I like it when fiction writers have something to say about the world. I mean the real world, beyond the world of books. Junot Diaz, author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, wrote an excellent article in the Boston Review recently about natural disasters, focusing particularly on the earthquake in Haiti. It’s rare to read something fresh about an event like that. Somehow the loss of so much life seems to render us incapable of producing anything but platitudes.
Junot Diaz, though, provides something fresh. His argument is essentially that there is no such thing as a natural disaster – all disasters are social. The wind may blow and the earth may shake and the tides may rise, but who dies is determined largely by social factors. In Hurricane Katrina, poor African Americans were abandoned before, during and after the disaster; wetlands were sold to developers, removing natural defences; budgets for maintaining levees were slashed, and so on. Diaz traces the same sort of history of social intervention in Haiti. In a wonderful 380-word sentence he gives a potted history of Haiti, from slavery through dictatorships, the IMF and a whole lot more, and concludes: “the world has done its part in demolishing Haiti.”
He then connects Haiti back to the wider world:
Isn’t that after all the logical conclusion of what we are wreaking? The transformation of our planet into a Haiti? Haiti, you see, is not only the most visible victim of our civilization—Haiti is also a sign of what is to come.
By this he means the marginalisation of poor people, the widening gap between rich and poor, a world in which the rich are ultra-rich and the rest of us are left to fend for ourselves, dying at the hand of whatever “natural” disaster comes our way. He sees hope, though, in some of the reactions of people, especially Dominicans, whose traditional animosity to Haiti evaporated in the midst of the crisis as they were the first to help their neighbours. This is something that resonated with me, because I always tire of reading about how in a post-apocalyptic world, we would all run around eating each other. In truth, the lesson of any massive disaster is that people help each other, for the most part. However, this less disastrous vision of the future does rely upon us having the wisdom to, as Diaz puts it, “heed the ruins”, something we seem to be very bad at doing. We are good at wringing our hands and donating money, but often this is to avoid looking at the bigger picture, learning the lessons that Diaz sees written in the ruins.
After all, apocalypses like the Haitian earthquake are not only catastrophes; they are also opportunities: chances for us to see ourselves, to take responsibility for what we see, to change. One day somewhere in the world something terrible will happen, and for once we won’t look away. We will reject what Jane Anna and Lewis R. Gordon have described in Of Divine Warning as that strange moment following a catastrophe where “in our aversion to addressing disasters as signs” we refuse “to interpret and take responsibility for the kinds of collective responses that may be needed to alleviate human misery.” One day somewhere in the world something terrible will happen and for once we will heed the ruins. We will begin collectively to take responsibility for the world we’re creating. Call me foolishly utopian, but I sincerely believe this will happen. I do. I just wonder how many millions of people will perish before it does.