Julia Alvarez celebrates 'A Wedding in Haiti'

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 20, 2012

“A Wedding in Haiti,” by Julia Alvarez. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 2012. 287 pp. $22.95.
By Deirdre Parker Smith
SALISBURY — This compact book, “A Wedding in Haiti,” arrived on my desk with Julia Alvarez’s name in large type, the title smaller.
The size and shape of the book appealed to me, and I really didn’t know what to expect, but the time invested was worth it. Alvarez tells a story in a rambling fashion, describing the scenery, setting the atmosphere, showing us the people she knows and a little about herself.
It is, indeed, a book about a wedding in Haiti, complete with the sometimes dangerous journey to get to Haiti’s northwest tip from the relative safety of Alvarez’s home country, the Dominican Republic.
Although the two countries share an island, it is not an easy relationship. Haitians speak French or Kreyol, a blend of French similar to Creole. Many Haitians are painfully poor, living in pre-industrial conditions in many places — no electricity, running water or modern communication. Haitians are often used as the workforce in the Dominican Republic.
And that’s how Alvarez and her husband, Bill Eichner, come to know Piti, who works on their coffee farm and literacy center, Alta Gracia, in the mountainous center of the Dominican Republic. Piti comes to them very young and they become quite attached. At some point, Alvarez promises Piti she will come to his wedding, imagining it in the distant future.
Alvarez and Eichner live in Vermont most of the time, coming to the Dominican Republic to visit her parents in Santo Domingo and check on the farm.
What started as a sincere, but perhaps not serious promise has come to be — Piti is getting married and Julia and Bill must attend — they are the godparents of the wedding.
One quickly realizes that little is easy on this island, especially travel, and especially in Haiti. Crossing the border involves even more complications and machinations than you’d expect for the side-by-side countries.
They might be able to get Piti over the border to Haiti, but they might not be able to get him back, with a wife and baby, especially. It all depends on having the proper documents and having the proper documents depends on who you know and how much money you have to feed a system of organized bribery.
Much winking and smiling and passing of cash must follow, and that’s just the beginning of the journey. The heart of the story involves getting to the wedding and back, with Alvarez “reading Haiti” in its flora, fauna and people.
Alvarez writes in her blog that she always keeps a travel journal. “I find I get easily lost when I’m not following my practice of writing, when I’m unstrung from my rituals, from the rhythms of my day. I need the string of narrative to find my way through the labyrinth of experience.”
That defines this little travelogue perfectly. It is a story of an adventure, but more of the people, Haitians and Dominicans, who she encounters daily, from the people who live in primitive thatched houses to the brightly dressed women selling fruit on the side of the road, to the neatly dressed officials in government buildings.
Politics come into play mostly as an obstacle, but she doesn’t make any broad statements beyond the simple hope to get along.
The pleasure of the book is reading about the people, with Alvarez’s breezy positivity.
On the very bumpy road to where they will meet Piti, they see about a dozen women by the side of the road selling mangoes, “with every conceivable size and color of mango, from a deep orange the size of a baseball to a yellow-green the shape of a sweet potato.”
Alvarez calls a blessing over them, which sets them to laughing.
“The stop lightens our spirits. There is something blessed about connecting with people so seemingly different with something as simple as laughter, though I suppose it would also work with tears.”
Their party grows and shrinks as they pick up and drop off friends of Piti’s, people from the coffee plantation, guides for the next part of their journey. Each one has a distinct personality, and the book includes small black and white photos of almost everyone they share their adventure with.
The wedding itself is like none Alvarez has ever seen, with “predicators” (selected male church members) and a pastor who all scold the couple for having had relations before marriage (they have a little girl). Then the tone shifts and the group read passages from the Bible, the pastor preaches and everyone sings.
It’s a joyful time, darkened only by the prospect of getting everyone back to the Dominican Republic over those awful roads.
The wedding is before the massive earthquake that devastates Haiti; some months later, Alvarez and her husband take Piti, Eseline and the baby back to tiny Haut Mousitque because the bride is so homesick. This is an even more grueling journey, capped, on the return, by a visit to Port-au-Prince, where all are stunned by the devastation.
Ultimately, though, this is a small celebration about what is right in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
“Haiti is what cannot be erased in a human being, not with slavery, not with centuries of exploitation and bad management, invasions, earthquakes, hurricanes, cholera. It embodies those undervalued but increasingly valuable skills to survive on this slowly depleting planet: endurance, how to live with loss, how to save by sharing, how to make a pact with hope when you find yourself in hell.”