Books & Arts

Posted August 5, 2002

Edwidge Danticat
Crown. 125 pages. $16.
Amid the demons, dances of Haiti's vibrant Carnival

The crossroads at which the spirit world intersects the Earth is a significant image in Vodou. How regrettable yet predictable, then, to learn, in Edwidge Danticat's travel memoir, that Haiti's annual Carnival parade assembles where Rue Comédie crosses Avenue de la Liberté, in Jacmel, a faded coffee port on the southern peninsula. An arduous 45 miles southeast of Port-au-Prince, the city is dominated by New Orleans-style mansions built by 19th century coffee merchants. A recent attempt to attract tourists has inspired the refurbishing of several of the gingerbread buildings into boutiques and cafes.

Haitian-born Danticat, novelist and editor, had never been to a Carnival until the 2001 version she describes. Before she left Haiti at 12 to reunite with her parents in New York, she was cared for by her uncle, a Baptist minister. In that mix of protectiveness and malice that is the near-universal authority-figure style, he deliberately frightened her, telling stories of deafening noise, demon possession and frottage.                                                                                                    Danticat arrives in Jacmel burdened by that memory as well as the ex-pat's conflicted and, unfortunately for the narrative, a dutiful student's anthology of quotations and learned references, which she wears like a Carnival mask. When she finds a church with an upward-pointing arrow atop the steeple, she quotes art historian Robert Farris Thompson on  
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arrows. "a sign of war, token of aggression and manful self-assertion" before her own observation that in the high pine forest an arrow is also "a poignant remainder that in this part of the country, at least, heaven is the next highest place." She spends a week in and about Jacmel, talking to the parade organizer, wandering amid the brilliant pines and cacti and in the silent storied cemeteries, subtly telling us some things we know about Haiti. The country induces compassion fatigue in anyone who was born there, has lived there or visited, and it sets us thinking more and more generally about the word Diaspora.

Danticat also tells us some things we probably don't know: After a failed coup in the 1960s, Francois Duvalier set fire to the forests in the north so potential invaders would have nowhere to hide. Finally, it's Carnival time. The pre-Lenten celebration anywhere is an explosive mix of finery and animosity, nowhere more so than in Haiti, where misty reality and arbitrary rules run as deeply as poverty in the structure of everyday life. Finally, a reluctant Danticat drops her scholar facade and gets with the program.

Hard to resist a band calling itself Max Power and wearing masks of Mother Theresa, Papa Doc, Einstein, Bob Marley and Hitler. Or one of its competitors, the group Relax Band with its matching orange shirts. Bodies coated with motor oil, fantastic beasts dart in and out of the crowds. Devils and bats flutter and swoop. Musicians on truck beds with portable generators play until the power goes out; then a recording of Elton John singing, ''I believe in love. It's all we've got,'' can be heard from a cafe loudspeaker. A dozen young women sign up for the fair queen contest, but only five show up, vying for airline tickets to Cap Haitien and the Dominican Republic, a 12-inch TV, the equivalent of $350 U.S., a pair of cellphones, the chance to view the parade from the VIP stand, a photo on a website.

Merchants who think Jacmel is Haiti's best shot at earning tourist cash have been planning Carnival all year. Local and national musicians see it as the chance to audition and compete. But most of the people, ''in a country that is not supposed to have any joy,'' see it as the communal celebration it is, the fleeting crossroads of comedy and liberty.

And Danticat, who brings a lingering apprehension along on this, one of her many trips back, finally becomes part of the pageant, ''unencumbered, so lively, so free.'' Her book is among the first in a series the publisher plans in which writers return to familiar territory. It sets the bar high, for ultimately it is a novella within a travel memoir. ''After the dance,'' the proverb goes, ''the drum is heavy.'' In Carnival, all the rules are reversed, and so, for this author, the proverb's opposite was true.

Betsy Willeford is a writer in Miami., the scholarly journal of democracy and human rights
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