The Road Back To Haiti


Nearly all of the 18 short stories in the new "Haiti Noir" collection are written by Haitians. The book’s editor, the prominent Haitian writer Edwidge Danticat, made an exception, however, for Mark Kurlansky.

A 62-year-old Jewish writer who lives in New York City, Kurlansky is well known for his best-selling histories of food – on salt, on cod, on oysters. But writers that know him well, like Danticat, are well aware of his longtime involvement with Haiti.

"I spent a lot of time in Haiti," Kurlansky said in a recent phone interview. "Oh, long before, long before the earthquake."

During the 1980s, Kurlansky reported from the island for The Miami Herald and The Chicago Tribune, among other papers. His first foray into fiction, "The White Man in the Tree and Other Stories," (2000) was exclusively made up of tales based in the Caribbean.

One of the stories in that collection even foreshadowed his new story in "Haiti Noir." "It’s about a rabbi who tries to get a local farmer [in Haiti] to produce kosher chickens," Kurlansky said of the older story, in his typical wry, deadpan way.

He speaks much the way he writes: his fiction is suffused with a dark, delicious wit that brims with Jewish material. His most recent collection of stories, "Edible Stories," published in November, featured a chapter on cholent, the Sabbath day stew. And his 2005 novel "Boogaloo on Second Avenue" revolved around a character named Nathan Seltzer, an aging Jewish bohemian who can’t seem to part with the Lower East Side.

"Almost any book I write has Jews in it," Kurlansky said. "I don’t consider myself a Jewish writer, but it’s just a part of me. It comes up in almost everything I do."

His new story in "Haiti Noir" follows Izzy Goldstein, a bleeding-heart Jewish liberal who, as Kurlansky writes, "felt in his heart that he was really Haitian." Goldstein feels he must do something for the poverty-stricken nation and starts a nonprofit with a Haitian expat named DeeDee to help. Together they decide to make regular boat trips from their Miami home to Haiti delivering donated goods.

But when Goldstein arrives for his first delivery, the Haitians he meets take him for a ride. One profits off his naiveté, charging him exorbitant fees for dubious voodoo shows. In a more cynical twist, DeeDee turns out to be using the nonprofit to foment a coup in which he’ll have a seat in the new government.

"He misjudges everything, misjudges everyone," Kurlansky said of Izzy Goldstein. "It turns out to be one big disaster."

By the end, Goldstein isn’t even the biggest loser – innocent Haitians are, bearing the brunt of liberal naiveté and heartless Haitian mischief. DeeDee secretly smuggles a handful of asylum seekers under the hull of their ship, unbeknownst to Goldstein.

Before they reach the port of Miami, however, DeeDee dumps them off on a sandy Caribbean island. "Shouting erupted in Creole," Kurlansky writes, "Arms flayed the hot air angrily. They were saying, ‘This is not Miami! You took our money!’ Some pleaded, please don’t leave us!’"

Like most of the stories in "Haiti Noir," Kurlansky’s takes place before last year’s earthquake, which left more than 200,000 people dead and about a million homeless. That partly reflects the fact that Danticat began editing the collection a year before the Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake struck.

Johnny Temple, co-founder of the independent publisher Akashic Books, which created the "Noir" series in 2004, said that most of the stories were finished before the quake. (A "Jerusalem Noir" edition will come out in late 2012, edited by the Israeli Arab writer Sayed Kashua.)

After the quake happened, though, Temple and Danticat decided to ask some of the contributors who had not completed their stories if they would like to write about it.

"If there were no stories that dealt with the earthquake, it would have been like the elephant in the room," Temple said. Three stories now deal with the event.

But Kurlansky was one of the few contributors who wrote his story after the quake. Still, he said he deliberately chose to keep it set beforehand.

"You know, most of the horrible things you hear happening now were happening way before the earthquake," Kurlansky said. Disease, poverty, corruption, crime – all that was endemic already, he said. To suggest that it resulted from the quake, he added, would be misleading.

When asked if he has been to the island after the earthquake, he said no. "I don’t think there is anything helpful for me to do there," he said, perhaps suggesting that his Goldstein character is a form of self-reproach.

He will, however, be reading from "Haiti Noir" with Danticat on Jan. 26 at 7 p.m. at Symphony Space (Broadway at 95th Street, $27, $23, $15,, [212] 864-5400); proceeds for book sales go to the Lambi Fund of Haiti, a grassroots organization supporting local democratic movements.

Kurlansky is best known for his non-fiction: "Cod: A Biography of a Fish that Changed the World" (1997) and "Salt: A World History" (2002) were both bestsellers. But a few of his non-fiction books have been explicitly about Jews. "A Chosen Few: The Resurrection of European Jewry" (1995) documented the Jews who decided to stay or immigrate to Europe after the Holocaust.

And his 2006 "Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea" (2006) – a thinly veiled attack on America’s current wars in Iraq or Afghanistan – questioned the "just war" theory. In reality, Kurlansky argued, no war has ever been fought for a morally compelling reason – including the one against Hitler.

"When I get into arguments with people, they always start off with: ‘Well, what would you do about the Holocaust?’" he told the Independent of London in an interview about the book. "I reply: ‘The Second World War wasn’t about the Holocaust: they [the Allied powers] weren’t doing anything about it.’" It was self-interest, not moral causes, Kurlansky argues, that compelled the Allies to fight Nazism.

He is currently working two other books with heavy Jewish content. In March, Yale University Press will publish his short biography of the baseball Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg, part of the publishing house’s "Jewish Lives" series. The editors of the series asked Kurlansky if there were any Jews in particular that he’d like to write about. He gave them a long list, with Sandy Koufax at the top.

"They said, ‘Well, How about Hank Greenberg?’" Kurlansky said.

Kurlansky was skittish at first. Greenberg was from his parents’ generation, a Depression-era slugger that many Jews loved, but who actually shunned the attention. Koufax, on the other hand, was someone Kurlansky could relate to: a postwar secular Jew who was nonetheless proudly, even defiantly Jewish. Famously, he made headlines for refusing to pitch in the World Series because it was Yom Kippur.

"Greenberg was before my time," Kurlansky said, "but I realized that he was a much more interesting figure."

After doing research, Kurlansky was surprised that Greenberg was willing to admit he was Jewish during the time he played. In the 1930s, when Greenberg’s career began, many Jewish celebrities were changing their names or downplaying their Jewish identity in order to succeed in the American mainstream.

But Greenberg "was saying he was Jewish in the 1930s, perhaps the most anti-Semitic period in American history," Kurlansky said.

"For that he became a symbol for Jews, [even though] it was contrary to who he was."

Kurlansky’s other new book, "What?," comes out in May. (He’s prolific; it will be his 21st book in the 19 years he’s been writing them.)

"It’s a very small book about the importance of asking questions," Kurlansky said. It will feature 25 short essays that will bring his trademark inquisitiveness and skepticism to pivotal writings in the Western canon, from Shakespeare to the Gospels.

"And of course he manages to bring the Talmud in there," said Nancy Miller, his longtime editor. "He asks why Jews always manage to state things in the form of a question."

Kurlansky added that the Talmud chapter will discuss the centrality that the very act of asking questions has played in Jewish life. The Talmud itself, he noted, is nothing but one unending set of questions posed to the Bible.

Even Yiddish, he went on, has taken on that habit of questioning: "The whole inflection of the language is said in the form of a question."

"It’s just very easy to write about Jews," Kurlansky continued. "It’s natural to write about them. I think I know Jews. I mean, I know Haitians, I know New Yorkers, but I really, really know Jews."