One year after the earthquake that devastated her native Haiti, the novelist on rebuilding the island, art in a time of trouble, and inhabiting bodies.
“Haitians are born surrealists,” says Edwidge Danticat (quoting a friend). It’s a surrealism found in le quotidien. In Haiti it’s common to see a peasant sleeping in a tight space—the author and MacArthur Fellow explains—his toe on a poster of Brigitte Bardot’s eyes. Or a one-room house with Paris Match collages all over its walls. Art is at the heart of the island’s daily life and the most nuanced and powerful ambassador Haiti has, she tells us in her latest book, Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work. But what can art solve in this country’s present?
On January 12, 2010, a devastating earthquake followed by more than fifty aftershocks ravaged the island, leaving an estimated three million people affected—over two-hundred thousand dead, three-hundred thousand injured and more than one-and-a-half million displaced or homeless. This dark and horrid day also killed Maxo, Danticat’s cousin. The same Maxo who accompanied her uncle, alien 27041999, to the United States, and upon arrival was denied entry and accused of faking his illness. The next day, her uncle died in the custody of U.S. officials. Her uncle’s life story was poignantly captured in Danticat’s 2007 memoir, Brother, I’m Dying, nominated for the National Book Award and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award.
As Danticat and I spoke in November while she was visiting New York City, news of a cholera epidemic spreading in Haiti made headlines. This news was followed by accusations by Haitians that UN peacekeepers from Nepal were to blame. As the toll increased to one thousand dead, elections brought more instability. Riots broke out in the streets when preliminary voting was followed by rumors of fraud. Most candidates asked that the elections be discounted. There were nineteen candidates on the ballot, among the most popular were former-First Lady Mirlande Manigat, who was in first place, and Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly, who was eliminated by ruling-party candidate Jude Celestin by less than 1 percent. The Organization of American States asked Haitian President René Préval to delay the announcement of the election results until an international panel of experts could review the vote. This action was taken in hopes of ceasing violence in the streets and conflicts between supporters.
In light of all the upheaval and tragic circumstances that have haunted Haiti in 2010, what solution can art offer? Perhaps none; perhaps, as Danticat suggests in Create Dangerously, art gives voice, and takes the international community away from a one-dimensional and narrow view of Haiti. It eradicates the idea that the island is only about turmoil and unrest, holding the world close to its pulse—its art, literature, and music. Danticat reminds us how far images of Morgan Freeman and Queen Latifah dancing on television to the music of Haiti’s Tabou Combo went.
Born in Haiti in 1969, Danticat came to the U.S. at age twelve. She holds a degree in French literature from Barnard College and an MFA from Brown University. Author of numerous books, notably, Breath, Eyes, Memory, a 1994 Oprah Book Club selection, Krik? Krak!, nominated for the National Book Award, The Farming of Bones, winner of the 1999 American Book Award, and The Dew Breaker, winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award. Create Dangerously is her first book of essays, which was adapted, updated, and expanded from the Toni Morrison Lecture she gave in 2008 at Princeton University.
Haiti is her shadow, and shadows loom around her. She allows them. And in return, they save her. While writing The Farming of Bones, she watched horrible videos of death in order to understand how people died. “It’s a lot of work to die,” she concludes. She saw this more personally with her father who struggled with pulmonary ﬁbrosis for nine months before dying. “I’ve always had this fascination with death,” notes Danticat. “I don’t know if it’s something that was said to me in the neighborhood I grew up in. So I keep looking for it.”
Like all of Danticat’s books, Create Dangerously has her heartbeat—a steady movement, a wide cry, a constant echo, a soft breathing. She offers us glimpses of an island and culture she is passionate about—and her dedication to which never ceases. She has just finished a fiction anthology, Haiti Noir, that appears this month. Readers will discover new and unknown voices, as well as masters, such as Madison Smartt Bell, Yanick Lahens, and Evelyne Trouillot. As we prepare to part, I ask her what she thinks Toussaint L’Ouverture would say about Haiti today. What revolution would he lead? We look at each other. A blank stare. Maybe these daily surrealistic portraits are leading a revolution. They’re insisting on existing and in so doing, resisting.
—Nathalie Handal for Guernica
Guernica: In your new book, Create Dangerously, you speak of art in a time of trouble, how from the singular or the personal comes the collective story. What is the responsibility of artists?
Edwidge Danticat: The responsibility of artists is to create as freely and as openly as possible. There should be no restrictions whatsoever on any artist or art. No prescriptions, orders, commands given to artists. They should engage us, make us think, entertain us in whatever way they see fit. There are however moments when art becomes part of something bigger, where a singular expression becomes part of the collective. That’s what the book is about.
