Everything is relative.
Here in the U.S., we women bitch about men, traffic, our paychecks, the coffee and/or the weather. But in Haiti, women aren’t bitching. They’re too busy struggling to stay alive.
Among this year’s PEN Southwest Book Award winners is Walking on Fire: Haitian Women's Stories of Survival and Resistance, Albuquerque activist Beverly Bell’s account of the lives of women in Haiti. Bell received the inaugural PEN NM Award for Distinguished Contribution to the Literature of Social Justice last week.
I caught up with her to talk about her book, but we moved far beyond Walking on Fire and PEN, largely because both naturally lend themselves to a discussion of the larger world.
What's your background?
For 25 years, I have been engaged in public education, organizing and advocacy for gender justice, human rights, economic justice and participatory democracy throughout numerous parts of the world and the U.S. Until December, I was running the Center for Economic Justice in Albuquerque, which I founded eight years ago. Now I am running a multimedia education project, which is documenting just economies which are flourishing around the world. Part of that involves a book I’m currently researching on examples of people having organized and stepped outside of the dominant economic system, which is resulting in ever-growing levels of poverty and inequality around the world. Of course, I’m particularly delighted that the current Nobel Peace prize winner is Muhammad Yunus. Any effort to make the economy work for the poor, who normally receive none of the fruits of globalization and in fact are penalized by it in many ways, should be heartily supported. It’s all about passion.
How did you come to be interested in the women of Haiti?
It’s a fairly bizarre little story. In 1976, when I was 14 and a wayward youth, my parents sent me down to Haiti for the summer to work with a missionary. I did not think much of the missionary and her very colonial way of relating to the Haitian people, but I was fortunate enough to be taken under the wing of some Haitian women. I spoke French because I’m from New Orleans, and, between their Creole and my French, we were able to communicate a bit. These women just rocked my world. I was captivated by their courage, their hopefulness and their tenacity. I have been working with Haitians, as well as many other populations who are trying to create another world, ever since.
It’s the women’s voices that are the heart of Walking on Fire. Can you talk about the book’s format, particularly the itswa—the personal narrative histories—of the women themselves?
There had never been in any language a book about Haitian women, and certainly never a book by any women except a few intellectual elite. Haitian women have not been silent, but they have silenced. This book was dreamed up between me and a number of peasant women over the course of time, and we set about to tell their story in both their own and my own words.
The book is composed of 38 oral histories of Haitian women from a former Prime Minister to—my personal favorite—an illiterate vendor of forks in the marketplace, who becomes an exquisite poet. It also involves chapters by me, analyzing the role of women in changing the course and discourse of Haiti’s history, and in constructing new and transformative forms of power.
One of my favorite quotes from the women comes from an activist/journalist named Lelenne Gilles: “If I didn’t have a radio to speak in, I’d stand under a tree to speak out. If I didn’t have a microphone to speak into, I’d stand in the middle of the street … I would stand in front of a chicken and talk. I’ll die with the words on my lips.”
I see Lelenne’s words as a symbol for this book, and for the many efforts of people who are silenced by dominant power around the world. These people have very few means to claim their own identity and worth by speaking, and still fewer opportunities to use their voices to make political and economic change. But they will use whatever means they have. Walking on Fire is one of those means.
Have these women effected some positive change since the book’s initial publication in 2001?
Haiti has a notable history of extremely engaged women. This history is in keeping with Haiti’s own remarkable history. Among other things, the Haitian people achieved the only successful slave revolution in the world. They became the first Black republic in the world, and the second independent republic in the hemisphere. The common Haitian expression is: “Resistance is in my gut. I was born with it.” The Haitian people still have not attained the democracy for which they waged their revolution and for which so many have fought and died in the century since—much as we in the United States have not—but since the book was published, they have continued to mobilize and make strides for real democracy.
Walking on Fire is the winner of the inaugural PEN NM Award for Distinguished Contribution to the Literature of Social Justice. What does winning this award mean for you, for your book and for the women of Haiti?
To me, the most significant element is that PEN, a historic and esteemed organization which both values and actively engages to further social justice and literature, has created this award. PEN has played a critical role in upholding freedom of expression for all, most especially the human rights of writers persecuted for their ideas and words throughout the world. In all the writing I have done, of which Walking on Fire is only one piece, I have tried to echo the words of Lila Abu-Lughod: “The world from which I write still has tremendous discursive, military, and economic power. My writing can either sustain it or work against its grain.” I am grateful and honored to have my efforts in that direction affirmed by this award.