Another in my occasional series: Audiobooks I Have Loved.
(NOTE: All of the proceeds from sales of this book go to organizations that are doing real and good work on the ground in Haiti. Read more about that here: http://www.becauseweare.com)
Because We Are, a Novel of Haiti, sat in my queue of audiobooks for a few months, waiting for me to get up the nerve to listen to it. I knew it would be a painful listen; how could it not be? The subject matter dictated its mood and outcome, I knew. I had to prepare myself for bleak, stark images and raw emotions.
Because We Are takes on the unbelievable morass of Haiti’s political, social, and cultural climate. It reads as if written by an insider with a deep understanding of Haiti’s poor. In fact, Ted Oswald, a law student, wrote it while living in Haiti, after meeting a feisty nine-year-old girl on whom the main character is modeled.
The novel presents Haiti, both before and after the devastating 2010 earthquake, so the images are indeed bleak and stark. But the message is far from it. The main character, a little girl called Libète (meaning liberty or freedom in Haitian Creole) because she was born on New Year’s Day, Haiti’s Independence Day, faces challenges and losses that no child should have to face. She loses her mother to AIDS at the age of five, is sent to live with her aunt in Cité Soleil, Port au Prince’s notorious slum, and becomes her aunt’s restavek (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Restavek). Her tyrannical aunt makes her life miserable, but things only get worse when the earthquake takes the aunt’s life and leaves Liberté to live with her drunken uncle in a refugee tent city. Misery abounds in Libète’s young life.
But that’s not really what the story is about. Neither is it wholly a mystery about Libète’s discovery at age ten of a murdered mother and child, and her quest for justice for them, although that does form the backbone of the novel. The novel follows the story of two children navigating the complexities of life in a Haitian slum. It’s part murder-mystery, part adventure, part character drama, part social commentary. It as at the same time heart-wrenching and hopeful, full of both suffering and redemption.
The core of the novel rests in the title: Because We Are. The title, though, is only half of the quotation: “I am because we are.” Libète learns this quote and ethic from her mysterious teacher, who explains that the saying encapsulates the African notion of Ubuntu, the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity. This ethic propels her to heroic actions in her quest for justice.
It’s hard to believe that a novel about such a raw and hopeless situation could be so uplifting. Libète faces so much death and despair at such a young age, but somehow survives and even triumphs. As one of the characters, a nurse, says: “We must do the good that is put before us.” Libète does that, again and again, in the face of all odds, and you can’t help but cheer her on.
Because We Are is not only a well-written and engaging novel, it’s an important novel as well. Without being preachy in the least, Oswald invites the reader to grapple with important questions, including:
- the often misguided approaches of humanitarian aid efforts
- the humanity and dignity of the poor
- learned helplessness vs. self-empowerment of the poor
- systemic injustices that trap people in a cycle of poverty
- questioning the goodness of God when faced with the reality of suffering and injustice
There are no easy answers given; instead the reader is left to struggle, along with the characters, how to respond to these big questions. As a result, the novel is the perfect read for a book group.
Bahni Turpin’s narration flawlessly captures the Haitian accent, and adds to her already stunning repertoire of audiobook performances, including The Help and Yellow Crocus. I’d listen to her read the phone book.
So, I’m sorry I waited so long to listen to this book. Don’t make the same mistake. Oh, and please tell me what you thought.