A writer is like an actor, especially a fiction writer. You have to inhabit different bodies to write convincingly about them.
Guernica: As an immigrant and a writer yourself—are you limited in any way?
Edwidge Danticat: Not at all. If anything, I find it enriching because I am looking at two different cultures cross-eyed. I am looking at Haitian culture through American culture, American culture through Haitian culture. But also, I have a mixed gaze, and I am both an insider and outsider in both cultures, which might be an uncomfortable place personally. But it’s an extraordinary place artistically because all these things that you are processing mesh. Nuance is important to art and being from different places offers nuance. A writer is like an actor, especially a fiction writer. You have to inhabit different bodies to write convincingly about them. So the more experiences you have the more you are able to do that.
Guernica: But do you feel that your community would be accepting if you wanted to write about Paris when people are dying in Haiti?
Edwidge Danticat: Well, some people would say, she sold us out. Other people would say, good riddance, she’s exploited us enough… [laugh]. I would hope, however, that they would judge the work more than the subject. I would rather read a great book on a subject I care less about than a bad book on a subject I love. When a writer feels passionate about a subject, he or she writes better about it. I happen to feel passionate about Haiti and Haitians and Haitian Americans and out of that passion is born my subject. But writers are eternally curious and other subjects will come up and I am not going to deny myself the pleasure of writing about them just because I might risk offending or alienating some people.
Guernica: If a writer doesn’t write about the country they are from, that doesn’t mean they stop being from that place.
Edwidge Danticat: Of course not. I recently read a collection of short stories called The Boat, by a young writer named Nam Le. It is a fictional meditation, in its execution, of the dilemma of the immigrant writer. The writer grew up in Australia of Vietnamese parents, I believe. The first story in the book is about a writer who is trying not to write about the immigrant experience in his Iowa workshop. He seems to have disdain for the immigrant writers who visit and he thinks they’re famous because they’re exotics. He vows to write worldly fiction, but then the book is framed with two stories about Vietnam. His point, the fictional writer’s point, is, I think, that you can both write about your roots—maybe it is even that you don’t only have to write about your roots—and other things as well.
Guernica: Felix Morisseau-Leroy wrote in Creole. Franketienne, who also happens to have written a play about two people under the rubble that really echoed after the earthquake, wrote in French and Creole. How has Creole and French affected you as a storyteller?
Edwidge Danticat: Creole, more than French, is always behind the English I am writing. My characters are speaking in Creole and in my mind I do a simultaneous translation as I am writing. Franketienne and Felix Morrisseau Leroy are wonderful writers who gave Creole the respect it deserves by writing wonderful, innovative prose and poetry in it. Sometimes people will say you have to write in Creole, even if badly, to raise up the language. I’d rather have people writing in Creole who do it because they love it and are good at it and who think that it’s the best tool for the story they are telling, rather than people who write badly in Creole, just to have things in Creole.
Guernica: Do we need a “Guernica” to produce art?
Edwidge Danticat: You mean your publication [laughs]. Of course we don’t need wars and massacres to produce art. What’s wonderful about Haiti is that we have produced great art in spite of those things. Art—and by that I mean song, dance, painting, as well as literature—has been one of the many tools we have used for our survival.
Guernica: I remember being fascinated as a young girl in Port-au-Prince by what people in the streets would turn into art pieces—using a small stone, a chacha branch, whatever was available to them as canvas. Haitians truly have art in their soul.
Edwidge Danticat: Yes, it shows you that art will not be denied. Think of the daily functions of art in Haiti. The lottery stands. The tap tap camions. It’s all covered with beautiful art. My friend, the painter Ronald Mevs, used to say that Haitians are born surrealists. We are doing collage all the time, in daily life as well as in our art. So old oil drums become metal sculpture and old carnation milk cans become lamps, called tèt gripads, like bald-headed girls. Art is our communal dream.
Guernica: How has Haitian art changed peoples’ perception of Haiti?
Edwidge Danticat: People sometimes think they know Haiti through what they have seen in the news. When they see a piece of art that we’ve produced, listen to a song, or read a piece of literature that we’ve written, we become closer to them. We are now part of them when the art stays with them. They then come closer to meeting us, and closer to the different layers of who and what we are.
Guernica: Create Dangerously opens with the execution of Marcel Numa and Louis Drouin in 1964. You say that artists have stories that might be called “creation myths… that haunt and obsess them.” And this story is one of yours. Can you elaborate on that?
