Dear Haiti, Love Alaine by Maika Moulite and Maritza Moulite is an #OwnVoices Haitian-American young adult contemporary about a teenager named Alaine who is the daughter of divorced Haitian immigrants, one of whom has a degenerative illness. She lives in Florida with her father and ends up taking a trip to Haiti for a school project after getting into severe trouble when she makes a presentation that goes very awry.
When I picked this up, I had some strong expectations for it. It sounded absolutely phenomenal. I was looking forward to reading about a young woman that goes to her home country and would be exploring and learning about her heritage and roots, and the complex history of the Haitian nation. The impact that the said exploration would have on her diasporic identity was something I couldn’t wait to engage with. Yet, it never really happened. While the Haitian representation was good, everything else about this book was a huge mess of inconsistencies and poorly crafted plotlines that were trying to do way too much. I mean, where do I even begin?
There are three main parts that frustrated me to death while reading Dear Haiti, and they are the ambitious number of side plots, the inconsistent and nonlinear progression of the story, and the useless nature of the side characters. Other minor titbits include the forced romance element and the obsession with a curse that felt greatly out of place. Even so, there were a couple of things that I found pleasant. Let’s begin with those.
Alaine is a fiercely independent woman who’s not afraid to speak her mind, something that tends to get her into a lot of trouble (hence the event at school). I loved this because she was so proud of who she was as a person, just so stunningly self- assured and confident in many ways. Plus, she talked animatedly about her natural hair, which I don’t see often in young adult books with Black or PoC characters, at least not without strings of insecurities tied to them. But she’s beautiful and so joyful about her dark skin, her Haitian background, and her untameable hair, which can be equated to her gloriously uninhibited free-spirit. However, her strong presence can also make her somewhat narrow-minded and quick to judge. I appreciated it because it kept her balanced and fallible.
I also loved her relationship with her father. They are both brilliantly and at-times humorously honest with one another. They talk about almost everything openly and their engagement was such a pleasure to read. These sorts of healthy and positive interactions between fathers and daughters is something that I absolutely live for, which is another highly uncommon trait in the genre. Unfortunately, the bulk of the kick-ass parts of this book stop here.
One of the most irksome traits of the novel were all the different things it was trying to accomplish. It couldn’t decide between wanting to focus on Alaine’s complicated relationship with her mother; the dysfunction caused by her parents’ divorce (a reason for which was never provided); trying to find the roots of an age-old family curse and the solution to go with it; a bout of corruption with Alaine’s aunt’s non-profit business; the long-term emotional ramifications that having a sexual predator in the family can accomplish; and a couple others. While these are all really great points for multiple stories, having them together in a single, stand-alone book is overwhelming, outrageously convoluted, and snuffs out any real existence of a singular plot. Because Alaine’s narrative was being tugged into such a vast number of directions, Dear Haiti ended up not having much of a plot at all. At the very least, it was painfully weak and buried beneath the crap of indecision.
The story is told via blog-type posts, periodical articles, e-mail and text message exchanges, and more. This type of format can be hit or miss, with the it veering towards the latter more often than not. When done correctly (see Themis Files) it can make for an extraordinary reading experience. Here all it did was create a confounding journey. It was so messy and most of the time the lack of explanations of what was going on (or even if it was something that occurred in the past versus the present) made if almost impossible for me to formulate any real connection with the characters, the settings, or the events unfolding. Also, the expositions on Haiti’s political history and politics, felt jarringly out of place amid the piles of informal and sassy commentary that flows out of the young teenager’s mouth (which I openly admit, I thoroughly enjoyed most of the time; Alaine is fucking fierce and I was living for it). By the time I reached the last one-fourth of the book, I was so ready for it to just be done and over with.
The side characters were a joke. What I mean by that is that their inclusion felt like a total farce. They were nothing more than cheap plot seasonings to accommodate the fluctuating chronicle of Alaine’s time spent in Haiti. Her aunt gets swept up in some sort of corruption scandal, her family members are all broken and awkward due to a very strange family curse and some severe past trauma inflicted by a relative, which is further exasperated by Alaine’s mother’s condition, and there was also a cute teenage boy whom Alaine was forced to have a romantic interest in (and by forced, I mean it was one of the most unnatural and irrelevant things in the whole damn book). There was one character in particular I would have loved more information on that didn’t come in the form of a sudden onset info-dump sessions, but he also ended up being fodder for the non-existent plot.
The curse part was confusing to me. Not the actual curse by why it was included. Haitian vodou is a something that comes up in many Haitian narratives, and it’s a big aspect of their culture so I completely understand why, and the authors explained in their note at the end that it was a part of their life growing up, so they wanted to explore it in the story. However, the mention of the curse doesn’t occur until after the first quarter to one-third of the book, and Alaine’s fixation on it at the expense of literally everything else going on in her life created a huge divide in the novel. This was where I really started to feel like the book didn’t know what the heck it wanted to do, and I started to worry about its impact on the material as a whole moving forward, rightfully so. I would actually really love to read a story that focuses on Haitian vodou because it’s super fascinating and I think an #OwnVoices tale built upon it would be incredible. But not when there is already so much other fucking shit going on to where its existence is a waste of storytelling energy.
Overall, Dear Haiti, Love Alaine was a hot mess of a book. You could definitely tell there were two voices telling the story and that they couldn’t find common ground most of the time on a lot of the stuff happening herein, which is something else the authors mentioned briefly in their note. At the end of the day, Dear Haiti, Love Alaine had a lot of soul and tons of potential for numerous amazing novels, but they were all shoved into a single tome creating a chaotic and inconsistent reading experience. I’d be curious to see how the author’s fair in writing books as individuals rather than as a duo.
2 plantains outta 5