Realities and Resiliences: Haitian women’s lives

Poto Mitan is a wonderful insight into life in Haiti, describing women as the ‘pillars’ of the globalized economy. Although this film celebrates Haitian women, the film also presents how these women have been exploited, and the high cost of living in Haiti.

The portrayals of mother/daughter relationships in Edwidge Danticat’s 1994 acclaimed novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory published in 1994 are negative, because the mother is the source of sexual trauma. In this work, before Martine ‘tests’ her daughter Sophie for sexual purity, Sophie begins to have nightmares similar to those of her mother, and takes on aspects of her mother’s own grief. Martine’s grief is caused by her rape in the cane fields at the hands of a Tonton Macoute – a member of the Haitian paramilitary force created in 1959 by dictator François ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier.

In contrast, the sections narrated by Edwidge Danticat in the Poto Mitan film celebrate the mother/daughter relationship, finding hope in the continuation of the struggle by daughters.

The cramped single room living conditions for large families, that are in common for all the women featured in the film, brought home to me the relative luxury experienced by the Caco family in Edwidge Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory. Martine is able to send home remittance money from her job in New York, so Attie and Sophie have a much larger house than the one room houses of Hélène and Frisline documented in Poto Mitan. Despite her slight resources, Frisline’s story seems hopeful, in that although she was cheated of so much money she is able to support herself and her family by opening a business that she controls. The exploitation of factory workers in Haiti that is highlighted by the film is a global injustice, because unions are cheated and international companies profit from the labour of women who need to feed families. Yet, there is hope in this situation too, because Unions are being founded like the KGF in Haiti which is a grass roots movement fighting for women’s rights and harvesting their resilience.

The plight of exploited workers is a global one. Gary Haugen, CEO of International Justice Mission (@garyhaugen) tweeted at 9:14 PM on Wed, Feb 12, 2014:
Bruised & bloodied from 20+ hrs a day in a brick factory, nearly 40 just rescued from slavery by Indian police & @IJM

This freedom acquired for slave labourers inspires hope for the plight of factory workers in Haiti and throughout the majority world.

Bethnay Lunn

Whose Caribbean Paradise?

Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place, published in 1988, is a wonderfully ebullient and multi-layered piece of writing that condenses a searing and deep critique of colonialism with a call for tourists to visiting the Caribbean island of her birth, Antigua, to re-examine themselves and their relations to histories of inequalities.

Destroying the myth of a paradise island designed for tourist pleasure, Kincaid points out how the global asymmetries of a postcolonial world order underpin the impossibility of shared experience for those who visit and those who reside.

“That the native does not like the tourist is not hard to explain. For every native of every place is a potential tourist, and every tourist is a native of somewhere. Every native everywhere lives a life of overwhelming and crushing banality and boredom and desperation and depression, and every deed, good and bad, is an attempt to forget this. Every native would like to find a way out, every native would like a rest, every native would like a tour. But some natives—most natives in the world—cannot go anywhere. They are too poor. They are too poor to go anywhere. They are too poor to escape the reality of their lives; and they are too poor to live properly in the place they live, which is the very place you, the tourist, want to go—.”

While the force of Kincaid’s critique may land most squarely and obviously on the willfully blind tourist, she is also concerned to explore the challenges that exist for those who call the island home. As she states in a later commentary on A Small Place, ‘One of the things that we never do in the landscape I’m from, is relax on it. No one I know growing up, ever goes to the beach for a holiday. It’s a landscape that has horrible memories for us’.

More than this, Kincaid shows how both the colonial past of plantation slavery and the postcolonial present of tourist ‘development’ have created a long cycle of exploitation in which the powerful –both abroad and at home – remain impervious to the lives of the powerless.

“Have you ever wondered to yourself why it is that all people like me seem to have learned from you is how to imprison and murder each other, how to govern badly, and how to take the wealth of our country and place it in Swiss bank accounts?”

Possibly Kincaid’s most powerful achievement in this book is to speak directly across all protected categories of privilege, both revealing and eroding the grounds of social injustice, in a gesture that Carolyn Pedwell calls ‘confrontational empathy’ (See ‘Affect at the margins: Alternative empathies in A Small Place’ Emotion, Space and Society xxx (2012): 1-9).

Esther Figueroa and Diana McCaulay’s documentary film Jamaica for Sale is an equally scorching critique of the environmental, economic, social and cultural impacts of unsustainable tourism developments, this time in Jamaica. Another powerful piece of work focused on the exploitative economies and ecologies of tourism in the Caribbean, the filmmakers observe the consequences of the fact that

Jamaica, one of the most indebted countries in the world, is undergoing unprecedented large-scale, mass market, all-inclusive hotel development, as well as the construction of exclusive gated residential schemes and luxury condominiums for non-residents.

The film explores the chronic negative impacts of tourism on the lives of local Jamaicans who are coerced to labour in unsafe conditions, earning less than a living wage, and witnessing the destruction of their alternative livelihoods, such as fishing, as the natural environment of the island is degraded and willfully destroyed.

Watching Jamaica for Sale and reading A Small Place is a powerful combination that sensitizes us to the almost inevitably toxic consequences of tourism and its political, economic and psychological legacies in a Caribbean region made politically precarious by its long history of exploitation.

You can watch a recent interview with Kincaid here:

Writing Global Justice – an undergraduate research blog

Drawing a close to the introduction to his magnificent work, The Idea of Justice, Amartya Sen – the hugely influential Indian intellectual and Nobel laureate in economics – turns to the work of the Irish poet Seamus Heaney. Quoting an extract from Heaney’s The Cure at Troy, at once a translation of Sophocles’ classic Greek play, Philoctetes, and a poetic contemplation on the conflict in his homeland, Northern Ireland, Sen seeks to articulate the transformative possibility of justice within social ecologies:

History says, don’t hope
On this side of the of the grave,
But then, once in a life-time
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.

It was this moment of textual encounter that shaped my idea for a module on writing global justice. Sen’s inspiring, expansive and provocative meditations in the idea of justice as an anticipatory category towards which we can move closer through our identifications and contestations of injustice underlines the importance of an active and committed imagination. Heaney’s poetic soundings of an emotional landscape in which the persistent and embedded inequalities of history can be overturned and the conditions of possibility for optimism restored catches the humanizing privileges of a poetic form tuned to the frequencies of everyday struggle.

The question of how literature might do justice is a fascinating one that dates back at least as far as Sophocles and is no less relevant or compelling today. This module investigates the ways in which literature acts as a rich site for working through many of the persistent challenges that inform ‘the idea of justice’ today. It considers questions of human freedom and fulfillment as they relate to the politics of post- and neo-colonial states, questions of sexual citizenship, of migration and displacement, of intellectual and cultural property and of planetary co-belonging.

This blog represents our group’s collective thinking as well as individual efforts to research and engage with materials related to the literary works we are studying. We are keen to hear responses from others.

Professor Alison Donnell