Edwidge Danticat by Garnette Cadogan

BOMB 126 Winter 2014
Bomb 126 Nobarcode
Danticat 2001 1000

Photo by Jonathan Demme.

Lyrical. Poetic. Poignant. You know that stockpile of overused superlatives that critics draw on when they come up against powerful, resonant work. Yet it is often the case that when used to describe Edwidge Danticat’s prose, one is ready to give a free pass to these descriptors. With her new novel, Claire of the Sea Light , a haunting tale written with her quintessential precision and lyricism, she reminds us of why the praise rings true.

In book after book—a sample: the short story collection Krik? Krak! (1996); the novels Breath, Eyes, Memory (1994), The Farming of Bones (1998), and The Dew Breaker (2005); the travelogue After the Dance: A Walk Through Carnival in Jacmel, Haiti (2010); the memoirBrother, I’m Dying (2007); the essay collection Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work (2011); and the young adult novel Anacaona: Golden Flower, Haiti, 1490 (2005)—she writes with great span and a tight grip. The grand sweep of history intersects with the nitty-gritty details of everyday life in emotionally rich stories. With each new book, as she hauls prizes and acclaim on the way, Danticat continues to carve out stories that are full of warmth, wit, and curiosity about the human condition.

Despite her accomplishments, it is clear from talking to her and reading her books that her ambition is to be nothing less than an attentive observer—her works display exemplary watchfulness and empathy. Over the course of a weeks-long correspondence about her writing, she kept gently nudging me to listen more closely, to be the kind of reader on whom nothing is lost, a reader who recognizes people as irreducibly various and complex. And she made it seem so simple. Except it’s not. (Relatedly, her prose’s deceptive simplicity is part of its appeal.) She has been described as “the bard of the Haitian diaspora,” but, really, her terrain is whatever world her fertile imagination takes her to. Her latest stop is the fictional town of Ville Rose, in which Claire of the Sea Light is set—a heartbreaking-yet-wondrous world.

—Garnette Cadogan

Garnette Cadogan In a previous interview with Junot Díaz for BOMB you said, “I am obsessed with the notion of namelessness and the idea of brief lives and how individuals and nations disrupt and end lives.” Is Claire of the Sea Light working out of that notion?

Edwidge Danticat None of my books of fiction are working out notions, really. My goal is always, especially with fiction, to grab the reader’s attention and hold it until the end of the book, either with a story or with language. I never start out trying to prove a point or illustrate some type of idea. If that happens, then it is great. But if I gave myself that goal, my work might fail miserably as fiction. The point of writing fiction for me is first to tell what I hope is an engaging story. The theoretical is easier to identify in other people’s work, which is why I was able to find it in Junot’s work. 

GC You use Claire Limyè Lanmè, whose birthday is a “day of death,” and her father and the seaside town of Ville Rose in Haiti to talk about loss, death, and exile. This is something you’ve previously explored—poignantly in Brother, I’m Dying, for instance. How much do anxieties about exile and death (the ultimate exile) shape your work?

ED The anxiety in Claire is not at all about exile. Folks make these assumptions because they tend to read my work this way. The basic anxiety in the story is about a parent not being able to care for his child. That’s at the core of it. Claire’s father is trying to decide whether he can feed her and clothe her or whether he should give her to someone with more money to raise her. He has no anxiety at all about exile. He is thinking of going away only because it is impossible for him to make a living where he is. Claire’s birthday is a day of death because her mother died while giving birth to her. If Claire’s mother hadn’t died, it is possible that her father would have never thought of giving her away, or of even going away. 

Brother, I’m Dying was a very different book than this. First of all, it was nonfiction. In part, it’s about my uncle’s death. My uncle was leaving Haiti at a very turbulent time. His church had been ransacked and his life was threatened after United Nations soldiers shot at his neighbors from the roof of his house in 2004. His neighbors turned on him and he fled to Miami and requested asylum. He was refused it by Homeland Security and had his medications taken away by them. He died in immigration custody at 81 years old. Here was the man who raised me when my parents moved to the United States. Here was someone who never thought he would find himself in a situation where he was suddenly an exile. Here too I was simply trying to tell a story that my family had endured, a story that began with the possibility of exile and ended in death. This is certainly a personal preoccupation of mine, something that has touched my family in many ways, so it has found itself in my work. More in Brother, I’m Dyingthan anywhere else. 

GC Speaking of family, Claire of the Sea Light also seems to be driven by anxieties about motherhood. You explored motherhood in Brother, I’m Dying and in Breath, Eyes, Memory. Does motherhood animate your work?

