Haitian American blogger Alice Eddie Backer
My conversation with Nicholas Laughlin about the Caribbean blogosphere has elicited some strong reactions from Caribbean bloggers. Haitian-American blogger Alice Eddie Backer, a lawyer based in New York, first came to my attention when she answered my appeal for more Haitian bloggers. Alice then went on to respond to our conversation on her blog kiskeyAcity with a post outlining her own views on the Caribbean blogosphere plus a lively analysis of the online conversation about Haiti, a nation the world is fond of referring to as “the poorest country in the western hemisphere”. Alice took some time out from her Thanksgiving holiday to talk with me via IM on Friday 24 November. Here's an edited version of our chat:
GP: Perhaps you could begin by giving me a little background on yourself.
AB: I lived in Haiti — of Haitian parents — until the age of 18, at which point I migrated to the US. I've since been occupied with attending college (Barnard) and law school (NYU) and have become a lawyer. I started my blog kiskeyAcity about three months ago.
GP: What motivated you to start a blog?
AB: Well, I needed more of a connection to a place to which I was no longer feeling connected any more and which nonetheless made me who I am.
GP: What do you think caused this feeling of disconnection?
AB: First, there's the geographical distance. Second is the fact that every time I watch news of Haiti, I do not recognize the place. I have to ask, have things gotten that much worse? Or was this always the way the world looked at Haiti? Although there is a little bit of the former, I have come to understand that it is mostly the latter.
GP: And how come you chose blogging and not, say, joining an organization?
AB: In terms of joining an organization, I have joined tons over the years. My interests are not always served out there. Also, not all Haitians are interested in linking up with people who study Haiti for a living. This medium allows me to network with all sorts or Haitianists, Caribbeanists and journalists from the region. Also — and this is by far the most important point here — I find very few actors who seek to look at Haiti in a Caribbean context, Haitians included.
GP: Who is reading your blog?
AB: A broad range of people, although those who interact with the medium the most tend to be younger. The readership includes Haitians but also Caribbeans and various non-Caribbean actors who are interested in fresh perspectives on Haiti.
GP: You gave a very lively response to the conversation Nicholas and I had the other day. In it you expressed strong feelings about what you call “pundits”. It seems to me that the word has special resonance for you and perhaps for other Haitians as well. Could you define what you mean by a “pundit”?
AB: There is actually a definition on my pundit blog entry [Pundit: “photogenic horse's ass who makes wild, unfounded predictions”]! Because of the joblessness that affects intellectuals in Haiti, many have to turn to politics in some way or the other to make a living. So we have a political class made up of people whose profession it is to run for office and keep an office for a “party” whose members are their spouse and children.
GP: You also imply that you'd prefer if these pundits stayed out of the blogosphere. Here's how you put it: “Luckily these days national and transnational Haitian pundits populate list-serves such as Corbett or haitianpolitics@yahoogroups rather than my dreams. I can pop in to their world when I need the exercise but pop out as soon as I'm about to pass out from deja-vu asphyxiation.”
AB: You cannot trust that when you go on [the] Corbett [list] and read an article . . . that there is not a political agenda of some form behind it. It would be naïve, of course, to think that pundits here in the US are all independent — in fact most are known for certain biases. But now more than ever, people in Haiti and even in Jamaica profoundly distrust politicians and pundits, who I believe they lump together. All you have to do is listen to the music. Is there a single reggae song that does not diss politicians in some way, shape or form?
GP: What if the pundits were suddenly to “swarm the blogosphere”, as you say? And, in fact, why haven't they?
AB: It seems like for some reason or the other, that technology has not yet become fashionable for pundits. I was reading your interview with Nicholas (perhaps in error) to deplore the lack of political discussions in the “cariblogosphere”, and my gut reaction was “No! please don't bring the types of pudits that put me to sleep on the blogosphere!” And I made sure to cite the names of those pundits that I like. Interestingly, they did not last very long out here (Haitian Mofo), or only post sporadically (like yon ayisyen).
GP: Haitian Mofo is one of the few bloggers who is/was actually based in Haiti, right? Do you know why he stopped blogging?
AB: I e-mailed him and even posted on the site for him to come back, especially when I noticed that he was still posting on the Haitian Politics list. He e-mailed back to say he had experienced some kind of burnout but was reading my blog and thought that he might restart in a bit. My impression of him is that he is a very bright guy who is also very busy.
GP: Which brings us to some of the challenges that could be faced by a blogger attempting to do his/her thing out of Haiti? What are the obstacles, besides burnout?
AB: Well, Georgia, Haitians are all over the web — every day I discover a new Haitian website. I think that the idea of the Haitian web site (with forum, entertainment news, free music and radio) is now seen in the community as a viable business model and it's spreading like wildfire. [There are many Haitian-targeted message boards] and a ridiculous number of konpa-oriented [konpa is a Haitian musical genre; also see Alice's post about konpa] web sites. So Haitians, like most people, seem to go to the web primarily for entertainment.
GP: Are any of these sites based in Haiti?
AB: I'm not sure, but they are definitely read by Haitians in Haiti and same with the lists.
GP: But to get back to the blogging issue: you said in your post that “there's no particular need for caribloggers to mirror anyone. If Jamaicans had merely mimicked the R&B they captured through New Orleans airwaves in the 50s, there'd be no reggae. Aren't we about the blending of old disparate forms into new ones?” In what ways do you think a Caribbean blogosphere could create its own forms?
AB: The Caribbean blogosphere, like reggae, is going to take the form and make it into something new and creolized.
GP: Any idea what a “creolized” blogosphere might look like?
AB: You are going to have your average people, on the one hand, liming [Caribbean slang for “hanging out”] with their friends and showing pictures of beautiful women while discussing their daily vicissitudes, and on the other you are going to have your outliers discussing news and policy concerns along with whatever their passion is. Another point about Haitians from Haiti and the Internet is that they are apparently going online mostly to use the free phoning capacities. Cybercafés in Haiti are populated mostly by people looking for a cheaper way to talk to their relatives abroad. Remittances do make the world go 'round in Haiti, as does, consequently, keeping close tabs on your relatives abroad. People get their fair share of punditry on Haitian radio and I think want to get away from it all by the time they get online.
GP: So you'd say it will be some time before we see the emergence of a native Haitian blogosphere?
AB: I'd say anything can happen depending on people's needs and when they have something to say.
GP: How much of an obstacle would literacy be?
AB: According to the CIA factbook, we are at 52.9% literacy nowadays which is much higher that the 25% that I was hearing while growing up. And again, there is plenty of written activity on message boards and lists (you should have seen Moun.com around the time of Aristide's departure last year), so that cannot explain the lack of activity on the blogosphere. The 52.9%, btw, puts us above India and Egypt.
GP: Last but not least: what's the hot topic in the Haitian news this week?
AB: Simeus, Simeus, Simeus [Haitian-American Presidential candidate Dumarsais Simeus]! Whether he will be able to run — the CEP and the Supreme court seem to be at loggerheads on this issue. And his “secret meeting” with [interim president Gérard] Latortue which he then outed to the press. The talk is whether he or Charlito [Charles Henry Baker] will win the elections. Sadly, noone is really talking about what kind of president either would make, and the underlying issue is, of course, double nationality and whether the diaspora which votes all he time in its pocket will eventually be allowed to vote point blank. That is a crucial issue to being able to reverse the brain drain. As a Haitian who has taken on a different passport you technically can't vote, but thanks to yon ayisyen [post in French] we found out that [Haitian-American rapper] Wyclef Jean apparently has registered to vote.