Guernica Magazine

Listening for Ghost-Voices

A novel borne out of an earthquake, a departed friend, and a translation from which lost voices rise. The post Listening for Ghost-Voices appeared first on Guernica.
Illustration: Ansellia Kulikku

On January 12, 2010, at seven minutes to four in the afternoon, an earthquake devastated the island of Haiti. The epicenter was 25 kilometers west of the capital, Port-au-Prince, and measured 7 on the Richter scale. Within minutes, buildings and roads were reduced to rubble. The quake left hundreds of thousands dead and some 3 million injured or homeless.

“The situation here…yes…you cannot describe it…” said an aid worker, struggling to find words. “The dead are lying in the streets. Thousands of people are spending the night outdoors. They are lacking absolutely everything: water, food, medical care.”

Amid the ruins, a young man crouched behind an abandoned car, writing furiously. Beside him lay the corpse of a pregnant woman. As trucks rumbled past, piled with bodies and makeshift coffins, he wrote on. “I thought I was going crazy,” he recalled later. “This book saved my life.”

Makenzy Orcel was 26 when the earthquake struck. Born and brought up in Port-au-Prince, he had already begun to make a name for himself as a poet, but it was with Les Immortelles—the book that “saved his life”—that he achieved international recognition.

The novella is the fragmentary testimony of a prostitute from Grand Rue, the city’s red-light district, whose life has been shattered by the event she can scarcely bring herself to name. Earthquake, in French, in Haitian Creole—there is no word, in, “this thing.”When she discovers her customer is a writer, she strikes a deal with him. Write about the whores who had “disappeared into ,” she commands him, a book “to bring them back to life and make them immortal…” In return, she offers to pay him in her only coin: her body. He takes the commission, but not the fee.

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