Edwidge Danticat: finding her way home

Since the publication of her first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, in 1994, Edwidge Danticat has been hailed as “the voice of the Haitian-American experience". Her memories of Haiti, the homeland she left when she was 12, and her compulsion to tell the painful stories of her people, are the forces behind her quiet yet unflinching fiction. Mariel Brown charts Danticat's ongoing journey between two worlds, and discovers the tragic history of the Haitian diaspora

“I always thought that, whatever else I was doing in my life, I would also be writing.” Photograph by Renato Rotolo“I’m a voice in a chorus.” Photograph by Renato RotoloBreath, Eyes, Memory, 1994. A Danicat NovelDanicat in a neigbourhood bookshop. Photograph by Renato RotoloDanicat in a neigbourhood bookshop. Photograph by Renato RotoloDanicat in a neighbourhood bookshop. Photograph by Renato RotoloDanicat with her husband Fedo Boyer. Photograph by Renato RotoloEdwidge Danicat spending a quiet day in Miami’s Little HaitiEdwidge Danicat spending a quiet day in Miami’s Little Haiti. Photograph by Renaldo RotoloEdwidge Danicat. Photograph by Renato RotoloKrik? Krak! 1995. A Danicat NovelThe Farming of Bones. A Danicat Novel

I have never met Edwidge Danticat in person. Until I interviewed
her a few months ago, any knowledge I had of her came from her fiction,
and from the brief glimpses of her I caught in magazines and on television.

I knew she was relatively young — in her early 30s (Breath, Eyes,
Memory
was selected by Oprah Winfrey for her book club when Danticat
was 29). I knew that she’d had a book on the New York Times bestseller
list. And I knew that The Farming of Bones was one of the most startling
books I’d read — not only for its subject (the persecution and murder of
thousands of Haitians by their Dominican neighbours in the 1930s), but also
for its unflinching and inevitable progression into darkness. It seemed to
be the story of a much older soul. And although her fiction should have prepared
me, I was still surprised by Danticat herself, for she seemed to possess
an unlikely combination of youth, wisdom, sadness, laughter, and gentleness.

Many of the details of Danticat’s own story are familiar to
us in the Caribbean. She was born into the tyrannical era of Haiti’s infamous
dictator, “Papa Doc” Duvalier. As had become common, Danticat’s parents
fled Haiti, hoping for a better life for themselves and their family in
the United States. First her father emigrated in 1971, followed in 1973
by her mother. Four-year-old Edwidge and her young brother André
were left in the care of her aunt Denise and uncle Joseph Danticat.

Because she was so young when her parents left, Danticat says she doesn’t
remember knowing what her father looked like until she saw photographs
of him — he didn’t return to Haiti on holiday until she was seven. But
of her mother, her memories are very specific.

“She made me go to school when I was three — pretty much as soon as
I could walk. And she made identical clothes for us. She was a seamstress,
and I remember her, when I was very little, making clothes for me from what
was left from the clothes she made for herself.”

Her mother’s emphasis on education would remain integral to Edwidge
— just days after eventually arriving in the US, she was attending a new
school; she studied French at Barnard College, and later earned an MFA in
creative writing from Brown University.

Until she was 12 — when she left Haiti to join her parents
in the US — Edwidge grew up between Port-au-Prince and the country region
of Leogane, west of the city (where she spent her school holidays). To
Danticat, Port-au-Prince represented the harshest of realities, where it
was normal for people to “go missing”, and legitimised acts of violence
were a daily occurrence

“There were these blurry, fearful spaces that weren’t elaborated,” she
says. “But even when I was very small I knew there was something that everyone
was afraid of.”

The butchery of the Duvalier era is renowned. It was not uncommon for
Haitians to be summarily executed by the tonton macoutes (volunteer
thugs), who were answerable only to Papa Doc, and then later to his son,
the so-called Baby Doc. Reinforced by the threat of voodoo (which, many
believed, vested Duvalier with certain divine rights), the macoutes
murdered hundreds of Papa Doc’s opponents, sometimes publicly displaying
the corpses as warnings.

“A lot of people who we knew, around where we grew up, would disappear,”
says Danticat. “There would be children whose families would suddenly go
and leave them with someone else.”

Leogane provided her with fleeting glimpses of “normalcy”.

“In the country, that fear just seemed to dissipate,” she says. “It gave
me a greater sense of freedom than the city, where we were always watching
our steps.”

But it was only a relative freedom. Danticat acknowledges that, “Even
though there were chefs des sections [voodoo authorities] around
[Leogane], it seemed less present there. As I was growing up I idealised
that way of life, despite its difficulties, particularly in contrast to the
pace and the very striking horrors of the city. I began to adapt [the country]
in a safe space in my head.”

This dual existence has tempered Danticat’s memories of Haiti, for
although she has always longed to return “home”, the brutality that she
lived through there has prevented her from formulating romantic or sentimental
notions of the land of her birth.

