Wilentz, Amy 1954-
Wilentz, Amy 1954-
Born September 1, 1954, in New York, NY; daughter of Robert N. (a New Jersey supreme court chief justice) and Jacqueline Wilentz; married Nicholas Goldberg (a political consultant and newspaper editor), 1989; children: three sons. Education: Harvard University, B.A., 1976; attended École Normale Supèrieure, 1977-78.
Journalist and educator. Time, New York, NY, staff writer, c. 1980s; New Yorker, correspondent in Israel, 1995-97; Nation, New York, NY, contributing editor and columnist, 2002—; University of California, Irvine, Irvine, CA, assistant professor, literary journalism program, 2001—. Has taught at Columbia Journalism School; member of the Pacific Council on International Policy.
PEN Martha Albrand Nonfiction Award, Whiting Writer's Award and National Book Critics Circle finalist, all for The Rainy Season, 1990; Rosenthal Fiction Award, American Academy of Arts and Letters, 2002, both for Martyrs' Crossing.
The Rainy Season: Haiti since Duvalier, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1989.
(With Mary Jane Camejo) Harvesting Oppression: Forced Haitian Labor in the Dominican Sugar Industry, Americas Watch (New York, NY), 1990.
(Translator and editor) Jean-Bertrand Aristide, In the Parish of the Poor: Writings from Haiti, Orbis Books (Maryknoll, NY), 1990.
(With Anne Fuller) Return to the Darkest Days: Human Rights in Haiti since the Coup, Americas Watch (New York, NY), 1991.
Martyrs' Crossing: A Novel, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2001.
I Feel Earthquakes More Often Than They Happen: Coming to California in the Age of Schwarzenegger, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2006.
Contributor of articles to Grand Street, New Republic, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Conde Nast Traveler, Nation, and New Yorker.
Amy Wilentz has dedicated much of her journalistic career to understanding the complicated world of Haitian culture and politics. She first arrived in Haiti in 1986 as a reporter for Time, only three days before dictator Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier went into exile in France. The ensuing chaos and hope for liberation attracted Wilentz, who later left Time in order to move to Haiti and study its political history and development. She documented the rise to power of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, an activist priest who eventually became Haiti's president, and eventually wrote or contributed to a series of books attempting to illuminate the thickets of Haitian politics. Wilentz also reported from another region in conflict as the Jerusalem correspondent for New Yorker. Those travels also resulted in Martyrs' Crossing, her first novel.
Colleagues remember Wilentz during her time in Haiti as serious and hardworking, passionate but astute. Journalist Herbert Gold, in a review in Nation of Wilentz's prize-winning book The Rainy Season: Haiti since Duvalier, wrote that while most reporters stayed in their hotels, away from the omnipresent violence of Port-au-Prince, Wilentz was out in the streets talking. The Rainy Season reflects her time spent immersed in Haitian culture and politics.
Many reviewers found that the comprehensive nature of Wilentz's experience in the country translated into a more complete, intimate depiction of unfolding events in Haiti—as noted by Commonweal's John P. Hogan, Wilentz "offers an eyewitness account of some of the [country's] major public events and fills page after page with direct dialogue." Another important factor in Wilentz's narrative is what Hogan called her "willingness to put Haiti's political present in a long-term perspective." In addition to presenting a profile of contemporary Haitian politics, Wilentz addresses more general issues of class, economy, and religion (including the influence of the Catholic church and the widespread practice of voodoo); and frames her discussion of these institutions in an historical context. The Rainy Season also includes portraits of such major figures as Aristide and U.S. Ambassador Bruson McKinley, whom Wilentz chastises for indulging in daily horseback riding while ignoring a flood of human rights violations.