ED Exile and motherhood are two of the many crucial things that I am concerned with—and everything one is concerned with might eventually find its way into the work. I wouldn’t call them anxieties, though. These things fascinate me, or perhaps haunt me. Claire of the Sea Light is my first work of fiction since becoming a mother. I was writing about a little girl who is the same age as my oldest daughter, so it’s natural that the things about being a mother that bring me great joy and those that scare me a little bit would find their way into the story.

GC Claire, this “luminous child,” comes to us in a fable-like series of interrelated stories. Why that structure? Was there something about the themes you wanted to tackle, or about the way you wanted to delineate linked lives in Haiti, that made you choose this form?

ED Initially I wanted to write a book that was like a transcript of a popular radio show in Haiti, featuring news, gossip, interviews, and testimonials. I was not going to use the transcript format, but each chapter was going to be a story that was an episode of the show. The book is as much about Claire and her father as it is about the other residents of Ville Rose. We meet many different characters and get into each of their houses and heads. There is a schoolmaster and his wayward son. There is an undertaker, as well as Louise George, the radio hostess, and others. I imagine the reader as a visitor to Ville Rose on the one night that the book takes place. You arrive on the beach and you start meeting people and you try to piece all the pieces together. I like books, like mysteries, that leave something for the reader to do, a puzzle to solve. I hope this book does that.

GC Were you worried that the fantastical elements of your story might be taken as allegorical and therefore lessen the blow of the horrors you describe?

ED There are not that many fantastical elements in this book. Everything that is mentioned can and actually has happened in different parts of the world. Rogue waves happen. Supernovas happen. Frogs die en masse in many places. Also, even when fantastical elements appear in stories, in my experience, they often highlight rather than reduce horrors.

GC The tiny seaside town of Ville Rose is painted with magical strokes that point to a life beyond the one we can see. They reveal the townspeople’s connection with each other and also their connection to the world beyond. How do you perceive the world that we can’t see shaping the one we do see?

ED I am certainly of the belief that there is more to us than what we see. This is why I would resist the notion of death as ultimate exile. I believe that we remain connected to our ancestors long after they’re gone. It is a deep spiritual connection that is hard to explain. I sometimes think, for example, that I see traces of my grandmother in my daughter’s expressions. This is both genetic and magical at the same time. We are all part of a cycle of life, shaped by all that has come before. Some call it evolution. Some call it God, by whatever name they call God. In Haiti you might say Gran Mèt la, the Grand Master or Creator, which would be part of most religions, even ones where people have trouble agreeing what God should be or look or sound like.

GC In an essay published on the year since the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, you quoted a saying of your grandmother’s: “In Haiti, people never really die.” The dead are still among us, you pointed out. How does your awareness of your ancestors and your intimate connection to the dead influence your writing?  

ED Again, not to sound too mysterious, but there is so much happening when I am writing that I don’t quite understand. In many ways this is linked to the fact that your subconscious is doing most of the work when you’re in the middle of any creative act. Yet sometimes, on good days when the writing is going well, you feel like there is someone on your shoulder whispering things in your ear that you are just transcribing. You’re a vessel. You don’t even notice time going by. The words just flow. On those days, some people say that the muse has been by. I like to say that my ancestors have been by, sharing with me some of what they have learned over several lifetimes, because there is no way I can individually know what everyone in my bloodline has known together, collectively.

GC As to bloodlines, Claire felt like a sibling of The Dew Breaker. The themes—loss, death, violence, justice, the irrepressible weight of history—and the structure—a novel told in related, overlapping stories—are similar enough that both novels could be thought of as companions. Do you see the novels as related or even consider Claire a sequel of sorts?

ED You’re not the first person to say that. In my view, aside from their similar structure and the fact that they were written by the same person, these two books don’t have much else in common. Too often my work is read thematically. On a story level, The Dew Breaker is about a man who killed and tortured hundreds of people in Haiti and who later tries to remake his life in New York City. In Claire, a poor fisherman is trying to give his daughter to a rich woman to raise in Haiti, among other tales. These are very different set-ups and sets of stories. Often writers like myself are read only on these thematic levels. To those who misread us it seems like we keep telling the same stories over and over again. It is hard enough to escape that accusation, which seems to be okay for some writers. If you are a writer of color or an immigrant, it is hurled at you like an insult. I try very hard not to repeat myself. This is why I write in different genres.

