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Worlds Collide in a Haitian Chance Encounter

Posted on December 29, 2021

A man, a woman, a street, a chance meeting. . . A reader might consider all of this a setup for romance, but Évelyne Trouillot's short story "Detour" delivers something quite different.

Set in contemporary Haiti, the story is a searing exploration of class divides exacerbated by the 2010 earthquake. Eléonore, a wealthy young woman, finds herself making an unexpected detour into a poor neighborhood and finds herself spiraling into a panic as Jonas, a street vendor of about her age, coolly observes. The two never exchange words, but there is a sort of communication between them.

In the four-minute interview below, author Évelyne Trouillot discusses Haitian history and culture, commenting:

It’s like we have one country and inside that country we have a lot of realities so different, so opposite, so contradictory . . .

To help address some of those divisions, Trouillot and her family built a community gathering place after the earthquake.

Although the circumstances separating the story's two protagonists are in some ways specific to post-earthquake Haiti, "Detour" also resonates far beyond the country's borders, demonstrating the corrosive effects of economic inequalities on human relationships.

Translated into English by Paul Curtis Daw, the story is also available in the original French, as well as in a bilingual side-by-side version showing both languages.

Contextualizing "Detour"

In addition to the author interviews above, the photo essay Haiti Beyond the Headlines can help students understand the contemporary Haitian landscape, as well as the sometimes problematic way in which Haiti is represented in our media. Junior St Vil, who collaborated with photographer lldi Tillmann on the essay, comments:

When I look at images in the press, or in advertising for NGOs, I see isolated stills of our lives, all in marketing technicolor. It is what sells: disaster, tragedy, suffering, and the foreign saviors who will help us become heroes one day. Except that the story of our heroism lies in our everyday struggles, in our strength of spirit and resilience, in our daily smiles, jokes, in empathy or love, in our reaction to acts of violence, pettiness and hate . . . in the heroism of being humans who have to face life according to the eventualities of their time and space . . . in our art, and in our ability to not only see misery in places where photographers tend to focus on that aspect.

Have students consider St. Vil's words as they look through Haiti Beyond the Headlines (also available as a 5-minute video above)

Reading and Discussing "Detour"

Before students read the story, have them write for a few minutes in response to this line, uttered by a friend of Eléonore's:

You can’t go on living in this country if you care about everybody; you have to learn to close your eyes to certain things.

Younger students might discuss their responses in small groups, using these questions as a guide:

  • What emotions come up for you as you read this sentence?
  • Do you agree with the speaker? Why or why not?

Next, have students read the story, available online in both French and English; bilingual students can read the two versions side by side.

Discussion questions might include:

  1. What did you think would happen at the beginning of this story? Was there ever a chance for it to go in a different direction—for Eléonore and Jonas to make a connection to each other? Why or why not?
  2. Eléonore and Jonas are strangers, yet Jonas believes he knows Eléonore so well he can “imagine her inner thoughts.” Why is this so? Is he right? How well does Eléonore understand Jonas, and why?
  3. In the last moment of the story, Eléonore wonders whether Jonas said something through the window of the car. What do you think? What might Jonas have said?

A chart displaying the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

"Detour" can also connect to larger themes or topics being explored in class. A social studies or history course might look at the structural inequalities that contribute to the divide between Eléonore and Jonas, perhaps in the context of the U.N.'s Sustainable Development Goal 10: Reduce inequality within and among countries. Students can use the UN's country tracker for this goal to look at how Haiti and your own part of the world is faring in meeting it.

In a literature course, students might explore the story's use of dual protagonists and/or sensory details. For connections to STEM, students can investigate the ways in which events such as earthquakes can exacerbate existing inequalities – and the ways in which global warming contributes to the frequency and severity of "natural" disasters.

Pairs Well with . . .
Authors Amir Ahmadi Arian (left) and Hamid Ismailov (right).

Several other stories on WWB Campus take on similar themes as "Detour," depicting characters who might come from the same country or culture, but are still worlds apart:

  • A Year Among the Boat People, My People: A personal essay about an Iranian émigré and his experience teaching undocumented Iranian immigrants in Australia.
  • The Stone Guest: A short story about a prominent Uzbek sculptor, a long time resident of Moscow, who gets an unexpected visit from some unexpected guests.

American writing about divisions within the country includes Kiese Laymon's memoir Heavy, and such novels as Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird and Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities, in which unfounded fears grounded in unexamined prejudice lead to violence.

Potential Student Assignments:
  1. Performance/ Project: Stage or film the moment the two characters lock eyes, and the moments after The woman’s raw, runaway fear met the man’s wild, scathing contempt.
  2. Essay: Closely read the paragraph in which Eléonore's friend explains why "you have to learn to close your eyes to certain things." Do these ideas connect to anything in your own life, community, or country? Are there any "detours" people try to avoid noticing?
  3. Essay 2/ Story: If an honest conversation between Eléonore and Jonas were possible, what might they have said? You can put your thoughts into an essay or a short story.