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Journalist Jonathan Katz discusses writing about 2010 Haiti earthquake

The Washington Office on Latin America and Duke University named Jonathan Katz’s book, “The Big Truck that Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster,” the recipient of the 2013 WOLA-Duke Human Rights Book Award. The award honors a current, non-fiction book in English that addresses democracy, human rights and social justice in modern Latin America.

Katz, a Durham resident, is a former Associated Press correspondent and was the only full-time American correspondent in Haiti at the time of the 2010 earthquake. On the day of the earthquake, Katz’s house caved in, which he barely escaped. He broke the first news story about the earthquake and also exposed that United Nations peacekeepers caused a post-earthquake cholera epidemic in Haiti that killed over 8,000 people. The Chronicle’s Raisa Chowdhury sat down with Katz to talk about his work and his experiences after his book reading Wednesday.

The Chronicle: How did you feel when you heard that you won the award?

Jonathan Katz: I actually don’t remember what the first I heard of it was. I had definitely heard of the award before. It’s a tremendous honor. I’m really gratified whenever people read the book and they like it and I think this is a particularly interesting and important award. First of all it’s very gratifying to have it read in a human rights context. It’s literary and journalistic and just looking at it as a matter of a critique of aid and politics.

Human rights is a very important aspect of it so it’s cool that the judges read it and saw it in that light. And it’s gratifying when people remember that Haiti is a part of Latin America. It’s too easy for people in the States to look at it because of the race of the people and the language of the people that they speak. It’s not in some other part of the world or some adjunct of West Africa. It’s here.

TC: You sound surprised that it was seen in a human rights context.

JK: I wrote it as a journalist. I was just trying to tell the story and part of the story is about human rights and parts of the story are about personalities, parts of the story are about history, parts of the story are about politics, it’s partially a memoir. There’s also a love story in it. So all kinds of things can get read into it.

I’ve spent a couple of months—whatever it’s been now, 11 months—on the road talking about it in all kinds of different contexts so its really cool to be able to talk about it in this context of human rights. One of the things that’s inherent in the conversation around rights is different from the general political conversation. Inherent in human rights is the expectation that people have certain things they deserve and certain needs that actually must be met. And one of the things that’s difficult in a situation of dire poverty, especially coming from a place as wealthy and powerful as the United States, people get into thinking it’d be nice if people have sanitation and drinking water and absolutely had a say in who their leaders are going to be and people were accountable to them. Putting it in a rights framework says these things aren’t optional. People have to have drinking water. You have to not be poisoned or taken advantage of.

TC: Why did you select this chapter for the book reading?

JK: I’ve actually never read the chapter that I read today. I try to mix it up a little bit. I would say I picked the section that I read today because I think it’s interesting, it’s funny and I also think that it highlights the complexity in a way that even a lot of the other anecdotes and stories just can’t because they’re so straightforward.

As a journalist I’ve covered all kinds of things that are very complex, differing degrees of complexity and straightforwardness. The cholera crisis is so bleedingly straightforward that makes it very much unique. That makes a very poor example of these larger issues that we’re talking about. If you’re going to go to operate in a country that has just been in a disaster, then it’s common sense that you should then be careful about being sanitary. This housing situation I was talking about is much more typical for the complexity and difficulty. Everyone is out to screw everybody else and people have all of these different conflicts of interests….

TC: Is it weird now having people coming up to you asking for autographs and treating you like a celebrity after writing the book? It must feel a bit different from traditional journalism.

JK: The first book I signed was at my launch party in Brooklyn and it was a vey old friend of mine who was first in line. I think what I wrote in his book was something along the lines of, “Well, this is awkward.” I’ve gotten a little more used to it.

It highlights a bigger weirdness, which is that it puts myself in the middle of the story in a way that I didn’t feel I was when I was an AP correspondent. It also puts me in a position where people are asking me questions that I could never even begin to imagine trying to answer where now I find myself in a position where I am asked who are the good guys? What would you recommend? I’m usually where you’re sitting. Going after them when they don’t give a good answer and/or don’t live up to the answer that they give. It’s also learning how to work a different kind of journalistic wall while doing these kinds of stories.

TC: How is writing a book different from the more traditional journalism that you’ve done in the past?

JK: It is a kind of journalism that is widely practiced and a little more literary journalism than what I was doing at AP. I’m learning some new rules but when you stop learning you’re dead. I’m glad after having been around to tell this story behind an earthquake that killed hundreds of thousands of people of which I was very close to being one.

TC: What would you say the book is about?

JK: The bigger story that I’m trying to tell is that the problems that existed before the earthquake in Haiti have continued that put the country in the position it was in to suffer. In other places, it would not have caused a tenth of the damage. The lack of accountability is still there. The bad practices that were there are still there.

To be perfectly honest, one of the reasons I wanted to tell this in book form is you get tired of telling that story over and over again. Its distressing to tell that story again and again. There are dozens of other countries in similar situations around the world. There's going to be another tsunami, another cholera outbreak, another earthquake. We tell the story over and over again and I’m tired of it. I would like to tell different stories and even more importantly, the people living this story would like to start living a different story. The hope is that I will make some very, very vanishingly small contribution toward changing the story. But that’s still a very difficult thing to do.

TC: What impact do you think your work has?

JK: Maybe somebody who is putting together policies is going to work for an NGO or is on the receiving end of an NGO in Haiti or Pakistan or Zambia or Bolivia or wherever, will read this and will get a wider appreciation of what’s going on here. Understanding more about the breadth and seeming permanence of the system and then maybe giving them some clues that would never occur to me about a complex system. I mean that’s about the most that you can hope for. But I also know that as a journalist, nothing that you write has the exact impact that you intended and sometimes even a completely different impact.

TC: Would you ever consider leaving journalism and going into more direct activism or policy?

JK: I don’t want to sop being a journalist ever. It’s hard for me to imagine that. Also because I feel like I have a particular set of skills and a little bit of talent that helps me be a good journalist that would not be directly applicable to making policies. That would be a quote that would come back to haunt me if I did become a policy guy one day. I would have a very different kind of learning to do. At least right now, telling stories and trying to figure out what’s really going on is what I’ll do. The gift of being a journalist is that you get to go in and out of all kinds of different situations you have no business being in and and meet all kinds of people you have no business meeting and gain a wide variety of experience and knowledge.

TC: What are you working on now and what’s next?

JK: I’m currently working on a piece for the New York Times Magazine and I’ve got another couple of pieces. I’m freelancing right now. Seeing how long I can run that line out. I want to write another book, but I don’t know what I want to write it about. I should probably decide that before I start writing it.