The MacArthur Award winner on immigration reform, returning to Haiti in her new book, and why Wikipedia is still “micro-categorizing women writers.”
Image courtesy of Jonathan Demme
Almost a decade has passed since Edwidge Danticat’s last work of book-length fiction, The Dew Breaker. In the meantime, she’s written a memoir (Brother, I’m Dying—National Book Critics Circle Award winner, National Book Award nominee), received a MacArthur “genius” grant, edited the Best American Essays and Haiti Noir collections, delivered a Toni Morrison Lectures series that was turned into a celebrated book (Create Dangerously), and, in successive years, received honorary degrees from Smith and Yale. She’s been so busy it’s almost easy to forget what a homecoming her new book is. After the long wait, Claire of the Sea Light has just been released by Knopf.
At the book’s center is its title character, Claire Limyè Lanmè, a young girl whose father is trying to give her away, so that she can be raised as another’s daughter. This tragedy, born of an act of love, radiates out and we come to meet the local citizenry through their respective tales. As the stories progress, the individuals begin to recede slightly, allowing the town itself, Ville Rose, to come to the fore. Danticat has always portrayed Haiti with a careful lushness, but in Claire of the Sea Light she seems to have a new fervor. It is her first novel since the 2010 earthquake, which destroyed so much of the country. (Danticat spoke to Guernica on the one-year anniversary of the earthquake, discussing the devastation it wrought). The stories are set in a near, undefined past, but there’s a distinct sense that most of what Danticat is describing is now gone. There are no omens or soothsayers, and the richness of the place—the tropical vegetation, the precise placement of shops and homes, the Biblical presence and span of family trees—is often a source of joy. But it’s difficult not to imagine a grieving Danticat cataloging these as the losses she and other Haitians have suffered. As she explained in our conversation, “When I’m writing anything set in Haiti now, whether fiction or nonfiction, always in the back of my mind is how people, including some of my own family members, have been affected not just by history and by the present but also by the earthquake.”
I met with Danticat on the campus of Brooklyn College. She arrived with a stranger in tow, someone who’d recognized her on the street and had been telling her stories about his family. It was a sunny afternoon and a Friday, but I’d have to be cynical not to believe that this sort of thing happens often to Danticat. She has an exceedingly warm, inviting manner. We found a bench beside a turtle pond and spoke about the delicate job of mining family history for fiction, translating her characters’s Creole, Wikipedia’s struggle to categorize her, and the tricky ending to her new novel. There’s a slight lilt to Danticat’s voice, and she often seemed amused at the things that hadn’t quite been said.
—Dwyer Murphy for Guernica
Guernica: We get a host of characters and voices in this book, but there seems to be a special affection reserved for Claire, the title character. How did you first find her?
Edwidge Danticat: Claire came like a vision, really. It was the year after The Dew Breaker came out. This was a painful time for me. My father was dying from pulmonary fibrosis. My uncle Joseph had just died in the custody of the Department of Homeland Security while seeking asylum in the U.S. My oldest daughter Mira was born soon after that. I started writing a memoir about all these deaths and a birth, a book called Brother, I’m Dying. And right about that time I saw a documentary about orphans in Haiti. Or rather, not quite about orphans. It was about kids who have parents, but their parents bring them to an orphanage so they can have a better life. One of the aid workers in the documentary said that the parents do this because these people are not that attached to their kids.
You’re told you don’t belong to American literature or you’re told you don’t belong to Haitian literature. Maybe there’s a place on the hyphen.
My own parents left Haiti to work in New York while I stayed behind. I didn’t grow up in an orphanage, but I grew up in my uncle’s house with a lot of kids like me, whose parents were abroad, working. So after I saw this program, a new character came to me, almost the way someone appears in a dream. Claire Limyè Lanmè. Claire of the Sea Light, a child that a beloved parent would rather rip his heart out of his chest than to leave, but has no other choice but to try to give her to someone else to raise because he does not have the means to do it himself.
Guernica: The story began to fill in around Claire?
Edwidge Danticat: I started writing about Claire and her father, and then it became too about the town where they live and how some of the town people are linked in some way, large or small, to this little girl. The story is told from different points of view. At first you get the story from her father, then from the woman to whom she’s being given, then from Claire herself. I broke those stories up, as the three pillars of the book, and I always knew that Claire’s story would come last. Because one of the pressing questions of the book is where is this girl going. Even I wasn’t sure for a long time. My editor, Robin Desser, was asking me until the last moment what would happen to Claire. Is she alive? Is she going to stay with her father? Will she go with the woman he wants to give her to? I have written many different endings. The last thing I did, just before the galleys went through, was decide what happens to Claire.
