Haiti, Phoebe, and the Oloffson: At the Crossroad of Race and Nationality and Class: An Interview
Phoebe Rusch: Thank you for featuring me, MJ. It’s an honor.
MJ Fievre: You’re welcome, Phoebe. I’m happy to help promote your fundraising campaign. Do you want to say a little about that?
Phoebe: Yes! I’m trying to raise money to spend May-September in Port-au-Prince doing research for my novel The Hotel Trianon, which is loosely based off of the history of the Hotel Oloffson. I’m using a crowd-funding platform called Hatchfund, similar to Kickstarter. I’d like to rent a studio apartment at Kay Bartoli in Pacot, close to the Oloffson, and be able to get around safely (i.e. drivers and moto-taxis.) The cost of transportation adds up surprisingly quickly, especially if you’re a sucker like me and you can’t drive a bargain. My Creole is a work in progress, so I’m not up to figuring out the tap-tap system just yet.
MJ: Why this project? What is your connection to Haiti?
Phoebe: I took several years off of undergrad and went to massage therapy school in Chicago because I wanted to travel and needed a way to pay for it. The idea was that I’d get a job at a resort somewhere. After I finished massage school I was looking at a Lonely Planet guide to the D.R. and Haiti. I’d bought the guide to read up on the D.R. (a more conventional tourist destination) but then I saw the listing for the Oloffson: “turn-of-the-century gingerbread mansion run by Princeton alumnus, vodoun priest and rock musician Richard Morse.” That totally sold me. I read more about RAM (Richard’s band which he co-founded with his wife Lunise) online, about their activism and courage in the face of political repression. I found Richard’s email address online and sent him a message, telling him that I was a Princeton student, that I wanted to do research for a historical novel set in Haiti and asking if I could work as the Oloffson’s resident massage therapist in exchange for living there.
“I found Richard’s email address online and sent him a message, telling him that I was a Princeton student, that I wanted to do research for a historical novel set in Haiti…”
MJ: How did he respond?
Phoebe: He was sort of like, sure. Knock yourself out. He said both his parents were professors and he’s always happy to help students. I’m sure he thought it was pretty strange but then he’s a pretty strange guy himself so he has a high threshold for weird.
MJ: And you went there with a novel already in mind?
Phoebe: Yeah. I’d read Graham Greene and I was going to write something horrible and derivative and embarrassing about the Macoutes, despite knowing absolutely nothing about anything.
MJ: What changed those plans?
Phoebe: The earthquake. I moved into the Oloffson on Monday, January 11th, 2010. The plan was to stay for six months. The next afternoon, Richard and Lunise’s friend Menahem took me sight-seeing on the Champ de Mars. We were standing in the parking lot of the Ministry of Culture when the National Palace collapsed.
MJ: The earthquake happened the day after you got to Haiti? And it was your first time there?
MJ: What did you do? Did you stay?
Phoebe: For two months. I did some volunteering, like helping to organize medical supplies at General Hospital, but there wasn’t much I could do as a twenty-one year old with no medical training or background in logistics. At some point the horror and second-hand trauma and feeling of being in the way of qualified people got to be too much.
MJ: But then you came back. What about Haiti drew you back? What do you love about Haiti so much?
Phoebe: Haiti is just so unlike anywhere else. Portland has this saying, “keep Portland weird,” but Portland has nothing on Haiti. Haiti is a really idiosyncratic country and I’m an idiosyncratic person, so there’s a natural affinity. Haitian art is so beautiful. I love the dream-like surrealism, the rich symbolic vocabulary, in Hyppolite and Duffaut and Zephirin and Duval-Carrie, and in vodoun flags and street art. The cyber-punk recycled vodoun art at Atis Rezistans is mind-blowing. I love Edwidge Danticat’s short stories and Marie-Vieux Chauvet’s novellas. And it’s criminal that Americans don’t learn about the Haitian revolution, the most radical of the 18th century revolutions, in school. People know that Haiti is poor and dangerous but they don’t understand the historical context, don’t know that Haitians defeated Napoleon and kicked scientific racism in the ass and that they’ve been paying for it ever since. Like, being forced to pay reparations to your former owners for your own freedom? That history is jaw-dropping to those unacquainted with it, especially white Americans, and it illuminates so much about the trauma perpetrated by the global north against the global south. And I wanted to write about the Morses and the hotel.
“Being forced to pay reparations to your former owners for your own freedom? That history is jaw-dropping to those unacquainted with it, especially white Americans.”
MJ: So the earthquake changed your novel. Is your novel about the earthquake?
Phoebe: Yes and no. I don’t want it to be an earthquake novel, because the earthquake wasn’t just a natural disaster, it was the result of years of wrong-headed development policy and lack of building codes and lots of other historical factors; so many people didn’t need to die. And the story of the Morse family is just so fascinating and inspiring. You have Emerante de Pradines Morse, who grew up as a member of the Haitian upper class but became a champion of vodoun art and culture, despite the stigma. Then she attended Columbia University, as a woman of color, a Haitian woman, in the 1940’s, and became a professor at the Yale School of Drama. She’s just an absurdly amazing human being. And then Richard, her son, who grew up in New Haven and attended Princeton University, decides to move to Haiti to explore traditional music and ends up leasing the Oloffson, meets his wife Lunise, a talented Haitian singer and dancer, and forms the band RAM. There’s an extent to which Richard renounced his own privilege, as an Ivy League educated American who can pass for white, by choosing to commit to a life in Haiti, but also an extent to which his privilege has made his life’s work possible. When Aristide was deposed and other musicians went into exile, Richard continued speaking out because he could, because his American citizenship offered a certain immunity, while Lunise and other members of the band had to gamble with their lives. That crossroad of race and nationality and class, that in between space the Morse family occupies, is really fascinating to me.
