Edwidge Danticat And The Calling Of An Artist Immigrant
“The immigrant artist,” Edwidge Danticat writes in her 2011 book, Create Dangerously, The Immigrant Artist at Work, “must quantify the price of the American dream in flesh and bone. All this while living with the more ‘regular’ fears of any other artist. Do I know enough about where I’ve come from? Will I ever know enough about where I am? Even if somebody has died for me to stay here, will I ever truly belong?”
Who in the world, in this age, gets to belong, and who doesn’t? Who decides?
About 24 hours before I asked Danticat the questions that follow, President Donald Trump came out with the most audaciously racist remarks he’d made in his entire audacious (if so far short) political career. The man whose job we describe as “leader of the free world” ranted on that day that the U.S. shouldn’t be giving visas to Haitians or Africans, and wondered why we were “taking” people from these “shithole” countries (and here the verb “taking” causes me to cringe; people from Africa were once “taken” so enthusiastically. Now our president stands against “taking” them in modern circumstances where they might come here, ironically, seeking freedom … but I digress.)
It’s a heavy charge to be a voice for Haiti in the world these days. Danticat’s writing has expressed the Haitian experience to English-language readers since the publication of her first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, in 1994. Born in Haiti, raised by her uncle and aunt, then reunited with her parents in New York when she was twelve, Danticat has written of Haiti in all its beauty and tragedy, telling us stories, and expressing the humanity of a place we surely would not understand at all with only news accounts to go by.
To say Danticat is a busy writer is an understatement. She has written five novels, six books for children, and four nonfiction books, including her most recent, The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story; she has edited or contributed to innumerable anthologies; she publishes frequently in the New Yorker and appears sporadically in the New York Times and elsewhere.
And this writing has made her a de facto, if sometimes reluctant, authority: immediately following Trump’s “shithole” remark, the two most prominently cited Haitian sources were the Haitian ambassador to the United States, and Danticat, who turned up within hours on Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now and elsewhere.
For all this political resonance, Danticat remains a writer’s writer. Her books revel in language, in layers, and in interwoven themes. As Garnette Cadogan wrote in Bomb magazine, “she has been described as ‘the bard of the Haitian diaspora,’ but, really, her terrain is whatever world her fertile imagination takes her to.” Yet circumstances have made her much more than the teller of stories. She has become a lead witness to the experience of a people.
Lori Soderlind: Haiti has produced many writers, but few who write in English, as you do, and as a result you’ve become a kind of authority on all things Haitian. What is like for you, particularly in these times of so much stress for immigrants and such racial tension in the U.S., to be a voice for Haiti?
Edwidge Danticat: I am so glad you said that. Haiti has produced a number of wonderful writers indeed. A lot of people are not aware of that. We have a phenomenal literature in both in French and in Creole. I certainly do not consider myself the voice of Haiti. I never have. I remember this coming up all the way back in 1995 in my very first major interview with Garry Pierre-Pierre, a Haitian-American reporter at the New York Times. I would say now, all these many years later, what I said then. There are many voices. I’m just one. I am certainly not an authority on all things Haitian, which is why when I am called I always guide the people who call me towards other voices and others points of views. If you need a Haitian historian or economist, I’ll say, I can find you people who are better versed on this than I am. That has always been my approach. I never liked the idea of anyone person being that “only one” and I certainly never wanted to be that person, which is why I have edited anthologies of Haitian and Haitian-American writers, have worked on translations of Haitian classics and things of that nature. My mother used to say that you see much better with many candles in a room than you do with just one. Also having many voices in the mix certainly takes the pressure off.
Soderlind: Reading your books, I feel as if I’ve watched a frightened young girl make an enormous journey not just from Haiti to America, but from an aspiring writer to a literary luminary. How would you describe that journey? I keep thinking of the word “destiny.”
Danticat: The frightened young girl feeling is not too far off. I’m probably not supposed to say that, but I was terrified each time I was interviewed in the beginning. I was so worried about embarrassing my family and my community and ultimately Haiti itself, which is why when my first book offended some people with its content, I was rather sad. That sadness didn’t change the way I write necessarily, but I had to get braver and consider that there would be consequences for whatever I wrote. When your work is primarily centered around the lives of people in a certain community, people tend to see your success as something you also owe to them. So that aspect of it is rather intimidating and complicated. I have to try to shut all of that out when I start writing and over time, I have grown a little more adept at doing that and a bit less scared and more confident in what I want to and have to say. I’m not sure it’s destiny. Maybe I’m wrong but destiny sounds to me like sitting back and waiting for what was meant to happen to you to just happen. I work really, really hard. I’ve also been very lucky to have had the right people come into my life at the right time, both personally and professionally. At the same time, I feel like I’m still on that journey so I can’t define it too clearly.
Soderlind: I’ve heard you say that for Haitians, as for many vulnerable peoples, “Death is always in proximity to life.” And of course, your most recent book is titled The Art of Death. I almost wonder if, without so much experience of death and loss, you would not have found your voice as a writer. I suspect this observation is not even a question, but I wonder what you might say about it—about the way grief has shaped your writing. Perhaps I’m asking how important it is to suffer in order to create; do you think grief has given that to you?
Danticat: Maybe without so much exposure to death and grief, I might not have found my way to this book. My uncle was a minister and presided over a lot of funerals, which I attended at a very young age. I had to find some way to explain both death and grief to myself. Otherwise I would have been anxious all the time. I think that’s something I also try to do in my work. After all, every story ends in death, whether that death is on the page or not. That was my feeling when I was a kid sitting at so many funerals that all of us have to pass through this same door, as my uncle used to say in his sermons.