There was no question in writer Dimitry Elias Léger’s mind that when it came time to pen his first novel, it would be set in his birthplace, Haiti. It may have been decades (25 years) since he lived on the island, but the smells, sounds and tastes of Haiti never escaped him as he migrated to the U.S., France and then Switzerland.
Upon his return to Haiti as part of United Nations Relief efforts following the devastating 2010 earthquake, those warm memories of his life there came flooding back as the oppressive Caribbean sun affectionately caressed his skin. But romantic reminiscing swiftly took a backseat to disbelief as he was confronted by the devastation that enveloped Port-au-Prince.
“By the time I showed up for work at the United Nations’ base of operation and started learning the scale of the disaster and the uncomfortable conditions we would have to work in on a daily basis, the work ahead took over my life. I would have nothing else to think about,” reveals Léger. Following in the footsteps of Haitian scribes before him who’ve taken pen to pad in the face of the country’s natural and man-made catastrophes striving to make sense of it all, Léger’s God Loves Haiti was born.
The engrossing debut novel, set during the earthquake, captures with meticulous detail the chaos, fear, pain and grief experienced by the survivors through three richly layered characters whose fates are intertwined (the country’s president, his wife Natasha and her lover Alain) as they all wade through the debris to rebuild a country, a life and relationships. God Loves Haiti is a love story that traces the connection between these three survivors before and after the earth shook.
Alongside the complex love triangle, Legér delves into the equally thorny and shaky bond these individuals have with the book’s fourth character, Haiti itself. EBONY.com caught up with Léger to talk about God Loves Haiti, his personal relationship to Haiti and the importance of humor in the face of tragedy.
EBONY: Today marks five years since the earthquake hit Haiti. Haiti has dealt with many tragedies. Why did you decide to explore the earthquake for your debut novel?
Dimitry Elias Léger: Because I’d always wanted to write novels about Haiti and existential dilemmas, and love in the time of the earthquake came to me.
EBONY: Did you often visit Haiti before coming back for the relief efforts?
DEL: I had not been back to live since ’86, 25 years prior. But in my dreams, the Haiti of my father, my family, and my childhood was always present.
EBONY: Readers get a real sense of the confusion of those who survived the earthquake experienced as the ground shock beneath them. Your characters had no clue what had just knocked them off the ground. How did you go about researching this to paint such a vivid picture?
DEL: Survivors told me. They told everyone willing to listen how they experienced those 35 seconds. Since a huge part of my job as a communications officer for the UN was to regularly visit refugee camps and hospitals to talk to earthquake survivors to learn how things were going, I learned the new normal was for a survivor to walk you through their shocking experience of the earthquake before they could talk to you about anything else. Their shock, confusion, grief, trauma, hope and gratitude were my daily bread. It was overwhelming. After I finished my time in Haiti, writing a novel about survivors’ immediate emotional journeys seemed to me the best way to process and honor all of the intimate confessions I felt burdened by.
EBONY: It’s impossible to talk about Haiti without touching on the history, spirituality and politics of the country. These three themes are always present in this love story. How did this story come to be?
DEL: It was easy because I love Haiti. My father loved Haiti. My family loved Haiti. I was born in the Catholic faith in Haiti. After years living abroad in some amazing countries, I could relativize Haiti’s pros and cons versus those of the U.S., France, Switzerland, and most other countries on the entire planet. I appreciated the challenges of patriotism, wealth, and dealing with the mysterious ways of God in literature, film and art. I can’t imagine writing any other type of story. They are my favorites to consume in any media.
EBONY: Most stories of survivors and/or victims are one-dimensional. What were the challenges in developing these characters?
DEL: I read a lot of poetry as I wrote my novel. One dimensionality wasn’t a chief concern since I was writing from renewed affection. Humanization is any novel’s leading goal. Making sure the novel wasn’t a bummer was the literary challenge that kept me up late at night. My characters had to be like people I know: wonderful and melancholic.
EBONY: How would you describe your relationship with Haiti?
DEL: Like my relationship with my family and parents, it’s the place that made me, so there’s a link older and wholly independent of me. No one chooses where or whom they’re born to. So Haiti is my home, mom, and dad, and when I was working there and writing fiction, it was my patient, son, daughter, lover, mistress, favorite party ever. On good days, I’m proud. On bad days, I’m confused and bummed out. On all days, it’s love.
EBONY: There is a heavy dose of humor in the book. Was that a way to express the Haitian people’s vitality in face of tragedy? Why was it important for you to inject dark humor in the story?
DEL: When I told a friend I was writing a novel and the fun part of writing it was finding the humor in my characters’ lives, he said, “Really? But you’re not that funny.” That was funny. It kills me to this day. My favorite novels and novelists are slyly funny. Some of my favorite comedians and movies are deadpan funny. I’ve had blindingly funny times in Haiti. And yet I discovered my voice as a novelist played better in that lane after trying on different voices, like every novelist has to. You are what your talent says you are best at. It was discovered in the trial and error process of writing.
EBONY: Can you talk to me about the title? The question of whether God is indeed punishing Haiti is one Alain does wrestle with.
DEL: I thought the title was suitably surprising like the novel, which is filled with unexpected turns. I’ve heard God bless America all my life, un-ironically, so what’s good for America is good for any other country. Figuring out what God really thinks is the oldest guessing game of Man. It’s also a fun literary parlor game. Kanye West deserves a lot of credit for God Loves Haiti’s title too. You’re free to consider this novel my “Jesus Walks.” His lyrics say it all and gave me comfort.
EBONY: There are often references to the Haitian people’s resilience fortitude. In the face of tragedy, the Haitian people can seem like as a mass of bodies. It was refreshing that you captured the mental fragility that Haitians also suffer. While they may go on with their lives, it doesn’t mean many are not suffering from anxiety and post-traumatic disorder…
DEL: Thank you, and yes, it was intentional. Trauma and bouncing back, like humor and sex, are essential to the human condition. I strove to create people as real and sensitive as the reader sitting reading my novel anywhere in the world.
Alexandra Phanor-Faury is a Haitian-American writer living in Brooklyn, New York with a slight (OK, major) addiction to fashion and pop culture. When she’s not up in the middle of the night filling her online shopping carts and catching up on style blogs, she’s writing about fashion and entertainment for a number of websites and magazines. Check out her work and blog at AlexandraPhanor.com.