GC What other criticisms or misreadings of your work do you dislike, especially back-handed praise that inadvertently reduces or limits you?

ED I wouldn’t say anything limits me. The way I see it, I can only limit myself in terms of my creativity. The imagination is where we are most rebellious, and also where we are most free. Perhaps it is where we are most ourselves. I don’t dislike or feel limited by curiosity or even back-handed praise or front-handed criticism. It’s all part of an ongoing conversation. A few examples of things I’ve been told that get under my skin: Folks: “Would you have anything to write about if you didn’t have this terrible history?” Me: “You mean this terrible and glorious history? And doesn’t every country have one?” Folks: “You got published because you are black, a minority, an immigrant. Publishing has pandered to you.”

It’s the reverse racism argument. I get that from angry people who feel that someone of color has unfairly gotten a book deal via affirmative action. Me: “Ma’am, Sir, if that were true, there would be more of us minorities and exotics and immigrants being published.” It goes on. Writers of color and immigrants—we have to justify so much of our existence before we even get to the stage where we can talk about the work itself. It comes with the territory, I guess. The key is to stop and ponder this only for a minute and then get back to work.

GC With Claire you returned to writing adult fiction after almost a decade of exercising your chops elsewhere. Did anything apart from the compulsion to write in a form that you love bring you back?

ED I never really left the form. I try to let inspiration guide me. I didn’t intend to write a memoir. When my uncle died and my father died and my daughter was born all within one year, between 2004 and 2005, my memoir Brother, I’m Dying presented itself and demanded to be written. Then I did a book of essays, Create Dangerously, based on the Toni Morrison lecture I gave in 2007. Those books were not planned. I started Claire in 2005 and kept putting it aside to write these other books. I never completely stopped writing fiction.

GC How did working on nonfiction alter your approach to fiction or shape your style? 

ED Fiction has helped with my nonfiction and vice versa. Having written fiction, when you are writing nonfiction you still want to have fiction’s pace. You want those pages to turn. The story already exists, but you still have to work a lot at how you tell it. Writing fiction after nonfiction made me want to work harder at making fiction feel real, totally believable, almost like nonfiction.

GC Did Claire begin as a novel, or as a story that suggested another story that suggested another story that eventually, in composite, suggested a novel?

ED It began as a short story initially published in an anthology I edited in 2010 called Haiti Noir. The story was read at Symphony Space by the actress Anika Noni Rose. This was the greatest gift to me because I usually read my stories out loud and record them and listen to them again to see if they flow or make sense. Sitting in the audience and listening to that story along with hundreds of other people, I got to hear the audience laugh where I thought they might and gasp in places I hadn’t expected. After that, I wanted to expand it. That’s how it developed even further than I originally imagined.

GC In addition to reading aloud, what techniques do you employ to shape and smooth out your stories?

ED I do a lot of revision. I mean, a lot. I write a really fast first draft, what Anne Lamont in her brilliant book Bird by Bird calls a “shitty first draft.” Once I get the frame and skeleton of the story down, then I revise and revise to add more layers and meat to the frame. I often write more than ends up in the final pages because I like to cut. Nothing gives me more pleasure than fattening up a story and then cutting it back down to its essential moments, after I’ve gotten to know the characters a lot better in the longer version. When I’m cutting back, I feel like a sculptor chipping away at a piece of stone, trying to see the details in the new shape a lot more clearly. 

GC Sculptor that you sometimes are, do you ever look to other art forms—music, say, which flows through your work explicitly and implicitly—to inform the way you write? 

ED I used to work in film. I have worked on documentaries, both as an associate producer and as a narrator. My secret wish has always been to write music. I recently got to write a song with Emeline Michel, who is often called “the queen of contemporary Haitian music.” Though I don’t sing or play any instruments, I have always been intrigued by the creation of music. I have many musician friends, like Emeline, with whom I often discuss process. Many of them will mention how sometimes a song just comes to them, while other times they have to chase the music, both the words and the melody. I wrote Create Dangerously in part to find out how different people came to their art, not just writers and visual artists and musicians, but also photographers. I wrote about a sculptor whose name was Michael Richards. He was of Jamaican descent and used to cast his body in bronze with airplanes piercing it—an image reminiscent of the Tuskegee Airmen, the African-American pilots from World War II. The majority of his sculptures were related to flight and people falling out of the sky. How should he die, but at the top of one of the World Trade towers on September 11, 2001? I am also intrigued by how people continue to practice their art, sometimes under very difficult circumstances. 

