In my last blog, I promised to share a little of what I learned from writing Serafina’s Promise. Since Serafina hits the bookshelves in a few days, it seemed like a good theme for my September post.
I knew very little about Haiti before that Tuesday in January three years ago, when a powerful earthquake rumbled through what the media repeatedly described as the poorest country in the western hemisphere. The emerging and deeply-disturbing details horrified me. How could such desperate conditions exist less than two hours from the Florida coast?
Days, weeks, months after the earthquake, Haiti continued to be tagged the poorest country in the western hemisphere. Years into recovery and the label remains. Haiti, reporters often say, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere - as if this were somehow her official moniker - the way we are officially the United States of America.
I don’t dispute the facts. More than half the population of Haiti lives in poverty with little or no food and limited access to fresh water. Relief efforts are hampered by policies and politics. The cycle of hardship and suffering continues. But, if one scratches beneath the statistics, one finds a different Haiti - the Haiti where a struggling but proud people build families and communities based on faith, love, and hope. It’s hard to imagine how hope can survive such desolation; the fact that it does is a tribute to the spirit and resiliency of the Haitian people. You beat the drum and you dance again, Serafina’s mother tells Serafina in one of my favorite Haitian proverbs.
People often think of writers as creators. We create characters who don’t really exist and then make up stories about them. Naturally it would seem to follow that we’re in complete control. We can make our characters go where we want them to go and do what we want them to do. In truth, it doesn’t work that way. We create the characters, yes... but somewhere along the writing line, our characters, like the humans they reflect, develop personalities of their own. Writers may choose the circumstances which their characters face - but a character’s emotions and reactions are elemental fibers. Writers twist - pull - dye - but we cannot change the fiber of a character - or a country.
Serafina took me by the hand and led me through a country betrayed by nature and by forces both internal and external. She showed me a ravaged countryside where one must wake before dawn to gather water and often go to bed with an empty belly. But Serafina also brought me to a city alive with color and music. She showed me a culture rich in tradition. She shared her petty grievances and her grand hopes - what I learned from Serafina was that children growing up two hours from the coast of Florida are not very different from children growing up here.