Creating dangerously—that’s what Edwidge Danticat’s writing ancestors did. One of the most acclaimed writers of this century and last, and arguably the most prominent Haitian-American writer in the United States, you’d think that Edwidge Danticat would put her pen away, and rest on her laurels which include a National Book Award nomination, and a win, The National Book Critics Circle Award, the International Flaiano Prize, and the Langston Hughes Medal. and others, if were to list them all we’d risk getting typist cramp.
Non, non. The lady scribe hasn’t put away her blood for ink, nor her parchment paper. Instead, she chose to release her latest literary opus Creating Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work, to explore the creative journeys of immigrants. She opens her collection of introspective essays with a written remembrance of Louis Ardouin and Marcel Numa, two artist-students who in 1964 were mercilessly executed, as one of the 13 members of Jeune Haiti, a revolutionary group that attempted an invasion of the country during the presidency of François Duvalier. From there, she explores her journey and that of other artistic greats, who often had to create at the risk of their own lives, and that of their families. A decade and half after she made her literary debut with Breath, Eyes, Memory, Danticat tries approaches her craft with as much enthusiasm as when she was the young writer blushing over acclaim from critics. Get into the circle and listen to our conversation.
Will there ever be a sequel to Breath, Eyes, Memory?
It’s probably wise to never say never, but I don’t think there will be a sequel to Breath, Eyes, Memory anytime soon. I have a lot of other stories I want to write. I’m not sure I’m ready to revisit those characters again in the very near future, but I am always extremely moved by the way that this book has touched some people. I would have never imagined what it would mean to a lot of young women, for example, which is why I am hesitant to touch it. Breath, Eyes, Memory is like a first child. You try everything on your first child and make all your mistakes and hope and pray it still turns out okay. Maybe at some point I might revisit Sophie, the main character, as a grandmother–maybe when I am a grandmother myself– see how she has done in America late in life. Who knows? But I’m not thinking of writing a sequel right now.
You came to the United States as a little girl of twelve. Did you, in your wildest dreams, think that you would become the writer of world renown that you are now?
Well, you know how they say that God can dream a bigger dream for you than you can dream for yourself. This is certainly the case. I would not have been able to dream any of this and by “this” I mean, having the great blessing of doing something I absolutely love, as my work, every single day of my life. That to me is the definition of success, doing something you love and are passionate about and having good health and most days having relative peace of mind.
Out of all the books you’ve written, which one do you think would lend itself the most to a film adaptation?
I used to work in film and I still try to work as much as possible in documentary for example, because it is a medium I love, but I am probably the worst person to make that determination. I think they would all make good films in the right hands. I have to tell you that in the last couple of years, I have had many promising conversations with so many wonderful young Haitian and Haitian-American filmmakers, some in film school, some out on their own, that I am very optimistic about our having some wonderful films made within this community over all. I want to take the opportunity to incidentally plug Jacmel’s Cine Institute, Haiti’s only film school. They are doing great things in film. Also this short film was made by Rachel Benjamin from one of the stories in Krik? Krak! called “The Missing Peace”.
Which of your books has been the hardest to write?
Hands down, it has to be Brother, I’m Dying, my memoir about the death of my uncle and father. In one way writing it was a way of visiting with both my father and uncle after they died, but in another way, with each page and each day, they were slipping away from me. It was the fastest book I had ever written, but also the hardest, emotionally, to write.
Do you imagine ever sitting in front of your computer or with your notebook in hand, and not having one word come out?
No because on that day, I would write, “Why I am sitting in front of my computer with my notebook in hand and no word is coming out? OH GOD WHHHHHHY?” And that would be something, right? Seriously, it has happened sometimes, but when it does, I read or do something else or try to go about living my life and not pressure myself too much until the words come back.
Is a room with a view an absolute necessity for a writer?
I don’t think so. Sometimes a great view can be distracting and make you want to go outside and play. I write at night mostly, exactly for that reason, to have as few distractions as possible.
Your father and uncle are unarguably two of your life’s biggest heroes. What is the best advice they’ve given to you?
Both my father and uncle were not the type to give me direct advice really, beyond the strong “recommendations” and suggestions, which are not really suggestions, that we all get when we are young. But I learned a lot of things by example from them. My uncle was a minister so his sermons were filled with konsèy to his congregation. One I remember clearly is about humility. Sèl pa bezwen di l sale, he used to say. Salt doesn’t have to say it’s salty. Beginning with the time I was a teenager, on my birthday, my dad always bought me flowers and chocolates. The first time he did that he said, “I want to be the first man to give you these things so that you don’t lose your head the first time someone gives them to you, so that it feels normal to you, so that you know you deserve them.” After that he always sent me flowers and chocolates on my birthday every year until he died. Wherever I was I would always get flowers and chocolates from my dad on my birthday. And it was always a great reminder to me that I was loved unconditionally, which is something I miss so much from him, which is one of the reasons, I still miss my daddy very very much. That and the fact that my girls and my brothers’ children won’t know either of these men are still heartbreaking to me.
Of all the accolades that you’ve gotten which one means the most to you?
Every award is a gift, something encouraging you to continue and go on. That’s really how I see them as encouragement to try harder and do more and do better and hang in there. The MacArthur Fellowship was a most tremendous gift, of course. The Hurston/Wright nominations as well as the Langston Hughes medal which was very kindly given to me last November 18th meant a great deal to me , because I have always loved the work of Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes, especially the work on Haiti, so it meant a lot to me to have this full circle connection between them and me and Haiti.
Recently though, I participated in an event for the two year commemoration of the January 12th earthquake organized by Dickson Guillaume and the Haitian Mass Choir in Brooklyn and three young Haitian-American women from the organization Beltifi presented me with a painting painted by the founder’s mother and right before giving it to me the young women read a few words and one of the young women said something like, “Thank you because after reading you, we have no fear”, and I was at a total mess after she said that. I was at a total loss for words.
I kept seeing myself at fifteen and imagining also feeling momentarily fearless because of some book I had just read and I knew exactly what she meant and this was such a full circle moment for me and I was so moved and was so choked up that I was not even able to give the speech I came to give. I looked at those young women and I kept thinking of our journey as immigrants in this country and I kept looking back and looking forward at what words, our parents’ dreams and courage, their love, fears, pride, prayers, support and these types of things can do and what reading and art can do and what these things might mean one day to my daughters and other young girls and women like them and I got really, really choked up.
You have two daughters. How has motherhood been for you?
Motherhood has been greatly sweetened by the fact that I have a most wonderful husband. My girls have been blessed with a great father who enjoys their company and carries a lot of the load. I often tell people that motherhood is a family project, from my mother and my mother in law to the great friends who love my daughters and sometimes care for them like their own, this all makes motherhood easier and my ability to do other things possible, so it bears saying, because we don’t say it enough, that at its best motherhood is a communal project. It takes a village, sometimes several villages, indeed.
With do-it-yourself book technology, do you think that one day, there will be no need for publishers and books, especially printed books?
I am not sure where it’s all going. I think we’re all a bit nervous, truthfully about what all the technology will mean to writers, readers, publishers, booksellers and books. Which part of the chain will be wiped out first, we wonder? Bookstores? Publishers? Writers? Who knows? All I know is that people have been telling stories since the dawn of time and they will continue to find some way to tell them and even if there is some day enough technology to tattoo a book behind my eyelids, I think I will always want to hold something in my hand and turn a page anyway.
Photo: The MacArthur Foundation