Create Dangerously – A Conversation with Edwidge Danticat

formerly published in Wild River Review

by Kimberly Nagy

Edwidge Danticat/ Photo Credit: Nancy Crampton

Edwidge Danticat/ Photo Credit: Nancy Crampton

On a September day in 2009, Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat sat before her computer in her Miami home holding her nine-month-old daughter, Leila, when she heard the phone ring.

After the caller advised her to put her baby down, Danticat learned that she had been selected for the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, a five-hundred-thousand-dollar no-strings-attached grant awarded to to “enable recipients to exercise their own creative instincts for the benefit of human society.”

No one could have foreseen just how much the 2009 MacArthur award would benefit not only Danticat’s work and her family but also the country of her birth. In January 12, 2010, a 7.0 earthquake killed approximately 316,000 people, injured 300,000 and left 1,000,000 homeless in her native country.

“The fact that the award came just a few months before the massive earthquake in Haiti meant a great deal,” remembers Danticat. “That money touched so many people’s lives.”

Danticat came to the United States at the age of twelve, during the opressive Duvalier regime in Haiti. Like many immigrants, she left behind beloved aunts, uncles, and cousins. But she took her country’s traditions with her.  “My best writing teachers were my aunts and uncles, who were all storytellers,” recalls Danticat during an interview at the 2011 Langston Hughes Festival. “Storytelling and oral tradition, was, when I was growing up, a strong part of how things were passed on. That’s what made me want to tell stories. It was a kind of gift. A moment where children and adults could interact in a free way.”

Part memoir, part manifesto, Edwidge Danticat’s book of non-fiction, Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work  (Princeton University Press, 2010) sheds light into the lives, stories and creative works of immigrant artists from Haiti–artists who created (and consumed) censored works “despite, or because of, the horrors that drove them from their homelands and that continue to haunt them.” Danticat writes about those who inspired her own path, from beloved aunts to the Haitian novelists she first discovered and voraciously consumed at the Brooklyn Public Library as a girl.

Create Dangerously emerged from a Princeton University Second Annual Toni Morrison Lecture Series. Danticat took her title from Albert Camus’ last public lecture, “Create Dangerously,” in which Camus declared, “For the person with creative potential there is no wholeness except in using it.”

The book was selected as one of the best books of 2010 by the Miami Herald and Mosaic Magazine, named a 2010 New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice, and in 2011 went on to win the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature in the non-fiction category. It was recently selected for the One Book, One Philadelphia reading program.

Create Dangerously continues to play an important part in keeping the Haitian Earthquake crisis in the forefront of people’s minds. “Part of my role is to try to keep people’s awareness up,” Danticat says in a feature in Brown University’s Alumni Magazine. “Just because you don’t see this in the news anymore, it doesn’t mean that it’s gone. The world might have moved on to the next catastrophe, but it still goes on.”

Edwidge Danticat is the recipient of the 2011 Langston Hughes Medal from City College of New York, winner of the Harold Washington Literary Award (2011), and recipient of the 2009 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship among other awards. She has written eight books, including Breath, Eyes, Memory;  Krik? Krak!;  The Dew Breaker;  The Farming of Bones; and Brother, I’m Dying. Danticat is currently working on the final chapters of her new book, Claire of the Sea Light.

WRR: You were holding your nine-month-old baby when you learned that you had received the MacArthur “Genius” Award. What did winning the award mean to you, your family and your work?

Edwidge Danticat: In addition to the usual wonderful things that come with this fellowship—the financial support you receive for five years and the prestige it bestows in the eyes of some—the fact that it came just a few months before the massive earthquake in Haiti on January 10th, 2010, meant a great deal to my family. That money came in handy and touched a lot of people’s lives during the months afterward and even now. With my immigrant work ethic, I still feel I have to prove that I deserve it, so I work even harder every day to do that, venturing off my usual path so that at the end of these five years I will feel as though this great investment in my life and in my work has paid off somehow.

WRR: Turkish novelist Elif Shafak has talked about her challenges in balancing her role as a mother and writer (in her book Black Milk). What do you see as unique challenges for female writers? What is your advice for young female writers?

Danticat: I read that book. It has an incredible author’s photo and of course, the subject matter appealed to me, having had many black milk days myself. I don’t ever want my daughters to read these interviews in the future and feel as though they robbed me of anything. So when I answer this question I often think of them as women reading these interviews, perhaps long after I’m gone. That being said, there are days when I am so thrilled to be a mother that I could burst with joy. There are other days when it has brought me to tears.

