Breakfast with Jon Lee Anderson (Hold the eggs, Boris)

Fresh from his 14-day trip to cover the devastation in Port-au-Prince, New Yorker staff writer and man-about-the-world Jon Lee Anderson was in no mood for the likes of the uptight waiter who served us breakfast at the Harvard Faculty Club.

 

He’d just witnessed people with missing limbs, the charred corpse of an alleged thief who’d been murdered on the spot by executive order, a presidential palace smashed “like some monster had jumped on it 1,000 times.” He’d even helped Nadia Francois, the woman he profiled in the Feb. 8 New Yorker, get food for the wounded and starving in her small community, located perilously in a hillside ravine.

When Nieman fellow Boris Munoz dared to change his breakfast order, Anderson bristled at our waiter’s grumpy response. I wondered if he wasn’t being a bit hard on the waiter, but when Anderson described his time in Haiti, I understood the annoyance: There are so many more important things in the world to grumble about. Scrambled eggs or starvation in Port-au-Prince?

Anderson, 53, is based in Britain but travels the world covering devastation in places like Uganda, El Salvador, Iraq, Afghanistan and post-Katrina New Orleans. He came to the Lippman House Monday night to attend a presentation by his longtime pal, Munoz, a journalist based out of Caracas, Venezuela. As a bonus, Boris arranged for him to talk to our group about his work over breakfast the next day. Humble and intensely thoughtful — and man, can a job get any cooler than his? — Anderson was one of our best speakers yet.

When someone questioned whether he’d crossed the line in helping his Haitian story subject get food, he described a gaffe he’d made earlier in his career while covering the Mexico City earthquake: He was trying to interview a grieving mother when she snapped, “Get away, you vulture.” The incident has haunted him ever since. Guided him, too.

“You have to help if you can. I couldn’t leave someone with a gunshot dying on the sidewalk,” he said, adding that he’s seen young photographers do just that.

It’s something not often talked about in journalism — the relationships we make with the people whose lives we chronicle. I’ve wrestled with it myself, having been accused of getting too close. As long as you’re excavating your way toward the truth, I believe there’s nothing wrong with being friendly with the people we write about, or caring, or acting accordingly, within reason. In other words: To do honest journalism, be a person first.

Last year I read Pulitzer winner Anne Hull, someone I greatly admire, describe her refusal to translate street signs for some Hispanic immigrants she was following — because it might have slightly changed what happened in the story. I wondered: If she hadn’t been writing about the women, wouldn’t she have done them that favor? Would that small courtesy really have changed the way her piece came out — other than them not being furious at her for hours afterward (which, ultimately, may have changed the outcome even more)?

In Anderson’s view, his favor was justified because he knew Nadia wasn’t “playing me,” or otherwise trying to manipulate what he wrote or did. He also included the fact that he’d helped her in the story. I would argue that his deed helped him get closer to an honest portrayal of Nadia because it strengthened their mutual trust.

“Journalistic mistakes are not as important as moral and ethical mistakes,” Anderson said. “It’s not about how I feel about myself or some code that was enacted in a hallowed chamber.”

Messy, complicated stories like Nadia’s should leave readers feeling “ragged, sore, raw. Because that’s the way life is,” he added. “Everybody should feel a little bad afterwards.”

The genius stroke of the Nadia profile was that it offered a slice of the chaos from the viewpoint of someone who didn’t represent the worst of Haiti’s devastation but nonetheless offered a powerful window into it. Nadia’s story was more nuanced than most of the staggering profiles of people in grief we’ve been reading in the newspapers. She had been deported from the United States for armed robbery, forgery and, later, re-entering the country illegally. And yet when Anderson first spotted her, she was walking the streets trying to find food for her community, an unlikely hero with a row of children trailing “behind her as if she were some kind of Pied Piper,” he wrote.

When I asked him to articulate how he came to settle on Nadia as his main character, he described a process familiar to many reporters who try to explain complex issues through the lens of a single person. The challenge is in choosing the right person, someone whose story allows for context and intimacy.