Danticat’s fiction is haunting in its deafening quiet.

Memories of Haiti are everywhere, but in the pages of her books, you will
not find screaming hysteria, nor rage-filled exhortations to war. Instead,
there is an overwhelming sense of sadness and loss, rendered mute by despair.
Her work is essentially nihilistic; her characters continue not because
they have a sense that they may one day triumph, but because of a disconcerting
acceptance that suffering is part of the human condition, and that to stop
would be to die.

In a 1998 review of The Farming of Bones in the New York
Times
, Michael Upchurch remarked that “Danticat knows the value of
understatement in bringing nightmarish scenes to life, and a spare, searing
poetry infuses many of the book’s best passages. The randomness of death;
the second-guessing about where safety lies; the silence after an act of
butchery . . . all are eerily evoked.”

This grief is perhaps the most unsettling feature of Danticat’s writing.
Every page of The Farming of Bones sings a silent dirge of bewilderment,
suffering, and loss.

On exploring herself through her writing:
I just heard someone describe themselves, saying that they’re shy so they
talk too much. I feel like that. I think of myself as curious, and I’m lucky
that with writing I am able to follow though with my curiosity and really
explore the grey places in myself and in other people.

On her relationship with Haiti:
I still think of myself very much as Haitian, and I go there as often as
I can. When I think of Haiti, I think of the people I love who are there:
my uncle, my aunt (who passed away recently). But for me, the idea of a
relationship with the whole place seems like a big elephant, and I always
experience it in morsels.

On being “the voice of the Haitian-American experience”:
I try not to encourage this idea that one person can be the voice of any
place. I always say that I think it’s a chorus, and I’m a voice in a chorus.
I think every writer is political. George Orwell said that even to say
one is not political is a political statement. And I agree that we are in
the process of forming identities, and the whole issue of migration is important
to us — the voices away are speaking to the voices back home — the interior
versus the diaspora, and so forth. For most writers, the work that we write
is one way that we communicate these concerns. Even if we’re not making
our characters spokespersons, the things that concern us will absolutely
find their way somehow into the work we do.

“I carried that story for so many years, like a big weight on my head,
so when it came out, it just poured out,” she says. “When I was writing it,
what I most wanted was to be able to feel so deeply what that experience
was like for people, because it was removed from me by 50 years, and I
could have got mired in the historical details. There were moments when
I was sobbing myself through it, but I was grateful for those moments, because
it meant that I was there — that I was actually with them.”

I wonder whether an unassuageable grief doesn’t consume Danticat when
she’s writing. She says that people have told her to “write more beautiful
things.” But, for her generation, born into the Papa Doc regime, finding
beautiful things is more challenging than it would be for someone who knew
Haiti before Duvalier’s rise to power in 1957. Danticat says her struggle
is to find “ideal things to squeeze in between the horrible things, because
there is always this feeling that what was or what could have been has been
menaced by something else: 30 years of dictatorship, all the military coups,
and so forth.”

It took eight years for Danticat’s parents to sort through
the immigration requirements and bring her and André to the US, leaving
the brother and sister ample time to let their imaginations run riot.

“Over years and years, a picture had formed in my mind of this extremely
rich place,” recalls Danticat, “like a big vault, where no one did anything
but have all this money and leisure. I remember once saying to my aunt
that I wanted to fetch water with some of the children, and she said, ‘No,
no, no — you’ll never have to do that.’ And if I said I wanted to clean
things, then she would say, ‘Oh, you’ll get a maid.’”

Once it was known that Edwidge and her brother would be leaving Haiti,
she became a repository for the dreams and aspirations of her friends
and family. She jokes that by the age of eight she was already a godmother
to many, making promises about what she would send for them when she finally
got to America. Finally, in March 1981, everything fell into place.

“One day we went to the embassy and they gave us the visas, and my
uncle bought us the tickets, and we left.”

But, for Danticat, leaving Haiti was not without sadness and anxiety.
During her parents’ time in the US, they had had two more children. Although
they were her brothers, they were strangers to Edwidge. What would they
be like? Would they get along? Also, she had grown very attached to her uncle,
for whom she had become an interpreter (he had lost the ability to speak
when his larynx was removed because of cancer — she was one of the few people
who could read his lips). Leaving him behind was, she says, the biggest shock.
And then, of course, there was the reality of having to grapple with a new
life and a new language in an alien place.

When she finally arrived in New York, things could not have been further
from what she had imagined.