Edwidge Danticat: I have always been curious about these young men, Marcel Numa and Louis Drouin, who had left Haiti and were living in Queens and decided to return to Haiti to fight the dictatorship and ended up dead in the last openly state-sponsored public execution in Haiti. For me, and a lot of people I talked to, their deaths signaled a more brutal dictatorship and created a new reality that drove a lot of Haitians away from their homeland. That connection between this very brutal act and the further migrations it inspired has always intrigued me. Even though it happened five years before I was born, I have always felt that it is, in part, why I am here, why my parents and so many other people have left Haiti. That’s why it’s not only a very tragic story but a type of creation myth for me, in which a whole new generation of Haitian immigration emerged from that act. After the executions, people also tried to react with art, by reading and producing plays or reinterpreting Greek plays. I feel as though a new generation of artists also came out of that and I wanted to highlight some of that in the book.
Guernica: Do you think art always has to involve some kind of engagement—social or otherwise?
Edwidge Danticat: Of course not. As I said before, I think artists should be as free as they want to be. It is up to the artist to decide what he or she wants to do. But we should not “penalize”, if you will, people with a certain political view. In “Create Dangerously,” the Albert Camus essay that inspired the title of the book, Camus writes for the writers of his time something that is still true today. “The writers of today know this. If they speak up, they are criticized and attacked. If they become modest and keep silent, they are vociferously blamed for their silence.”
Guernica: You say we create to fight forgetfulness and that when the news moves on, art keeps a nation alive, allows a people’s stories and reality to stay present in the minds of the world. Can you give me examples that you have noticed in the last nine months?
Edwidge Danticat: Less than a year after the earthquake, there have been dozens of books written by Haitians about it. Most are memoirs, rather than the novels that were the dominant literary genre before the earthquake. There have been collective anthologies by Haitian writers as well as personal narratives, such as Dany Laferriere’s Tout Bouge Autour de Moi and Rodney Saint Eloi’s Kenbe la. There’s been a lot of poetry published on paper and online. Visual artists like Frantz Zepherrin and Pascal Monnin have created many pieces inspired by the earthquake. Art is one of the many ways people express their feelings about what happened to them. It’s also a way for them to celebrate their survival, in pictures, in song, in dance, in words.
Guernica: In the essay “Walk Straight,” you discussed being criticized when you wrote about a virginity test and that some Haitians accused you of exploiting your culture for money.
Edwidge Danticat: I think criticism is necessary. It’s all part of it. I usually try to learn from criticism, see if in some way the person criticizing me is really trying to teach me something. But you can’t become obsessed with criticism. Same goes for praise. You listen, take a deep breath, and move on. Keep working. That’s the most important thing, to keep going.
There are few publishing houses in Haiti so most writers self-publish and we didn’t have the kind of money that would have made that possible.
Guernica: The photographer Daniel Morel was present as a boy at Numa and Drouin’s execution and this incident led him to become a photojournalist. In this book you wanted to look at how people come to their art. Can you tell us more about how you came to your art?
Edwidge Danticat: I came to my writing by listening to stories my aunt and grandmothers told me. I used to make my own little books with folded paper, then I started writing for school papers when I moved to the United States. My first novel Breath, Eyes, Memory was my MFA thesis at Brown.
Guernica: Do you think you still would have been a writer if you never left Haiti?
Edwidge Danticat: The publishing part of it might have been hard in Haiti. There are few publishing houses in Haiti so most writers self-publish, and we didn’t have the kind of money that would have made that possible. This makes me think how many powerful voices will never surface because of that.
Guernica: You speak about the great history of Haitian painting, how significant it is to Haitian culture and history. George Nader was the world’s biggest Haitian art collector. Galerie Nader in Pétion-ville was destroyed by the earthquake—some twelve thousand works, an art collection with an estimated worth of thirty million to one-hundred million dollars, gone. Only about fifty pieces survived.
Edwidge Danticat: And there were other art collections destroyed too, like the wonderful collection at the Centre d’art and those amazing murals at Saint Trinité.
All art is in some way, I think, elegiac.
Guernica: Like the National Library in Baghdad: so many books destroyed. How does a nation recuperate, heal, and deal with such a loss—historically and culturally. Even if more art is being produced. What do you do with that loss of memory?
Edwidge Danticat: Fortunately, some of the art works, especially the work of the masters, had been photographed so there are records of some of them. There are also great collections of Haitian art outside of Haiti. Yet the works we have lost are irreplaceable. I think that is what inspires some of the painters to create new works, not just to replace but to honor what we have lost.