Guernica: You’re coming back to this fictional town, Ville Rose, where you’ve set stories in the past. Did you have any tricks for getting yourself oriented in the old space? Maps? Telephone directories?
Edwidge Danticat: No maps or telephone directories. Ville Rose itself is a hybrid of a town, a mix of several coastal towns I have been to or have spent time in while in Haiti. For a long time, I just had fifty pages of material that I had already written and kept reading over and over again to keep re-immersing myself in the town. But the best moment in writing any book is when you just can’t wait to get back to the writing, when you can’t wait to re-enter that fictional place, when your fictional town feels even more real than the town where you actually live.
Guernica: When you’re writing in English about characters that live in Haiti and speak Haitian Creole, how are their stories coming to you?
Edwidge Danticat: All of it basically comes to me in Creole, with mental SimulTrans.
Guernica: Like your work at the UN?
Edwidge Danticat: Yes, except it’s implanted in my brain. It’s just automatic. Part of it has to do with the bilingualism/trilingualism of my life. The characters are speaking Creole in my mind. I can hear just what they’re saying, and I’m the translator. Some things I leave in Creole, for readers who are bilingual and who may have another interpretation. The term “dew breaker,” for example was “choukèt laroze.” That could be translated as “dew shaker” or “dew smasher.” But “dew breaker” is much more poetic, so that’s how I translated it. It all happens quickly. I feel like I’m there watching or listening to the characters. I remember an early review of Claire that called it “a love letter to her homeland.” And for a tiny split second, I was surprised while reading this, because to me that implied that I wasn’t there in my “homeland”—in Haiti. I thought “What? I’m not?” When I’m writing, it feels like I’m very much there.
Guernica: Would these be very different stories if you didn’t translate? If you took them down in Creole?
I don’t see any reason to keep micro-categorizing women writers, setting them more and more apart, except to marginalize them … Soon I might be [categorized by Wikipedia] in “Haitian novelists under five feet five tall.”
Edwidge Danticat: Oh, definitely. I had that experience with Krik? Krak! I made some of the stories into radio plays in Creole and they become totally different. More alive in some way. More immediate. In the epigraph to Drown, Junot Diaz uses a quote from a Cuban poet, Gustavo Pérez Firmat—“The fact that I am writing to you in English already falsifies what I wanted to tell you.” This is the dilemma of the immigrant writer. If I’d lived in Haiti my whole life, I’d be writing these things in Creole. But these stories I am writing now are coming through me as a person who, though I travel to Haiti often, has lived in the U.S. for more than three decades now.
Often when you’re an immigrant writing in English, people think it’s primarily a commercial choice. But for many of us, it’s a choice that rises out of the circumstances of our lives. These are the tools I have at my disposal, based on my experiences. It’s a constant debate, not just in my community but in other communities as well. Where do you belong? You’re kind of one of us, but you now write in a different language. You’re told you don’t belong to American literature or you’re told you don’t belong to Haitian literature. Maybe there’s a place on the hyphen, as Julia Alvarez so brilliantly wrote in one of her essays. That middle generation, the people whose parents brought them to other countries as small children, or even people who were born to immigrant parents, maybe they can have their own literature too.
Guernica: Jonathan Lee recently interviewed your agent, Nicole Aragi, for Guernica, and she was talking about the insanity of a recent controversy on Wikipedia, in which you and other authors were moved out of the “American novelists” category, onto other lists. You were put in the “Haitian Women Novelists” category, I think. So apparently Wikipedia editors are part of that crowd that’s fretting over how to categorize you.
Edwidge Danticat: Isn’t that something? The funniest reaction to all of this came from someone who was shocked that, with a name like Edwidge, I am even a woman. But I agree with Nicole that the whole thing is pretty outrageous. And also, what’s the point? I don’t see any reason to keep micro categorizing women writers, setting them more and more apart, except to marginalize them. I’m happy that someone brought it out in the light before the categories could keep getting more and more narrow. Soon I might be [categorized by Wikipedia] in “Haitian novelists under five feet five tall.”
Guernica: Talking about how these categories are used to marginalize women in the writing industry, it still seems to be the case that the literary press skews white and male, and that books by women are reviewed less often. Have you noticed any particular slant to the attention your work gets?