A Danticat bibliography

Breath, Eyes, Memory, 1994
Krik? Krak!, 1995
The Farming of Bones, 1998
The Butterfly’s Way: Voices from the
Haitian Dyaspora, 2001 (editor)
After the Dance: A Walk through
Carnival in Jacmel, Haiti, 2002
Behind the Mountains, 2002
(young adult fiction)
The Dew Breaker, forthcoming in 2004

“First of all, coming from the airport, everything was so glittery. You
get on the highway and it’s this marvel — everything looks like a big jewel.
But then on the way home we had to pass through buildings that were boarded
up with plastic bags blowing through the windows. And the way the apartment
worked, just looked like cells — almost like a prison. So I was a bit
horrified, because I felt it was the complete opposite of what had been
so carefully crafted for me.”

And although this was a whole new world for Danticat, Haiti was no
longer new to the US. By the early 80s, AIDS had been discovered. The
first mass migrations of Haitians to Miami by boat (and the resultant
drownings — images of which frequently appeared in the news) had started.
The perception among Americans was that Haitians were desperate “boat people”
riddled with AIDS. Nonetheless, Danticat and her family lived in an area
of Brooklyn where a Haitian-American way of life already existed. Her family
attended a creole church, and she went to an EFL (English as a Foreign
Language) school, learning her new language within a year of her arrival.
Although her assimilation was relatively painless, Danticat’s longing for
Haiti has never waned. It’s no surprise, then, that in one way or another
it is the subject of all of her writing.

Danticat’s first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, chronicles
the journey of a young girl, Sophie, from Haiti to New York, where she
is reunited with a mother she barely remembers. As Danticat did, Sophie
faces the trauma of leaving behind a beloved relative, with no knowledge
of when she may see her again. Although the story is by no means autobiographical,
Danticat agrees that the issues her characters face are similar to her
own experiences: “reformulating our visions of home and of where we end
up. Redefining ourselves all the time.”

This was the novel that introduced Danticat to a vast reading audience
(helped in no small measure by Oprah’s golden endorsement). When she was
writing Breath, Eyes, Memory, Danticat envisioned that it would
be read by a few Haitian-Americans. So imagine her surprise when the book
sold in the hundreds of thousands. Not only that: people read it with an
intensity and seriousness that she had not anticipated. The response to
particular scenes in the story (especially among the Haitian-American community)
led Edwidge to doubt her work — not its quality, but its subject.

“I thought that I had spoken out of turn,” she says, “and that there
were some things that I shouldn’t have put in there.”

But what pleased her immensely was that the story resonated not only
with her own people but with people from different backgrounds and cultures
as well. Because the novel seemed so personal and revealing, Danticat
says her readers felt like they knew her, “like I had told them everything,
so they would start telling me everything about themselves.” In fact, although
the emotions of the book are true to what she felt as a child and young
adult, many of the plot details are entirely fictional.

By the age of 14, Danticat was writing for a high school publication.
Breath, Eyes, Memory began as an essay on immigration for this magazine;
later she re-wrote it as a work of fiction. Stepping outside the objective,
factual form of the essay was something Danticat says she longed to do,
“because I would write about some event, or someone I knew, and someone in
my family would completely disagree. So I’d just want to write it my way
and take them out or change them — but, of course, that wouldn’t fit for
the purposes of non-fiction.”

Fiction gave her the freedom to tell the stories she wanted to tell.
But for a long time Danticat was unwilling to give herself the title of
“writer”, explaining that she thought she might be a nurse instead (she
attended a specialised high school for the health professions); “but I
always thought that, whatever else I was doing in my life, I would also
be writing.”

These days, she does think of herself as a writer. “But,” she chuckles,
“that’s partly because I don’t have another job right now!”

Danticat visits Haiti often, and sometimes toys with the idea of going
back for good. “I love Haiti,” she says. “That love is, of course, tied
to the people I love there, but I love the place too. As soon as I land
there, I feel like I am home — physically and spiritually home.”

She says, though, that no matter where she ends up, Haiti
will always be with her, “ever changing. Sometimes it gets on your nerves,
other times you’re just awed by it and love it.”

When she made the decision recently to move from New York to Miami
(where her husband Fedo Boyer runs a translation firm), Danticat decided
she wanted to live in the Little Haiti district, north of downtown, where
tens of thousands of Haitian-Americans recreate something of the spirit
of their Caribbean homeland. This decision, she says, was “not based on
some romantic notion of living among my people. I don’t really like ‘cookie
cutter’ communities, and Little Haiti is anything but that. It’s so vibrant,
so full of life, so much like Haiti itself, that I just felt that, if I
was going to be in Miami, I had to be here.”

She also believes that personal success should not lead to the abandonment
of one’s roots — that her life and her proximity can be a positive lesson
to others. “We do not flee our communities when we supposedly ‘make it’.
It’s important for our young people to see that we want to stay and invest
ourselves in these communities.”

Whether in Miami or New York, Danticat finds ways, in her writing and
her life, to never stray too far from her memories of home. And she is as
she sees herself: one in a chorus of “voices away” who are speaking to
“the voices back home” — and everywhere else, for that matter.

Krik?

Krak!