Haiti’s Cyclical Suffering

By: Noah Taylor, Laura Boysen, Jessica D’Antonio, Ryan Silverstein, Zoe LaVallee, Marin Goodstein, Kevin Reed, Connor Skelton, and Charlie Kenny

On January 12th, 2010, an earthquake measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale hit the island of Hispaniola. This catastrophic event was followed by two consecutive aftershocks with magnitudes of 5.9 and 5.5, which devastated the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince and surrounding areas. According to the United Nations, 220,000 people lost their lives and 1.5 million were left homeless in the aftermath of this earthquake. The source of the quake was a deep sea fault line known as the Leogane. Due to its hidden location, seismologists ignored its danger in favor of the more obvious Enriquillo-Plantain Garden fault zone, which runs through the country. This miscalculation contributed to the overall mishandling of the disaster. The response to the disaster was not much better, and this ended up causing more issues when the 2021 quake struck. There seems to be a cyclical nature to these natural disasters. N.K Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy asks readers to examine the parallels between the cyclical nature of fictional tragedies and natural disasters. In doing so, readers may be informed enough to prevent repeating this history. 

The Broken Earth Trilogy implements a fictional apocalypse to draw attention to the devastation resulting from natural disasters in our reality. One only need look at the ways in which Haiti was ravished by the 2010 Earthquake to understand the parallels this series draws attention to. The numbers of those killed are harrowing, but the reality of these deaths is best felt through the words of those affected. 38 year old father, and business owner Jean Fanfan Vital spoke to NPR: “My child is dead. My father was carrying him, and as they passed by the building, some debris fell down and landed on them. The child was so young, only 4 months. And maybe that’s the only reason why he’s dead. He was so young”. This loss of life is a vivid representation of the impact that natural disasters have on humanity, especially those most vulnerable. The Broken Earth Trilogy confronts this understanding head on. The vulnerable in the Stillness are also the most affected by tragedy. A recursive example of this is the constant abuse of children that is proffered as a means to prevent disaster. That being said, one of the most poignant examples of vulnerability is through a man named Maxixe. He is a double amputee who finds himself in a near death condition. Maxixe sa ‘Rusting look at me, Essun. Listen to the rocks in my chest. Even if your headwoman will take half a rogga, I am not going to last much longer.’ ” (Jemisin 127). The vulnerability Maxixe experiences due to his disability causes him to experience the rifting in a harsher manner. He finds rocks forming in his chest, and he is less likely to be accepted into communities that might be able to aid him. The Broken Earth asks the reader to focus on how the most vulnerable are affected by disaster. Another real world example of this is how access to water exacerbated the effects of the 2010 Earthquake. 

Furthering the parallels between The Broken Earth Trilogy and the 2010 Earthquake, another major impact has been the lasting damage to water treatment, causing a mass increase in water insecurity in Haiti. In a US Geological Survey report from 2010, scientists reported that prior to the quake, the water supply system in Port-au-Prince (which supplied roughly 1,000,000 people) was already unreliable since it lacked proper treatment. In the aftermath, existing treatment facilities had become infiltrated, damaged, and none were left working as a result of the natural disaster. The inherent dangers of not having access to clean drinking water are disastrous. Cholera is an infectious and often fatal bacterial disease that spreads through contaminated water supplies. In Haiti, given that they have been left with no water treatment, and contaminated supplies/access, ShelterBox had reported a serious outbreak of cholera that “affected over 6% of the population and caused the further loss of thousands of more lives,”. The tainted water supply also had a major impact on the children of Haiti, the most vulnerable group. In 2021, UNICEF measured that around 540,000 children in the area hit by the 2021 earthquake were left with a potential “re-emergence” of waterborne diseases. While this report came from the 2021 earthquake, it highlights that there could be a “re-emergence”, referencing the waterborne illness issues caused in 2010. Looking again into The Broken Earth Trilogy, readers are shown an impact of damaged water supplies when Essun meets Tonkee in the first novel. In this section, as Essun and Hoa are traveling they come across a supply station that has been ravaged. Upon encountering Tonkee, she tells Essun that the rifting “‘Probably breached a lot of aquifers. They’ll repair themselves over time, of course, but in the short term, no telling what kinds of contaminants might be around here…You know what kinds of nasty things cities leave behind when they die?’” (Fifth Season 181). In this fictional world, cycles of destruction and world-ending events are constant over time. This parallels what the country of Haiti has experienced because of the 2010 earthquake and its traumatic history. Jemisin’s work in the Broken Earth Trilogy emphasizes the impact geologic catastrophe has on humanity, specifically in this case the impact that a tainted water supply has on a community or people. While the geological event of the earthquake might have been the final blow to Haiti’s clean water access, a dysfunctional political system is also a contributing factor.