Edwidge Danticat: There is definitely some imbalance. Sometimes you’ll see a formidable book come out by an extraordinary woman writer go nearly unnoticed. Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, for example, was mostly reviewed in the big publications after she won the National Book Award. You also wish that there were more parity to the press that the book is getting. Last year when Jamaica Kincaid’s book, See Now Then came out, the press was so one-toned. It wouldn’t have been that way for a male writer. It’s not a matter of whether the reviews are good or bad, it’s about being taken seriously, both as a woman writer and as a writer of color. Also, it worries me when people point to a couple of women writers or writers of color who get some attention—and I am sometimes pulled into that category—to prove that others are getting a fair shot. It’s like those people who keep saying that racism no longer exists in this country because Barack Obama is President of the United States.
My own personal barometer is this: Am I telling a nuanced and complex story? Am I telling my version of the truth, which I know may not be somebody else’s.
Guernica: You’ve talked about a certain pressure you feel from the Haitian community, which sometimes takes offence at the way you’re portraying Haiti. How do you deal with those encounters?
Edwidge Danticat: For better or worse, we all have a tendency to over generalize our individual experiences. After I’ve published something, I’ll meet someone who says, “I’m Haitian, and I don’t know this, so it must not be true.” Even if we’re talking about a work of fiction. I understand very well the desire to protect and defend Haiti. I’ve gotten very angry myself reading many things about Haiti. So my own personal barometer is this: Am I telling a nuanced and complex story? Am I telling my version of the truth, which I know may not be somebody else’s. We’re not a monolithic group; no group is. Also, it’s important to keep in mind the genre in which we are writing. Fiction is full of invented stories about exceptional people in exceptional situations. Those situations are not always cheery or celebratory. Also fiction is not journalism or sociology or anthropology. Every story is singular. The way we get depth is by putting a bunch of singular stories together to tell larger more complex and sometimes even contradictory stories. This is why I love editing and why it’s been such a pleasure to edit both Haiti Noir and Haiti Noir 2, which will be published next January. In those books for example, you have eighteen writers’s versions of Haiti. You get sadness. You get joy. You get lyricism. You get darkness. You get light. And yes you get the danger too. But what you don’t get is, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie put it in her great TED talk, a single story.
Guernica: Many of your stories seem to arise out of painful episodes in your family’s history. Do you find some catharsis in turning them into fiction? Does your family, once they’ve read them?
Edwidge Danticat: I get some catharsis from it, yes, but I don’t think my family always feels like what I’m doing is cathartic for them. Even with the fiction, they feel exposed. With the first book, you learn all your lessons. It was difficult for my parents at first. When people at their church started reading my first book, Breath, Eyes, Memory, it was uncomfortable for my parents because people immediately assumed that I was writing about myself and about them. After that book came out, my mother told me, “You know, people are going to think you’re not a good girl.” My parents also spent most of their adult lives under a dictatorship. To them being out there in the world talking about things was not safe. But as we all got older, there was a transition. They became happy that I was also telling people good things about Haiti. They saw it as a kind of service to the country and all was forgiven.
Guernica: In an essay in the collection Create Dangerously, you describe returning home to Haiti with the body of your cousin, Marius, and your aunt asking you not to write about it. Do you usually comply with those requests?
Edwidge Danticat: Sometimes family members will ask to be kept out of certain things that I’m writing, and I try to respect that. I’d much rather have relatives than a book. With my aunt, when I ended up writing about that incident we came to a kind of compromise. I changed the names. If it would have totally wrecked my relationship with my aunt, I would have used it in fiction, maybe, but I wouldn’t have written about it in an essay. This is something I had to balance carefully when I was writing the memoir. I’ve written essays where I mention things that I thought were very benign and those were the things that upset some family members. And sometimes the things you’re expecting to upset them don’t. When I was done with the memoir, I emailed the manuscript to my brothers and told them I’d take out anything they objected to. One of them said, “We don’t like the way so much of it is about you.” Even though it was more about my dad and uncle, I could see why he would think that. We’d all gone through these terrible things together and I was the only one telling the public story.
Guernica: Did you change things based on your brothers’ notes?
Edwidge Danticat: I did adjust some things. But one of the greatest compliments I ever got came from my youngest brother when he read the finished book. He said, “It’s all there. Just like it happened.”
Guernica: You’re a mother of young children now. Will your kids be off-limits, like with the White House Press Corps?
