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150,000 people have already been laid to rest; 300,000 are injured; one and a half million homeless. The 2009 winner of the Prix Médicis tells the story of a people dealing with disaster.

I ARRIVED IN PORT-AU-PRINCE ON JANUARY 6 for the second edition of the Étonnants Voyageurs film and book festival in Haiti. This was set to be an exciting event—Haitian writers snagged no less than thirteen international literary awards in 2009. For the first time, literature had supplanted politics in public taste. Writers have had more small-screen time than MPs—a feat in this highly politicized country. Even back in 1929, Paul Morand noted in his lively essay “Caribbean Winter” that everything in Haiti winds up in a poetry collection; and French author and resistance leader André Malraux spoke, on his final trip in 1975 to Port-au-Prince, of a people who paint. Whatever else, Haiti has remained a nation of artists.

Life had finally calmed down here after decades of unrest. Laughing young women walked the streets late in the evening. Theft had declined. In working-class neighbourhoods, such as Bel-Air, crime was no longer tolerated. Folk artists chatted with mango and avocado sellers on dusty street corners. It was so calm that some were starting to worry. We’re not used to such long, drawn-out lulls in Port-au-Prince. I ran into a young man, straw hat half-covering his face, who told me he sensed a new threat around the corner. We wondered what it could be, having already known hereditary dictatorships, military coups, random kidnappings and endless cyclones.

So there I was in a hotel restaurant with my friend Rodney Saint-Eloi, an editor from a Montreal publishing house. Two big suitcases stuffed with his latest title (Saison de Porcs, by Gary Victor) sat beneath the table. I was waiting for my lobster, and Saint-Eloi, his salted fish, when I heard a terrible explosion. The next second, we were all lying face down under the great trees of the courtyard. The tremor was so powerful it shook the ground, as if shaking wrinkles from a bed sheet.

At that time of day, everyone was out and about: in schools and supermarkets, at work or caught in the monster traffic jams that paralyze the capital at rush hour. All this bustle came to an abrupt halt at that fatal moment when Haitian history was forever cut in two. In the time it took to register what had just happened, many were already under rubble. Cries came to us from deep below the earth. Later that night our bodies would absorb forty-three more tremors, some strong, others barely perceptible.

Throughout the early days of the disaster, Port-au-Prince teemed with disciplined, generous survivors who picked their way through the wreckage with otherworldly determination, rising above their pain with a dignity that drew universal admiration. Around the planet people were transfixed by what they saw on TV. It was like watching a strange ceremony being performed by the living and the dead. It brought to mind Malraux, who chose to visit Haiti just before dying because he believed the painters of Saint-Soleil had discovered a secret that nullified fear in the face of death.

People are surprised that you can remain for so long under rubble without food and water. But here one is used to eating little. They wonder how you can up and leave, abandoning everything. But here one has little to begin with. The fewer objects you possess, the freer you are—and I am not advocating poverty. It was not Haiti’s misfortune that moved the world so deeply, but the manner in which Haitians handled that misfortune. Haiti now seems to be a genuine concern for all those young people in the West who earlier dragged environmental issues out from the shadows. Old perceptions of the Other as exotic and quaint no longer ring true. I see the gap closing between this generation, motivated by a new global vision, and the Haitian people.

From here on in, Haiti will no longer be the same. Our government’s little puppet show is going to have a hard time picking up where it left off. The disaster brought to Haitians’ attention a remarkable society that our institutions—state, church, police, and the bourgeoisie—had kept hidden from us. Those in power had to be momentarily eclipsed for a proud people to emerge.

This article orginally appeared in Le Point on January 21, 2010. Translated by Valerie Howes.

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