Alvarez, Julia. A Wedding in Haiti: The Story of a Friendship Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2012.
I enjoy Julia Alvarez' work, occasionally, and I respect her as an author, but I hadn't really sat down with any of her work since college. So when her most recent book, a very short memoir, showed up at the library, I thought she was overdue for some of my attention. A Wedding in Haiti is probably one of the few books on my list for the summer that everyone who reads this blog would enjoy, and as such I highly recommend it for a light-hearted but socially conscious reading experience.
The book narrates Alvarez' two trips to Haiti from her native Dominican Republic. She and her husband (and their trusty pickup truck) attend the wedding of their Haitian friend and employee, Pito, in the first half of the book. She ruminates on human relationships and the relationship between the two countries on the island of Hispanola, with their dual legacies of colonialism.
Her experiences reminded me of my time in Argentina--the minor culture shocks, the unfamiliar gender roles, seeing yourself in a culture that is close to a familiar culture but at the same time totally different. I found her subtle discussion of cross-class friendships especially worthwhile. She captures many of the difficulties of genuine connection with people from a much different economic position than hers. She also captures many of the joys of traveling with her husband. Her wry observations will ring true to anyone who has ever had the privilege of traveling to uncomfortable cultural situations with one's spouse!
One of the book's refrains is "There is a bottom line between which you cannot go and remain a human being." I appreciate Alvarez' acknowledgment of the responsibility of witness. Whether one witnesses a wedding, and implicitly promises to help a new couple adjust to married life, or one witnesses the remains of a devastating earthquake, and implicitly promises to help in all possible ways, one cannot "merely" be a witness. Acknowledging another's reality and another's needs changes the observer and obligates the observer to get involved in situations. This becomes very concrete for Alvarez when she visits Haiti again, after the earthquake.
I am embarassed to admit that when I picked up the book all memory of Haiti's devastating natural disaster had faded for me. The situation of poverty in Haiti remains one of the great shames of the western hemisphere, and the international response to the earthquake was--well--I think individual people were moved, but most governments (and Pat Robertson) will never forget that the nation began from a successful slave revolt. Anyway, Alvarez brings the situation to life with a vision inaccessible to journalists, as she explores the earthquake's effects on Pito and his family.
The book bears witness without sanctimony, and displays good humor without frivolity. If you have any interest in Hispaniola, the earthquake, or cross cultural experiences in general, A Wedding in Haiti
is well worth the couple of hours it'll take to read.