Guernica: You said something interesting about Haitian painting, that you see dreams in it, and it is also a way to ponder death. Can you expand?
Edwidge Danticat: Art is about life as much as it is about death. Art is a way, I think, of acknowledging that we are alive, but also a way of leaving our imprints because we know that we will die one day and we hope that the work will outlive us. The novelist and essayist Susan Sontag has said that photography is an elegiac art. All art is in some way, I think, elegiac.
Guernica: In Haiti, music has always played an important role in politics—carnival, rara, Haitian Vodou music. Today you have groups like Ram that seem to have a political message. Can you speak about the role of these bands in Haiti?
Edwidge Danticat: The rasin bands have always led the way in terms of offering a political message. That is in part because their music is drawn from Vodou, which has a spiritual message at its core, but also a message of survival, and when necessary rebellion. Konpa music can also offer that—and at carnival time more than any other time it does. These bands are as important to Haiti as they are to the outside. During the summer they travel all over the country to the fèt champet, the country festivals, and draw thousands of people.
Guernica: What are their impact in the international community?
Edwidge Danticat: I can’t speak for the international community, but I believe they offer yet another side of Haiti. After the earthquake when Wyclef Jean was on the NAACP Image Awards with Tabou Combo, a lot of foreigners called me and told me how they had no idea we had that kind of music in Haiti. To see Morgan Freeman and Queen Latifah dancing to Tabou Combo went a long way with a lot of people. Also, when the Rara, which can be as mournful as it is festive, came on during the Hope Haiti telethon, that lifted a lot of spirits.
Guernica: Your thoughts about the election?
Edwidge Danticat: I hope [the new president] will wake up every single morning and remember that there are more than a million people homeless and jobless and that he or she needs to do something about it. I hope it will be someone who cares about hunger, food security, education, agriculture, jobs, jobs, jobs. And I hope that his or her hands won’t be tied by the Parliament and/or the international community so that he or she can help make life better for the millions who are living in such indescribably horrible situations. There are people who think that elections should not be happening now. It’s a great shame that so many parties were excluded, particularly the Lavalas party, the party of former President Jean Bertrand Aristide. These are certainly not ideal conditions for elections. But it seems to me that the leadership now wants to turn it over and move on, so we should certainly not force them to stay. The specter of an “I am the only one who can do it, president for life” is always hanging over our heads. It seems like Haiti is always making Faustian bargains when it comes to elections. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
We have a very nasty environment in this country now for immigrants. Because of the bad economic situation here, everyone wants to blame immigrants.
Guernica: What do you say to those who criticize Haiti, say that it’s poor, Haitians haven’t done anything, and Haiti hasn’t advanced?
Edwidge Danticat: I say look at Haiti’s history. When Haiti became independent in 1804, it was strapped with French debt and isolated by the world. It’s suffered a long American occupation from which it inherited more debt and a brutal army. Yes, we’ve had some of our own homegrown dictators, but every time the Haitian people have shown some desire to lead themselves, they’ve been slapped down for some reason or another by some larger power. I’m not making excuses. But I think people should take in the entire picture before making a judgment like that. Haiti is much smaller, of course. But would the United States have prospered with Haiti’s same obstacles? It’s worth looking at because both nations became independent around the same time.
Guernica: Langston Hughes visited Jacques Roumain in 1932 in Haiti and translated Roumain’s Masters of the Dew later on. What do you think Roumain and Hughes would say about Haiti today?
Edwidge Danticat: The first line of Gouverneurs de la Rosée, which Langston Hughes translated as Masters of the Dew, is, “We are all going to die.” And if you read the travel narratives of Langston Hughes in Haiti, his description of Haiti in the nineteen forties is erringly similar to the Haiti of today. Roumain didn’t romanticize Haiti and neither did Hughes. I think they would both be shocked by how little has changed.
Guernica: This brings us to immigrants. They risk their lives for another world—like your uncle who died in U.S. custody—and are too often rejected. What did you learn from that experience?
Edwidge Danticat: I learned, or was reminded, how much people sacrifice to be here, to make it here. My uncle was one of hundreds who died seeking asylum, trying to find safety in the United States. We have a very nasty environment in this country now for immigrants. Because of the bad economic situation here, everyone wants to blame immigrants.
Guernica: Concerning immigration laws, what do you think of the temporary protected status granted after the earthquake? Can you comment on that and on the rumor that after Arizona, Miami is next.
