By LYNDA RICHARDSON
ÉGINE LATORTUE’S spacious Victorian-style home in Flatbush, Brooklyn, is decorated with most things Haitian, like contemporary paintings of Haitian women, sculptures and books. Then there are the turtles, large and small, in jade, crystal, silver, wood, obsidian and shell. Dozens of them occupy her five-bedroom house. Ms. Latortue is very proud of her last name, French for “the turtle.”
Yet even as Ms. Latortue gazes admiringly at her turtles, she says the collection does not come close to that of Gérard Latortue, her cousin and Haiti’s new prime minister. “He has an impressive collection,” she says, placing a coffee tray on a living room table before lighting a cigarette to ruminate on Haiti’s woes.
Ms. Latortue, 51, is a professor of comparative black literature and Haitian studies at Brooklyn College. And there seems no need to add that her cousin has little time now to collect turtles. He was appointed to lead an interim government earlier this month after a violent upheaval that forced the departure of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
The selection of Mr. Latortue by a United States-backed council of eminent Haitians comes as no surprise to Ms. Latortue. She says he is devoted to Haiti, and has the skills to help rebuild the country. He worked for decades as a top official in the United Nations Industrial Development Organization.
“His attitude is, ‘I’m here and my focus is to serve the people of Haiti, not the other way around,’ ” she says, describing her cousin’s sense of duty. “This is a temporary position, and an opportunity to do what all of us want to do, to leave a better world behind. Most Haitians, if called upon to help, would answer the call. I think sometimes that’s been a problem: too many Haitians, particularly men, are convinced things would be better if they were in power.”
Ms. Latortue sighs heavily, contemplating the job her cousin faces. She pauses with a coffee cup in one hand, a smoldering cigarette in the other.
“I wasn’t supportive of Aristide, but I hoped and prayed it would get better, because being president or prime minister of Haiti is not a job I would wish on my worst enemy,” she says, sending her regards to her cousin, who left behind the life of a semiretiree in suburban Boca Raton, Fla. “He has my full sympathy.”
Ms. Latortue has an amiable manner and wide-set eyes that often glimmer with humor. But in a long conversation, her husky French-accented voice grows weary and sad at times as she talks about the turmoil in Haiti. “Yes, it is a mess, but so be it,” she says. “We are in it. That’s the fact, and quite definitely, only we can get ourselves out of it.” She feels a deep patriotism about her birthplace, something she says is reflected in the literature of the country. Her family fled Haiti when she was 12 during the dictatorship of François Duvalier, known as Papa Doc. She remains ever hopeful about the situation there.
“I’ve learned with Haiti, even when you think this can’t get worse, they get worse. But by the same token, things can always get better,” she says.
She has not personally congratulated her cousin since his appointment. She says problems with the telephone system in Haiti have prevented her from getting through. But she is not worried. She explains that her mother, who spends half the year in Haiti with her father, helped the new prime minister when he arrived, even answering his telephone at his hotel.
Ms. Latortue says she last saw her cousin two years ago, but spoke with him on the telephone in January. He is her father’s first cousin. She describes Prime Minister Latortue as warm, the sort of man who makes people feel comfortable. “I have never met anyone at all who doesn’t like him,” she says. “He is just a positive person.”
MS. LATORTUE, who is divorced with no children, does not see herself as a community leader, at least in any active sense, in Brooklyn’s large Haitian population. “I’m not like a Sharpton, out there on the streets,” she says. “My work is done by example, by my profession and the way I help students.”
She has taught for 26 years at Brooklyn College since receiving her doctorate from Yale. She was chairwoman of the college’s Africana studies department for 15 years, until last year. Next month, she will become the president of the College Language Association, a national academic group founded by black scholars that focuses on English, literature and foreign languages. She is also the coordinator of a bilingual education technical center at Brooklyn College, which helps public school teachers with students whose first language is Creole.
Literature has been Ms. Latortue’s passion since childhood, and she excelled in school. She says she was allowed to skip four grades and to enroll at 14 years old as an undergraduate at Trinity College in Washington. Her father, a lawyer, worked for the Organization of American States in Washington, and her mother was an administrator in the fellowship program of the World Health Organization.
Ms. Latortue does not feel conflicted about not heeding Haiti’s siren call the way her cousin has.
She likes her life simple and quiet, even if it is that of an overworked professor revolving around the college and home, with maybe a quick trip to the grocery store.
“I have too many things to do than to sit around discussing Haitian politics.”