My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Growing up, I barely read books with black female teen protagonists (shout out to The Coldest Winter Ever and Flyy Girl), let alone novels with Haitian female leads. I didn’t read my first Haitian author and Haitian characters—Haitian female characters—until Edwidge Danticat’s Breath Eyes Memory. Thank you, Oprah, for making it a book club selection in 1998. I’ve been a fan of Danticat’s ever since. I knew of Roxane Gay, but I didn’t know she was Haitian until I read her memoir Hunger. If Gay mentioned it in Bad Feminist (which I did not finish because I’m, well, a bad feminist) I missed it. Last year, I read Ben Phillippe’s The Field Guide to the North American Teenager, which is about a Black French Canadian teen boy (with Haitian parents), who moves to Texas and teen angst ensues. Now to my short list of read Haitian writing I can add Dear Haiti, Love Alaine by sisters Maika and Maritza Moulite.
Alaine is a seventeen-year-old Haitian American girl living in Miami with her father. After getting suspended from school for a class project “incident” she’s sent to Haiti to finish out the school year and to spend time with her mother, who is also cooling her heels after her own incident, which was televised live on her popular cable political news show that she anchors.
I was excited to read the novel with the striking red cover that bears the picture of beautiful Black girl, with big, puffy natural hair. I was looking forward to feeling nostalgic about growing up as the first-gen American-born daughter of Haitian immigrant parents. I wanted to read about the strictness of old school Haitian parents (kids are to be seen and not heard), being constantly reminded that I’m not American even though I desperately wanted to assimilate, reading the sprinklings of the Kreyol language, and having my mouth water with the mentioning of traditional dishes like diri kole, sauce pwo and legume. For the record, I have no idea if I’m spelling those correctly because I’ve seen them spelled various ways on social media. My father told me he learned how to read and write and, obviously, speak French, but he could only speak Kreyol (aka Creole) not read or write it. Still today it’s a debate. Some consider French the official language of Haiti, while others argue that it should be Kreyol. French is used for formal settings. Kreyol is used all the time. It’s also a class thing, I’m told.
Alaine and I are similar in that when we finally made it to Haiti we were amazed by its beauty. For all our young lives, we’d had it drilled into our heads by media that Haiti was the poorest country in the western hemisphere. We scoffed when our parents spoke of its wonder. I always questioned if the country were so great, why was it a threat of punishment to be sent there if I misbehaved (read: got pregnant. There was 0% chance of that happening to this awkward bookworm. See: above re strict parents).
People often omit the beauty and the history of Haiti when speaking about it. Enslaved Haitians were the first to revolt and gain independence and freedom. The Haitian Revolution served as the inspiration for other global slave revolts, including Nat Turner’s Revolt. I love the aspects of history that are included in Dear Haiti via Alaine’s school project. The two names I heard the most without knowing much about them were Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Toussaint L’ouverture. These fingers still need to get to Googling Marie-Madeleine Lachenais mistress/advisor to two Haitian presidents and Marie-Louise Coidavid, wife of Henri Christophe, Haiti’s first (and only) self-proclaimed king. Via Alaine’s own family drama the reader learns about some superstitions/beliefs (aka voodoo), which even her family, her mother and aunt who are twins, are split about believing. Same in my family. Some believe, some dismiss.
Dear Haiti hooked me because I wanted to know what would happen with Alaine. The hopeful feelings of being able to relate to a character that reminded me of a younger me didn’t emerge. I don’t know if it’s because millennials are growing up vastly different or even it it’s because I’m unfamiliar with some of the parts of Haiti mentioned. I imagine it would be the same as an American northeast city kid reading about kids growing up in the Midwest. Same country, different way of doing things. Even some of the sayings as chapter titles were unfamiliar to me, except the final one: Pa Bliye’m. The authors translated as “forget me not,” but I would say “don’t forget me.” This book is unforgettable and I look forward to the sisters’ upcoming release One of the Good Ones, tentatively due in early 2021.