As I search what it means to be “Haitian,” I come across individuals whose gifts and talents in their respective fields gives me the opportunity to experience and relive memories of Haiti. In this series, I will feature seven individuals. Their life’s work not only help those of Haitian descent like myself reconnect to their roots but also introduce others – outside of the Diaspora – to the beauty and wonder of Haitian culture.
1. Ms. Liliane Nérette Louis
I first met Ms. Liliane Nérette Louis when I posed a question on an online forum in early 2017. I was doing research for my book, “Let’s Speak Haitian Food: Stories from the Haitian Diaspora on Cuisine, Community, and Culture.” I had put the book on hold for a couple of years, but decided to work on it again after my grandmother’s passing in May 2016.
After meeting my 102-year-old grandmother for the first time in more than 20 years in 2012, I decided to commemorate her legacy by working on this project. My first memories of my Grandma was eating Mayi Moulen in her backyard in Haiti when I was a child.
Food – the smell of food – has a way of bringing back memories – no matter how bad or good. Whenever I smell a cornmeal porridge with black bean sauce, I always think back to that time of my life. I knew I was not the only one who had fond memories of Haitian cuisine.
In early 2017, a few months after my grandmother’s funeral in Haiti, I decided that I wanted to to finish the book. There was a sense of loss not only in her presence and love (her first name actually meant “power of love”), but all her stories, laughter, and joy were buried along with her. I decided to take the book project to the next level. For the past five years since 2012, I was gathering, editing, and compiling stories from members of the Haitian Diaspora on: “What are some of your favorite Haitian meals? And what is your most memorable time eating Haitian food?” I reached out to everyone I knew of in the Haitian community – locally, nationally, and internationally. I can’t count how many people I sent emails to – probably more than 250, but I am grateful for the 100 or so who responded. I was on a deadline, and I needed to finish the book before the year was out.
In early 2017, I came across a Haitian online forum, and I posed the question on Haitian food and memories. A few days later, I received a notification that someone by the name of Ms. Liliane Nérette Louis replied. She was the only one. At the time, I didn’t know who she was, but I was grateful and wanted to send a note of thanks. I sent a friend request, and I immediately received a reply. She stated that I should give her a call.
I didn’t know what to expect. What would we talk about? I felt nervous as if I was going on a job interview for a position I was not qualified for.
The day finally came. It was a weekday afternoon. For some reason, as I heard her voice on the other line, I felt emotional. Her Haitian Creole accent reminded me so much of my grandmother. I could sense that she was smiling as the talked to me. Ms. Louis discussed the work she had been doing in her community for years. I learned that she is a master artist with the the State of Florida’s Culture of Affairs, and teaches cooking, storytelling, and folk medicine to a younger generation of Haitian descent.
I had mentioned a cold that I was recovering from, and she advised me to drink a tea made with certain leaves – something I remember having when I was a child along with warm huile mascreti (castor oil) mixed with salt crystals to be massaged on my chest and neck.
Her soothing voice felt like home. Due to time constraints, our conversation was short, but I had learned so much from her. Although she lived miles away in Florida, I felt like Ms. Louis was a next-door neighbor, who I would greet every morning before I start my day and and see before I retire every evening.
Ever since our phone conversation, we have been exchanging messages. She keeps me informed of her upcoming events. This past summer, along with local authors, including Dr. Joanne Hyppolite, Ketsia Theodore, and Fabienne Josaphat, she participated in the annual Florida Folk Festival, which took place along the banks of the historic Suwannee River in White Springs, Florida. I saw pictures of her sharing the different types of beans and grains and the Haitian Creole names for them.
There’s an Ubuntu phrase that says, “I am, because we are.” I am, because of women like Ms. Louis, who continue to pass down Haitian traditions and culture to the next generation. She makes sure that we will never forget where we came from – a place and a people filled with hope, pride, perseverance, and resilience.