Amy Wilentz is known as a writer’s writer, creative and courageous in her work for the New Yorker and in The Nation and in her award-winning books. Since 1986, she has devoted much of her career to understanding the politics and culture of Haiti; in the critically acclaimed The Rainy Season, she explored the country after the fall of Jean-Claude Duvalier. In Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter from Haiti, her incisive new book, Wilentz writes that the country is “like a fifty-first state, a shadow state, one that the United States wants to keep hidden in the attic.” TIME spoke with Wilentz, who also teaches journalism at the University of California, Irvine, on the occasion of the three-year anniversary of the earthquake that devastated Haiti, killing more than 200,000 people:
TIME: What is your fascination with Haiti?
Amy Wilentz: The culture is fantastic and very alien to white Anglo culture of the U.S. It’s a syncretic culture with voodoo and Christianity clinging to each other, which is really interesting. The people whom I got to know were so complicated and great and funny, witty and charming.
Do you report in Creole?
Yes. I try to seduce the people I’m talking to with my Creole. Because if you go into these situations where everybody’s terribly poor and needy and desperate, and you start speaking their language to them, they just can’t believe it—like you’re a creature basically visiting from Mars.
Tell me about the meaning of the title.
We’re all politically correct now, right? So nobody would use this term anymore, but when I first got to Haiti, the international press corps, in particular the British, used that term self-mockingly, to describe the Haitian man in the street. You know, ‘did you talk to Fred Voodoo today? What’s Fred Voodoo saying?’ It’s like Joe Six-pack. So I want to say in my title, that although no one would say that anymore, that’s how people think of Haitians. Let’s not think of them that way anymore. So hence ‘farewell.’”
You write a lot about the earthquake. Do you agree with those who say everything has been disappointing as far as efforts to help the country?
It’s almost as if Haiti is a sieve in which you pour money and then you take it back and the Haitians don’t ever touch it…1.2 million people survived and were in the camps…There are still 358,000 or so people still living in camps who are getting nothing. I know because I interviewed a camp full of them last week.
Do you think they’re a little mystified by you?
The people I deal with in the camps and in the shantytowns, they have no idea where I come from. I could be the king of Abyssinia as far as they’re concerned. I could be installed on a throne. They don’t know what I am. They hope I’ll bring them some money, which I usually do, in all violation of journalism ethics.
But these people get nothing back from us. We come in, we exploit their story, they have no idea how it’s used or what it means, and the least one can do to acknowledge their common humanity in the conditions in which they’re living it to give them a couple of sous—that’s the French word for pennies—for their time.
What do you think of the Obama administration’s policies concerning Haiti?
[It] seemed like he was going to do things for them, and God they love him so much down there, you know? They thought he was going to be a savior and I still think they still love him because of the racial similarity, but I think that the administration just lost sight of it. It wasn’t that important to them. They gave it to Bill Clinton to run basically and that’s how the game went down.
Has Clinton remained interested?
I think Bill Clinton loves excitement. He wanted to be involved. But I think he’s been totally wrongheaded in all the projects he’s done. Of course it’s a huge crisis to deal with because he wasn’t just dealing with the earthquake. He’s dealing with Haiti for like 200 years plus the earthquake. So it’s not like you can walk in and fix everything.
What did you see on your recent trip?
On this trip I saw hungry kids…the red hair that black kids get when they’re vitamin deprived. The slightly big belly, but not like that giant scary thing. Barefoot children, children with a shirt and no pants, obviously all over the place. People who are wearing the same clothes they’ve worn for ages and ages. People who live in huts. Of course people with no running water.
What’s Sean Penn’s role there?
If you study the white man in Haiti they’ve been a lot like Sean Penn—interested in getting things done and running roughshod over the rules, and also fascinated with the place. He’s all those things. He’s a little bit of a cowboy in his attitude toward development, but he feels responsible toward the country.
Do you remain optimistic or do you feel optimistic about Haiti’s future?
I’m Jewish and Jews are pessimists by nature. But I have learned in Haiti through my Christian friends there, of whom I have many, many—at the beginning a lot of my friends were priests—I’ve learned the value of optimism. There’s a Haitian expression lespwa fe viv, which means, “hope lets you live.” And I think that’s true.