By Shahnaz Radjy
Dimitry Elias Léger, Haitian-American, is an author I met in a previous lifetime when we both lived in Geneva, Switzerland. It’s only after reading his debut novel “God Loves Haiti” (HarperCollins, 2015) last year that I tracked him down for an author interview. Thank you Facebook!
His writing was so different and refreshing that I wanted to know more about how it all came about.
A tumultuous, non-linear journey from journalist to humanitarian to author of the novel, “God Loves Haiti” started as Dimitry tinkered with words after work and between family moments. Only after he spent time in Haiti following the big 2010 earthquake that he revisited his work in progress and found his voice.
That’s not how things began, however.
The Journey Begins…
Dimitry knew he wanted to write novels as a 10-year-old book lover in Haiti. While in high school in Brooklyn, he was introduce to the New York times and his English teacher sold him on journalism as a noble profession where he could start his writing career.
- His generation in America
- The hip-hop generation
- Emerging issues
Dimitry is adamant that having children did not slow down his career. On the contrary, they pushed him to do things he had been putting off. He started questioning his legacy, his values, and the kind of environment he would create for his children to flourish.
That took Dimitry to graduate school in Boston for a Master’s in Public Administration. Finally, he was a step closer to officially becoming a humanitarian. The idea of writing a novel also came back with a vengeance.
Then, life happened. He graduated and took a job in Switzerland. He worked on a manuscript at night – for years. And it went nowhere.
2010 – A Turning Point
In 2010, a magnitude 7 earthquake destroyed Haiti. It killed nearly 300,000 people in 35 seconds and leveled buildings and houses. It changed everything.
Dimitry became a spokesperson for the United Nations mission to help Haiti recover from the earthquake. He lived in a tent for the better part of a year. Along the way, he found time to reconnect with cousins, his culture, and his people. He saw his nation in its darkest hour, which in many ways, brought out the best in the community.
Falling back in love with Haiti ended up shaping the next phase of his novel-writing journey.
A new take on age-old issues helped Dimitry revisit his concept for a novel. Some of the questions that guided him as he sketched a new outline for his story included:
- What is it like to be Haitian after the earth betrays you, and the sky falls on your head?
- Are we the least lucky people on the planet?
- Is there any story that would cheer us up?
- What untold story can address why you deserve to keep existing?
From Tragedy to Themes to Title
Then came the title. Last but certainly not least, Dimitry worked on the actual themes for his book.
Haiti has a very francophone culture, and its people are religious, mostly Catholic. So, when he asked himself how he could cheer up 10 million Haitians, Dimitry decided to tell a story about what he considers the most entertaining subject in Catholic literature: adultery.
Haitians are also obsessed with their presidency. Around that time, he read a novel called “Broken Glass” by African novelist Alain Mabanckou. A particular scene with an African leader’s cabinet struck him as hilarious, so he decided to demystify the Haitian presidency.
With the themes of global disaster, adultery, and an insider’s take on what it means to be president, “God Loves Haiti” was coming to life.
Different Perspectives on the Themes
Dimitry was weaving social commentary into a narrative. In his novel, Dimitry presents three different points of view:
- Natasha, a beautiful young woman who is a talented artist married to the President of Haiti and having an affair with a charming young ex-boyfriend.
- The President, reeling from the magnitude of the natural disaster that just hit his country alongside the recent realization that his wife is having an affair.
- Alain, the smart and ambitious Haitian-American businessman who is also madly in love with Natasha.
The story begins just after the earthquake hit.
Each of the three characters experienced the disaster differently. We find them handling survivor’s guilt in distinct, miserable ways. They each question their relationship with religion and God. Overall, their rejection or embracing of the Catholic faith reflect questions Dimitry had raging in himself.
Redemption as a Central Theme
The search for redemption is a central theme, too. After all, in Dimitry’s words, “Catholicism is the religion that always keeps score. It identifies losers and winners by specific metrics of sins and virtue. It’s almost a sport! That’s why it presents such elaborate descriptions of hell, purgatory, and heaven.”
I was also struck by and loved the depiction of Haitian women.
“Few women on this planet are more difficult to read than Haitian women,” he writes. “You can’t be loved as a Haitian woman loves, nor could you be dropped as completely and as coldly as when a Haitian woman’s done with you. May you never experience such a cold, son – cold like space, creating a vacuum that turns Caribbean homes into igloos… We men, we debate. Women, they act. We sing. They make the drums. We dither, lord, we dither. They build.”
His words depict not a specific woman but the national culture. They suggest that Haitian women are the pillars of society. No wonder, then, that Dimitry acknowledges how important it is to bring women into the economy, politics, and any other facets of life if we want to build a better world. Women as powerhouses are one of the central themes that appealed to me, too, and all the more so because developing countries tend to harbor very macho and patriarchal societies.
Inspiration from Others
Catholic writers and filmmakers inspired Dimitry. Beyond that, some of his top sources of literary fuel include:
- Edwidge Danticat, whom Dimitry refers to as the greatest living Haitian novelist.