Edwidge Danticat: I think you mean the Little Haiti Press Corps. [Chuckles.] Some people get annoyed at women writers who even mention their children. Or there are all these theories about how many you can have, etc. I mention my children, first, because people often ask about the motherhood/writing balance thing and I also mention them because I can’t tell you how much it meant to me when I was starting out to read about Toni Morrison and her two sons. It was very comforting to me that she was a mother of two and working full time and writing novels too. It made many things seem within my reach. So I’m not going be putting my children on full blast all the time, but every once in a while they are called to participate in the family project that are these books. My oldest happens to be on the cover of Claire of the Sea Light. She’s very proud of it. She won’t know what a remainder table is though because now I feel like I’ll have to buy every leftover copy of the book I ever see.
I’d like to be cremated, so that I can rest in many places. A little in Haiti. A little here.
Guernica: And you’ll be okay with her reading it, too?
Edwidge Danticat: I can’t wait for both my daughters to be old enough to read all my books. I loved it every time I saw my parents acting like more than just my parents. And I’m looking forward to that with my daughters too. I am looking forward to having them discover me as someone completely other than their mother.
Guernica: Do you consider Claire of the Sea Light a novel, or a story collection?
Edwidge Danticat: I think of it as something in between. A kind of hybrid. Notice, we didn’t write “A Novel” on the cover. I don’t want people to think I’m trying to pass this off as something it’s not. Many wonderful works of fiction have been written this way. Jean Toomer’s Cane is one of my favorites. Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, among others.
Guernica: This is the first book of fiction you’ve published since the earthquake—has your writing about Haiti changed since then?
Edwidge Danticat: The landscape has changed so much, the physical spaces. There is this split between the Haiti of before the earthquake and the Haiti of after the earthquake. So when I’m writing anything set in Haiti now, whether fiction or nonfiction, always in the back of my mind is how people, including some of my own family members, have been affected not just by history and by the present but also by the earthquake.
Guernica: Claire of the Sea Light is set pre-earthquake, but certain passages about the town and the country feel elegiac.
Edwidge Danticat: I started working on half the book before the earthquake and half of it after the earthquake. But at some point in the writing, even before the earthquake happened, this place I was writing about became a town on the verge of disaster. For a while, I had the year in the book explicitly. 2009. But eventually I took that out. I didn’t want it to be some big revelation, a dramatic ta-da moment of the year before the earthquake.
Guernica: One of the aphorisms that Claire repeats seems particularly evocative of this seaside town: “Salt is life.” Is that something you heard growing up in Haiti or something you invented for the story?
Edwidge Danticat: I might have heard it. But salt is a powerful symbol in Haiti, as elsewhere. Salt of the earth, for example is an American phrase isn’t it? In Haiti, myth and legend has it that if you are turned into a zombie, if someone gives you a taste of salt, then you can come back to life. And in the life of the fishermen, there are so many little things about salt that I wanted to incorporate. The salt in the air. The crackling of salt in the fire. There’s all this damage, this peeling of the fishing boats from the sea salt. But there is also healing from it, sea baths that are supposed to heal all kinds of aches and wounds.
Guernica: This might be a bit forward for our first meeting, but do you know where you’re going to be buried? Your characters often have very definite ideas about that. It occurred to me that it might be a personal preoccupation of yours.
Edwidge Danticat: It’s always been something of an obsession of mine but has become more so since my eighty-one-year-old uncle died here in the United States, after never wanting to leave Haiti, except for short periods of time. When my uncle died, his body could not be returned to Haiti so he was buried in Queens, New York. He was always so sure that he was going to be buried in our family mausoleum in Port-au-Prince. He had also taken this very strong stand against leaving Haiti permanently. Someone has to stay, he always said. And he ended up being buried in Queens next to my father, who had been the one who left. Ultimately, we don’t always get a say, but I’d like to be cremated, so that I can rest in many places. A little in Haiti. A little here.
Guernica: Gang violence seems to increasingly crop up in your work. It creates an important plot point in Claire of the Sea Light. Is it something you’ve set out to explore?
Edwidge Danticat: I wrote about gang violence in Brother, I’m Dying because it is in part what drove my uncle to leave Haiti and the neighborhood he had been living in for fifty years and to request asylum in the United States, something that led to his death. A group from the United Nations force, which is still in Haiti now, had basically invaded my uncle’s house and occupied the roof and had shot at people from my uncle’s roof, and when they retreated some of the people from the neighborhood wanted to kill my uncle because they thought he had willingly participated in the operation.
