Why Haiti Needs New Narratives: A Post-Quake Chronicle by Gina Athena Ulysse

Ulysse, Gina Athena. 2015. Why Haiti Needs New Narratives: A Post-Quake Chronicle. Wesleyan University Press. 410 pp; $80.00 hardcover, $27.95 paperback.

From the opening proverb—Tout moun se moun, men tout moun pa menm (All people are human, but not all humans are the same)—Gina Athena Ulysse’s Why Haiti Needs New Narratives: A Post-Quake Chronicle invites us to open ourselves up to multiple perspectives, not only her own. Her outlook is enriched and thickened by various types of scholarly sources, diverse critical and aesthetic approaches (from ethnographic framework to psychoanalytic gaze, from the historical to the philosophical stance), experience, witnessing, etc. But she also allows space for the standpoints of many “others,” and most significantly, our own manifold and complex viewpoints, learned (either well-informed or simply acquired) responses, and, perhaps, internalized valuations, blind spots, and prejudices.[1] This work demonstrates that “not all humans are the same” because not all narratives are the same. “Tout moun” is never taken at “face value,” in an unreflective reaction, but rather as an encounter that implies a multiplicity of narratives—social, ethical, economic, political, and so many more.[2] Through this invitation to see Haiti, Haitians, their history, and representations from manifold standpoints, we are also allowed to relax, absorb, and allow our individual experiences and voices to play a part. Because of the immediacy of the dispatches, op-eds, and articles included in the text—as historian Robin D.G. Kelley states in the foreword, “The sense of urgency that pervades her essays is palpable”—it is difficult to assess this eclectic work without inserting oneself into the experience. The subjective “I” is not marginalized, is not allowed a voyeuristic distance, and does not remain unchanged. As Jonathan M. Katz points out in his praise for the book, “Ulysse’s clear, powerful writing rips through the stereotypes to reveal a portrait of Haiti in politics and art that will change the way you think about that nation’s culture, and your own” (Ulysse, 2015 [outside back cover]; my emphasis).

One of the many modes of perception we may employ to think about a nation’s culture, the role of language—in this case, languages—is essential. From the moment I picked up the book, I was struck by the author’s fundamental and deliberate choice to publish the text in three languages: English, Kreyòl (Haitian Creole), and French. The foreword focuses on the importance of new narratives, and it is invigorating to receive immediate evidence that Ulysse achieves her goal: to shift the tenor of narratives on Haiti from simplistic and often stagnant definitions of the country, its history, its people, and its place in the world, to a narrative that attempts to deliver a more complex understanding of the living, breathing, ever-changing nation, and the 212 years of historical trajectory since its independence in January 1804. Through fine translations by Nadève Ménard and Évelyne Trouillot, this incisive, trilingual work allows us to enter a richer, more meaningful approach to Ulysse’s nuanced analysis of the complexities of post-quake Haiti and its representations through her perspective as an anthropologist, artist, and insider. For those who are able to read the text in the three languages, the subtleties are evident. But this goes beyond narrative strategy, as “telling” in three languages also extends the readership to a much wider audience. Ulysse’s engagement and praxis are implicit in this decision. As Paul Stoller describes it, Why Haiti Needs New Narratives is a “profoundly important work of engaged anthropology” (Ulysse, 2015 [outside back cover]).

Ulysse studies the impact of language, commenting on how easily people from all walks of life allow themselves the luxury—or rather, privilege—of saying whatever crosses their minds. She presents as examples the accounts of the first reporters on the scene after the catastrophic earthquake of 12 January 2010, in particular, an explanation by an unnamed white female reporter of the distressed and emotionless state of the Haitian people: “Perhaps it is because they are so used to hardship that they are unresponsive” (10). Ulysse explains how this simple observation constitutes not only “an additional blow to the psyche” but also discursive reinforcement of the routine dehumanization of Haitians (10). In several essays, she points out that how Haiti is defined is an act of interpretation, and in many instances, misinterpretation. In “Dehumanization and Fracture: Trauma at Home and Abroad” (25 January 2010), the role of language and (mis)interpretation is evident in her example of a reportage by Anderson Cooper in conversation with Karl Penhaul reporting from Port-au-Prince. Both reporters were perturbed by the fact that people were not crying and by an account of a woman who had lost her child. When asked what she had done with the body of her child, the woman used the word jete. This was misconstrued as the act of throwing the body away. In this essay, the trauma at home is revealed by discursive gaps. Ulysse brings up this example but does not linger enough to explain the misunderstanding further. This happens in several essays; nevertheless, these gaps in the discourse of witnessing trauma are later filled in. Disturbing events that appear fleetingly are echoed and expanded in subsequent essays. For example, in a piece written four months after the Cooper-Penhaul report, the author elaborates on the episode. The reporter failed to understand that the woman was saying that she did not have the opportunity to bury her family members because they had been thrown into a mass grave by other people.