“I didn’t immediately know she was my story. At first it felt a little off-the-wall, too peripheral,” he said. But gradually over the next several days Nadia’s truths came tumbling out, and Anderson realized she was emblematic of Haiti itself: the country’s complicated link to America, the way she and her desperate enclave underscored its poverty. “I have always thought Haiti was a shame with a capital S,” he said. Telling her story was a “simple way of re-explaining what poverty is to people.”

It was also a way of conveying his own long-held feelings for the place — something he thankfully seems to manage everywhere he goes, including the Harvard Faculty Club.

Our hometown hero in Haiti

Here’s an update on Vanessa “Mama V” Carpenter, the Roanoke County missionary who has “a whole country to mother” in Haiti: She flew to Port-au-Prince on Jan. 18 and has since then been helping the USNS Comfort coordinate surgeries. Judging from her frenetic blog postings, she’s on a souped-up version of her usual overdrive — too busy to document what she sees around her, but eager for people to know all the needs.

Rescue workers are sending the worst cases to the Comfort, a Naval ship Mama V has long been affiliated with. Its commanding officer told me last spring that she was “like some character out of a movie,” able to navigate the bureaucracy in Haiti while bridging the cultural gap between the Haitians and the Americans who man the boat.

But as Mama V posted on her blog last week: “Working in Haiti was hard before the devastation. Now it is next to impossible.”

“I know you are seeing bad things on the news and reports of looting. We are seeing none of this. Just adults and children in shock,” she added.

Mama V’s helpers in Roanoke are busy trying to find host families who are willing to temporarily foster a child when Angel Missions resumes flying them back to Roanoke for surgeries too complex to perform on the ship — missions she’s been coordinating for several years now, as documented in my Mother’s Day story last year. For more information on that, or to donate to Angel Missions, check out her blog.

There’s also a great tale about Vanessa’s efforts to work with American Airlines flight attendants who fly in and out of Haiti, resulting in another project to help the devastated country. This, from a woman who once talked a stranger sitting next to her on the airplane to Port-au-Prince to fund a clinic there.

Apocalyptic Haiti

The numbers are not yet tallied, but the deaths could top 200,000. Dominican novelist Junot Diaz called the Jan. 12 earthquake that devastated Haiti nothing short of an apocalypse. “The numbers are abstractions to us,” he said at a Harvard symposium last week. “The U.S. lost 60,000 soldiers in Vietnam, and yet that war haunts this nation still.”

The Pulitzer-winning author’s point: That we can’t imagine the unspeakable pain in Haiti. He spoke at a symposium co-sponsored by Harvard’s Committee on African Studies and the DuBois Institute, part of a panel that also included doctors Marie-Louise Jean-Baptiste and Jennifer Leaning, and public-health crisis experts Gregg Greenough and Patrick Sylvain. The Barker Center meeting hall was packed with students, activists and scholars alike. Some nuggets from the talk:

• That the Dominican Republic’s aid and solidarity on behalf of Haiti surprised people like Diaz, who recalled the 1937 genocide of Haitians by Dominicans and the complicated, racist history between them that existed for most of the past century.

• Diaz: “We belong to a civilization that seems quite happy having a nation of people so close living in such misery that an earthquake could put the entire nation — not just the bodies — at risk.” When the audience burst into applause at this comment, he chided, “There’s too much work to be done for clapping.”

• 40 percent of Haitians have never had any health care whatsoever, and only half of the country’s children have been immunized against measles, Greenough reported. Among the biggest risks he foresees is the spread of measles, malaria and Denghe amid the 450 camps set up for the displaced.

• Leaning said she was particularly worried about children who are orphaned and/or separated from their parents. “They’re very vulnerable to slavery, abuse, precipitous adoption. . . . . As well-meaning as adoptive parents think they are, we need to help adults in Haiti take care of the children there.” She said this within hours of the arrest of several members of an Idaho Baptist church for trafficking as they tried to take 33 Haitian children out of the country.