New York Times Book Review contributor Howard W. French commented that in The Rainy Season Wilentz provides readers with "a rich portrait of a country in fitful transition," noting that the narrative also chronicles the author's own "transformation by her subject … start[ing] out as a somewhat naive reporter disembarking in a country undergoing seemingly epochal change." In addition to maintaining what Times Literary Supplement reviewer Karen McCarthy Brown termed "a remarkable … focu[s] on a broader picture," Wilentz also produced, Brown remarked, "an extremely well-written book." Some reviewers commented on Wilentz's largely supportive treatment of Aristide, who was only beginning to assert himself as a popular but controversial leader when the book was published. (Aristide was elected in 1990, was overthrown in 1991, and returned to office in 1994.) French named the priest as the "singular hero" of The Rainy Season, remarking that "if Wilentz falters in this penetrating account of Haiti, it is when she fails to consider whether this Pied Piper-like leader of Haiti's liberation theology movement might also" be as susceptible to a variation of political power enjoyed by his predecessors. Brown expressed a similar view, noting that, though Wilentz's "almost exclusive focus on Aristide is distorting," she "is good at identifying the rot in Haiti's power élite as well as the hope generated by the work of progressive priests" like Aristide.
Overall, The Rainy Season was well received by critics as an ambitious effort to clearly delineate events and present key political figures in a country that has not, historically, received a great deal of lucid, unbiased treatment from the press. A writer for Time hailed The Rainy Season as "the kind of world-class reportage that deserves honor as history's first draft," and Hogan observed that though the book contains naivete as well as wisdom, Wilentz "has given us a dazzling, multi-faceted portrait of Haiti." Gold praised the book as "engrossing" and "winningly precise," adding that "if books can help, hers is a helper."
In the mid-1990s, Wilentz moved to Israel to work as a correspondent for the New Yorker. Her time there inspired her first work of fiction, Martyrs' Crossing. The novel tells the story of Ari Doron, an Israeli officer, and Marina Hajimi, a Palestinian mother, whose personal tragedies are appropriated by activists on both sides. When Hajimi's son dies because Doron and his superiors would not let him through a West Bank checkpoint, the Palestinians exploit the boy for a propaganda campaign, while the Israelis press Doron to lie about the event. Disparate parties are also drawn to the event, including Hajimi's intellectual father, now living in America, and a pair of nationalist Palestinian brothers, each of whom confront personal demons in addition to political conflict as the novel brings them all together.
Praise for Wilentz's first novel was abundant. The timely nature of the work, published in the midst of increased violence between Israelis and Palestinians, made the work more significant for some readers. Robin O'Brien, reviewing the book for Bookreporter.com, suggested that the novel could provide a better understanding of the complexities of the conflict than a history book: "[Such conflicts] are propelled by a mishmash of half-knowledge, half-truth, calculation, chaos, mythology, manipulation, human strength, human frailty, and overriding, crushing emotion. They defy neat models and quick fixes. To have a shot at comprehension we need the heavy artillery. We need art." Although Martyrs' Crossing was generally hailed as an accurate, well-informed portrait of the region—a reader for Kirkus Reviews called it "an impressively savvy political novel"—Wilentz's literary art was at the heart of the book's success. A Publishers Weekly critic said the novel's characters are "nuanced, sympathetic, and deeply ambivalent," while the plot is marked by "well-crafted suspense." O'Brien concluded that, with Martyrs' Crossing, Wilentz "has made a lasting contribution and established herself as a fiction writer to watch."
