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The Latest: A sad 'Farewell,' a colorful trek

New books from UCI, Golden West professors spotlight global journeys — one more sobering than the other.

January 24, 2013

"Farewell, Fred Voodoo"

By Amy Wilentz

Simon & Schuster; 329 pages

Fred Voodoo, we learn from Amy Wilentz's candid new book, is not a person but an epithet — the Haitian equivalent, more or less, of Joe Average. Wilentz spent years in Haiti as a foreign correspondent, and she picked up the term from fellow journalists who used it to describe their interview subjects. Watching those news reports, she grew to see the name as a form of packaging. "The objectification of the Haitians' victimization — that's one aspect of the Fred Voodoo syndrome," she writes.

It's telling that Wilentz, a UC Irvine professor, chose to call her book "Farewell, Fred Voodoo." The title, on its own, sounds like a parting to a friend; in the context of the book, it implies a shattering of ideals. Is Wilentz declaring her distance from those who view Haiti's plight as a hot new byline? Or is she voicing the abandonment that she often observes there — the speed with which foreign benefactors touch down to offer a quick fix, then retreat to their air-conditioned homes?

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The answer, probably, is both. Throughout this rambling, but provocative, collection of essays, Wilentz depicts Haiti as a country that, like one of its shacks left standing after the 2010 earthquake, offers hope for renewal but seems perpetually on the verge of collapse. Wilentz has lived there long enough to have a sense of what remedies work best (if low-paying manufacturers move in, they should at least create products, like cell phones, that Haitians can use), but amid the morass of corrupt politicians, clung-to traditions and naive benefactors, change always seems like a tentative notion.

That 2010 disaster serves as the book's narrative thrust, as the destruction snaps the world's attention to a place that seldom held it before. Into the chaos comes an array of would-be helpers: Sean Penn, American doctors, young missionaries who advertise the Haiti trip as "an awesome adventure" on their website. Wilentz doesn't hold those idealistic foreigners in contempt, exactly; she merely explains, like a patient but exasperated parent, that the adventure may not be as awesome as planned.

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