A Wedding in Haiti by Julia Alvarez

Monday, August 13, 2012

A Wedding in Haiti
by Julia Alvarez
Algonquin Books

In the summer of 2009, author Julia Alvarez, her husband Bill Eichner, and a loose association of friends piled into a pickup truck and drove from their coffee farm in the Dominican Republic to a wedding. The wedding was in a remote part of Haiti, the home country of the groom, a young man named Piti (Kreyòl for “little one,” from the French petit), a worker on Alta Gracia, the author’s coffee farm.

They traveled fewer than three hundred miles in a cramped pickup truck, but the trip Alvarez narrates in A Wedding In Haiti covers a landscape beyond distance. Traveling between two countries that share one island, Alvarez finds poverty, suspicion, and above all, unwavering love for the families we are born into and the families we make. Somewhere around the first time they warily cross the border, this gentle and warmhearted travel diary transforms into an invitation to recognize subtle moments of beauty in places and people wounded by poverty, oppression, and violence both natural and man-made.

Born in the United States, Alvarez spent her childhood in her parents’ native Dominican Republic. She has written more than a dozen books across three genres. Her novels How the García Girls Lost Their Accents and In the Time of the Butterflies present coming-of-age stories set during Rafael Trujillo’s dictatorship of the Dominican Republic. She doesn’t abandon political and cultural themes in her newest book. In this intimate tale of Piti’s wedding, descriptions of the nuptials share pages with excursions into the physical and emotional divisions between Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Waiting anxiously at the border for guards to let the group pass, Alvarez refrains from explaining to Piti’s friend Leonardo how in times past border guards would have known he was Haitian: by performing Trujillo’s “parsley test.” “He’s too young to know that during the massacre, Trujillo’s henchmen actually had trouble telling Haitians and Dominicans apart. So they devised a test. A sprig of parsley was held up for identification: perejil in Spanish. But the Haitians, whose Kreyòl uses a wide, flat r, could not pronounce the trilled r in the Spanish word. Whoever mispronounced the word was slaughtered on the spot.”

Those days are over, though, and “the tall gates on the Dominican side open, and slowly we drive across the bridge, over the nearly dry Massacre River.”

As they cross the frontier, Alvarez relishes the sound of a border town’s name: “The first city on the Haitian side is Ouanaminthe, a name so rich in vowels that I half expect those luxurious sounds to spill over in wide avenues, verandas with bougainvillea pouring over trellises, ladies with parasols parading their finery.”

She catches herself indulging in a Graham Greene fantasy and quickly juxtaposes her lush daydreaming to the austerity of the wedding. Despite a forty-five-minute hike to a “clearing with half a dozen small houses arrayed around each other,” a game of dominos that merely moves into the shade, and the pastor’s admonishment of the couple for having had sex before marriage, a wedding is a wedding. Piti and his bride, Eseline, come down a dirt path, she in a white gown with a long train.

The gauzy, faraway strangeness of travelogue-style depiction vanishes when Alvarez and Eichner, official godparents, drive the newlyweds back to the Dominican Republic. Eseline vomits throughout the eight-hour drive, and “Piti reminds us that Eseline has only ridden in a vehicle a handful of times.” The distance between the developed world and Haiti is suddenly vast.

In rural Haiti—and this is before the 2010 earthquake—a town on the way to Piti’s homeplace has a generator that “has been broken for months,” and a grocery store offers “nothing to make a supper out of.”

Alvarez writes, “When we have seen a thing, we have to tell the story.” Half a year after the wedding, when the earthquake hits, she rereads her journal from the wedding trip. Wanting again “to be close to Haiti in an intimate way, not the Haiti . . . of horrifics . . . to hear the mango ladies laughing, and Charlie’s sister sweeping the yard with a straw broom in the early morning,” she and her husband offer to take Piti and homesick Eseline from the Dominican Republic back to Haiti.

“Haiti needs for people to see it,” says a businessman they meet in devastated Port-au-Prince, and with that quotation Alvarez brings the story of her trip to a country wedding to a crescendo, contrasting the post-earthquake hillsides halfway to the capital “speckled with a sickly, plasticky blue”—tarps on sticks making a tent city—to the “dreamy blue” of the shutters and doors of their earlier visit.

In a book structured like dispatches, Alvarez finds beauty and hope wherever she goes: in birds in flight; in books on a pile of rubble; in the future in Piti and Eseline’s baby, Ludy. Alvarez recounts her parents’ long-ago courtship and her relationship to them as they decline, the “marital us” of her own marriage, and the “love story” of watching Piti’s growth from boy to man. Through these stories she also portrays the Dominican Republic’s relationship to Haiti, its “sister I hardly knew.”

Alvarez’s “questions and wonderings” are “part of any journey to greater understanding.” They are also the compass for all good memoir. In the pre-earthquake first section of her written journey, she writes from a home on a mountainside near Bassin-Bleu, Haiti. Dressing for Piti’s wedding, Alvarez rues the lack of a mirror. To the contrary, though, A Wedding in Haiti becomes her mirror, and ours.