In 2003, after her husband was offered a job out west, Wilentz agreed to move from New York City to Los Angeles with her family. In her humorous 2006 work I Feel Earthquakes More Often Than They Happen: Coming to California in the Age of Schwarzenegger, "Wilentz takes a wicked, witty tear through the Left Coast," observed a critic in Kirkus Reviews. Arriving in California, Wilentz finds a region buried in debt, beset by natural disasters, and faced with chronic energy shortages. "Wilentz is horrified by her new home state," noted Time contributor Lev Grossman, "but she's also mesmerized by it, and she sets out to get to the bottom of what makes California Californian." To that end, the author rubs elbows with Hollywood's elite, visits the La Brea Tar Pits, and interviews mystics in Big Sur. She also chronicles the gubernatorial campaign of Arnold Schwarzenegger, "whose election, coinciding roughly with the promotion of the Terminator 3 movie on DVD, provides her with a font of scathing political indignation and cultural analysis of everything from capital punishment to metrosexuals loitering at the Apple computer store," wrote New York Times Book Review critic Alexandra Jacobs. "To that short shelf of Chandler, Didion, Mike Davis, Carey McWilliams, Peter Schrag, Kevin Starr, and Nathanael West, all of whom she's read and quoted, add some Evelyn Waugh, because Wilentz too is very funny," remarked John Leonard in Harper's.
Wilentz once told CA: "As a journalist I've spent my life in situations where good and evil are definitely present but always, in the end, difficult to distinguish. At the heart of any reporter's work lies the same mystery that catches the attention of the artist: the quest for truth. I've tried vainly to find truth both in Haiti and in Jerusalem; sometimes I think the search for it may turn out to be more valuable than the hidden, secret, unspeakable truth one is looking for—at least I hope so, because truth is sadly elusive, at least for this reporter."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, January, 2001, Elsa Gaztambide, review of Martyrs' Crossing: A Novel, p. 922; August 1, 2006, Vanessa Bush, review of I Feel Earthquakes More Often Than They Happen: Coming to California in the Age of Schwarzenegger, p. 35.
Commonweal, June, 1991, John P. Hogan, "Death & Resurrection in Haiti," pp. 409-410.
Harper's, August, 2006, John Leonard, review of I Feel Earthquakes More Often Than They Happen, p. 83.
Kirkus Reviews, February, 2001, review of Martyrs' Crossing, p. 142; June 1, 2006, review of I Feel Earthquakes More Often Than They Happen, p. 566.
Library Journal, January, 2001, Starr E. Smith, review of Martyrs' Crossing, p. 158.
Los Angeles Times, March 11, 2001, Susan Salter Reynolds, review of Martyrs' Crossing, p. 11.
Mother Jones, March, 2001, Andrew Rosenblum, review of Martyrs' Crossing, p. 76.
Nation, November, 1989, Herbert Gold, review of The Rainy Season: Haiti since Duvalier, pp. 636-638.
New Leader, June, 1989, Selden Rodman, review of The Rainy Season, pp. 20-21.
New York Review of Books, November, 1993, Mark Danner, "Haiti on the Verge," pp. 25-30, and "The Prophet," pp. 27-36.
New York Times Book Revew, June 25, 1989, Howard W. French, "Voodoo Politics," p. 18; March 11, 2001, Claire Messud, "No Man's Land," p. 6; September 3, 2006, Alexandra Jacobs, "California Girl."
Publishers Weekly, January, 2001, review of Martyrs' Crossing, p. 53; May 29, 2006, review of I Feel Earthquakes More Often Than They Happen, p. 51.
Time, July, 1989, John Elson, review of The Rainy Season, p. B7; April 2, 2001, Paul Gray, "Ripped from the Headlines," p. 71; August 28, 2006, Lev Grossman, "Dude, Where's My State?," p. 67.
Times Literary Supplement, November 17-23, 1989, Karen McCarthy Brown, "On the Ground in a Time of Change," pp. 1257-1258.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), March 18, 2001, review of Martyrs' Crossing, p. 1.
U.S. News & World Report, March, 2001, review of Martyrs' Crossing, p. 62.
Washington Post Book World, April 15, 2001, Tova Reich, review of Martyrs' Crossing, p. 7.
Women's Review of Books, October, 2001, Lesley Hazleton, review of Martyrs' Crossing, p. 1.
Bookreporter.com,http://www.bookreporter.com/ (September 6, 2001), Robin O'Brien, review of Martyrs' Crossing; biography of Amy Wilentz.