“That crossroad of race and nationality and class, that in between space the Morse family occupies, is really fascinating to me.”
MJ: How long have you been working on the novel?
Phoebe: Five years. It’s been through a lot of drafts. Given the project’s scope, and the amount I still have to learn about Haiti, I can’t rush it.
MJ: Do the Morses know you’re writing about them?
Phoebe: Yes. Richard and Emerante have been the most supportive. Lunise seems dubious but more or less okay with it, and I think the Morse kids are used to their parents being talked about. Their names are all changed in the book, as is the physical description of the hotel, so it’s not like the hotel in The Comedians. Despite the title, which is an homage to Greene, this isn’t a morally-ambivalent-white-M15-agent-in-an-exotic-country book.
MJ: Ha. Is that a genre?
Phoebe: I think so. That’s basically everything Graham Greene wrote.
MJ: Your book is a work of fiction?
Phoebe: Yes. I take a lot of liberty with historical events and with character. For instance, there’s a character based off of Katherine Dunham but she’s incredibly different from the real-life figure. I want this to be a compelling story, not a laundry list of things that really happened. So it’s absolutely not a factual account. I went through the earthquake with the Morses and have tremendous admiration for them but I’m a guest at their hotel, not a close personal friend. It’s impossible to know the inner worlds even of our closest friends. So I have to fabricate, often in ways that aren’t flattering to the Morses, to craft an interesting narrative rather than just a paean to their bravery. Hopefully I can do that while still honoring their legacy and not being banned from staying at the Oloffson…
“I want this to be a compelling story, not a laundry list of things that really happened.”
MJ: Do you have anxieties about people questioning your authority to write this book, as a white American?
Phoebe: Junot Diaz, who is one of my favorite writers, gave a talk at Princeton University while I was still there. I asked him a question at the reception afterwards, about writing from different subject positions or something, and he said I’d be better off writing about a white girl who was obsessed with Haiti than about Haiti itself. He didn’t mean it in a snarky way; he genuinely meant that Western misperceptions and projections constitute an interesting discursive field of their own. He also told me that my reasons for writing (the impulse to put myself in other people’s shoes, a somewhat didactic desire to educate Americans about Haitian history), while admirable, were too intellectual, that there was nothing personal or vulnerable driving me. I take this with a grain of salt, because most of Diaz’s work is semi-autobiographical, but still, he made me think. I’ve been playing around with putting myself into the book, while still centering the Morse family. I kind of hate Philip Roth but I’m borrowing his Zuckerman strategy, with the narrator as a stand-in for the author imagining the story of the protagonist in close third person.
“I kind of hate Philip Roth but I’m borrowing his Zuckerman strategy, with the narrator as a stand-in for the author imagining the story of the protagonist in close third person.”
MJ: Who do you see as your audience?
Phoebe: I really want Americans who know nothing about Haiti, especially white Americans, to read my book and learn something. I also hope that I’m writing a moving story about family and identity and difficult, heart-breaking decisions that Americans and Haitians alike will enjoy. That said, I’m not writing in Creole, and I don’t know enough about Haiti to give upper class and diaspora Haitians a story that will truly surprise or challenge them. Entertain, hopefully.
MJ: Is there anything you’ve read about Haiti, either written by an outsider or by a Haitian, that turned out to be untrue?
Phoebe: There’s this New York Times columnist David Brooks who’s written about how vodoun keeps Haiti backward. I think that’s an ignorant view of a really complex religion. Also, the general perception that Haiti is just the worst place ever. Because of this perception there’s an equally misguided apologist backlash, where people say no, Haiti’s wonderful all the time and not at all dangerous. In my admittedly limited experience, exercising common sense and precaution is enough to stay safe. When I’m in Haiti, I pay moto-taxi drivers I know and trust, or if I’m going to walk around, I try to be with a Haitian friend. The level of poverty is an affront against human dignity, there’s no point denying that, but there’s also a ton of amazing art and music and stunning natural beauty. The mountains in Furcy are breathtaking, like Caribbean Alps. The main reason I keep going back to Haiti, why I want to move there after I finish my MFA, is because I love being there. It’s a challenging place but it has a lot to offer.
“The level of poverty is an affront against human dignity, there’s no point denying that, but there’s also a ton of amazing art and music and stunning natural beauty.”
MJ: Anything you read that turned out to be true? LOL.
Phoebe: There’s this line in Dany Laferriere’s memoir of the earthquake, where he talks about the degree of artistic talent in Haiti, how every third Haitian is a poet or painter or musician. That’s totally what I love about Haiti.
MJ: Thanks Phoebe.
Phoebe: Thanks MJ!
You can donate to Phoebe’s research here: http://www.hatchfund.org/project/the_hotel_trianon
Phoebe Rusch is a second year MFA candidate in fiction at the University of Michigan Helen Zell Writing in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She has a B.A. in history and creative writing from Princeton University.