GC You seem to carry the burden—and liberation—of being from multiple worlds, Haiti and the United States, and speaking to and on behalf of both. Do you see yourself speaking from one world to another, or speaking to both worlds simultaneously? Or speaking to both worlds and the diaspora, that homeland caught between the two?

ED I carry no such burden, frankly. If you give yourself that burden, that is your burden. If I thought of myself as this person “being from multiple worlds,” then I would probably just shut down and do something else with my life. No one elected me to speak on their behalf either in Haiti or the United States. I’m certainly not going to assign myself that role because it would be presumptuous and arrogant and just plain too much. To express an opinion, I would have to take a survey first. I can add my voice to someone else’s. I can help raise other voices. But I can’t take on this massive undertaking that you’re suggesting. I would fail miserably. I don’t have the personality for it or the stamina. Also, the idea of this great anguish of living between two worlds has diminished somewhat for many immigrant people, artists and non-artists alike. Not that there is not some uneasiness, but it is no longer the single most urgent anxiety of every immigrant’s life. And honestly, maybe it never was—except, perhaps, in literature.

Recently I read Patricia Engel’s It’s Not Love, It’s Just Paris, in which a father wants to convince his daughter to join the family business, but she wants to be an artist. He says to her that all immigrants are artists, that the overall action of recreating your life in another country is a work of art. That was a wonderful intergenerational moment about the pressures of immigration—something I personally needed to hear, something that moves the conversation beyond culture clash and “I am neither here nor there,” to a more nuanced situation where people are talking intimately about immigration and not screaming, “I don’t know where I belong!” I would like us to move beyond these tropes of speaking to or for, and of being only between two worlds. We are at the same time speaking to no one and everyone.

GC Yet in Claire and your previous writing, you explore how our sense of belonging is bound to our communities. You return to the communities of Haiti through your work time and again. How much is writing a return to your homeland for you?

ED Writing is a way to return to Haiti, but obviously I am returning to a place that, as soon as I try to confine to paper, is not at all like the real place. The Haiti of my fiction is full of fictional people. I am returning to a version of the place that exists only in my imagination, even if I have just left there and am writing a story about what I have just seen. All writers must reshape places in their own image in order to write about them. There’s no other choice but to bend the real place to your will, betraying it. So, for example, though Ville Rose is based on the real town where my mother grew up, I needed to fictionalize it so that I wouldn’t be bound to the limitations of a real town. So when you ask if it is a way of returning home, I suppose it is not returning in any real sense at all, because the version I am writing about is always with me wherever I am. I take it with me wherever I go.

GC I love how you capture the joys of childhood and am moved by your portraits of tragic adult lives in Claire. Which bears down more heavily on you as you write, the Haiti of your childhood or the Haiti you encounter as an adult? 

ED The Haiti of my childhood was the Haiti of 30 years ago. I wrote about that Haiti 20 years ago and ever since then I have been trying to write closer to the present. But I have written about a whole range of Haitian history: The Farming of Bones is a historical novel that deals with the massacre of Haitian cane workers in 1937, and Anacaona: Golden Flower is a young-adult book that takes place before 1492. More interesting than my childhood is the childhood of my characters across all those time periods. In Anacaona, Golden Flower, for example, I write about the Taino queen, Anacaona, who is waiting to inherit her role as ruler of her part of Haiti. In Claire, the character is a child in 2009, the year before the earthquake on January 12, 2010. And in Eight Days, I write about a boy who survived that earthquake. More important than understanding my own childhood is to imagine what it would have been like to be a child during all those periods.

GC These lines of Czeslaw Milosz came to mind when I read Claire: “You who wronged a simple man / Bursting into laughter at the crime, / And kept a pack of fools around you / To mix good and evil, to blur the line, [ … ] Do not feel safe. The poet remembers.” They also came to mind before, when I read your nonfiction, most notably Brother, I’m Dying and Create Dangerously. They hover too over The Dew Breaker. Do you see your writing as bearing witness or calling the unjust to account?

ED In Claire of the Sea Light, Louise George, the radio hostess of a show called Di Mwen gives herself exactly that goal. She wants to bear witness both through her show and in the novel that she is writing, which she calls a “collage à clef.” She wants desperately to right wrongs, and call the unjust to account. I suppose she is my inner angel, what in Haitian Vodou is called the ti-bon-anj, my good spirit, my alternate self. She is perhaps who I would like to be, without her physical ailments. Although I see my nonfiction as the place where I attempt most to bear witness, with some of my fiction I try to find untold stories to tell, stories that I am curious about. It would be great if, in addition, they could bear witness. However, my greatest hope is that after reading something of my stories, the reader will go out and seek other witnesses, other voices that bear witness in their own ways, and also call the unjust to account. 