• Jean-Baptiste, a Haitian-born Cambridge physician, described a a 56-year-old Haitian woman who can’t sleep or concentrate to work since the earthquake (Boston has the third largest Haitian population in the United States). The woman lost one of her three children to the earthquake, and a second child has been displaced. “There’s nobody I know from Haiti who hasn’t lost a family member, a close friend or neighbor,” Jean-Baptiste added.

Haitian immigrants are always thinking about Haiti and going back, many of them building houses with remittances they send home rather than saving up for retirement here, panelists explained. Many of those houses have been destroyed, so “this is a human tragedy with physical and mental health losses and financial losses,” Jean-Baptiste said, adding that Haitians have a strong stigma against seeking counseling or psychiatric care. “Remember, PTSD doesn’t only last a year; this is something that will be with people for a very long time.”

Sylvain fears that by March people will be so hungry and destitute they might resort to taking food by force in the countryside. “You’re seeing a reverse migration with some people returning to the countryside but without the necessary support there or kinship established.” He fears the country’s renewed friendship with the D.R. could be jeopardized by so many Haitians’ moving closer to the border. “There are just so many waves of potential for people getting even more distressed,” he said.

As Paul Farmer put it in his recent Miami Herald editorial: “A plane full of requested personnel and supplies circling overhead while people die is the right metaphor for the challenges facing us.”

How to help Haiti via a Roanoke-based mission. . .

I thought of Mama V as soon as I heard the news. I knew she’d be fighting the urge to fly to Port-au-Prince — that is, if she wasn’t already there.

Vanessa Carpenter runs a medical mission in Haiti from an unlikely place: a suburban two-story in western Roanoke County. Photographer Jeanna Duerscherl and I spent weeks following her last year for a Mother’s Day story about her life’s work: helping underprivileged children. Mama V spends an average of a week a month in Haiti, and not a day goes by when she isn’t there in spirit and on the phone, coordinating life-saving surgeries and fundraising and generally trying to help people compensate for the fallout of being born in the poorest country in the Western hemisphere.

She started out in southside Chicago, fostering and later adopting crack- and alcohol-addicted babies that no one else was willing to take on; some of whom were not expected to live; some of whom cried 22 out of 24 hours a day. Those children now do things like go to college and sing in the Roanoke College children’s choir.

Several years back, a friend in Chicago asked Mama V to join her on a mission trip to Haiti, a visit that Tom Carpenter would come to call the beginning of “her latest frontier in mothering.”

“What state is that in?” Carpenter wanted to know.

Since that first trip in 1999, Carpenter has coordinated thousands of surgeries for children in makeshift surgery centers and aboard U.S. military boats. She’s talked dozens of Roanoke surgeons into donating their time to the Haitian kids she flies here because their conditions are too complex for Haitian surgeries. She’s talked airlines and God-only-knows-who-else into pitching in for supplies, airfare, housing and anything else she thinks these sick, scared children might need when they’re thousands of miles from their homes and, often, their families.

Initially set up to coordinate life-saving surgeries for Haitian babies in the United States, Angel Missions Haiti now includes three medical clinics in Port-au-Prince including a surgery center. Mama V told my Roanoke Times colleague Matt Chittum this morning that at least one of the mission’s buildings — an eight-story shelter for street children — collapsed in yesterday’s earthquake.

“She’s moving mountains, one stone at a time,” Moneta physician Kitty Humphreys said, not unlike the amazing Cambridge humanitarian Dr. Paul Farmer, the subject of Tracy Kidder’s “Mountains Beyond Mountains.” (Here’s an update on what his organization, Partners in Health, is doing in response to the earthquake.) “It’s like she’s got a whole country to mother.”

Mama V will be moving those same mountains in the months ahead, as the country struggles to dig itself out. If you’d like to be part of that effort, tax-deductible donations to her mission can be made through her Web site. You can follow helpers in Port-au-Prince, too, via her Angel Missions blog.

I’ve watched this lady in action: stuffing cans of Enfamil into her carry-on bags; pleading relentlessly with bureaucrats about visas and surgeries and military rules. What I mean to say here is this: Mama V is the real deal. I have no doubt that any donation to this organization will be money well-spent.