I think it’s important that we do not over-idealize motherhood. It’s important to tell the truth about it to younger women. I went to a wonderful women’s college, the great Barnard College, and recently I was back there and one of my mentors, Professor Quandra Prettyman, said this and it rang so true for me. We don’t often talk openly to young women about balance. A woman writer who is a mother has to balance a lot more perhaps than a male writer or a writer with no children.

I chose to be a mother and all that comes with it. I now write around it. I have more to write about, but less time in which to do it. The bright side is that I often feel that my children save me from a lot of drivel. I probably would be writing more if I didn’t have them, but I don’t think it would have as much depth. What I would tell young female writers is that the key is balance, which is I think the conclusion that Elif comes to. You have to know how to ask for help. You must realize that it can’t be all about work. I think my life would be lame without my children. There would be this void that I would feel without them.

You have to find some way to keep all your balls in the air, which is a bit more challenging because writing requires a lot of quiet time, but many have done it before and many more will. Look at the great Toni Morrison. She was a single mother of two boys and having met her children, I think she did a great job on both the home and writing fronts. I always come back to this one thing she said in an interview—that in the end she narrowed things down to two things she had to do that no one else could do for her: mother her children and write her books. I think that’s kind of where I am now, most of the time.

WRR: In describing your visit with your Tante Ilyana in the mountains of Beauséjour, you coin a great phrase: “memory elixirs”—that is, “Elixirs against fading memories, a panacea to evoke images of spaces lost to us, to instantly return us home.” For example, your Tante Ilyana gives you coffee to bring back for your father and she says to you, “When he has a taste of this coffee, it will bring him home.” 

Can you share a couple of your favorite memory elixirs from Haiti and what they make you think of, smell, taste, feel?

Danticat: Coffee is certainly one of them, along with good Haitian food like diri djon djon, rice and beans with dark mushrooms. Also hearing Creole being spoken. Smelling the earth after the rain always reminds me of my summers in the countryside in Haiti. Reading a good book about Haiti, particularly fiction. Feeling loved by my family. Those are all memory elixirs.

WRR: You coin a beautiful term—fake-lore. How do you define that and can you give our readers some examples in your writing?

Danticat: I have actually heard others say this term before. It’s invented folklore, I suppose personally invented folklore. I think that’s what all fiction writing is. You’re inventing people, places, time, space: you’re inventing fake-lore.

Sometimes people also do that with their lives. They invent folklore about themselves, their families, or convince themselves of things that become fake-lore.

“Jan J. Dominique…[assassinated Haitian journalist] Jean Dominique’s daughter…[writes] that during Jean’s wake she witnessed the creation of a myth when someone told Jean’s wife…‘You know, Madame Jean, he often came to see us. He would follow us across the river all the way to the coffee plantations high in the mountains. He would sleep with us, share in our way of life. He was just here, a month ago.’ … [Jan writes,] ‘We do not correct this man. We have not even scattered my father’s ashes in the river when he had already become a legend.’” Edwidge Danticat, Create Dangerously

WRR: In your first book, Breath, Eyes, Memory, you tell a multi-generational story of women, a mother who moves to New York and sends money back to her sister and daughter in Haiti—and the daughter who after growing up in New York returns to Haiti. In an early scene Sophie aches to give her aunt a Mother’s Day card (which her aunt refuses and insists she will save for Sophie’s birth mother). The scene is so difficult and touching. In one way, that scene demonstrates how art can take readers directly into a complex and deeply emotional family division not uncommon to the experience of immigrants. What inspired that scene for you?

Danticat: It was inspired by an actual thing that happened to me. Every year on Haitian Mother’s Day, which is the last Sunday of the month of May in Haiti, I used to give a Mother’s Day card to my aunt, Denise, who had raised me. The year before I was supposed to leave Haiti, I gave one to her and she didn’t take it. I knew I had a mother in New York and that Tante Denise was my “symbolic” mother, if you will, but when she turned down the card and told me to send it to my actual mother, I felt really heartbroken and rejected. That scene has always stuck so strongly in my mind, which is why it is the scene that opens the book.

WRR: In Breath, Eyes, Memory, you wrote a letter to Sophie, the main character. After you wrote it, you were criticized for including a scene in which Sophie’s virginity was tested by her mother (a practice which you point out has gone on in all different locations of the world for centuries).

You write: “I guess I have always felt, writing about you [Sophie], that I was in the presence of family, a family full of kindness as well as harshness, a family full of love as well as grief, a family deeply rooted in the past yet struggling to confront an unpredictable future. I felt blessed to have encountered this family of yours, the Cacos, named after a bird whose wings look like flames. I feel blessed to have shared your secrets.”

We get a deep sense of your intimate relationship with the character Sophie in this tender letter. Can creating dangerously sometimes mean creating intimately?

Danticat: Of course it can. I think intimacy is crucial to any kind of creation. I spend so much time with my characters that I ultimately grow to love all of them, even the despicable ones. You have to become intimate with your characters in order to get them.

I also think of writing as an intimate conversation between two people, one writer and one reader. That’s how it works: one person at a time holding one book, so the whole process is full of intimacy, someone opening up his or her heart to another person through some words that as you read them—in the best of all possible worlds—feel as though they were written just for you.

“Writing, knowing in part that no matter how trivial your words may seem, someday, somewhere, someone may risk his or her life to read them…somewhere, if not now, then maybe years in the future, we may also save someone’s life, because they have given us a passport, making us honorary citizens of their culture.” Edwidge Danticat, Create Dangerously

WRR: In your chapter “Daughters of Memory,” you point to Haitian novelist Marie Vieux-Chauvet, born in 1916 during the first year of the U.S. occupation. She has one of her characters write in her journal, “There is hunger of the body and that of the soul. And the hunger of the mind and the hunger of the senses. All sufferings are equal.”

What hunger moves you most in your writing?

Danticat: The hunger for nuance, to understand things a lot better. Writing is a constant journey towards exploration for me. I learn the most about the world, about myself, about others when I’m writing, in whatever genre, whether fiction or nonfiction.

“[Thank] you for the journey of healing—from here and back—that you and I have been through together, with every step wishing that both our living and our dead will rest in peace.” Edwidge Danticat, in her letter to Sophie, from Breath, Eyes, Memory

WRR: Can you elaborate on your answer? In our view, the concept of nuance, and where it can lead us, is hugely important to writers and readers all over the world.  

Danticat: We live in a world where things can seem so black and white. Now or later. Good and evil. You’re perfect or you suck. What art, good writing, music and other forms of art offer I think is nuance. Good writing digs deeper and looks for those gray areas. That’s what interests me most in what I read. I want a writer to make me see something I have never seen before, even in a situation I think I know well. I want to see that onion peeled to its core. I want deeper. That’s what I am aiming for myself and when I read it I know it, and though I don’t always reach it, I am always aiming for it.

WRR: And as Vieux-Chauvet asks, are all sufferings equal?

Danticat: The wonderful Elie Wiesel says that we should never compare tragedies. All suffering, to the sufferer especially, is individual and unique.

“But is all suffering equal, Marie Vieux-Chauvet wonders, when the people who suffer are not considered equal? How do those who stuff hot potatoes into their child servants’ mouths fare against those who murder a journalist or rape a neighbor? How can those who have been brutally enslaved turn around and enslave others? Is suffering truly equal when we live in a society that would never allow the people who are suffering to be considered equal?” Edwidge Danticat, Create Dangerously

WRR: In Create Dangerously, you devote a chapter to Alèrte Bélance, a casualty of the 1991 military coup d’état, who went on to become a very vocal “face of the junta’s atrocities in Haiti.” A supporter of Aristide, she was macheted and left for dead and has an amazing survival story. As you were working on the documentary featuring her, Courage and Pain, there is a scene where her son asks to speak about his experience…and as he talks and weeps you say it is as though a knot is loosening inside of him.

After such atrocity and violence, how can telling stories not only serve as an agent for change and greater social awareness but help us move through terrible grief and reinforce our notion of human dignity?

Danticat: Alèrte Bélance is proof that when we speak out, it makes a difference. She could have kept her suffering to herself, but she used it as a way to galvanize and inspire others, to speak for their pain. She is so incredibly brave, an amazing woman, who in her own view, survived to testify.

“Alèrte Bélance: I only have a stub where my arm used to be, and the fingers of my left hand have been severed; I can’t close it. That hand can’t do anything for me. That’s why I say to you: consider that I always lift my face up, I speak out…Look at my martyrdom from when the wicked ones kidnapped me and took me to the killing fields…Hear my story, what I have experienced.”  Edwidge Danticat, Create Dangerously

WRR: In the first chapter of Create Dangerously, you write: “My stories do not hold a candle to having lived under a dictatorship for most of your life, to having your neighbors disappear and not being able even to acknowledge it, to being forced to act as though these neighbors had never existed at all.” In your view, what difference can writers truly make in the face of pervasive violence?

Danticat: The only thing writers can do in those types of situations is, if they choose, to add their voices to those of others who bear witness to that type of violence, those types of crimes, that kind of injustice.

“I am even more certain that to create dangerously is also to create fearlessly, boldly embracing the public and private terrors that would silence us, then bravely moving forward even when it feels as though we are chasing or being chased by ghosts…[For instance,] Dany Laferrière was an additional survivor of the earthquake. A few days later, he returned to Canada, where he lives, to tell of what he had seen: of the bravery and dignity of Haitians who initially received no outside help and dug their friends and families out of the rubble with their bare hands while sharing what little food and water they had.” Edwidge Danticat, Create Dangerously

WRR: What project are you working on right now?

Danticat: I am  working on the final chapters of of my new book, Claire of the Sea Light. It’s fiction. I just finished a picture book with Leslie Staub, the illustrator. It’s called Bedtime for Sara. I am also writing a short script for a film which will be produced by Martha Adams and directed by Richard Robbins, who made the award-winning documentary Operation Homecoming. The film will be written by ten women writers from ten different countries, including Haiti, and will be based on the work of a great organization called 10×10, which works on girls’ education worldwide. I also just wrapped up a film called Stones in the Sun, which was partly shot in Haiti and written and directed by my friend Patricia Benoit. I have a small part in that film. I wrote a song with a wonderful Haitian-American Jazz musician named Pauline Jean.

This is all part of expanding my horizons in my forties. A positive midlife crisis. I would love, and I mean LOVE, to do a graphic novel à la Marjane Satrapi, whose work I absolutely adore.  I have a graphic novel script, but if anyone is interested in collaborating, please call.

Once I’m down with Claire of the Sea Light, I’ll take a deep breath then plunge into a young adult novel I have under contract for Scholastic. I’m not saying all this to brag. You caught me at a good time at the beginning of the year, where I am taking stock.  I’m just reminding myself how much work I need to do.

WRR: In the chapter you write about the 2010 Haitian earthquake, you say that words often failed you when you were asked to write about the event. And so you did what you always did when you felt unable to write: you read as much as possible.

What would you recommend as a must-read for Wild River readers about the 2010 earthquake?

Danticat: I would recommend Tectonic Shifts: Haiti Since the Earthquake, which was edited by Mark Schuller and Pablo Morales, Haiti: The Aftershocks of History by Laurent Dubois, Haiti Rising: Haitian History, Culture and the Earthquake by Martin Munro, Paul Farmer’s Haiti After the Earthquake, to which I contributed a chapter. I would also recommend that people read these other pre-earthquake books, written by Haitian writers or Haitian writers in the Dyaspora. Some of them are translations and translations always need our support.

1. Jacques Stephen Alexis, In the Flicker of an Eyelid and General Sun, My Brother

2. René Depestre, Festival of the Greasy Pole

3. Jan J. Dominique, Memoir of an Amnesiac

4. Dany Laferriere, Heading South, Dining with the Dictator, The Aroma of Coffee, How to Make Love to a Negro and Why Must a Black Writer Write about Sex

5. René Philoctete, Massacre River

6. Jacques Roumain, Masters of the Dew

7. Lyonel Trouillot, Street of Lost Footsteps

8. Myriam Chancy, The Serpent’s Claw and The Loneliness of Angels

9. Yanick Lahens, Aunt Rezia and Other Stories

10. Marie Vieux Chauvet, Love, Anger, Madness

11. Paulette Poujol Oriol, Vale of Tears

12. Philipe Thoby Marcelin, The Beast of the Haitian Hills

13. Jaira Placide, Fresh Girl

14. Joanne Hyppolyte, Seth and Samona and Ola Shakes It Up

15. M. Sindy Felin, Touching Snow

16. Marilene Ketterel-Phipps, In the Company of Heaven and Crossroads and Unholy Water

17. Jean Robert Cadet, Restavèk

18. Félix Morisseau-Leroy, Haitiad and Oddities

19. Danielle Georges, Maroon

20.  Patrick Sylvain, Love, Lust and Loss