Ten-year-old orphan Libète has been hardened by the daily struggle to survive in Cité Soleil, Haiti’s most infamous slum. But when she and her best friend, Jak, discover a young mother and her baby brutally murdered in a nearby marsh, it’s unlike anything she’s encountered before. Though initially shocked, the adults of Cité Soleil move on quickly from the event; after all, death is commonplace in this community. Undaunted, Libète takes action with Jak in tow, plunging herself into a dangerous, far-reaching plot that will change her irrevocably and threaten everything she holds dear.
BECAUSE WE ARE is a profound and mesmerizing tale of a young girl’s search for justice in an unjust world, set against the vivid and tumultuous backdrop of modern-day Haiti.
What was the genesis for this novel? Why tell the story through the girl Libète?
The spark for the story was a little girl. Shortly after the 2010 earthquake that reduced so much of Port-au-Prince to rubble, I worked as a law student intern in Cité Soleil, a slum on the outskirts of Haiti’s capitol. During my days there, a girl of ten—incredibly bright, mischievous, and sharp-tongued—would flit through our office. Though she’d never solved a murder, I wouldn’t put it past her! The thought of casting a character inspired by her as the lead in a mystery became irresistible, and Libète, my protagonist, was born.
At times the story was very tragic and sad. At other times, it was deeply poignant. And there was humor as well. What was the challenge in modulating the mood of the narrative without getting too sappy, maudlin, or clichéd?
Haiti is a tragicomic place. As a novice writer, I think any success was due to respecting the complex array of human experience in a place like Cité Soleil. We have to be so very careful in portraying contexts like Haiti as we can rob others of their dignity by telling simple narratives peopled by stereotypes. Respect for my characters, and more importantly for the people I know in Cité Soleil, helped me strike the necessary balance in mood and tone.
Some scenes in the book can be overwhelming with their brutality and violence. As horrific as those scenes were, did you feel that you had to hold back?
I did pull back at times. Really, my story is about the survival of hope in the middle of pain and sorrow. Our world is a dark place, largely because of our capacity to hurt one another. When peace is contrasted with violence and hope with despair, we see the need for the former over the latter. While I felt the need to employ violence, I didn’t care to explore the darkest corners of my imagination.
You lived in Haiti. Besides what’s mentioned in your book, what else would you like to share about your experience there?
While my story portrays some of the poverty and injustices present in Haitian society, I have to underscore that Haiti is a remarkable place, full of beauty, art, culture and compassion. In fact, this is at the core of the story: even amid profound suffering, these things thrive.
I also still have much to learn. I’m glad to report I recently had the opportunity to return to Port-au-Prince along with my wife to work on advocacy matters. We’re excited to be back for the next several years and hope to grow the depth of our understanding of this place.
What was the biggest challenge in writing this book?
It was difficult writing as a cultural outsider. I don’t think I could have completed the story without the combination of hours spent in Cité Soleil, language-learning, lots of outside research, and gracious friends willing to help me root out cultural and factual blunders in the manuscript.
What was your experience with Thomas & Mercer?
Thomas & Mercer has been a gift. I had a splendid experience revising the book under their editorial care and I’m proud of our collaboration’s fruit.
Who are your favorite authors and why?
I appreciate authors who do the difficult work of exploring the rocky terrain of the human soul, and look to Graham Greene and Flannery O’Connor as guides. I also appreciate writers whose fiction accompanies activism. Alan Paton (author of CRY, THE BELOVED COUNTRY) embodies this for me, and Edwidge Danticat and Dave Eggers are more contemporary role models. I’ve lately been delighted by Alexander McCall Smith’s mysteries and enthralled by Khaled Hosseini’s visceral storytelling.
What’s up next in your writing career?
I’m working on two sequels to BECAUSE WE ARE, and I’m looking forward to letting readers’ continue accompanying Libète on her journey. My new job in Haiti will lead to a slower output, but being back on Haitian soil will mean a greater realism that I hope will reward readers’ patience and give my next books some of the richness of BECAUSE WE ARE.
While a law student, Ted Oswald lived in Port-au-Prince and worked in Cité Soleil, where he became deeply invested in the community and met the feisty young girl who served as the inspiration for his character Libète. He currently works as a public interest lawyer in Philadelphia, where he lives with his wife, Katharine. BECAUSE WE ARE: A NOVEL OF HAITI is his first novel.
To learn more about Ted, please visit his website.