A Look Back at Haiti Through Sontag’s Good Writing

I visited Haiti in the summer of 2007, and although I traveled for professional reasons, the experience was emotional. I maintain a powerful interest in and empathy for the people I met, the program I participated in, and the country in general.

Deborah Sontag’s coverage of the 2010 earthquake earned her a Pulitzer nomination and has kept me in touch with a country I struggled to understand, even when I worked and lived in Jacmel and Leogane.

I reviewed Sontag’s articles after I learned she was nominated in the International Reporting category of the 2011 Pulitzer Prizes, and one caught and kept my attention. On October 17, 2010 the New York Times published, “Weary of Debris, Haiti Finally Sees Some Vanish.”

This article focuses on an American character involved with clean up, but Sontag conveys the burden of wreckage in Haiti, on Haitians, after the earthquake. Sontag tells this story though Randal Perkins, whose pressed jeans stand in stark contrast to the collapsed funeral home he’s clearing. And she does not lose sight of the way Haitians are experiencing the clean-up.

Aside from nice pacing, appropriately placed quotes, and interesting character development throughout, I loved her phrasing:

“It has been obvious since January that clearing the wreckage is the necessary prelude to this country’s reconstruction, physically and psychologically. But the problem was so dauntingly big and complex that the government and donors got stuck in visionary mode, planning the future while the present remained mired in rubble.”

In two sentences she manages to summarize the complex situation, while layering insight on scene-setting.

Sontag chooses not to end with something from a bureaucrat or contractor involved in the clean-up. Instead she grounds the end of the story as she started it in the headline, with emotion, honesty, and a Haitian perspective. She ends with a bittersweet quote from an onlooker:

“‘It’s beautiful,’ Ernst Saint Albor, 36, said as he leaned on his bicycle watching one building come down. ‘It looks like destruction, but it’s progress. We cannot bear to see these collapsed buildings any longer. Be gone with them.’”

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