Adding to the limitations of a linguistic understanding of the country, the sheer breadth of the types of narratives that play a part in creating a public image of Haiti is staggering and confusing—historical accounts interlaced with those from the medical community and the countless grassroots organizations, media coverage and responses from readers, religious discourse, photography, film…. As the list gets longer, the author addresses the function of art, performance, dance, popular culture, orality, the role of Vodou, and other channels for presenting alternative narratives to counter others, to redress, to reconstruct, to strengthen, to complete, and to heal what may be broken. Ulysse shows how narratives can help tame the monster or heal the trauma of sudden upheaval and disaster. One excellent example is the use of the word Goudougoudou, the humorous-sounding, almost affectionate term with which Haitians dubbed the earthquake in many stories (24-25). In one of her accounts of the valor she witnessed, Ulysse writes, “Words are will” (72). In many of these essays, she stresses that words generate the strength to overcome fear and the will to live (volonté pou viv).

Written in clear, straightforward prose, the essays are often open-ended and read as starting points for further exploration. In some instances, the brief sketches beg to be fleshed out and expanded into longer essays. However, when one continues reading, one comes to embrace these short bursts—intense, simultaneously intellectual and visceral—as incitement to think, to seriously ponder the myriad factors, ever-changing circumstances and complexities implicit in the multiple representations of Haitian reality before and after the earthquake.

The essays (and the careful way in which they are organized in the collection) are particularly compelling because they draw the readers into a shared trajectory that is at once emotional, psychological, visual, discursive, and so much more. The titles of the book’s sections announce that this is a heroic voyage: I. Responding to the Call, II. Reassessing My Response, and III. A Spiritual Imperative. But the trajectory is not an individual one. The author weaves together stories about awe-inspiring survivors, fellow travelers, friends, and inspirational figures, such as the tributes to the late feminist Paulette Poujol Oriol, flag-maker Myrlande Constant, and feminist activist Jolette Yeanty. And there are many others—others who, like Ulysse herself, are instrumental in producing new narratives of/for Haiti.

Why Haiti Needs New Narratives is an extraordinary and inspiring text. As an anthropologist, performance artist, and educator, Ulysse offers nuanced social analysis while helping readers understand what it means to “inherit sacrifice” (101), to be engaged, and to stay true to oneself. It is the chronicle of a scholar who dares to speak of love and hope.

Ivette Romero is a Professor of Spanish, Chair of the Department of Modern Languages and Cultures, and Coordinator of the Latin American and Caribbean Studies minor at Marist College. Her research interests include Caribbean testimonial narrative, women writers, cinema, and visual arts. Her work has been published in journals such as Anales del Caribe, Callaloo, Caribbean Quarterly, Mango Season, Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, and Sargasso. She has co-edited two volumes— Women at Sea: Travel Writing and the Margins of Caribbean Discourse (2001) and Displacements and Transformations in Caribbean Cultures (2008)—and is co-editor of the Repeating Islands blog with Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert.


[1] Maria Lugones, “Purity, Impurity, and Separation,” Signs, Vol. 19, No. 2 (Winter 1994), 458-479, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3174808. I use the term “thickened,” thinking of Lugones’ study of separation and thickness in this essay.

[2]In my reference to “face value,” I follow Emmanuel Levinas’ understanding of the face-to-face encounter and his view that “the will is not free to ignore the meaningful world into which the face of the Other has introduced it” (Totality and Infinity 219). From Diane Perpich, The Ethics of Emmanuel Levinas, 149.

Works Cited

Lugones, Maria. 1994. “Purity, Impurity, and Separation.”Signs 19(2) (Winter): 458-479.

Perpich, Diane. 2008. The Ethics of Emmanuel Levinas. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.