A Voice in Haiti’s Chorus

Author Edwidge Danticat on the glory of nonfiction, the Kindle generation, and Haiti’s long road to recovery.

Photo: Beowulf Sheehan/Zuma Press

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The author of eight books, mostly fiction about her native Haiti, Edwidge Danticat has long been a powerful literary voice bridging her two countries. In her first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, readers learn of her childhood in Port-au-Prince before she moved to New York City when she was 12. And it was through her books like The Farming of Bones and Dew Breaker that she detailed the sights and smells of the atrocities that seem to constantly befall a country only 90 miles from American shores. Danticat, who lost a cousin in the January earthquake, visited survivors of the disaster soon after, and was heartened to find people giving voice to their own experience. “No one can speak for 10 million people,” she says. The devastation she saw erased what little progress the country has managed since the reign of ruthless dictators Francois (“Papa Doc”) and Jean-Claude (“Baby Doc”) Duvalier, she says, but Haitians’ resilience is not to be underestimated. Danticat, who won a MacArthur Fellowship (a.k.a. the “genius” award) last year, caught up with Mother Jones from her home in Miami, where she lives with her husband and two daughters.

Mother Jones: You said a few years ago that “whenever [places] are in the news, that’s when they exist…I think Haiti is a place that suffers so much from neglect that people only want to hear about it when it’s at its extreme. And that’s what they end up knowing about it.” Is that where Haiti is now—without such a disaster it wouldn’t exist for people?

Edwidge Danticat: Absolutely. The way the media cycle works here, the way the news works, and the way people’s attention span works, is that we only learn that people exist when there is crisis. That’s why I think it is important to reach people through other means, like the arts and literature, because then you establish a connection that’s not an instant crisis. It’s not disaster porn, it’s a mutual gaze: I’m giving you something and you’re giving me something. That has always been a strength of Haiti: Beyond crisis, it has beautiful art; it has beautiful music. But people have not heard about those as much as they heard about the coups and so forth. I always hope that the people who read me will want to learn more about Haiti.

MJ: How can we sustain the momentum that builds up after such a disaster?

ED: I wish I knew! If I knew would put it into action immediately! [laughs] What we haven’t seen before is this huge response from the Haitian-American community here—doctors, lawyers, professors, the people who are the bridge between the two cultures.

MJ: And how might the response be different in this instance, where the tragedy is a natural disaster instead of a social or political one?

ED: I think there will be a more sustained response because of the very large community who live here in the United States. But also because there is a better sense now that Haiti is our neighbor. I think that sense of proximity has hit home. We live now in a global culture where anything that happens in a place that’s 90 minutes from your shores really affects you.

MJ: Half of the population in Haiti is under 18, too young to remember the full legacy of the Duvaliers, but now they have another disaster to deal with. How do you think the earthquake will come to define their lives?

ED: I think the earthquake will have an extraordinary, extraordinary effect. First of all, physically. So many young people are amputees. This is a very difficult environment in which to be disabled. You also have the psychological effect and aftershocks—kids being really traumatized, afraid to sleep inside, and kids who’ve lost so many people, who’ve lost parents, who’ve lost friends. We’ve lost a whole generation, a large number of kids who could have contributed to the future of the country. And all the others who are there, but who could leave, now they are out of the country. But for the kids who are stuck there, so many schools have been destroyed, which means that whatever progress had been made since the dictatorship has been wiped out. It used to be said that in Haiti they are trying to go from misery to poverty—President [Jean-Bertrand] Aristide said that—and now it’s a deeper misery.

MJ: Haitian writers and artists have emerged to tell the world about this disaster. What role does writing and art play in reconstruction and healing?

ED: It’s been great to see, in the very first days of the disaster all these writers inside Haiti telling their stories, what happened, and what they would like to see happen next. Because everyone could get on the Internet, anyone could write their own narrative. There’s a woman I know who lost her son, who wrote this extraordinary account of it, which circulated amongst everyone. Her name is Dolores Dominique. She writes about the death of her son but also her appreciation for all those who came to help her, and it’s an extraordinary thing because she may not have gone to a journalist to tell it, she can write it herself. That’s what writing can do in whatever form it comes to us. It allows us to see these larger events in a personal way. It goes back even to the slave narratives, where it’s stressed on the cover of these books, “Written by Herself” or “by Himself,” where people need to testify to their own experience. What’s happened has brought new eyes to Haitian literature, to Haitian art, to Haitian music. Hopefully that’ll be something that will continue even when we’re not in the news.

MJ: Baby Doc has pledged $8 million to rebuild Haiti. Is any sum from him enough?

ED: It wasn’t his money in the first place to pledge, because it was money he took out of Haiti that was in dispute in the courts. Ah, please, it was such a weird thing to hear that he pledged that. It was like a joke. If he actually had $8 million, he would not have pledged it.

MJ: You have written mostly fiction, but your last book was a memoir. Which do you prefer?

ED: It really depends on where you are in your life. I turned 41 this year, and I’m in a more reflective place. The things in the memoir have started me thinking about mortality. I feel like in this particular moment that nonfiction helps better to address that.

MJ: Fiction, in some ways, is really a misnomer for your other writing, because there is often so much nonfiction in it.