Edwidge Danticat: I was happy that temporary protected status was granted to Haitians after the earthquake. It meant that people who were already here could work to support their families. That was long in the making and a wonderful thing. Haitian activists had been asking for it for such a long time, after other disasters in Haiti. It’s been granted to others and we were never quite sure why it could not be granted to Haitians. There are a lot of people running for office in Florida, the Tea Party element especially, who would like to see Miami have an Arizona-like draconian immigration law. We’ve already seen the ugly days of home raids here in Florida, where families are torn apart and kids are left alone. We’ve already seen people taken off buses. We’ve already seen people die in custody. How much worse can it get?
Guernica: Do you think the law would pass with all those immigrants in Miami?
Edwidge Danticat: The generally progressive multicultural melting pot that is Miami is only a tiny part of Florida, which is generally more conservative. Yes, I think if the economy gets bad enough, that and many other laws could pass. That’s why we have to be vigilant. We have seen with the Patriot Act and other post-September 11, 2001 measures that in times of crisis, certain rights and freedoms can be considered dispensable.
Guernica: The Dominican Republic and Haiti historically have had a strained relationship. You wrote a foreword to the Rene Philoctète novel, Massacre River, which speaks about a middle place in the border where people are neither one nor the other.
Edwidge Danticat: After the earthquake, the Dominicans were the first on the ground. There was rapprochement during that time. Many Haitians ended up in Dominican hospitals. Now I think things are returning to the way they were before, especially since there are now more Haitian migrants in the DR. I hope there will be a continuation of that good feeling, on both sides that we saw after the earthquake. The Philoctète novel is a great surrealist-type novel about the 1937 massacre of Haitians in the Dominican Republic. In the book there is a middle ground, a mixed group of people who can potentially make peace. There are a lot of people like that, thankfully, both intellectuals and others, and I hope that one day they will outnumber the others.
Guernica: What is the role of the Haitian diaspora in rebuilding Haiti?
Edwidge Danticat: The Haitian diaspora certainly wants to, and will, contribute in small and large ways to contribute to the rebuilding of Haiti. They have been doing it for years with grassroots NGOs, neighborhood associations, sponsorships of kids, etc… That will continue. We only have contentions now because many diaspora business people are competing with the foreigners for big contracts. The efforts I most believe in, however, are the grassroots efforts by people in the diaspora who have been working in Haiti for years and continue to do it today.
Guernica: Race is one of those subjects people are careful not to address but it’s still an issue. There are many debates on who is a Haitian and the issue of representation often comes up. Who should or shouldn’t represent Haiti—and it’s often in reference to black or white. On the other side of that is someone like Dany Laferrière who wrote the novel je suis un écrivain japonais, or I Am a Japanese Writer, echoing Roland Barthes that “text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination.”
Edwidge Danticat: Race, in my opinion, is not as much an issue as class. It’s like the saying, “If you’re black and rich, you’re mulatto. And if you’re white and poor, you’re black.” Not that I agree with it, but I’ve heard people say it. I think it’s safe to say anyone can represent Haiti. Look at the faces in the elections and that should give you a clue. There are all kinds of people in that presidential race. Perhaps cultural representation is a more thorny issue, as in the Miss Haiti debate recently. But most people were just glad that someone from Haiti was in the contest. I don’t know if it’s experienced differently from the other side. If you don’t look like the majority of the people. There are privileges, I suppose, and downsides that go with everything.
Guernica: You also just wrote your first children’s book, Eight Days: A Story of Haiti (Scholastic), in a way to explain to your two daughters what happened on January 12, and read the story to the children in Haiti. Can you speak more about this experience?
Edwidge Danticat: Eight Days is the story of a boy who is trapped in rubble after the earthquake in Haiti and dreams about his life, his friends, the games they used to play. I have read it for both kids in Haiti and here, and it gave them both a chance to discuss the earthquake in a safe and open way. The interesting thing is that the kids then open up to you about all sorts of things, when they feel like you’ve opened your heart to them.
Guernica: What’s next for you?
Edwidge Danticat: The earthquake in Haiti has shown me, and everyone else, I think, how precarious life can be. I hope that there is more fiction and more writing in the future for me. More time with my family in the United States and my family in Haiti.
Nerdsmith: Before he disappears from the spotlight once more, Junot Diaz sets the record straight on immigration, identity, family, and the brief and wondrous origins of his novel’s title character.
To contact Guernica or Edwidge Danticat, please write here.
Author photograph by Nancy Crampton