Haiti has been suffering from political instability for centuries. To understand why these earthquakes were so disastrous, we begin with the historical issues at the core of the country’s difficulties: colonization. The Spanish, French, and British all vied for control of the region using barbaric methods of submission that left the populace hungry for freedom and sovereignty.  Independence was gained in 1804, but that did not stabilize the region as it has seen volatile shifts in sources of power ever since. Practices of ruthless dictatorships have strengthened the divide between the working and ruling classes, suppressed opposing viewpoints, and left the country at the mercy of foreign involvement. For all of these reasons, it is clear that true and lasting authority is lacking within the country.

Haitian gang violence is deeply embedded in its history. Gangs contribute to and result from political instability. According to an article from The New Humanitarian published in 2022, “the number of gangs has in the capital has skyrocketed since the assassianation of President Jovenel Moïse in July…it’s unclear which gang is in control…or if an area will suddenly be engulfed in gunfire.” This situation is similar to the 2010 earthquake, and has crippled humanitarian efforts, leaving people without access to assistance.

Stability is required for making a nation’s homes, hospitals, and schools resilient during seismic events. It is impossible to have adequate healthcare in nations that are politically insecure. Prior to the 2010 earthquake, Haiti appeared to have the “oldest HIV/AIDS epidemic outside Sub-Saharan Africa . Infrastructure was then devastated after the 2010 earthquake, namely insufficient water and sanitation. This precipitated the largest cholera outbreak ever recorded in a country. The earthquake destroyed “50 healthcare centers as well as the Ministry of Health building” and  part of Haiti’s primary teaching hospital, disrupting the education of future healthcare professionals”. Without adequate healthcare developments, Haitian citizens were unprepared for the 2021 quake. Since the recent earthquake, Haiti’s healthcare system remains destabilized. 

There are many political parallels present between this trilogy and Haiti’s history. For example, there is a connection between the slave uprising and the orogenes’ desire for autonomy. This desire is most distinctly represented through Essun’s actions towards those that would deny her people’s legitimacy as human beings. When leaving Tirimo on page 57 of The Fifth Season, Essun encounters difficulties at the gate and concludes that the people of her community are not innocent; “The kind of hate that can make a man murder his own son? It came from everyone around you.” Just as the enslaved people of Haiti were significantly oppressed and exploited, orogenes face constant discrimination that they are forced to push against. Another key comparison concerns the codified apparatus of Stonelore as it relates to the recurring censorship of information in Haiti. Stonelore provides truth. However, Alabaster on page 125 of The Fifth Season pokes holes in Syenite’s beliefs about the unshakeable nature of the text; “But what was on the tablet was different, drastically so, from the lore we learned in school.” As one should not express doubt about the political propaganda emanating from dictatorships unless they want their head cut off, Stonelore should not be considered anything but immutable.  However, dictators must die and stories supporting their oppressive rule must be challenged. 

And what better way to challenge oppressive rule than through art? Art has always been a significant part of Haitian culture, as it serves “as memory for a country that has suffered” from dictatorships, failed governments, and poverty. It not only operates as a way to fight against the hardship of the country’s circumstances, it also functions as an economic lifeline for the country as 85% of the population are unemployed. 

