The Problem Has to be Addressed First: A Conversation with Jonathan M. Katz

Dear Reader:

All told, Jonathan M. Katz was a writer and editor for The Associated Press for seven years,  three and a half of which he spent based in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and he was the only full-time American reporter on the ground when Haiti was devastated by an earthquake on January 12, 2010.  His first book, The Big Truck That Went By (A Spring ’13 Discover pick) is both a detailed investigation into the failures of international aid — in a day and age where cash donations can be texted out, immediately (without much accountability, as readers will learn) — and Katz’s personal survival story.

The line between reportage and personal memoir is a fine one to walk — and like Kristen Iversen in Full Body Burden, shortlisted for the 2012 Discover Awards —  Katz does a terrific job.  We’ll also mention that Katz received the J. Anthony Lukas Work-In-Progress Award from Columbia and Harvard Universities for the manuscript of The Big Truck That Went By.

And then there’s this:

“With lucidity and great humanity, Jonathan Katz has written THE book on Haiti’s devastating earthquake and its bungled reconstruction. For anyone who wants to know why the ‘international community’ can’t fix anything anymore, but who still hope to find solutions to global problems, this book is a must-read.” — Bestselling author Jon Lee Anderson

Jonathan M. Katz discusses the role foreign food (both aid and trade policies) has recently played in Haiti, what kept aid from really reaching the quake survivors who needed it, and why he had to write this book, among other  things with Disc0ver Great New Writers.

Cheers, Miwa

You spent years writing hundreds of daily news articles from Haiti as a foreign correspondent, before and after the quake. What made you decide to write this book?

You know, as it did for many of us, the experience of living through the earthquake changed me in some ways, and in others made me truer to my previous self. My usual role as a dispassionate observer of events was gone in an instant, or at least made more complicated. After years of keeping myself out of stories about things that had happened to others, the biggest disaster to ever strike Haiti—one of the worst disasters to strike anywhere, ever—had happened to me, too. But I was still at heart a reporter who wanted to tell the best, most complete story possible. And as the weeks and months went by, I realized that despite a lot of good efforts by journalists and others, Haitian and foreign, including myself, the true story of the earthquake and the response—why it was failing, and how that was affecting people on the ground—was not reaching the millions watching from overseas, many of whom had pledged money and support. The constraints of a typical news article could only do so much. I felt that only by telling a more complete version of the story, with all the voice and expression possible in a nonfiction book, could I really communicate what I wanted.

What’s your most vivid memory of the earthquake’s aftermath?

That’s a tough question. There are a lot of memories I’d rather forget. But the images that stick with me the most when I think about those days after the disaster were the ways in which people came together, and the sense of community that formed across the quake zone. I remember how it felt to embrace friends I’d feared were gone, and the closeness I felt to those around me, especially my friend and colleague Evens Sanon, who plays a big role in the book. I can still hear the sound of his voice booming through the dust cloud right after the earth stopped moving, and that sensation of half-laughing, half-crying I felt inside. Realizing that he was alive, and looking for me amid the rubble, I knew we were going to get through this. Though I had no idea how.

The book makes a great case for why our notions of concepts such as “aid” and “employment” don’t always apply in Haiti, and the problems such gaps in understanding have caused over the years. How do you explain that to someone new to the country?

Haiti is a country that has historically too often had things done to it, as opposed to by, with, or for it. It’s common for people from different parts of the world to see things differently; most Chicagoans have a different idea of what makes for a fun vacation than a family from Tokyo, and are willing to accept a very different set of working hours and conditions than people from Barcelona. The problem comes when ideas and policies are imposed from the outside with little regard for what will actually be helpful, or even acceptable, on the ground. One clear example has been the sorry recent history of foreign food in Haiti—not only in the form of food aid, but trade policies that have severely undercut the country’s ability to produce its own food crop. From the outside, it’s often hard to understand how sending huge amounts of free or heavily subsidized food to hungry people could possibly be a bad thing. But from Haiti’s perspective, it’s obvious: The cheap imports have undercut farmers for decades, driving countless growers out of business. That in turn fosters something even worse than dependency, because before long people can’t even afford the cheapest grain, and no one is willing or able to pump a sufficient amount of free food into the market to keep up with demand. The only solution is better understanding and cooperation, so we can find policies that don’t just sound good in theory, but work in practice.

