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Book review: 'Haiti Noir'

The anthology edited by Edwidge Danticat puts a uniquely Haitian spin on the crime genre.

January 02, 2011|By Carolyn Kellogg | Los Angeles Times
  • A Haitian band performs at a voodoo festival.
A Haitian band performs at a voodoo festival. (Daniel Morel / Associated…)

Haiti Noir

Edited by Edwidge Danticat

Akashic Books: 309 pp., $24.95 hardcover, $15.95 paper

If criminality is universal, crime is local. That's what the successful noir anthology series by Akashic Books has shown: Starting with "Brooklyn Noir" in 2004, the small independent has published dozens of city-focused noir collections — from Los Angeles to Istanbul — celebrating crime, criminals and the people who write about them so well.

The latest comes with a literary pedigree: "Haiti Noir" is edited by Edwidge Danticat, a much-lauded young Haitian American writer who has received a National Book Critics Circle Award and a MacArthur "genius grant" fellowship. A handful of the contributors may be familiar — Danticat herself, for instance, and Madison Smartt Bell — but most are from the far-flung, multilingual Haitian diaspora.

Danticat had nearly finished gathering the stories for this book when Haiti was hit by a massive earthquake on Jan. 12, 2010. More than 200,000 people died, and an estimated 1.1 million were left homeless.

"Each story is now, on top of everything else, a kind of preservation corner," Danticat writes in her introduction, "a snapshot of places that in some cases have become irreparably altered."

These snapshots are of the criminal element, of the blithely privileged, of lives on the edge of poverty or disaster, of envy and greed and corruption and lust and pure bum luck — all components of classic noir. Both "Rosanna" by Josaphat-Robert Large and "The Harem" by Ibi Aanu Zoboi (Zoboi's is one of three stories dealing with the earthquake) have sharp twists that fit them into the classic noir mold. Marie Ketsia Theodore-Pharel's "Mercy at the Gate" has an equally classic murky morality.

But other stories stretch the definition of noir beyond the criminal and into something more ethereal. Ghosts and gods figure in these narratives, as do the ideas that powerful emotions — particularly vengeance — can empower uncanny action. A story may feature a police inspector, but that doesn't mean it won't get weird.

The strangeness comes from the legends and myths connected to voodoo, or, more properly, vodou. The American fascination with the religion is satirized in Mark Kurlansky's "The Leopard of Ti Morne," which begins: "Izzy Goldstein felt in his heart that he was really Haitian, although no one who knew him understood why he felt that way. 'Izzy, you're Jewish,' his mother would say with sorrow…." The author of the bestsellers "Cod" and "Salt," Kurlansky covered Haiti and the Caribbean for eight years as a journalist.

Kurlansky's story and a few others work as cultural crossing-gates, speaking to American expectations and providing entry points. Though many of the books in Akashic's noir series seem geared to reflect a city back to its readers — Koreatown, Los Feliz and the Fairfax district make appearances in "Los Angeles Noir" — "Haiti Noir" is presenting a country mostly to readers who never have been there.

Is it fair, then, to use the criminal side to do so? Well, noir tales are classically delicious, with bad people doing bad things, in settings where morality has lost its compass. But for Haiti, this French film-influenced noir is secondary. When Haiti was established as the hemisphere's first black-led republic in 1804 by former slaves, Danticat writes, "even the Polish soldiers who deserted the French to fight alongside Haitians during their battle for independence were considered 'noirs.'" "Noir," she tells us, meant "citizen," regardless of race; "blanc," the word meaning "white" (in Creole, "blan"), was applied to all foreigners, regardless of race.

This book seems to be wrapping that Haitian idea of noir into these stories, resulting in a smaller body count than in other books in the series. Several stories are about women trying to secure control; some hinge on the tensions between those who have resources and those who don't; others are about growing up with the tragic miscalculations of youth. There is some unevenness — some stories are simply less finished than others — but that's common to the series.

What is more interesting is that Danticat has put together a collection possessing classic noir elements — crimes and criminals and evil deeds only sometimes punished — but also something else, perhaps uniquely Haitian too.

carolyn.kellogg@latimes.com

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