It’s a story as old as time: boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, they have a passionate romance that outside forces disapprove of, then boy and girl are separated until boy decides to go after girl. It’s the plot of many movies, plays and books.
It’s also the plot of Xander Miller’s debut novel “Zo.” Set in Haiti and centering around the devastating 2010 earthquake, “Zo,” bills itself as a “modern-day Romeo and Juliet” with a twist, but is it the grand love story it proclaims? That is the question I intend to answer.
However, before I do that, we must discuss something important, something that might make a few of you uncomfortable, but nonetheless needs to be said. I’m talking about cultural appropriation, and who has the right to tell a story. I hope this isn’t news to anyone, but Haiti is a country made up of 95 percent Afro-Haitians. Xander Miller is a White man from the United States telling the story of two Black characters from a culture he was not born
Now, let me be perfectly clear, I am not and will not accuse Miller of cultural appropriation (from what he wrote in the author’s note section at the end of the book, his intentions seem to come from a good place: he went to Haiti as an EMT after the 2010 earthquake, a fact I will dive further into in a moment.) or anything malicious. But I would be doing my readers and the wider literary community a disservice if I ignored this element of “Zo”, seeing as how the erasure of minority voices and the unfortunate predominate White hegemony of the literary world remains a hot topic.
Earlier this year, author Jeanine Cummins released her novel “American Dirt,” to a mountain’s worth of controversy. The novel centers around an undocumented Mexican woman and her traumas and experiences in both her native country and the U.S. Even before “American Dirt’s” January release date surfaced, a slew of negative reviews had already surfaced online, with Cummins' self-identified Whiteness—she wrote in a 2015 New York Times essay, “I am white…in every practical way, my family is mostly white—a major point of contention. "
Now, Cummins, her identity—in a 2019 interview, ahead of her novel’s release, she identified herself as Latinx—her novel and the controversy around it is a nuanced and interesting topic. One that I don’t have time to go into here, but one that I implore you to look into further. The fact is, the events that happened to the main character is “American Dirt” happens to many Mexican women every day; however, in the literary world, publishers find it safer—both in terms of monetary investment and making people feel “comfortable”—to have White voices tell the stories of minorities.
Okay, with that backdrop set, let’s turn back to Miller and “Zo.” It’s rare to start a review of a novel with what’s written in the author’s note section, but the information provided there is of vital importance to this discussion. In it, Miller tells us about how he became an EMT and ambulance driver in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake before going on to say, “I am not a Haiti expert…Neither am I an expert on disaster relief…The truth is, I am an unlikely choice to author a story set in Haiti, but I fell in love there, and found when I set out to write a love story I could put it nowhere else.”
Miller’s deep love and affection for Haiti is something I can completely understand. It’s the birthplace of my father, a place I’ve never set foot, and if Miller is no “Haiti expert” then, he can at least teach me a thing or two. In my opinion, “Zo” sits more on the cultural appreciation side of the spectrum, rather than the appropriation side. Miller sprinkles bits of Haitian Creole throughout the novel, the island is written about with admiration and longing and the food seems to be accurate. However, that doesn’t mean Miller’s prose are without fault. There are more than a few times where the descriptions of the main character Zo read as fetishistic, where the prose faun over how strong and muscular Zo is, how he might not be smart, but he’s great at manual labor and a passionate lovemaker. This might not be a huge deal for some, but it could make other people rather uncomfortable.
I guess now would be a perfect time to delve into the plot of “Zo.” Zo, an orphan, has a rough upbringing, he learns to box before he can read and spends his teenage years bouncing from village to township and back working one odd, manual labor job after the next. One day, while helping haul and mix cement at the home of wealthy Haitian doctor Vincent Leconte, Zo spots his beautiful daughter Anaya Leconte sipping cherry juice from a bottle, and it’s love at first sight.
The pair soon ignite in a love affair that must remain a secret at all cost. After all, they are from different worlds, Anaya is a nurse in training, and her father would disapprove of her being in the arms of this poor orphan. Of course, Dr. Leconte soon discovers his daughter’s illicit romance and, as punishment, sends his daughter off to Port-au-Prince to finish her schooling away from Zo.
With nothing left to lose now, Zo must follow Anaya to the capital city before he loses her forever. Little do the lovers know, their arrival in Port-au-Prince will coincide with the greatest natural disaster Haiti has ever seen. It’s been ages since I’ve read “Romeo and Juliet,” but there are shades I recognize in the plot of “Zo,” perhaps I’ve become jaded since I was a teen, but the whole love at first sight phenomenon seems like plain old lust to me, that’s especially true when Zo and Anaya’s relationship is full of passionate sex at the beginning of the novel. However, the pair’s relationship really begins to solidify as they’re ripped from each other’s arms.
So, now back to the question at the start, is “Zo” a tale of classic love? Well, I guess it depends on your perspective. There is no denying that Zo would go to the ends of the earth for Anaya, as there’s no denying that Anaya would give up her comfortable life of riches to live in a small fishing village with Zo. If you are a true romantic at heart, I think “Zo” is the perfect novel for you. And, even if you aren’t a romantic anymore, maybe “Zo” will revive that part of your life.
By: Gregory Bertrand