Behind the Words: Haitian Divorce

Type Haiti into a search engine these days and the first responses relate to the recent earthquake or earthquake relief. Until this tragedy, however, the term I most associated with Haiti was “Haitian Divorce,” popularized in noir detective fiction and a 1976 Steely Dan song of that name.

The first instinct is to equate the term with “quickie” divorce, but that’s not entirely accurate. People go to Haiti to get a divorce not for the speed of it, but to get around state laws involving the need for both parties to agree to a divorce. A Haitian divorce, which is accepted by some U.S. states after the fact, is a unilateral divorce, meaning one party can divorce the other without the spouse’s permission and/or signature.

According to one Steely Dan blogger, “The woman in the song goes alone at the request of her father to get a divorce in Haiti. She fails in that mission, but has an affair there and returns home without having gotten a divorce. But nine months later the woman has a child, and the baby is half Haitian. The song ends with the baby’s background now clear, and her father asking her to go back to Haiti for a Haitian divorce. Great tune, excellent beat.”

Addendum: A reader of this blog added another interpretation in a September 2014 comment: Carol wrote that in the Steely Dan song, the phrase “Papa said” refers to Papa Doc Duvalier, the Haitian dictator until 1986, not to the father of the woman who goes to Haiti for a divorce. “Back in the original Steely Dan era, Papa Doc encouraged divorce tourism. http://www.nytimes.com/1986/07/12/style/a-weekend-in-haiti-can-include-a-divorce.html,” Carol wrote. I thank her for that clarification.

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15 Comments

Filed under Behind the Words, Writing Tips

15 responses to “Behind the Words: Haitian Divorce

  1. Carol

    Re: the lyrics, “Papa said” refers to Papa Doc Duvalier, not the father of the woman who goes to Haiti for a divorce – back in the original Steely Dan era, Papa Doc encouraged divorce tourism. http://www.nytimes.com/1986/07/12/style/a-weekend-in-haiti-can-include-a-divorce.html

  2. Carol

    Oops – the lyric is “Papa say,” not “Papa said” (mea culpa).

  3. Carol

    One other thing – “Papa Doc” died in 1971 – his son (“Baby Doc”) took over after that (until 1986) – but my recollection is that many people outside of Haiti tended to confuse the two.

  4. In the second parargraph above, shouldn’t that “An Haitian Divorce” not “A Haitian Divorce”?

  5. I am 75 years old and have listened to STEELY DAN for years! Have been to concerts at least 2 times, at the Pavilion in The Woodlands, Texas. At that those particular times, the band did not the members needed to be able to do the song, so I was never able to hear Haitian Divorce in person, so to speak, but never the less, the lyrics and the actual instruments used are a perfect mix! The guitarist does one of the greatest licks ever done! Once heard, it becomes part of ones soul ! I frequently go to sleep at night with the song running in my head……

  6. Phildog

    The song is actually written about one of the Steely Dan engineers who ask fagen and becker is he could take the day off to get a quicky divorce to avoid paying alimony

  7. Christian

    I just came across another popular reference to the phenomenon, watching ‘Six Feet Under’, where in one episode, I think in the last season, it is about Ruth and George getting divorced because George wants to marry another woman, and they talk about him (or her?) going to Haiti for that. That struck me – being German, I had never heard the expression before, except in the Steely Dan song, of course, and I always thought it was just something SD made up because it sounded good. I stand corrected. Thanks for the information!

  8. This is my favorite Steely Dan song. Your blog just gave the song some more depth for me which will enlarge my enjoyment of this song. I will play it on the way home from work tonight. Thank you.

  9. Lance

    Thanks so much for the info!

    p.s. “The Royal Scam” and its single, “Haitian Divorce”, were release in 1976, not 1973.

  10. Ian Smith

    Hit our chart on 11th December 1976 not 1973 for goodness sake!

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