Culture | Lifestyle | Travel | Haiti 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 By Mariel Brown | Issue 64 (November/December 2003) 0 Comments Danicat with her husband Fedo Boyer. Photograph by Renato Rotolo"I always thought that, whatever else I was doing in my life, I would also be writing." Photograph by Renato Rotolo Danicat in a neigbourhood bookshop. Photograph by Renato RotoloKrik? Krak! 1995. A Danicat NovelBreath, Eyes, Memory, 1994. A Danicat NovelDanicat in a neighbourhood bookshop. Photograph by Renato RotoloDanicat in a neigbourhood bookshop. Photograph by Renato Rotolo"I'm a voice in a chorus." Photograph by Renato RotoloThe Farming of Bones. A Danicat NovelEdwidge Danicat spending a quiet day in Miami's Little Haiti. Photograph by Renaldo RotoloEdwidge Danicat spending a quiet day in Miami's Little HaitiEdwidge Danicat. Photograph by Renato Rotolo 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!