I've been fortunate enough to travel a lot in the past several years, and the books in my library have increased alongside the stamps in my passport. In that time, I've found reading and traveling to be similar in the way they've broadened my interest in the world outside my own experience. At it's best, reading, like traveling, gives a reader the opportunity to make an emotional investment in the stories of people who are different than they are, living different lives in different places. In 2017, that's felt, well, worthwhile.
I found out I would be moving to Haiti in January of 2017, a decision which is in some ways attributable to the first book on this list: it was after reading Mischa Berlinski's novel Peacekeeping in the summer of 2016 that I first thought to myself "Haiti sounds interesting." I didn't think I would actually move here.
Since then, I've read a lot of books about Haiti, and a lot of books about other places too—some of which I've visited, some of which I haven't. Here are some of the ones that have stood out this year.
Set in Jérémie, an isolated city on Haiti's far south-east peninsula, most of this fast-paced novel takes place during a dramatic election season in that city. Berlinski lived in Jérémie for 7 years while his wife worked for the United Nations; the novel largely takes place in the morally ambiguous environment surrounding the UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti (which, incidentally, came to a close only months ago). Berlinski is a keen and ironic observer of the human condition, and has a writer's particular awareness of the role narrative plays in both personal and international relationships. Peacekeeping is tightly-plotted page-turner and an indictment of foreign involvement in Haiti in the year leading up to the earthquake; it's also got some killer lines I've found myself really resonating with since I moved here. "Mid-August in the Caribbean is a month to be endured," I repeated to myself several times a day when I arrived here, in mid-August. Another: "Who just shows up in a sovereign nation with his own private bulldozer and builds roads?" Indeed.
The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster
In 2010, Jonathan Katz was the only full-time American correspondent living in Haiti. He had been there for two and a half years when the now infamous earthquake destroyed much of the physical, social, and political infrastructure of Haiti's capital city. Katz was the first to break the news of the earthquake itself (the AP published at the same time as the US Geological Survey); he also broke the news that it was most likely the UN that was responsible for the post-quake cholera crisis, and it was this work that helped force an investigation of the UN's culpability in this crisis. (The UN has only recently admitted their role in causing this epidemic, and progress on making reparations has been painfully slow.) As he chronicles Haiti's struggles in the year after the earthquake, Katz also speaks eloquently about his own trauma, weaving his personal experience into accounts of government corruption and mismanaged funds. This is essential reading for anyone involved in development—we've got multiple copies at the office.
An Untamed State
On the back of this book, well-known Haitian writer Edwidge Danticat claims that "once you start reading this book you will not be able to put it down," which is not the statement I would have made. I wanted to put this book down the entire time I was reading it. An Untamed State takes place over thirteen days, described thoroughly and unflinchingly, during which a Haitian American woman returning to Haiti is kidnapped, brutally tortured, and returned to her family to deal with the aftermath. It's a book about power and privilege in an environment of overwhelming deprivation, and the ways in which trauma plays out at both a personal and societal level. It is not for the faint of heart, and while I was certainly able to put it down, I don't think I'll ever forget it.
Mountains beyond Mountains
And now for something a little less depressing! Mountains beyond Mountains is a completely engrossing biography of the tireless and fascinating Dr Paul Farmer, the physician and anthropologist whose organization, Partners in Health, started treating infectious diseases in rural Haiti and now works all over the world. Much of the book recounts the significant role Partners in Health played in controlling drug-resistant tuberculosis among the world's most marginalized populations, from subsistence farmers in Haiti to slum residents in Peru to prisoners in Siberia. Even if you don't have a pre-existing interest in public health, Kidder's affection for his subject is, ahem, infectious.
Mountains beyond Mountains was published in 2003; a lot has happened in Haiti since then. When I finished the book, I found myself wondering about the work Partners in Health has been doing in Haiti since the 2010 earthquake. As it turns out, I already know some of it: MCC partners with Zanmi Lasante, the Haitian branch of Partners in Health, on public health projects in the Artibonite, including the reconstruction of a cholera treatment center after last year's Hurricane Matthew, and a new mental health project based out University Hospital Mirebalais.
This is on every Best Books of 2017 list so you don't need me to tell you to read it, but if you haven't yet, allow me to join the chorus of recommendations. Exit West is short and beautiful, its controlled use of magic realism giving it a dreamlike quality even as it remains grounded in the painful reality of the refugee crisis. In a year that has seemed at times like an endless outpouring of hatred for the world's most vulnerable populations, Exit West gently and powerfully reminds us of our common humanity.
The Ministry of Pain
A slightly older novel on a similar theme, this one about Yugoslavian refugees in Europe after the war in that former country. The Ministry of Pain finds its protagonist teaching English in an Amsterdam that has a surreal, placeless quality. A meditation on trauma, language, and nostalgia in late 20th-century Europe, the novel feels disembodied and deeply visceral at the same time.
The Big Green Tent
If you're like me and you like to burrow into a big Russian novel of a winter, but you're tired of dead white guys, may I suggest Ludmilla Ulitskaya's most recent novel? The Big Green Tent follows the lives of three childhood friends, from the death of Stalin until the break-up of the Soviet Union, and while these three young men provide the narrative threads that gather together the various vignettes making up the novel, most of it ends up being told through the eyes of the women in their lives.