In a similar sense, orogeny is an artistic outlet also used as a survival outline, as only the most controlled orogenes can survive. In Jemisin’s The Broken Earth Trilogy, orogeny can be viewed as an atypical artform. It is something that takes both innate talent and practiced skill, and the way it is done is wound tightly with the little orogene culture that exists. And, ultimately, orogeny is used to fight against corrupt government structures, as seen in The Fifth Season when Alabaster causes The Rifting which effectively destroys the Fulcrum. The Fulcrum acted as a governing body for the orogenes and was one of their many sources of oppression. Fulcrum trained orogeny is discussed more in the latter half of the series, as it becomes clear that their way of teaching this innate art is perverted, lacking the freedom of expression that someone like Nassun ends up expressing later in the series when she explores orogeny on her own terms.

Similarly, Haiti received an outright destruction of their artwork as a result of the 2010 earthquake. Musee Galerie d’Art Nader held some of Haiti’s oldest artworks, making it a center of both Haitian culture and history, and was reduced to rubble within seconds due to the natural disaster. The loss of this museum and countless pieces of art signifies an overall loss of culture as Haiti became a country marked by repeated devastation, as demonstrated by the recent 2021 earthquake. In fact, many of the pieces that were lost helped to signify the survival of Haitian citizens after being faced with these disasters, making the loss of such pieces all the more heartbreaking. As it was put by Camille Scully, executive director of Iowa’s Waterloo Center of the Arts and co-president of the Haitian Art Society, “They’re painting their lives. They’re recording their history,” With the loss of these museums, pieces of the country’s history were lost to the rubble. 

Jemisin’s series is a testament to how history can be lost to natural destruction. The old ways of orogeny were lost in the original Shattering, wherein the moon was hurtled away from the earth, which led to the survival based society we see depicted in the Stillness. The original form of orogeny was once called tuning, which merged magic with orogeny. Much like orogeny pre-Rifting, tuning was used by the government in order to fulfill their own needs, namely a utopic city that was powered by gemstone obelisks. The artforms of orogeny and tuning, while placed under the control of governing bodies, represents working within a system in order to break the binding rules. Essun was raised as a Fulcrum orogene and she imbued these teachings onto her daughter, Nassun. Yet, both of their stories are marked by how they learn to view and use their orogeny outside of the troubling context in which they first learned to control it. Essun’s relationship with Alabaster and her own personal journey involves her learning to use her orogeny in ways that she never would have thought to under the Fulcrum, moving beyond these boundaries. Nassun, on the other hand, reinvents the art of tuning due to the freedom of expression she is given in Found Moon. Despite the oppressive systems forced upon them, both mother and daughter learn to work outside of these systems to reinvent the art form integral to their humanity as orogenes.

Art is born from and shaped by calamity in a similar way. Look no further than Haitian artist Michèle Voltaire Marcelin. She revisited her home in Port-au-Prince after the 2010 earthquake and was surrounded by destruction that inspired her to create three paintings and a series of poems that evoked the fear and pain of the devastation. But Marcelin refused to create any more art of the event, stating: “Whether their lives and deaths were for hope, a new beginning or for nothing, we will decide. Let the dead bury the dead. The living must change the world.” A hopeful message in a time of sadness that is reflected in the final moments of Jemisin’s work, “This is the way a new world begins” (The Stone Sky 398) with the determination of the few. 

When considering the havoc associated with both of these earthquakes, Jemisin’s lesson rings true: History repeats itself. More specifically, those who rule with tyrannical power will remain in their position with a total disregard for the well-being of all people unless removed. We, in support of Haiti, must abandon archaic ways of thinking in favor of prioritizing justice and equity. Natural disasters will strike, but the promotion of progressive policy will lessen the damage. Artistic expression is a crucial means of advancing these ideas in hopes of a better future.

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