GC Who do you sneak away to read between the time of your children’s shut-eye and yours?

ED Oh, so much. I have just finished editing Haiti Noir 2: The Classics, which is filled with previously published Haitian stories and stories about Haiti from the 1930s to the present. I like to reread Haiti’s seminal writers, who wrote so bravely under sometimes impossible circumstances, as well as many wonderful contemporary writers featured in the first and second volumes of the anthology. A few of the writers I have been relishing lately are Jacques Roumain, Ida Faubert, Jacques Stephen Alexis, Jan J. Dominique, Paulette Poujol Oriol, Lyonel Trouillot, Emmelie Prophète, Dany Laferrière, Ezili Dantò, Marie-Hélène Laforest, Nick Stone, Marilène Phipps-Kettlewell, Myriam J.A. Chancy, Roxane Gay, and the late Georges Anglade, who died in 2010 and was a phenomenal storyteller both in person and on the page.

GC As a reader, what most delights you about the act of storytelling? And, as a writer, what most pleases you and most frustrates you about storytelling?

ED I am madly in love with the mastery of great storytelling. I love reading something and feeling like I have never read it before. I am in the middle of Nikki Giovanni’s new book, Chasing Utopia: A Hybrid. You open the book thinking she’s going to talk about this existential search, which the book is about, in part. But guess what? Utopia is a brand of beer. So you get the beer and the existential search and the poetry and the humor—as well as overall extraordinary, unexpected storytelling.

As a writer, in whatever genre you’re working, it is of course frustrating trying to keep all the balls in the air, trying to tell a good story in a bold and liberated and engaging way, and still hoping that people will get what you’re trying to do. This is why it’s such a marvel to observe a master at it.  In Chasing Utopia there is a poem called “Werewolf Avoidance”: “Poetry is employed / by truth I think / our job is to tell / the truth as we see it don’t you / just hate a namby-pamby poem that goes / all over the place saying nothing.” What is most delightful for me as a reader is the instant recognition of that kind of truth. And what is most challenging—rather than frustrating, because that challenge can also be delightful—is trying to get at that kind of truth myself while avoiding the werewolves, wherever they may be.

GC One truth that stands high in your work is that love is a potent combatant to loss. Elaborate on the hopefulness that runs through your recent novel and your work in general.

ED I don’t know how to do this without singing a corny love song, but if you have ever suffered a loss, or have been deprived of a love, or have watched someone’s life slip away—of course all positive emotions can offer some kind of comfort. Love is certainly one of the best for that. When things are difficult, the love a parent has for a child, romantic love, or the love a neighbor has for a stranger or a friend, can sustain a person in ways that even the person being sustained might not fully understand at the moment. The year my father and uncle both died, I can’t imagine how I would have survived if not for the love of my friends and family who got me through a pregnancy, a birth, and all the craziness—mostly with words. Words of comfort in cards, texts, and emails, when I could not even pick up the phone. Not to sound too corny, but sometimes love can also be the difference between life and death. Countless poems, novels, essays, and films vouch for this.

GC Did you discover anything about yourself as an artist in writing Claire that was new, that showed you coming into your own in new ways?

ED Writing is a process and it is a long one. With each book, I learn a lot more about being human. I am also learning that this is my life’s work, work that I hope to keep doing if I am lucky enough to live as long as my mother, who is 78. I need to pace myself. I am also learning, paradoxically, that there is more to life than writing. It is important to live one’s life fully, to look up and look your child in the eye if she walks in the room while you’re in the middle of a sentence, to kiss your loved one goodnight if you’re doing an all-nighter. Before, I never trusted that the words would still be there if I stopped even for a minute. Now I know they will be. And if they are not, so what? There will be others.

GC Kenbe la, Edwidge.

ED Will do.

Garnette Cadogan writes about the arts and culture for various publications. He is co-editor of the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of the Harlem Renaissance and is at work on a book on rock-reggae superstar Bob Marley.

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Originally published in

BOMB 126, Winter 2014

Featuring interviews with Leonardo Padura, Amie Siegel, Phyllida Barlow, Kai Althoff, Dodie Bellamy, Edwidge Danticat, Hans Witschi, and Mary Halvorson. 

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