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Haiti: 'The Sister I Hardly Knew'

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Tell Me More's summer reading series, Island Reads, highlights authors from the Caribbean. Julia Alvarez's A Wedding In Haiti started as a promise to a young Haitian man who was working on a farm. If he ever married, Alvarez and her husband would attend the wedding. Little did she know what that would entail, and all that would follow.

Julia Alvarez told Tell Me More guest host Celeste Headlee about that journey and more.

Interview Highlights

The borders between the Dominican Republic and Haiti

"Well it's amazing. We're on a little island and Haiti was, as I mentioned in the book, like the sister that I never knew. Growing up in the Dominican Republic as a little Dominican girl, you know the boogeyman was the boogeyman from Haiti. He would come and he would take Dominican children and they ate them over in Haiti. That's how I would be scared as a kid. We have this, as I said, problematic relationship.

"There have been horrible moments in the history. The massacre of 1937 when upwards of 20,000 Haitians living on the Dominican side were massacred by our dictator. So I was ashamed to go there as a Dominican. I wouldn't welcome a Dominican if I were Haitian. So I was a little afraid but I knew that I had to cross that border, which was also an internal border, a historical border, a cultural border."

How to help Haiti

"I think to bare witness; to see a place accurately, to listen, to come in without any preconceptions, without any solutions and really be present can be transformative. Not just for you as a listener, but for the person telling the story. I think one of the real ways to help Haiti is to be present and to listen and to see. And not to come in with a cookie-cutter, with what sometimes I call 'moral colonialism,' you know, with a solution from the outside, with 'we know better.' Because I think that there is a resilience, and beauty, and nobleness to the Haitian people. That [laughter] they got a lot to teach us."

Dealing with the bigger picture

"When you talk about big issues, I think they work best one story at a time, one character at a time. The Japanese haiku writer Issa has a beautiful little haiku where he says, 'I look in the dragonfly's eye and I see the mountains over my shoulder.' So I think that the way to deal with the big wavey issues, the big mountains over your shoulder, is to look at a particular story. You know the dragon fly's eye; to look at Piti, the drama of his life, his family in Haiti. The kinds of things that happen to a young boy that's in a migrant work crew in the mountains of the Dominican Republic; funny things, sad things. And what happens when a relationship with this Dominicana Americana and her husband, what happens when that relationship plays itself out."

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