In 'God Loves Haiti,' Clutching Memories When The Earth Moves
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Five years ago this month Haiti was hit by a catastrophic earthquake. Just a couple of weeks after the tragedy, writer Dimitry Elias Leger was on a plane bound for the capital city, Port-au-Prince. Growing up, Leger split his time between New York and Haiti until his family fled that country for good when he was a teen.
When the earthquake hit, he, like so many others, wanted to help. So he signed up to work for the UN on relief efforts. In Haiti, he was inundated with stories of loss and survival. Leger told me everywhere he went those who had survived wanted to share every detail of the moment.
DIMITRY ELIAS LEGER: Wherever you turn, for months and months and months, hi, my name is, here's how I spent those 35 seconds.
MARTIN: Leger compressed hundreds of those stories, slowed them down, and used them to describe the earthquake in his new novel "God Loves Haiti." When we spoke recently, Leger told me he had long felt pulled to write about Haiti and that only intensified after the earthquake. When he finally did it, Leger used the quake to tell a timeless kind of tale. And that's where we started our conversation.
This book is in many ways a universal love story. It is about a woman who loves one man but is married to another man who happens to be the fictional president of Haiti. Can you give us a short description of each of these three main characters?
LEGER: Yes. Natasha, the star of the book, she was an artist. She grew up poor. She had a carefree, artistic, bohemian life. But she hated poverty and she wanted out.
Her boyfriend grew up privileged, had left, went to NYU. He found being in Haiti to be a romantic adventure. She did not find Haiti particularly romantic.
And her husband, the president, kind of fell into the job and was looking for an excuse to get out. And she was kind of like his beacon, if you will. Those three characters each wanted the other to save them. And the earthquake threw the cards up in the air.
MARTIN: Would you mind reading an example of this that struck me? There are several in the book, these moments, how people spent these 35 seconds. But this is Alain's perspective as the earthquake is happening. And you kind of slow time down. So this is - it's like slow-motion.
LEGER: Alain saw the house and the house next to it and the house next to that one and most of the other houses on the street tumble onto the street, the people, and passing cars.
What the [bleep]. Alain's car had been catapulted into the Caribbean sky by an invisible and powerful force. From the sky, strangely, Port-au-Prince looked uncommonly beautiful. He hadn't visited Paris yet but surely Paris couldn't be as beautiful as his hometown, this jewel of the Caribbean, this diamond in the rough. When viewed from the driver's seat of a car launched 20 meters above sea level - awesome. Natasha, he thought - I've got to show her this.
MARTIN: Such an amazing line of thought, right, to be in the midst of this tragedy and to be observing everything from above and thinking oh, man, this is gorgeous. I have to show Natasha.
LEGER: The earth shaking around you and throwing you back and forth is almost the most violent betrayal of natural laws a person could experience. Because when the ground is shaking, there's nothing to turn to. You can't duck. It's the ground.
And the shock of that I wanted to illustrate. And how mentally while experiencing that shock people want to grab onto things to hold onto. And it won't be the ground. It can't be the walls 'cause they're all in the process of tumbling around you. It tends to be memories. It tends to be images of lovers and parents and whatever you turn to for safety when things go bump into the night.
MARTIN: Have you satisfied that need that you felt years ago to write about Haiti? Have you done it or is there another book in you? Do you think you'll need to write a sequel or another story?
LEGER: So there was a lot of bittersweet Haiti stories, Haitian love stories I hope to write and publish. But this was my earthquake book.
MARTIN: May I ask about the title of this book, "God Loves Haiti"? Where does that come from?
LEGER: One of the American big religious figures had implied something about Haiti and religion and Haiti and sexuality.
MARTIN: This was Pat Robertson.
>>MARTIN It was 2010, right after the earthquake.
LEGER: He kind of implied that we kind of deserved it. And when I got to Haiti and discussing the earthquake and aftermath of the earthquake survivors, it was a common conversation. What did we do to God to deserve this? Why us? I dedicated the book to the 9 million survivors. Like 300,000 died but roughly nine million people survived. And there's goodness in that. There's God's will in that, to my mind anyway.
MARTIN: The book is called "God Loves Haiti." It is a debut novel by Dimitry Elias Leger. He joined us from our studios in New York. Dimitry, thank you so much.
LEGER: Thanks, Rachel, so much for having me. This was a blast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.