In 2004, the Brooklyn-based independent publisher Akashic Books released “Brooklyn Noir,” a collection of all-new crime stories, each set in a different neighborhood of the borough. “Brooklyn Noir” won readers and awards, and spawned “Brooklyn Noir 2: The Classics,” then “Chicago Noir,” “San Francisco Noir,” and “D.C. Noir.” “Dublin Noir” was the first book in the series to leave the borders of the US.
Although crime-fiction stars like Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos have edited previous volumes in the series, with Haiti Noir Edwidge Danticat becomes the first of the series’s editors to have made her name as a mainstream literary author. (Coming up are “Lagos Noir” from Chris Abani and “New Jersey Noir” from Joyce Carole Oates.) Though best known as the author of melancholy, well-crafted works of fiction, Danticat is also the editor of the anthology “The Butterfly’s Way,” and three contributors to that book also appear in this one.
Haiti has been the subject of more than its share of lurid narratives. In her introduction to “Haiti Noir,” Danticat discusses some of the “dark tales” that emerged from Haiti during the US Marine occupation of 1915-34. Books like “The Magic Island” by William Seabrook and “Voodoo Fire in Haiti” did their part to create a persistent image of Haiti as a land of zombies and cannibals.
By focusing on tales of crime and cruelty, “Haiti Noir” might be expected to generate more of the same. But Danticat maintains that if “mind-blowing and sometimes bone-chilling” stories are to be written about Haiti, they should be written by Haitians themselves. Of the 18 stories in this collection, all but two are written by Haitians, though many of them live in the diaspora. Madison Smartt Bell and Mark Kurlansky, white Americans with a deep knowledge of the country, are given the honor of inclusion.
Danticat tells us that she began working on this anthology about a year before the devastating earthquake of January 2010. She includes three tales that focus on that historic disaster, and chooses two of them to begin and end the book. In “Odette,” by Patrick Sylvain, a grandmother in a neighborhood of Port-au-Prince survives the destruction only to become the target of the fears and suspicions of her neighbors. In “The Harem,” by Ibi Aanu Zoboi, a charming lady’s man with three lovers has a twisted response when he loses two of them in the quake. And in “The Blue Hill,” by Rodney Saint-Éloi, the earthquake comes as the final blow of what is already an apocalyptic scene brought on by the dumping of chemicals and an outbreak of blue pustules.
Unlike other volumes in the series, “Haiti Noir” features few stories of mystery and detection. One exception is “Dangerous Crossroads,” by Louis-Philippe Dalembert, a satisfying police procedural about a veteran police detective and a series of strangely deformed corpses.
For all the drama and violence in this book, some of its most effective stories focus on quieter losses. Populated by slaves (after the indigenous Taino Indians succumbed to European diseases), Haiti began as a land of displaced people and has remained a hard land to thrive in. “Migration is such an integral part of the Haitian experience,” writes Danticat, “that those living outside of the country were once designated as part of a ‘tenth department,’ an ideological auxiliary to Haiti’s first geographical nine.”
Within Haiti itself, survival sometimes requires internal exile. Some of these stories refer to restaveks, or children whose parents are driven by poverty to send them away to work as domestic servants for richer families. Restaveks may be abused, deprived of education, or even raped. In “Rosanna,” by Josaphat-Robert Large, a wealthy woman who owns a boutique in the capital takes in a boy as a restavek, and although she treats him well the decision ends in tragedy. In “Which One?,” by Evelyne Trouillot, a mother contemplates a deception that would send her daughter to Brooklyn in hopes of a better life.
Danticat’s own story may be the highlight of this collection. In “Claire of the Sea Light,” a fisherman’s wife dies while giving birth to their daughter, Claire. Gaspard, the father, raises the child but is constantly haunted by the sense that he is inadequate to the task. Though the love between Gaspard and Claire is strong, Gaspard devotes years to convincing a woman who sells fabric to become the girl’s godmother — in fact, to take her away and raise her. It is a heartbreaking story, and when Gaspard finally succeeds, the result is more heartbreaking yet.