- Jose Saramago, the Portuguese author who was famous for long sentences with no punctuation or quotation marks, and wrote about life and death. His novel “Death with Interruptions” always sat on Dimitry’s desk, and he read a bit of it before writing every day.
- Ernest Hemingway, in all his glory, ranging from “Farewell to Arms” to “Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises.”
- Both the book and movie of “The English Patient” by Michael Ondaatje.
The common thread, as he sees it? All these authors have strong voices, styles, and world views, that are not always for everybody. And that’s ok.
From Inspiration to Publication
Dimitry’s process started by him pitching an Op-Ed to the New York Times while he was still the UN spokesperson in Haiti post-earthquake. They turned him down but asked for a piece to mark the three-month anniversary of the earthquake,published in April 2010.
As he wrote that article, it all clicked. He felt he found his voice, that allowed him to combine warmth, humor, passion, and romance – even in the context of devastation.
According to Dimitry, “Fiction is about identifying the right keys, like notes and rhythms for a song. You need to find the right tone.”
Once the New York Times piece came out, a friend’s agent got in touch. He told Dimitry to reach out if he ever wrote a book. (I couldn’t believe it either, but it seems this is a common occurrence for prominent journalists.)
Six months after returning home from Haiti, Dimitry wrote the first half of the book in nine months despite working full time and having a family with two young children.
“There’s a point where the story takes a life of its own, and I started having fun with it,” he said. “Once you have the characters and the plot going, the question is, how do they surprise both the author and the readers? That’s how the President became a Madonna fan.”
He sent the first half of the book to his agent in New York, who loved it.
Energized, Dimitry finished writing the book in three months, foregoing sleep most of the time. The agent sent the completed manuscript to editors. A first hit was promising until the editor got fired before pitching it to the editorial board.
Then, close calls, near misses, and rejections piled up. Dimitry got endorsements from other authors, fuelling more outreach by his agent, but nothing happened. Publishers were still saying no (one even said no twice!).
Packaging the Publication
After a year, Dimitry asked a creative colleague at the advertising agency where he worked to do a cover for the book. He was considering self-publishing, which he felt was the equivalent to waving a white flag. Why publish a book if you won’t find it in bookstores everywhere? *
Finally, he got useful advice from an editor at a publishing house who liked the book, and suggested a few changes before he pitched it to his editorial board. Dimitry restructured the narrative, so the story was less linear. He changed it, so it started with the earthquake, then explored the character’s lives before the disaster, and finally dealt with the aftermath of the quake.
These changes made the book much better, and – at long last, just over two years after that first promising lead, an editor at Harper Collins liked “God Loves Haiti” and bought it.
They decided to accelerate the publication process to coincide with the fifth anniversary of the earthquake. HarperCollins agreed to use the existing cover.
Here are five pieces of advice Dimitry shared:
1. Once you decide to write a book, go all in. Don’t mess around for years, stretching out the writing and revising process endlessly. The struggle to publish, the rewards of publication day, are worth it. So, write that book, and be prepared to fight to get it out there!
2. If you’re writing a novel, write a story that amuses you as you write it. Don’t be overly precious about your work. Remember to be funny, because fiction should entertain. In Dimitry’s words, “It’s all about the voice. Make yours unique.”
3. Educate yourself. Choose your genre, and know your literary lineage. Borrow liberally from it. Quotes that seem obscure will tickle at least some readers pink – they’ll get it, and they’ll love it.
4. On average, it takes six years to sell the first novel, so hang in there.
5. Do not expect your family or those close to you to read the book (or to love it if they do read it).
In terms of what comes next, Dimitry has had an outline for his next book for almost a decade, so – mid-life transitions finally tackled – he is excited to get started on his second novel.
*Every author has his or her own opinion about traditional versus self-publishing. From other author interviews I’ve published in the past, see what Anne J Koller (poetry/spoken word), Teymour Shahabi (young adult mystery), or Phil Tucker (fantasy) think about self-publishing.
Authors – Shahnaz is Doing Interviews
If you know of other books written in a refreshing or different styles, or depicting life and love in unusual places, I’m ready to read, review, and interview. Let me know in a comment how to connect with you.
Until then, I’ll be revisiting some of my writing in light of Dimitry’s advice.
Bio: Shahnaz Radjy
Shahnaz is an adventurer, foodie, bookworm, and horse-lover. She is a freelance writer based in Portugal as well as the co-founder of an eco-tourism project. Alumni of the World Economic Forum and the University of Pennsylvania. Shahnaz has lived in Geneva/Switzerland, Philadelphia/USA, La Paz/Bolivia, and New York/USA.
http://casabeatrix.pt/ shows the adventurous spirit of Shahnaz and her husband, François. First, they traveled the world working on farms to hone their skills, and since 2017 have been in Portugal. They bought an old farm in 2018, and are turning their biggest dream into an unforgettable farm / nature / disconnect-to-reconnect experience we’d love to share with you.
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