You Have Flown to the Dangerous Country
Thoughts on Haiti
By Elizabeth Spires on 1.29.10
A few years ago, I reviewed the children’s classic Popo and Fifina: Children of Haiti, written by Arna Bontemps and Langston Hughes in 1931. The Haiti presented in that book was a simple, lyrical place, in some ways almost paradisaical, and totally at odds with the terrible scenes of destruction and human suffering we are seeing in newspapers and on television broadcasts since the earthquake. Even before the earthquake, however, Haiti’s troubles in recent years, its political instability, social chaos, and poverty, made it an unlikely destination for most travelers.
This didn’t deter my husband, who began making regular trips to Haiti in 1995 to research a trilogy of historical novels (All Souls Rising, Master of the Crossroads, and The Stone That the Builder Refused) about the Haitian slave revolt of 1791. Since he is an intrepid, resourceful traveler, who recognizes little in the way of danger, I decided it would be pointless to worry about his safety until the day of one trip, when the Haitian Times landed on our doorstep in Baltimore running the bold headline “Kidnappers Run Amok.” Fortunately, his plane to Haiti had already taken off, which was a good thing, since I know that that particular story wouldn’t have stopped him from going. But my misgivings on that occasion spurred the poem “You Have Flown to the Dangerous Country.”
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There are places that we know well—we’ve lived in them in our adult lives, we remember them from childhood, we visit them on pleasure trips—and there are places that we have never been (and we may never go to), which exist just as vividly, and maybe more vividly, in our imaginations. Haiti is such a place for me. But the Haiti that I imaginatively possess is not the devastated Haiti currently in the news. It is another Haiti painted by Haitian painters in the towns and villages across that country, a Haiti that my husband has brought back—in the form of many small, perfect paintings—in his well-worn, travel-stained duffel bag.
One painter in particular, Armand Fleurimond, born in 1967 in Cap Haitien, has given me a sense of Haiti that could never be gleaned from the shattering stories currently making headlines. Fleurimond paints everyday Haitian life with charm, mystery, humor, and an occasional touch of surreal whimsy.
Many of Fleurimond’s paintings depict a realm of childhood not unlike the scenes in Popo and Fifina, where girls jump rope or play hopscotch in front of delicate pastel houses trimmed in gingerbread, where boys fly kites next to a pristine sea, where street vendors sell fruit in the market, women wash clothes in the river, and skeptical couples engage in flirtation and romance. The focus in Fleurimond’s work is usually not on large historical events but on the small moments of daily life. Some painters and writers can look so closely at everyday life that they are able to convince us that the most ordinary moment is actually extraordinary. Fleurimond is one of them.
One small Fleurimond painting in particular that I have in my study, no bigger than 6 x 8, is a close-up of a ruddy-chested bird perched on a leafy green branch in the dark of night, singing or ready to sing. It has always struck me as a kind of painterly counterpart to a much-quoted Emily Dickinson poem, “Hope Is the Thing with Feathers.” In a disaster, it is the picture I would want to take with me to get me through.
Although I seldom hear from Fleurimond (I met him only once, briefly, here in the United States several years ago when he came for an artist’s residency), this past fall he e-mailed me to ask if I would send him some painting supplies, which I did. He didn’t say so, but I assumed his day-to-day situation was difficult. This was before the earthquake. He was living in Port-au-Prince, near the Presidential Palace, and since the earthquake, I have not heard from him. I hope that he has made it safely through these past few weeks. If so, what he will paint now I cannot imagine. But looking at his paintings, which I have been doing a lot of recently, has led me back to a passage in Popo and Fifina in which a wise old Haitian carver is talking about what inspires his art:
“If I walk down the beach on my way to the shop in the morning and see the tiny boats putting out to sea, that makes a picture in my mind. If I see a hungry beggar, that leaves a picture, too. Some pictures make me glad…Some make me weep inside…And when I’m glad to be living, trees and birds and leaves look one bright color to me…what I am inside makes the design…I put my sad feeling and my glad feeling into the design. It’s just like making a song.”