Tag Archives: Behind the Words

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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