Living in a poor area, you are easily criminalized. The UN people might have just as easily killed my uncle too, the way they had killed innocent people who become their collateral damage in other operations in other poor neighborhoods in Port-au-Prince. But I wanted to write about the gang violence in both the memoir and in this book because even with all that had happened I couldn’t totally demonize the young people who ended up joining the gangs, because some of them I had known since they were young. Many have since been killed in later operations like the one that happened from the top of my uncle’s roof that day, but they were not ghosts but people to me. My uncle had hired some of them who had been deported from the United States as English tutors or computer teachers for some of the kids in the school he had in the neighborhood. Some of these same young men who had threatened my uncle’s life had been at my aunt’s funeral not long before that. Some of their parents were parishioners in my uncle’s church. I would see them during different visits. I can’t tell you what they were doing elsewhere, but my uncle knew them as neighbors and tried to co-exist with them because—and maybe this was because he was a minister—he never stopped believing in redemption. He believed that no matter what people were calling these guys, there was goodness in them. So this part of it, the more intimate and less sensational part of gang life, from my limited exposure and from a bit of my uncle’s perspective, is something I wanted to try explore in fiction, after writing about it in the memoir.
Sometimes fiction allows you to explore these types of complicated spaces more deeply. I didn’t want to redeem the face of violence, but it is important for me to show that it is not always coming from one side. In Claire, Tiye and his people, for example, are not the only gangsters in the book. A lot of other seemingly good people also have a lot of blood on their hands.
Guernica: Since your uncle died seeking asylum, in the custody of Homeland Security, you’ve been very vocal about immigration reform and about asylum detention in particular. Are you feeling frustrated that President Obama, of whom you were an early supporter, hasn’t been able to make more progress on these issues?
Edwidge Danticat: Yes, the fact that immigration reform has been so stalled is rather disappointing. On the one hand, you have the stalled reform and on the other hand all this draconian “show me your papers” legislation cropping up all over the country and some deplorable things happening in detention centers, where asylum seekers are still being treated deplorably and many of them are still dying the same way my uncle did. Last February, according to a group I am involved with called Americans for Immigrant Justice, several of their now clients, women who were seeking asylum, were taken into custody in Texas and placed in something called the icebox. They were put in cells with more than twenty-five people, cells with no chairs or beds, just a toilet. The lights were kept on twenty-four hours a day and the temperature was kept really low. It seems like in some quarters they want to make life so miserable for immigrants and asylum seekers that they will “self-deport” or think twice about coming to this country before whatever version of immigrant reform passes.
Guernica: Do you wish that other writers were as willing to get involved in politics?
Edwidge Danticat: Albert Camus in his December 1957 lecture “L’artiste et son temps,” which was translated as “Create Dangerously” says, “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.” I think everyone should just do what they’re comfortable doing. I wouldn’t want to diminish the fact that writing itself, whatever it is, can be a way of being involved. And I would never want to presume to tell others what to do.
Guernica: Relative to other “literary” writers, your books enjoy quite a bit of popular success. Do you attribute it to anything in particular?
Edwidge Danticat: Oprah! Everything changed when Oprah chose Breath, Eyes, Memory for her book club in the spring of 1998. I had published two books when she picked my first and that fall when I went on tour for my third—The Farming of Bones—I could already see the difference in terms of a wider interest in my work. She introduced my work to people who might have never read me and a lot of those readers are still with me today.
Guernica: Are you working on something new now, while Claire of the Sea Light is launching?
Edwidge Danticat: The best advice I ever got as a writer was from my first editor at Soho Press, Laura Hruska. Rest her soul. This was when Breath, Eyes, Memory was in galleys. We had just gotten a paperback deal with Vintage, thanks to two wonderful editors there, Dawn Davis and Robin Desser, my current editor at Knopf. I was working as an assistant at Jonathan Demme’s film production company then, Clinica Estetico, which was just down the street from Soho Press. Laura came over and sat next to me in my little cubicle, and looked me straight in the eye and said, “Edwidge, you’re now going to have to start thinking about a writing career.”
Frankly, I hadn’t been fully thinking that way. I thought I’d write a couple of books then go on to do something else. Maybe work on films, which I have also been lucky enough to do. So Laura Hruska told me that I needed to start on something new right away, before the book came out, so that whether it got a really good or a really bad or an indifferent reception, at least I’d have another writing project already in the works to return to. I’ve always tried to follow that advice. So right now, I’m about a hundred pages into my new book. I will have that to return to once Claire has begun to make her way into the world.
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