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Haitian American Novelist on “The Immigrant Artist at Work”

StoryNovember 11, 2010
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Haiti American novelist Edwidge Danticat is the author of several books, including Breath, Eyes, Memory, The Farming of the Bones, Krik? Krak! and Brother, I’m Dying. She joins us in our studio to talk about her latest book, Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work. [includes rush transcript]

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StoryJan 12, 2011Novelist Edwidge Danticat: “Haitians Are Very Resilient, But It Doesn’t Mean They Can Suffer More Than Other People”
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, I’d like to, with the minutes we have left, talk about your latest book, Create Dangerously. I was reading it last night. It really is a marvelous book, and I have to congratulate you.


JUAN GONZALEZ: It’s an amazing series of essays that attempts to sort of capture the immigrant writer experience, from your end. I was especially struck — I mean, there were several essays, but when you wrote about “I Am Not a Journalist” and talked about the radio journalist, Jean Dominique, who was killed, assassinated — could you talk about that and your relationship to him and the news of his death and what it meant to you?

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Well, radio journalism in Haiti, it’s — even, you know, in this current time, it’s such a powerful medium of communication. It’s really one of the ways that everyone gets their news and information. And Jean Dominique was one of the giants of that medium. And he was assassinated on April 3, 2000 now. And he was someone that I knew from his exile, days in exile here after the coup against President Aristide, and was someone who taught a whole generation of journalists. So the book, in a way, talks about him and all these other heroes of previous periods, like Alèrte Bélance, who was butchered by the junta that followed President Aristide’s coup. And so, there — and other also artists who tried to create, you know, dangerously, if you will, during those difficult moments and others throughout Haiti’s history.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And you especially focus on the literary history. For most people in the world, the art that is famous for Haiti is the painting.


JUAN GONZALEZ: But you have delved into and told stories in these essays of many of the literary giants of Haiti and sort of tried to bring that literary experience of Haiti into sort of the realm of the world literary experience.

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Well, because, in a way, I think it’s always been there. It’s extraordinary how many writers have emerged out of Haiti, especially given the obstacles that we’ve had as a country and the literacy rate. And paintings, of course, it’s one of our great legacies, as well as is our music. And the wonderful music that you played before showed that. So, it’s — for me, I mean, in terms of being immigrants, especially from a place like Haiti, when we see — you know, we see the cholera, we see the earthquake. I think people forget that there’s also this wonderful and powerful history of revolt, of resilience, of resistance, and this wonderful art that’s followed in its wake that has this great beauty to offer to the world. And it’s something that I think, in all the tragedies that have occurred in Haiti over the years, that people don’t get a chance to see and experience as much.

JUAN GONZALEZ: You begin the book with the assassination of two young activists who were fighting against the Duvalier regime, Marcel Numa and Louis Drouin. And you talk about the impact of their assassination, which you learned of many years later, in terms of your own sense of who you were.

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Mm-hmm. Well, the thing is that they were these young men who — their families had been victims of this big massacre in a city in the south of Haiti called Jérémie, which we call “the city of poets.” And they moved here, and then they went back and tried to really save us all, in a way, save the country. And their story, over the years, has been like a myth to me and many people, including a wonderful photojournalist who I profile in the book named Daniel Morel, who was — as a child, was forced to witness that execution, because he — you know, “Papa Doc” Duvalier had ordered that schoolchildren be brought to this execution. And it was the counterexample, that he wanted this to be an intimidation, and Daniel, like a lot of people, you know, others, grew up to be people who, in their own way, with their art, try to fight against this kind of oppression and continues to do so with their images, with their song, with their painting. So, it’s an example, for me, of a way that sort of a tyrant tried to suppress a population, but in some cases it had the opposite effect.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And you also, in one of the essays, take that trip back to the source, to that family figure who’s still on the land from which the rest of the family came.


JUAN GONZALEZ: And you talk about going back there to try to sort of reconnect that, not just from New York to Port-au-Prince, but back to the countryside, and your sense of loss that you didn’t really do what you should have done as a writer in getting to know fully the aunt before she died.


JUAN GONZALEZ: Could you talk about that, as well?

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Well, this was my Aunt Ilyana, who never left Beauséjour, the village where my father’s family is from and where my great-grandparents’ graves are. And I remember making the trip, and it’s — there’s this other Haiti sometimes that even to people who are from Haiti, to what we call the pays en dehors, the provinces, and it was a long trip to get up there and see her. And I remember when I got there, you know, I said to her, “I want to be buried here when I die.” And she said, you know, “Who’s going to carry your corpse all this way?” You know, and it’s this conversation, this chance that I had with her, sort of this facing the nostalgia that one has when one leaves. But it represents — you know, she was this other Haiti that, in a way, is the majority of the people of Haiti, people who do live in countryside, who are totally marginalized by the power structure and who are sort of overlooked in all these decisions, but who are really the majority in the core of the country. And, you know, when you’re facing that sometimes, you feel like, “I should have asked more questions, and I should have done more.” But the point was actually just to see her, and I’m glad I got this chance, because soon after that she passed away.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And you write, as well, about the tragedy of the 200th anniversary of Haiti’s independence. And that was supposed to be a year of such celebration but turned into, again, a year of disaster for the country and a new coup, in effect, a second against President Aristide. Could you talk about that, as well?

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Well, I remember being in Haiti that year with friends. And people had been planning for years to go and celebrate that anniversary. And then we had this happen again, where we had these so-called rebels who — and then the coup and this replay of tragedies, you know? But it seemed so ironic at that time, but I think when — you know, as President Aristide — and one of the first statements that he made outside of Haiti was an echo to Toussaint L’Ouverture, where he said, you know, the tree of Negro liberty has been — the branches have been cut down, paraphrasing Toussaint L’Ouverture, but the roots are strong, and there are many. And this is this part of Haiti’s history, this revolution, I think, that continues to inspire, even — because it’s one of those things that people in difficult moments will quote, because on some level, with all the tragedies that followed, it was the last time that we were great, that we taught the world a lesson, and that we created something in a way that I think Haiti has been punished over and over for, for this revolution, this spirit of — you know, of these roots that won’t die.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And we just have a few seconds left, but what do you think Americans should understand about Haiti right now and what we can do to assist in this time of trouble?

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Well, this remains a very — a pressing emergency. As we are approaching the one-year anniversary, it’s still an emergency. I think it’s important for us not to forget that, that Haiti is still in a great state of distress and emergency, even though it’s not in the front of the headlines.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Edwidge Danticat is a Haitian American writer. Her latest book is Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work.

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Novelist Edwidge Danticat: “Haitians Are Very Resilient, But It Doesn’t Mean They Can Suffer More Than Other People”

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