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Students Take a Literary Tour of Haiti

By Isabella Fidanza '16

July 23, 2013

Drexel Students at PEN International mansion in Haiti

Drexel Students at PEN International mansion in Haiti

While most Drexel students were enjoying their week off this spring, 10 industrious English, international area studies (IAS) and Westphal students took a unique journey to Port-Au-Prince, Haiti. Led by Professor Harriet Levin Millan, associate English professor, and Ahaji Schreffler, associate director of the Study Abroad Office, the group took a firsthand look at the role of literature in Haiti's effort to rebuild its physical and spiritual identity after the 2010 earthquake. In collaboration with PEN International, a global community of writers, they consulted with six contemporary Haitian authors: Franketienne, Yannick Lahrens, Beaudelaine Pierre, Clement Benoit, Jean Michele Euphele, and Bonel Auguste. Students were assigned to write one immersion piece—a fictional scene based on something experienced in Haiti—and five journal entries. They had the opportunity to share their work with the group, get valuable feedback, and hear about the personal experiences of the consulting authors.

“By immersing ourselves in the people, food, atmosphere, culture, and so on, we could try to make sense of Haiti through our creative writing,” said Meghan Maguire, an IAS major. “The opportunity to write outside of your comfort zone is challenging, but ultimately very rewarding.”

Millan said her favorite part of the trip was leading a two-part workshop with her group and emerging writers from Port-Au-Prince and the surrounding areas. She asked attendees to draw a picture of their house and share it in a group.

“Of course, the difference between how we live and how the Haitians live was startling, because so many of the Haitians had their homes destroyed in the earthquake and some of them now live on the street. In general, the Americans were drawing homes with three stories and lots of furniture. The Haitians were drawing one-room homes with only a bed and a desk—and, of course, because they are writers—they drew their books.”

Drexel Students at Love Orphanage in Haiti

Drexel Students at Love Orphanage in Haiti

Maguire said she noticed some distinct differences in the writing of each group: “Americans are very self-reflective when we write. Haitians, on the other hand, use creative writing and artwork to voice their concerns or views about social injustices or political controversies…what they couldn’t voice openly, they voiced creatively. Americans are lacking this in our modern literature and each writer showed that we should use our creative talents to be activists through whatever medium we can.”

But the group’s trip was not limited to observations of literature: they also visited Love Orphanage, a place Ahaji Schreffler had visited previously many times. Founded in 2010 by Gabriel Fedelus with no funding and little assistance, the orphanage housed nearly 20 children in a donated property until recently, when its owner abruptly ordered an evacuation. Prior to the trip, Millan and Schreffler held a fundraiser to help raise money to relocate the children. On the first day of the trip, the Drexel crew brought not only the money they raised, but also nine large suitcases filled with practical supplies.

“Now that I have [these] memories,” Maguire remarked, “I think it will be a long time before I stop writing about [them].”