In the The Big Truck That Went By you’re often challenging authorities, whether it’s Haitian officials, Bill Clinton, aid groups—or especially the United Nations, who your reporting showed caused the cholera epidemic that killed thousands of Haitians after the quake. Where there any officials or groups you thought were doing a good job in postquake Haiti?

I think a lot of people were doing a good job in postquake Haiti, including among the categories you just mentioned. The problem wasn’t that everyone was failing at everything all the time, but rather that the coordinated, effective effort that was needed to recover from the disaster never materialized. The UN is a good example. There were elements of that system that made important contributions: The UN World Food Program, for one, pushed back when other aid groups were delivering food directly to the burgeoning camps—a bad policy that helped attract more people into the homeless settlements—and helped craft a more sensible distribution policy to fill gaps in the food supply, though that took weeks to put in place. But the introduction of cholera in late 2010 was such a monumental screw-ups that it just wiped out all other efforts to improve hygiene and cut down the ever-present risk of disease. When your troops introduce a bacterium in a river that kills more than 7,000 people, and then you continue to refuse all accountability for your blatant negligence, it doesn’t really matter what else you or your colleagues have done. The problem has to be addressed first.

As a journalist researching a story in a place where everyone is in great need, you frequently came across people who wanted things from you. Did you feel there were parts of yourself you had to turn off?

It was a difficult balance. On the one hand I wanted to help people, who after all in many cases were my neighbors. But there were also ethical and practical concerns. As a journalist, I couldn’t really go around handing out money, or doing constant favors. Such practices can compromise your independence and make reporting next to impossible for you and everyone else—if foreign journalists start to be seen as walking ATMs, we soon find that the only people willing to talk are also those demanding or expecting a payoff. That compromises the integrity of our reporting. At the same time, you can’t be made of stone. If someone was in need, and I had a way to help without compromising my reporting or putting either of us in harm’s way, I usually did so. In the end, I considered reporting to be the primary service I could provide. But that was a constant struggle, and one I explore in the book.

You describe very eloquently your emotions and state of mind after the quake, and how much it’s changed you. How did you adjust to life in the States after you moved back from the disaster zone?

Some days were easy, and some were hard. I spent a lot of time taking hot showers and drinking tap water, I’ll tell you that much. The Big Truck That Went By is also, in part, a love story, and the relationship that grew out of that made the adjustment that much easier. But I’m sorry to say that lately, it seems like the disaster zones haven’t been so far away: Two straight years of a hurricanes hitting New York City now, and far more East Coast temblors than I’d like to have counted, are reminders that Haiti’s story isn’t just about things that happened to some people on an island somewhere. Coping with, and preparing for, disasters, is something we all have to deal with, and now more than ever. There are a lot of lessons from Haiti in that respect, good and bad, which we should be ready to apply at home.

Who have you discovered lately?

I recently stumbled onto a new book by Emily Raboteau called Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora. I’m not very far in, but so far it’s been a fantastic exploration, both very personal and well-reported, of the complex and varied meaning of home for those who feel displaced. While writing The Big Truck I was also turned onto William Finnegan’s A Complicated War: The Harrowing of Mozambique, which is a great read, and both a book and chapter of history that people should know much more about.

Miwa Messer

Miwa Messer is the Director of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program, which was established in 1990 to highlight works of exceptional literary quality that might otherwise be overlooked in a crowded book marketplace. Titles chosen for the program are handpicked by a select group of our booksellers four times a year. Click here for submission guidelines.