she has trouble trusting or relying on anything or anyone. She has to learn how to do that, again.
Q: Magdalie’s education is very important to her because she wants a good future. What do you think is the most important aspect of education and the opportunities it opens up?
A: For a lot of people in Haiti, getting an education is seen as a door to a different kind of life. For someone like Magdalie’s manman, an education for her daughters would mean, perhaps, that they wouldn’t have the same kind of life she had, or know the same kind of suffering. That’s the dream, at least.
As with most things in Haiti, education is complicated, and going to school doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll get a job or have that dreamed-of upward economic mobility. It’s not a guarantee at all, for reasons both economic and social.
Beyond employment, though, there’s also the social status that going to school gives you. Even if you remain poor, having an education means you’re literate, you probably know at least some French, you wear a uniform, you have certain skills and knowledge. It’s social capital.
Q: Are there any phrases/words in Haitian Creole that you find particularly beautiful, and do you mind sharing them with me?
A: So many! Haitian Creole is a language full of proverbs, sayings, and metaphors, a lot of which are really beautiful and evocative. I like “both my feet are in a single shoe,” which is sort of like the English “between a rock and a hard place.” I like the word “tchouboum,” which is an abyss, a big dark hole, an intractable problem.
I just learned an expression from a Haitian-American friend a few days ago. She was out eating with her mother, in South Florida, and her mom thought the food was only so-so. “I have to make sure you try good ones sometime, so you don’t see chicken poop and think it’s butter.”
Other words, I just like the sound of: “aloufa” (someone who eats everything), “pich-pich” (your eyes are pich-pich when they’re swollen). I could come up with a really long list.
Q: When you first went to live in Haiti, what was the most shocking difference between Haiti and the U.S.?
A: People in Haiti really, really mean it when they say they want you to come to their house and visit. They’re not just being polite. Also, cell phone culture is really different. I’m used to ignoring phone calls if I’m busy, or in a meeting or, say, asleep. That is not the standard in Haiti. For a lot of people in Haiti, it’s rude not to pick up, no matter what else you might be doing.
Q: It is often easy to forget or ignore that impoverished countries like Haiti have rich and fascinating histories and cultures. What is the one thing you wish everyone knew about Haiti’s history or culture that is often overlooked?
A: I think I’d want people to know that there is nothing natural or inevitable about Haiti’s poverty and suffering. It is the result of very clear patterns of historical exploitation, oppression, colonialism, and interference, and the U.S. and other powerful countries played, and continue to play, a central role in that.
It is easy to look at Haiti and feel pity, but it is intellectually and emotionally harder to understand the processes of power and violence that have made Haiti the way it is today.
And at the same time—and maybe this sounds contradictory—I would want people to know that life in Haiti isn’t only about suffering and poverty. It’s all that stuff I was mentioning earlier. I’d want people in the U.S. to know how funny Haitians are, and the power that humor can have when someone feels powerless in so many other ways.
Q: Haiti’s culture stresses the importance of community, which is one of the core values of Marian. How do you think these strong bonds between “family” provide strength in times of need? Do you think community played a big role in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, and how?
A: Yes, yes, yes. First, like I said, an awful lot of ordinary people reacted to the earthquake heroically. So many people, including myself, owe their lives to that instinctive goodness. In the longer aftermath, people owed a lot to specific cultural forms of community and cooperation. There are traditions from rural Haiti—for example, a communal homestead called a lakou where extended family and neighbors draw upon shared resources, and a communal labor system called the konbit—and I’d argue that a lot of those traditions and forms of cooperation endure, in changed forms, even in the capital, even after the disaster. Some Haitians don’t agree with me.
A lot of people I knew in Haiti agree that everyone “put their heads together” (as they say) in the immediate aftermath of the quake, but that that solidarity didn’t last—that after people began to compete for aid money and resources, that sense of community fell apart. But, maybe because I was looking at things from the perspective of an outsider, I saw small, everyday forms of solidarity and kindness all the time.
Social relations, generosity, and reciprocity are imperative to survival when people are very poor. One of your neighbors had extra food today, so they left some for you; tomorrow, that neighbor might not have any food, but you have a little extra. I saw those small ordinary acts of sharing and community all the time after the earthquake.
Q: Why did you decide to include vodou ideas and rituals in the book? Do you think the vodou religion strengthens Haiti’s culture, and what truths can be found in the vodou religion?
A: Vodou is central to Haiti’s culture and history. It’s not only a religion, it’s a way of coping with the trauma of oppression, displacement, and enslavement, and to keep the spiritual connection to Africa and the ancestors alive. It’s a religion of liberation and resistance: the Haitian Revolution began with a vodou ceremony in 1791.
Vodou has also been very misrepresented and misunderstood, from Hollywood depictions of “voodoo” and “zombies” to people (both in the U.S. and later in Haiti) impugning vodou as “devil worship.” So it seemed appropriate that vodou, and traditional medicine, be part of Magdalie’s healing journey. In her case, especially—displaced from her former home and former life, having lost her mother—that connection to the ancestors and to one’s past is really important. And I wanted to show, as well, how vodou ritual fits into everyday life in Haiti; it’s not this otherworldly phenomenon.
Q: Why did you decide to include a character like Madame Faustin in the book? What elements of Haiti’s class distinctions does she add to the book?
A: You know, I have more compassion for Madame Faustin than Magdalie does, probably. I see her as a middle-class woman who thinks she’s doing good—that she’s a good patron—but who is so bound by her own fears and biases and social expectations that she becomes oppressive, even cruel. She isn’t part of the elite, and doesn’t think of herself as powerful, but of course she is, compared to Magdalie and her family.
Class relations in Haiti—as in many places—are complicated. Things aren’t clear binaries between good people and bad people, and power is relative. I don’t think many people wake up in the morning and say, “I want to be horrible to the powerless today.” But people have internal logics and justifications that make it seem okay to do oppressive things.
Q: A lot of us (meaning high school students) are trying to figure out what we want to do and who we want to be when we are older. How did you decide to study anthropology?
A: I had thought for a long time that I would go into public health, but I realized that what really interested me were social problems rather than medical problems. People were getting sick and dying of preventable or treatable things because they were poor and oppressed. I was really inspired by the work of Paul Farmer, who is a medical doctor and a medical anthropologist, so I decided to apply to grad school in medical anthropology.
Looking back, I was pretty naive about a lot of things, but it turned out to be a good choice for me because anthropology, and my department, gave me the opportunity to grow as a writer. But I still think about other paths not taken—would I be more objectively useful as a doctor or a nurse, for example? I think that, even as we get older and supposedly wiser, we never stop trying to figure out who we are, what we want to do, and who we want to be.