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Expat pens seismic novel about Haitian homeland

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Writer Dimitry Elias Léger. Photo: The Local
16:33 CET+01:00
Geneva seems an unlikely place for author Dimitry Elias Léger to be writing about his native country of Haiti - but then again maybe not.

The more you learn about Léger, 43, the more you realize that Geneva is not such a stretch for the digital marketing and communications consultant, who has just published his début novel, God Loves Haiti, to critical acclaim.

The story of a tangled love triangle in high places and the way the characters cope with the earthquake that killed 200,000 people is coming out five years after the traumatic natural disaster hit the Caribbean nation.

“It’s a homage to Haiti, to the resilience of the Haitian people in the face of their adversity and history,” Léger tells The Local in an interview.

“It’s good to send them a love letter.”

The Haitian-American points out that it was through opportunities gained in Geneva that he reconnected with the homeland he left as a 14-year-old.

And it is in the Swiss city, where he likes to write on his laptop in cafés such as the Starbucks at the Quai des Bergues, overlooking the western end of Lake Geneva, that he works on his fiction.

His family emigrated to the US “to avoid the chaos” after the fall of the Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier, who was overthrown by a popular uprising after succeeding his father François Duvalier as ruler.

Brought up speaking French and the local Créole dialect, Léger had to switch to English when he arrived in Brooklyn, New York.

He studied journalism at Saint John’s University.

Then he worked for MTV Networks and The Source Magazine, where he wrote about hip hop music, before landing jobs as a staff writer at Fortune magazine and as a business reporter at the Miami Herald.

After gaining experience as a journalist “I wanted to go back to Haiti and do humanitarian work,” Léger says.

He ended up getting accepted to Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, where he earned a master’s degree in ethics and international relations.

He started applying for positions with the UN without success but gained a global leadership fellowship with the World Economic Forum, which brought him to Geneva.

“When the Haitian earthquake struck I was working for a Swiss software company as a communications officer.”

Then his application with the UN was accepted and two weeks after the cataclysmic tremor he was sent to Haiti to work as an emergency communications officer and adviser.

Léger spent eight months in his devastated homeland.

During this period he penned an op-ed piece for The New York Times about his feelings on discovering his family home in Port-au-Prince, when, he says, he found his “fiction writing voice”.

He used the many conversations he had as a UN officer with survivors of the earthquake as material for his story.

While the novel “deals with people coping with grief”, it is also at turns a romantic comedy and a story that encourages the reader to learn more about Haiti’s tumultuous history.

Léger says he was inspired by other Haitian authors, both francophone and anglophone, such as Edwidge Danticat, the award-winning novelist and short story writer.

He started thinking about writing novels after first child was born.

“I needed to give him something more satisfying than ‘your Dad has a nice CV’”, he says.

Léger finished his book in Geneva, where he works as freelancer for a marketing and communications agency.

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Now, with his wife working for IMD, the Lausanne business school, he says he is “having the best of both worlds”.

Geneva is a “cosmopolitan place where you can connect with the global community” and he warmed to the place as soon as he arrived, he says.

“You have a community of expats who have a similar education and background as me and that’s just wonderful.”

Among other experiences, he has enjoyed playing football, a game he played as a child in Haiti, “with a good mix of expats and Genevois”.

Another plus is “living by the lake surrounded by mountains,” Léger says, noting that his homeland is mountainous too.

“Haiti," he adds, "is a native word for mountains.”

God Loves Haiti, HarperCollins, 272 pages. For more information about the book click here.

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