(Part 2) – Courier Q and A: Edwidge Danticat, Celebrated best-selling Haitian-American author and social activist

EDWIDGE DANTICAT (Photo credit Nancy Crampton)

(Part two of a series)
To read the first part of the Courier’s special series on Erv Dyer’s upcoming trip to Haiti, click the link below…
In 1981, Edwidge Danticat came to Brooklyn, N.Y., from her native Haiti. She was 12 and adjusting to the American space that her immigrant parents had called home since the 1970s. In the years since, Danticat has become an accomplished author, writing about Haitian life and loss in historical and personal terms.
“I love building characters,” she said. “I draw from their emotional spaces, from memories of sadness. I love investing in the character.”
In her newest book, “The Art of Death,” she writes about her mother’s death from cancer. The New York Times has described the book as “a kind of prayer…an act of mourning and remembrance, a purposeful act of grieving.” In the book, Danticat also writes about how other characters and writers, including Tolstoy, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, have dealt with death.
In her 2007 book, “Brother I’m Dying,” which won a National Book Critics Circle Award, she wrote about the deaths of her father and uncle.
A recipient of the prized MacArthur Fellowship, Danticat is the author of “Breath, Eyes, Memory,” an Oprah’s Book Club Selection; “The Farming of the Bones,” an American Book Award winner; and “Krik? Krak!,” which was nominated for a National Book Award.
In this New Pittsburgh Courier “Q & A,” Danticat talks about her efforts to write about the humanity of Haiti, using her voice to help Haitians feel like they belong to America, and the Pan-African friendship between poet Langston Hughes and Haitian writer Jacques Roumain.
NPC: Your work does so much to lift the perception of Haiti from just being a “flat,’’ one-dimensional place to a place that is full of beauty and struggle. This fuller space is often seen in how you write about the imaginary location of Ville Rose.
Danticat: That’s right. Ville Rose is real in my mind, but it’s a made-up place that’s based on where my mother was born and grew up in Leogane, about 15 miles outside of Port Au Prince. It’s where my mother’s family is from and where I used to spend part of my summers visiting. I wanted to invent this fictional town. It’s a coastal town, but it has all these features of different coastal towns. I reuse it for different narratives, so it’s kind of my own village in Haiti that I created and live in all within my imagination.
NPC: That’s the beauty of your work. It puts humanity in these places where oftentimes we believe there is none.
Danticat: Exactly, in a town like Ville Rose, and in all of my work, it’s an opportunity to show Haiti’s history, culture, landscape, and the people all at once. I think it’s important to also show that people live with such grace and dignity, even under tough circumstances, and even though they still misbehave.
NPC: When you first came to America, you described life here as being very difficult, and that being Haitian was almost like being cursed. Do you think that your voice helps Haitians and Haitian-Americans come to terms with that “curse?”
Danticat: When I came to America, it was really a difficult time. The conversation in all of the news was that Haitians were linked to HIV and it was like we were the only nation of people associated to be in the high-risk group. When that happened, immediately people we knew and in our church lost their jobs…I think there were lots of people who thought every Haitian had it, and so it was just hard to go to school. We would get hit by kids, we wouldn’t be allowed to go on some field trips. It was really just terrible.
It was just a strange, like a very challenging moment to be a young kid. But over the years, there have been other evolutions (regarding Haitian image) and I hope I’ve been a part of helping in terms of self-esteem for kids. But there was also a confluence of many other elements, too, that led to better understanding, particularly as more Haitians became visible in politics, arts and other fields.
NPC: The Black American poet Langston Hughes met and had a great deal of literary respect for the Haitian writer Jacques Roumain. Did you know about this friendship?
Danticat: I felt like that poet relationship with Langston Hughes, with Jacques Roumain in Haiti, would work hard to bring the African “song” into their writing. I think they really worked hard to give this Africa voice to what they were writing. Certainly, when Langston was in Haiti, when I read some of his work, even when he’s critical of what he’s seeing, I felt like he felt that he would be “incomplete” if he didn’t come to Haiti. I just felt like he was looking for a bit of himself in his travel to Haiti. They really had a great exchange in terms for Pan-African dialogue. Despite having to be introduced through letters, it was a very human relationship and friendship. I think Langston saw that the stories of Haiti mattered, and he wanted to bring that back to the American people and make it accessible beyond just Haitians. But I think it went the other way, too; Jacques Roumain, for example, wrote about lynching in empathy with Black Americans. It really was a good kind of back and forth between them that showed a deeper understanding of how each felt about the issues that the other was dealing with.
NPC: What are you reading now?
Danticat: I’m reading “Exit West” by Mohsin Hamid. He wrote “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” which I liked a lot. I like the way he writes. This new book is about people who are leaving different hot spots around the world, and just kind of showing up through these imaginary portals in other cities. It’s really powerful, and he’s a beautiful writer.
I’m also reading a manuscript; Tayari Jones’ new book, “American Marriage,” which is very powerful. It’s about a couple just newly married, and the husband is wrongfully accused of a crime and goes to prison, and then they have to kind of put their lives together while apart, and then also try to put it back together when he gets out. It’s very powerful, also very timely as well, just beautifully written.
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