Allison Coffelt traces her fascination with Haiti to her Midwestern high school days, when her favorite teacher did what favorite teachers do best. He introduced her to a book—specifically Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains, which follows the story of Dr. Paul Farmer and his organization Partners in Health as they work in the small Caribbean nation. Coffelt’s own 137-page travel memoir tells the story of her brief but life-changing travels in Haiti alongside Dr. Jean Gardy Marius, founder of the public health organization OSAPO. The book is about two places, there and here—Haiti and the United States—and how the two overlap. It is also about how and why we draw the lines that create boundaries between places, and the implications these lines create.
Throughout the book, the author connects the dots between opposing elements. ‘Here’ and ‘there’, for example, are similar words, the same but for one letter. Yet they contain a distance. They imply a difference, often a privilege, us and them. “The unspoken and the spoken trace lines and slide between us,” she writes, “like my finger atop the globe.”
To emphasize the differences, Coffelt has written Maps in a fragmented style, like a quilt made of disparate fabrics, the quilt’s binding thread dropping behind the fabric for a page or so, then popping back out to complete the stitch. She patches together experiences from her trip, childhood memories, stories of people who cross her path, facts about Haiti, and tragic events in the country’s history. And she does so with the conceptual leaps of a poet. One minute she’s riding with Dr. Gardy in intimate present tense, while the next paragraph has her recalling a globe in her childhood home, and the paragraph after that has her describing Dr. Gardy. Eventually, she returns to the globe:
“In the globe-spinning game, I was often fated to live in the ocean. When I tired of the sea, I would play again, pressing down as a continent or little island came whirling toward me to engineer a stop…Even then, I was beginning to recognize the happenstance of birth, the luck of geography, and the ease with which some people are able to move. You can’t always choose your place. And I knew this.”
The book’s chapter styles are another example of quilting, with one patch a collage, another a lyric narrative. The result introduces readers to Haitian history and culture through the eyes of an attentive visitor, and it also reveals to readers the extent of our ignorance regarding international aid. “There is a dependence on the savior, but also a dependence of the savior. Without people to save, what is the savior? How do I orient myself, if not in relation to you?”
Like a fine essayist, Coffelt ends her travel memoir with questions not answers, looking for clarity in time’s wake. But then, Allison Coffelt is a fine essayist, and Maps Are Lines We Draw is a slender but mighty debut. Read it for new perspective on Haiti and on the challenge of doing short-term service without leaving long-term damage. Read it, too, for its poetry and thought-provoking lines.