I am always interested in books that speak to each other, whether by design or coincidentally. Such is the case with The Sons and Daughters of Toussaint by Keith Madsen and Vanished by Mark Bierman. Both books have as their subject the troubled nation island of Haiti–yet they take very different approaches when using fiction to explore the experience of the Haitian people and those committed to helping them.
I’ve read and reviewed both books, and I was very curious to learn anything I could about why each author approached his novel about Haiti the way he did. Keith and Mark were very gracious to oblige me with this interview.
Mark: As a youngster, I remember Dad going to Haiti to help build homes and churches. He’d come back with incredible stories of the hardships and resilience of these strong people, not to mention the photos of life in Haiti. It’s hard to forget the sight of shanties with open sewage running in small ditches just outside their doors, and mountains devoid of trees, stripped away for firewood and shelter. Yet, he said they were hard workers and always smiling.
A number of years later, I had the chance to volunteer in the poorer areas of Dominican Republic, well out of sight of the touristy areas. I recall visiting small villages, where families lived in small, one room huts. Many of the families were Haitians, brought over to harvest sugar cane. There was no running water, and I remember being laughed at by the locals, for carrying water jars on my head. Apparently, only the women were supposed to do that. I found the same friendliness and smiling faces that my father did.
Years later, I became interested in writing and enrolled in a creative writing course. My original plan was to write a magazine article about life in Haiti. My father and brother-in-law were heading to post- earthquake Haiti, in October of 2010, and I asked them to keep a journal.
I’m not sure when, but there was a change of plans, and I switched to novel writing. While researching Haiti, I learned about the thousands of orphans misplaced by the earthquake and how many of them ended up as child slaves. The idea for Vanished was born.
Keith: Between 2012 and 2018 I took five trips to Haiti as the leader of mission trips sponsored by the Evergreen Association of American Baptists. We principally went to the Cap Haitian area in Northern Haiti, although in 2012 we also briefly visited Port-au-Prince. In Port-au-Prince we surveyed the extensive damage from the 2010 earthquake and visited an orphanage that cared for children who lost parents in the 2010 quake. Each year we brought funds to help build an elementary school, later named Collage Matondo de Madeline. We worked alongside Haitian workers and assisted them in the building. In 2018 we attended the dedication of the school.
In addition to working on this school we also toured the area, visiting a hospital that included a wing for children with disabilities, a college, the Citadelle Laferriere (built by Henri Christophe to fend off a feared French invasion) and Caracol, an industrial park built after the 2010 earthquake to “Build Back Better” by taking industry away from the quake centers around Port-au-Prince.
My interactions with the people of Haiti built friendships and made me want to be their “cheerleader” as they seek to develop their country.
Mark: At first, I never thought much about it. I know that sounds crazy, but I thought it would make a good story. I never felt like a crusader on a mission, though of course, I was aware that it would raise some eyebrows.
You know what? I’m glad it does. Vanished was never supposed to be a ‘feel good’ book. It was meant to pull readers out of their comfort zone and push them into a world that most of us are oblivious to. I include myself among these. As time passes, and I receive messages from people who were victims of trafficking, I am convinced that this was the right path. Many of them say that it is happening worldwide, yes, even here in North America.
I’ve also had the privilege of meeting and interviewing some truly compassionate people who work to help victims and to support them.
Keith: Fiction gives an opportunity for a writer to explore what the world can be. I like the saying of Bobby Kennedy, “Some see things that are and ask, ‘Why?’; I see things that never were, and ask ‘Why not?’” That’s what a fiction writer can do in exploring social and political issues. Fiction can change the world. When Harriet Beecher Stowe (author of the fictional Uncle Tom’s Cabin) visited Abraham Lincoln in 1862, he was quoted as greeting her with the words, “Is this the little woman who made this great war?” That was his opinion on how a fictional work changed the country’s attitude toward slavery.
I really liked what Mark wrote about how a writer can “pull readers out of their comfort zone and push them into a world that most of us are oblivious to.”
Mark: So much that it makes my head spin. Yes, it’s a work of fiction, but there’s plenty of truth nuggets throughout the book. The word restavek. for instance, is a Haitian term for giving up your children (often to relatives who are better off financially) because you cannot afford to feed them or provide the life you feel they deserve. Sometimes these “benefactors,” end up turning their charges into personal slaves, or selling them off to traffickers.
There are also snippets of events and terms that I gleaned from the copious notes kept by my father and brother-in-law. In one scene, a sickly baby is brought into the makeshift medical clinic and is nursed back to health, that really did happen.
Some of the characters were fabricated from real criminals that I’ve dealt with in my years of Correctional work. Assembled in Frankenstein fashion, in the cobwebby laboratory of my brain.
I just want to conclude by saying that the tale is not all gloom and doom. I believe there is always hope. Oh, the issue of trafficking is unlikely to be eradicated any time soon, but as you’ll witness in my book, hearts can be changed for the better.
It’s important to remember the helpers. You know the folks I’m talking about, and maybe you’re one of them.
Here are a few organizations that 50% of the proceeds of the sales of Vanished go towards. They work tirelessly to do whatever they can. I hope you’ll check them out.
Keith: Before going to Haiti the first time I did research on the country and it’s history, and I continued to do more research as I prepared to write the novel. Books I read include:
- Tracy Kidder’s book Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World. Dr. Paul Farmer has been instrumental in restoring the medical resources of Haiti after the 2010 quake (Incidentally the word “Haiti” is from a Taino (natives of the country) word for “Mountainous.”)
- J.R. Beard’s book Toussaint L’Ouverture: A Biography and Autobiography. Written in 1863.
- Paul Farmer’s book, Haiti after the Earthquake. A very complete, informative book on Haiti and the effect of the earthquake on that country.
- Madison Smartt Bell’s novel, All Souls’ Rising. A National Book Award finalist dealing with Toussaint and the Haitian Revolution.
- Jeremy Popkin’s A Concise History of the Haitian Revolution.
Of course, part of my “research” was also just talking to and working with the Haitian people. Like Mark, I was also impressed with the “resilience of these strong people”.
We did not have any kidnapping issues while there, but the Executive Minister of the Haitian Baptist Convention, in whose home we stayed each time we visited, had been kidnapped and held for ransom several years before we came the first time. I think he knew what to watch out for when we were there!
Keith and Mark have shared some photos from Haiti that I’ve made into a short video. The music is a song called “Fe` Saw Ka Fe`,” which I found in a collection of Haitian music on Internet Archive.
To find out more about The Sons and Daughters of Toussaint and Vanished, please check out my reviews, which include buy links: