Edwidge Danticat was born in Haiti and graduated from Barnard in 1990. The success of her early semi-autobiographical novels and short stories has made her one of the most prominent writers to come out of Morningside Heights and an important figure in the Caribbean Diaspora. Although Danticat has been busy on tour for her new collection of essays, Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work, she found a moment to speak with the Blue & White‘s Managing Editor Emerita Mariela Quintana about her work, her community, and her home.
FYI: Danticat will be speaking at the Brooklyn Public Library this Thursday night at 7pm! It’s free!
Blue & White: What is the art scene like in Haiti now? How has it changed since the January Earthquake?
Edwidge Danticat: After the earthquake there was a momentary pause because a lot people lost their family members and they had to worry about the business of survival. But soon some of the writers were blogging about the earthquake and about what happened to them. And immediately artists were writing and painting.
The week of the earthquake itself, on the cover of The New Yorker was a painting by Frantz Zephirin, a painter from Haiti. What he shared with other artists is that they all immediately started to use what they [could] to get out a broader sense of the catastrophe. For the writers, it was words. One of the things that was a lot more visible this time around was that the people who lived in Haiti were able to tell their stories to the rest of the world with the new social media, including the artists.
The people who have always written have continued writing, but many people who have never written before have started writing some for personal relief; some for their children, you know, as a response therapy. So, yes, art is alive and well in Haiti.
B&W: As a Haitian-American writer how do you view yourself in relation to Haiti? In the USA, you are certainly one of the more prominently known artists coming from and writing about Haiti – do you identify yourself as the artistic voice of Haiti or is this a label you recoil from?
ED: My feeling is that I am one of the many voices from Haiti. I know the community and I am part of the community. I see myself as one of many others. I don’t see myself as the artistic voice. I try to when I can, as best as I can, bring attention to other voices.
B&W: When writing about the earthquake, who is your intended audience? Are you writing for the people of Haiti, for the people here in the USA, for yourself?
ED: All writers write for themselves, or at least everyone says it and it’s probably true. So when I write, my primary audience is myself. I write because I’m interested in myself. And I write to explain certain things to myself, really. That’s who I see as my audience. And then for everyone else who wants to be there and part of my life and a part of this process too. But I ultimately write as a way of understanding things better.
B&W: So was writing about the earthquake a means of recovery or mourning for you?
ED: Oh yes, it was a way of participating in the larger mourning. I lost family members in the earthquake, so it was a means of dealing with the need to mourn for them. That’s the only way I had. When I lost my father and I lost my uncle, I found that that was one way of healing. So when you’re part of a larger healing process with dozens or hundreds of people, you go back to your roots and begin to collectively tell a story.
B&W: One theme you touch on in Create Dangerously is the inability to actually leave Haiti or home though you have actually physically left. What accounts for this dislocation? Where do you consider home?
ED: Home is sort of wherever I am at this point. (laughs) I consider Haiti my home island. I have a lot of family there. I feel very connected to it. I’ve lived in the north where I also have family. So that’s some sort of home too. I think one thing is that when you’re young and you leave the place where you were born, it becomes clear in your mind that home is wherever you end up. It’s not that I’m extremely passive about home, but at this point I do feel like I could make my home anywhere. I take it with me. What makes home are these attachments, these familial attachments, friendships and memories. If you have that, wherever you are you can make it home.
B&W: Is this something that you find unique to your own personal experience? Or something that is shared with other people or artists in transition?
ED: No, it’s not unique at all. Especially these days, where migration is such a part of people’s lives. And even people who never leave the country they are from, who don’t cross national borders, who just move from rural to urban or urban to rural. I think everyone has that feeling. But I’m not in anguish, I’m not agonizing over it because I have my work. Making my work is home and I create home in my work. I take whatever that is with me. Is it a particular piece of ground or a particular state of mind? I don’t think so because I’m not attached to anything in that way.
B&W: This notion of the diaspora gets thrown around a lot in academia how does it translate to real life? How does it translate to art? Is it something you’re conscious of or try to avoid?
ED: The notion of the diaspora is real in the sense that when you’re physically away from the place you were born, then you immediately become part of a larger community of people outside the country you were born. Haiti is interesting because it’s a mixed bag. Everyone who lives in Haiti has a family member who lives in the diaspora. Whether they’re in Miami, Brooklyn, the Dominican Republic. Unfortunately, there becomes a homeland-diaspora friction, which in the end is a family affair. There are lots of people who leave Haiti to support their family financially, so that becomes a push and pull.
And in the midst of all these social and academic notions of diaspora, there’s also transnationalism and the fact that you can create your own identity once you leave. And that you can get to New York and get past the diaspora. But even then, you can still be a part of it. Even if you feel like the diaspora is far away and that you’ve gotten past it. In that sense, there is sort of a transnational diaspora.
B&W: Your name often is associated with other literary celebrities of the Caribbean Diaspora Junot Diaz, V.S. Naipaul to name a few—does being a part of this group motivate you to speak for people of the Caribbean or the people of Haiti?
ED: There’s nothing telling me I need to speak for the people of Haiti. They can speak for themselves directly. I think it’s very dangerous to say or to feel you’re speaking for anyone. I’m not speaking for anyone, I’m expressing my own individual view of the world, of my world, of Haiti, of my situations and it happens in some cases that you record the experiences of others.
I think that’s certainly what Naipaul is trying to do and Diaz too. It’s what everyone is trying to do. No one is trying to form people. No one can. We tell our individual stories in the hopes that we can tell part of a larger story.
A lot of people may tell different pieces of it, I know Junot and I know for a fact that he’s not trying to tell the story of another and Naipaul in his writing is certainly clear about that. We each have very individual experiences that converge. Each of us is trying to create work that somehow emerges out of both our individual experiences and our communal experiences in hopes that it in some way tells a larger story. But we’re not trying to speak for an group.
B&W: One theme that comes up in both Breath, Eyes, Memory and more recent works is silence and the need to break silence. This manifests itself both in specific character traits and on a broader national and political level what compels you to write about, or against, silence?
ED: I spent the first twelve years of my life under a dictatorship, my parents had as well, and spent much of their adult life under a dictatorship. Silence was a big part of that. There was so much you couldn’t say. Then I had the personal experience with my uncle who was a minister who fled Haiti after Aristide’s departure. For him, that was ultimately born of the possibility or the hope of working against silence.
So all of those experiences, both personal and political if you will, the experiences of the larger community, the managing of silence, you know, what do you say in the face of a dictatorship, how do you say it, all of that was something I wanted to explore in my work. How does the artist get around that silence?
B&W: How do you feel about recovery? Where should we look for hope? In continuing aid, support from abroad, the involvement of celebrities like Wyclef Jean and Angelina Jolie?
ED: We should put our hope in the Haitian people. I was telling people if we want to support Haiti, then we invest in initiatives that empower Haitians. There’s no one in Haiti who thinks there’s a magical solution. But there is so much ingenuity and so much will and motivation. They work wonders with very little. So when we work with organizations that empower Haitians to help themselves, that’s when we have the most hope. That’s pretty much how the country’s been maintaining itself for the past two hundred plus years, simply by Haitian people supporting other Haitian people.
B&W: Do you see the trauma the earthquake caused as draining energy away from these empowerment efforts or reinvigorating them?
ED: In some quarters, it’s a motivating factor and motivating greater effort and awareness. In the diaspora, for example, outside of Haiti, you have more people wanting to get involved. More people are looking for ways they can contribute to the country which is great. Unfortunately, it also opens up new avenues of exploitation…There are certainly plenty of people who see this as an opportunity to make money in Haiti. They see the potential of billions of dollars coming in without thinking about the welfare of the people.
B&W: Is this non-profit organizations or specific individuals or political figures?
ED: In a lot of cases it’s aid groups, in other cases it’s government. Haiti is primarily supported by NGOs. That’s something that’s been okay and we do have some invaluable NGOs. But if we had a more positive relationships between NGOs and progress, in the local sense, then we would have a different country.
B&W: In the context of development, how feasible is sustainability for Haiti?
ED: In the past, whenever the Haitians have tried to develop on their own, they get their legs cut out from under them. Years ago, during President Clinton’s presidency, he encouraged Haiti to cut tariffs and import rice from the American South. It may have helped farmers there and provided Haiti with cheap rice, but it destroyed farmers here. Now we have no means for agriculture and agricultural development. It’s like every time we try we’re undermined.
B&W: Are topics of sustainability, progress, and politics on people’s minds and in their conversations and something that works its way into your writing? Or is it reserved for political discourse among legislators and policy makers?
ED: It’s all connected. Much like it is here, politics, the everyday and writing, for me, is connected. You can write a novel about anything, no matter how political or technical, that affects a person’s life on daily basis. In Haiti, this is even more so simply because it’s a smaller country. And so political issues have a local resonance in everyday life.
B&W: When you sit down to write, where do you find inspiration? Current events? Your family life? Moments of introspection? Or does it change on a day to day basis?
ED: I definitely have an idea way before I sit down to write. Even though the sorts of things I write about deal with people and what they’re thinking about and how they relate to their environment, they can go beyond me and beyond my head. It can start from a moment of dialogue. Or it can start from something that occurred from something I’ve seen or something I’ve read. Writers are like sponges. Something you read about now can be something you end up writing about five months, ten months, ten years down the road.
B&W: Do you have ideas for a next project or are you taking a moment to let your mind settle?
ED: I never let my mind settle because I think, and fear, it’s settling all the time. I’ve been working on a book of fiction for about five years, so on January 1, on 1/1/11, I’ve told myself I’m going back to it.