ED: Absolutely. No one has really ever said that, and it’s true. I remember reading an interview with a writer who said that in nonfiction if you have one lie it sort of messes it up. But in fiction the real details give you so much more credibility, because people do so much research just to write fiction. In fiction you’re trying to recreate something lifelike. But after writing fiction for so long, I like the discovery element of nonfiction, in the sense that when you find the right information, it feels like gold. In Brother, I’m Dying when I found those documents [from Department of Homeland Security describing her uncle’s last days and death in detention] it felt novelistic, as if they had been invented by someone. Yet they were real conversations. Sometimes there are definitely ways that real life trumps whatever you could have invented.

MJ: Memoirs seem to be rising in popularity. Why do you think that is?

ED: If you go way back, to the Confessions of St. Augustine and that kind of line of narrative, they’ve always intrigued people, the idea of somebody’s whole life. It is a way of being intimate with people without having to live it. It’s also a way of experiencing things that are perhaps horrible or crazy without having to go through them yourself. I think that they appeal to the voyeur in all of us. And, it’s interesting to see people overcome things. Because if you didn’t overcome, you wouldn’t be writing it.

MJ: Do you think we’ll have literary fiction in print a decade from now?

ED: We’ve had fiction from the time of cave drawings. I think fiction, storytelling, and narrative in general will always exist in some form. Perhaps the form that we receive it in will change. It’s hard to tell what people will do with the word and how they’ll be circulating it but I think the storytellers and the stories themselves will always be there. I don’t know what will happen to the physical book and what it will mean for authors. I worry whether it will mean people can still make their careers this way. Will whatever comes next allow people to be able to own their ideas and be able to take time to develop them?

MJ: Sounds like you don’t have a Kindle just yet.

ED: Not yet. I very much love a physical book myself. I think people who have had this experience of also seeing a book come together, from sitting down and writing the first word, to holding the binding in your hand, we have a deeper sentimental attachment to it than others might. So I love the whole physicality of it; I love the process of cracking the spine for the first time and slowly sinking into a book. That will soon seem old-fashioned, I’m sure, like the time of illuminated manuscripts.

MJ: In your writing, you touch on how the lyrical is used to describe something awful. Dew Breaker, the title of your 2004 book, is the Creole term for a torturer. Tonton macoute, after all, translates to something not all that menacing, “Uncle Gunnysack.” What does language used in this way tell us?

ED: Language is such a powerful thing. After the earthquake, I went to Haiti and people were talking about how [they] described this feeling of going through an earthquake. People really didn’t have the vocabulary—before we had hurricanes. I’d talk with people and they’d say, “We have to name it; it has to have a name.” My husband’s uncle, he was calling it “TiRoro” after a kid named TiRoro, who was like a bully. And then my friend Richard Morris, who is a singer and who runs the Oloffson Hotel where Graham Greene’s novel The Comedians is set, was one of the first people tweeting about the earthquake (@RAMHaiti) and he called it “Samson.” Also people would say, if you asked them, “It felt like the earth was dancing.”

MJ: America has been complicit in the difficulties your country has faced in the past, and it’s been cruel to your family in particular, yet you are a proud American. How have you been able to forgive, or to reconcile?

ED: America’s relationship with Haiti has always been very complicated. I often say to people, “Before we came to America, America came to us in the form of the American occupation from 1915 to 1934.” But what I know from having lived here this long is that not all of America did this. In the same way, I would hate for people to generalize about every Haitian from something that one Haitian did, or a group of Haitians did. My fight was with those policies and those particular people and what they were doing to other people.

MJ: How are the loss of your uncle, who died in detention while seeking asylum here, and the recent loss of your cousin in the earthquake connected to your life as a writer?

ED: For me—and I think a lot of writers can identify with this—you have an outlet, a place to vent. I live in Miami and I know so many people whose relatives were mistreated by immigration and they didn’t have that. I don’t think of myself as resilient, because when you think of what people are going through in Haiti right now, those people are resilient, my God. But I was able to not fold and go in a corner because I had my writing as therapy, but also as my tool for struggle. It’s like Toni Cade Bambara said: “Writing is the way I participate in the struggle.”

MJ: You’ve said of your work, “People will read what you write and feel like it’s anthropology instead of fiction,” describing a certain assumption by readers that “we’re writing not just our autobiography, not just our singular experience, but still at the same time paradoxically about an entire group or race of people.” This has likely only intensified since the earthquake.

ED: I am very timid about speaking for the collective. I can say what I see, I can say what I’ve heard, I can say what I feel, but I can’t speak for—no one can speak for—10 million people, and it takes away something from them if you make yourself their voice. Often in the media, they will say about anybody who has written a book or sings a song or who comes from a minority group, “Oh, she’s ‘the voice of the people.'” The people did not elect me. I speak with one voice that may echo other people, but I am part of a group of people. That’s not distancing yourself from a community, that’s also allowing the space for others to speak for themselves.

MJ: What are you working on, other than raising your two daughters?

ED: Thank you for acknowledging that, as I follow Mira around the house [laughs]. I am working on a collection of essays called Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work. It’s based on a lecture that I did at Princeton in 2008, and it talks about this whole idea of writing outside the country of your birth, especially in times of crisis. And I am working on a novel that is sort of not wanting to be what I want it to be. When you are working on something, you have to believe that people will still be reading when you’re done!

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Straight to the point: Donations have been concerningly slow for our hugely important First $500,000 fundraising campaign. We urgently need your help, and a lot of help, over the next few weeks so we can pay for the one-of-a-kind journalism you get from us.

Learn more in “Less Dreading, More Doing,” where we lay out this wild moment and how we can keep charging hard for you. And please help if you can: $5, $50, or $500—every gift from every person truly matters right now.

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