Culture

A conversation with Edwidge Danticat

The acclaimed Haitian-American writer talks about what it means to be a voice of the diaspora and her latest novel

Edwidge Danticat, the Haitian-American writer and author of Claire of the Sea Light, in June
Ernesto Ruscio/Getty Images

Born in Haiti, Edwidge Danticat moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., at age 12, joining her parents who had immigrated in search of a better life. Her second book, a collection of short stories she published at age 26, was short-listed for the National Book Award. Today Danticat, 44, lives in Miami.

Her latest novel, “Claire of the Sea Light,” tells of a little girl's disappearance in a seaside town in Haiti. Like many of her works, it inspires reflection on the nature of cultural boundaries, on identity and on human compassion.

What was the genesis of “Claire of the Sea Light?”

I was watching a documentary about children in Haiti. Part of it focused on orphanages for children who actually do have parents, but their parents bring them in because they can't afford to care for them. I think it was an aid worker who said in the film, "These people don’t have the same attachment to their children. This is why they bring them here." And I remember feeling in that judgment an echo of my own story. My father and mother left me to the care of my uncle while they went to work in the United States. They could have stayed with me and my brother. We could have been together but struggling. Instead, they made a brave sacrifice and left in order to give an opportunity elsewhere to us all.

In the past decade you devoted yourself mainly to nonfiction. How does it feel to be back writing fiction?

Exhilarating. In fiction, you feel like you own everything. I could make things up at will. I had free rein. While I was writing this novel, I spent a lot of time by the sea in Haiti. I wanted to capture snapshots of this community; my imagination borrows a lot from places where I spend time. The environment in Haiti was changing even back then, even before the earthquake. You could see signs of overfishing, of erosion, of the topsoil washing into the sea.

The 2010 earthquake killed approximately 300,000 people and left about 1 million homeless in Haiti. You were there a few months ago. How is the situation on the ground? 

What I find most encouraging, what you often don't hear about, it's what individuals are doing. There are Haitians who are using whatever means they have to help themselves, because they know, having been through disasters before, that the world’s attention is fickle, that ultimately even the large missions and nations who claim they want to help are sometimes looking out for their own interest.

When we look at images of today — natural disasters, wars, inequality — one can’t help but wonder what the place of literature is.

We need stories because when everything else is stripped away, that’s all we have left. When the flood has come through and you lose all your belongings, when you have to leave your country at 24 hours' notice, stories are all you have. I had been separated from my mother for 8 years and from my father for 10 when they came back for us to join them in the United States. When I left Haiti, I don't remember what was in my suitcase, I don’t remember what I brought with me. I do remember the stories I was told. I remember the life I had. That's what I came with.

Stories are essential — to our survival as an individual and as a community.

Once you strip people of their stories you strip them of their humanity. There is a story of slavery: They would force the slaves who lived on the islands, transitioning from the ships to new places, to go under a tree, which they called the forgetting tree, and it was supposed to make them forget their stories. In Haiti, what inspired a revolution, what inspired people to fight and to become the first black republic, was that they remembered that once they had been free, that they had a different past. Whether we are still in the places where we were born or whether we are migrating somewhere else, stories are ultimately what we have to pass on to the next generation; everything else could be taken away from us.

Life and death are deeply intertwined in your writing. What's at its origin?

My uncle who helped raise me in Port-au-Prince was a minister; he was very active in the community. We witnessed all the cycles of life up close — on a Friday he might be presiding over a wedding, on a Saturday over a funeral and on a Sunday over a baptism. People who come from places like I come from are very aware of these cycles. Being in church and watching my uncle, I learned early on that death is a part of life. We continue to have a connection with people even after they die. That was always a strong element of my childhood; there was a sense of continuity after life.

You are viewed as an immigrant writer. Does one write better when away from home?

I live in Miami now, and people ask me, "When are you going to write about Miami?" And I tell them, "When I leave Miami." For the work and for one’s life, there is a kind of richness.  The anguish and the longing for home still exist, but there is also an interesting layer of experience, of having different cultures to draw on. That gives you a rich sphere to create from. It used to be that when people thought of the immigrant experience they immediately thought of a culture clash. These days, there is more fluidity.

We live in a much more connected world.

When I was about to come from Haiti to the United States, I didn’t think anything about the U.S. except for the fact that it was where my parents lived and that it was sometimes cold. My cousins who live in Haiti now wouldn’t stand out as much as I did when I got here. They sort of dress like American teenagers. Some of them even speak a little English. They watch all these Hollywood movies. Children who become immigrants today — even before they leave their native country they have to some degree been exposed to the culture of where they are going.

Integration and immigration are at the crux of political and social speeches, particularly in Europe and the United States, raising serious questions about tolerance and hostility.

At the same time that some borders are crumbling, people are making the physical borders even harder to transcend. Walls are being built, while the world is opening up in cyberspace. There are more exchanges possible, but the physical borders are harder to cross. I think it has to do with the economic climate: People become xenophobic when opportunities decline.

Your memoir, “Brother, I'm Dying,” was in part about that.

My uncle Joseph, who was 81 years old and who had been coming to the United States for 30 years, died in immigration custody. He asked for asylum, he was detained, his medication was taken away, and he died in the custody of Homeland Security.

Did you always have the sense you'd one day become a writer?

I loved stories and I loved reading. I didn’t dare dream I’d be a writer. It was still the dictatorship in Haiti and when I would tell people I might become a writer someday they would tell me what happens to writers: They either end up in prison or they end up killed. So I kept it to myself for a while. I didn’t think it would become my lifework; I knew it would always be my passion. Even when I wrote my first book, I thought it would be my only one.

How did English become the official language of your prose, instead of Creole or French?

I spoke Creole at home, and everything at school was in French, but I never felt at ease in French. I had to write my parents letters and it was always a chore. I felt like I couldn’t say exactly what was in my heart. When I got to the United States and started writing in English, it just kind of stuck.

Almost two decades have passed since your first book. When you look back at your younger self, what do you see?  

I see in that young girl a lot of who I am today: someone who is open to exploring, someone who is trying to understand how the world works. Things are always changing, and the stories we tell are important. I don’t think of myself as a Haiti expert; I think of myself as a person who loves Haiti and as someone who still has a lot of learn. Haiti is a place I love, a place I’ll always be attached to, a place I know well yet still surprises me and teaches me.

What do you hope will stay with readers as they put this new novel down?

I try to present a microcosm of a world, to paint an image of a small place with big problems but also with big possibilities. I hope they think about Haiti a little differently, not just as a place of disaster but also as a place of hope, as a place full of people from all walks of life who are just trying to live a life and who are trying to do the best they can.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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