Greg Beckett, There Is No More Haiti: Between Life and Death in Port-au-Prince. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2019. x + 295 pp. (Cloth US$ 29.95)
The story begins and ends in the forest, begins and ends with Manuel’s words: “Haiti is dead. There is no more Haiti” (p. 6). It begins and ends with philosophical meditations and Vodou reflections on what it means to live dyingly or die livingly, to be suspended “between life and death” in Port-au-Prince. In this way, Greg Beckett’s story parallels in strikingly similar, yet methodologically distinct ways, my own book “Riding with Death”: Vodou Art and Urban Ecology in the Streets of Port-au-Prince (2018). Our research period and sources overlap; it is, in fact, almost unimaginable that we did not (at some juncture) cross paths, perhaps on Rue Capois or Boulevard Jean-Jacques Dessalines or even Rue Martissant; and I know intimately, lovingly, the places and the people whose lives he brings to story. His There is No More Haiti, indeed, narrates many lives, those of Haitians across the full social spectrum and even outsiders like Canadian director Cameron Brohman. It does so through conversation, recollection, memories, and even dreams. It is a broken story of crisis as uttered in two tongues—English and Kreyòl—sometimes in translation; and it beautifully accomplishes its goal of giving “a Haitian account of crisis” (p. 12). In all these ways, Beckett offers us a wonderful archive.
There is No More Haiti enters into an abundant wealth of ethnographic writing—by Melville Herskovits, Katherine Dunham, Zora Neale Hurston, Milo Rigaud, Sidney Mintz, Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Karen McCarthy Brown, Jennie Marcelle Smith, Bertin M. Louis, Jr., Karen E. Richman, J. Christopher Kovats-Bernat, Erica Caple James, Mark Schuller, and many others—about Haiti. Adopting Clifford Geertz’s idea of “thick” ethical concepts, and Ruth Behar’s model of “vulnerable” ethnography, as well as Raymond Williams’s “structure of feeling” and Claude Lévi-Strauss’s conviction that “repetition reveals a structure,” Beckett tells myriad tales of Haiti’s seemingly unending cycle of crises—rural, environmental, urban, social, and political; and he does so with finesse, style, passion, care, and conviction. Great books often emerge slowly; and Beckett has written a great book. Alongside other scholars who, as doctoral students, studied with Trouillot at the University of Chicago—notably Yarimar Bonilla, author of Non-Sovereign Futures (2015)—Beckett has penned a groundbreaking work of intimate ethnography, “anthropology that breaks your heart” (as Behar wrote in 1996).
Beautifully written, carefully constructed, There is No More Haiti is an intimate ethnography, lyrical and evocative, suffused with nuanced and “thick” cultural understanding, with respè (or respect) for Haiti and Haitians. It also stands alongside Jonathan Katz’s The Big Truck that Went By (2014) as a captivating work of creative nonfiction about Haiti and struggles for social justice. Beckett’s book is marked by deep thought and immersive experience, yet also equally (and indelibly) by humility and genuine deference for his sources who also happen to be his friends. At once poignant and urgent, There is No More Haiti develops a slow and intensively empathic ethnography that unfolds (at times, languorously) through, and despite, a furiously rapid, chaotic historical moment marked by multiple crises—armed street gangs, military coups, U.N. peacekeeping mission, provisional elections, food riots, and the earthquake—during the period from 2002 through 2010, though the narrative moves into 2018. Organized thematically and chronologically (with some deliberate temporal discombobulation to create abeyance between event and recounting), each of the chapters is also structured around a central Kreyòl term that becomes the organizing principle—or “thick” ethical concept—guiding the stories.
Chapter 1, “The Forest and the City,” overviews the rural, environmental, and urban crises through the “thick” cover of mountain and trees (mapou, mango, almond), doing so through “thick” descriptions of garden, and lakou, and Haitian contestations to land. Chapter 2, “Looking For Life,” foregrounds chache lavi—literally: searching for life, but also making a living—and the related lavi chè, cost of living, to explicate the precarity of Port-au-Prince’s rural-to-urban migrants. Chapter 3, “Making Disorder,” frames the political crisis leading to Aristide’s 2004 ousting through dezòd, disorder. Chapter 4, “Between Life and Death,” assumes electric blakawout (blackout), as its organizing principle expanded to signify loss of power, privilege, position for Haitians under U.N. occupation (2004–17). Chapter 5, “Aftermath,” has (as its tectonic ground) Bagay la (“the Thing”), one of many names for both the 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti and its NGO aftershocks. The postscript returns readers to the forest, to Manuel, and to his words, “Haiti is dead” (Ayiti mouri). But Beckett also hears Manuel whisper across the distance of lòt bò (“the other side”), “Long live Haiti” (p. 238). Viv Ayiti!