A Wedding in Haiti

Author Julia Alvarez and her husband Bill travel to Haiti for a wedding – and then find themselves tied to a country and a culture.

A Wedding in Haiti By Julia Alvarez Algonquin 304 pp.

Neither Julia Alvarez nor her husband Bill can remember exactly when she fell in love with a Haitian boy named Piti. But both distinctly recall the first meeting, which happened in 2001 on one of their many trips to Alvarez’s native Dominican Republic. “[S]hort and slender with the round face of a boy,” Piti – whose Kreyòl name means “little one,” was 17, 19, possibly even 20. “Somewhere in Haiti,” Alvarez realizes, “a mother had sent her young son to the wealthier neighbor country to help the impoverished family.” Never having experienced childbirth herself, something about Piti nonetheless releases “unaccountably maternal” feelings in Alvarez: “Who knows why we fall in love with people who are nothing to us?” she muses.

Piti becomes ingrained in the hearts and lives of both Alvarez and Bill as they travel frequently from their Vermont home to their organic coffee farm in the Dominican mountains, where Piti comes to work. One night, Alvarez promises she will be at his wedding, “[o]ne of those big-hearted promises … you never think you’ll be called on to deliver someday.” Eight years later, ‘someday’ arrives … and so begins Alvarez’s latest – her 22nd! – title, A Wedding in Haiti.

A week before the Aug. 20, 2009, nuptials, Piti announces his intention to marry Eseline, the mother of his infant daughter, and wants to know: Are Julia and Bill coming?

After arguing with her conscience (she was supposed to attend a conference at the same time), Alvarez and hubby arrive in Santiago, DR, two days before the wedding. They assemble their motley crew of attendees, pack the truck, and head toward Haiti, which Alvarez describes “like a sister I’ve never gotten to know.” In spite of the shared border, Alvarez has been next-door only once before, a quarter century ago. Piti’s family’s remote home doesn’t have an actual address or even appear on any map, but the adventure – long, uncertain, occasionally illegal – will end just in time for Alvarez and Bill to preside as the revered godparents as Piti and Eseline exchange of vows.

The truck must depart immediately after the ceremony, this time with the newly-wedded threesome, as Piti doesn’t want to subject his new family to public transportation. That neither wife nor baby has any immigration documentation is an obstacle they must face at the border. In spite of her fear and frustration with the situation, Alvarez “will not abandon them.… There is a bottom line below which you cannot go and still call yourself a human being.” Over just three days, Alvarez’s familial constellation changes remarkably.

Five months later, the horrific 2010 earthquake hits Haiti: its government reports “316,000 dead, 300,000 injured, 1.3 million displaced, 97,300 houses destroyed.” Piti and Eseline finally learn their immediate families have survived, but Eseline is not well; a trip home is deemed necessary. In July, Alvarez and Bill, Piti, Eseline, baby Ludy, and three more extended near-family, overload the truck and head over the border into devastated Haiti, bearing witness to indescribable tragedies.

“The one thing we cannot do is turn away,” Alvarez insists. “When we have seen a thing, we have an obligation. To see and to allow ourselves to be transformed by what we have seen.” Her bond with Piti allows Alvarez to experience Haiti through Piti’s shocked eyes, and witness his transformation “[f]rom laborer to capataz [supervisor] to president of CJM [Young People of Moustique Cooperative],” as he “work[s] toward the future of Haiti.”

Alvarez, internationally renowned for her novels, “How the García Girls Lost Their Accents” and “In the Time of the Butterflies,” says of her latest book (in an essay included with the advance copy), “[r]ather than a ‘me-moir,’ I prefer to call this book an ‘us-moir.’” While Piti’s story takes center page, Alvarez also weaves in her own marriage to her beloved Bill, her parents’ decades-long love story still unbroken in spite of the mutual dementia that has stolen most of their memories, as well as the complicated relationship of two less-than-sisterly nations.

Although “Wedding” occasionally reads too much like an unedited personal journal – especially the first half (which, Alvarez reveals, is how the book began) – Alvarez’s devotion, her admiration and hope, and most clearly, the love for her extended family, is palpable throughout. The small black-and-white-pictures scattered on the pages help emphasize the individual humanity throughout. Indeed, as Alvarez explains, “Wedding” proves to be “a love story that is many love stories; a story of how history can be reimagined when people from two countries, traditional enemies and strangers, become friends.”

Terry Hong writes BookDragon, a book review blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program.

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