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Thursday, June 13, 2024

A candid conversation with renowned author Edwidge Danticat

A CSMS Magazine Special

Edwidge Danticat is perhaps the most revered young generation of Haitian writers in North America. She is the kind of writer who does not just tell the story; she takes the reader into a dazzling ride, giving him the magic to vacillate entre l’imaginaire et le réel (between the imaginary and the real.) Writing is an art, and like any other artwork, knowing it and knowing it well is the key to success, as Edwige herself recognizes in a conversation with Ardain last week. Critics agree that in the Anglophone world, many in academia as well as in the literary venues have come to learn and be interested in Haiti and in Haitian literature because of Edwidge writing, which sometimes gives one the taste of Alejo Carpentier’s Lo Real Maravilloso or Jacques Roumain’s poetic style in describing Haiti’s landscape. It would be a pretense to affirm that Edwidge Danticat is the only one in the drive to establish Haitian literature in the Anglophone world. She herself acknowledges several names in this interview like Ferentz Lafarge, Joanne Hyppolite, Jaira Placide, Myriam Chancy, Patrick Sylvain etc…that are doing the same thing.

However, she is indisputably the most famous, paving the way for others to some day reach the top of the publishing world. Her novelistic prose crafted in a genuine, Creolistic authenticity—a Caribbean flavor—always gives birth to masterpieces that are impossible to be overlooked. Her countless prizes could speak for themselves. “I read Cric-Crac, and I immediately became fascinated with the author’s meticulousness,” conceded professor Rashid Moore at Nova Southeastern University. We were pleased few months ago when we saw in the literary magazine Poets & Writers the picture of Danticat standing erect next to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, one of the most famous Latin American writers. Last week, in an interesting conversation, Ardain Isma had a nice chat with Ms. Danticat, where she talked candidly about her career, her future plans and, especially, the conviction, the relentlessness, the wanting-to-read as well as the right attitude that all writers must adapt if they seriously want to be acknowledged in the publishing world.

A.I.  Good Morning Edwidge. I must admit that it is a dazzling moment to have you here at CSMS Magazine—something that our readership has been asking for. Your latest book Brother, I’m Dying is a fascinating tale, but it is a true story. Let me begin by asking you this: How do you now feel writing in the nonfiction world?

E.D. I have written a bit of nonfiction before. In 2001, I published a book called After the Dance, which was a travel narrative about carnival in Jacmel, Haiti. Overtime I’ve written lots of essays and nonfiction pieces. So I already had some familiarity with nonfiction. Brother, I’m Dying is my first attempt at a book length memoir, which tells not just my story, but also the story of my father and uncle. It’s a mix of all I’ve done before, storytelling, reportage, personal stories etc…

A.I. This new memoir that everyone comes to love and that has already earned you yet another prestigious prize must have been pretty painful for you to write. Isn’t that true? Could you please share with us some of your painful moments while writing this book?

E.D. It was very painful to live through some of the events in the book, but really not as painful to write because I was writing about two people I love a great deal, who were no longer with me. Within a year I lost two fathers really, but when I was working on the book, I didn’t feel sadness. I felt as though I was revisiting several people who were now gone from my family.  I felt as though they were with me, helping me out.

A.I. I remember when the tragic death of your uncle happened. A lot of people in the Haitian community were saddened by what happened to your uncle, especially after reading or listening on the radio a moving letter that you had written, expressing your anger. Was that where the idea of writing this book sprang?

E.D. The idea of writing the book sprang after I saw the first of the documents detailing my uncle’s last days. It was his interview at the airport with the Customs officer where he was asked many questions to determine whether or not he’d be allowed to stay. He was placed into deportation proceedings almost immediately and was sent to jail, an 81-year-old man with a valid visa and passport. He was neglected, not given his medicine and was not believed when he became sick. I couldn’t let this go silently. This is my only tool against a huge bureaucracy, my writing.  I had to do something. I had to write about it.

A.I. This is what a reviewer said regarding your latest book. “In Brother, I’m Dying, Ms. Danticat brings the lyric language and emotional clarity of her remarkable 2004 novel The Dew Breaker to bear on the story of her own family, a story which, like so much of her fiction, embodies the painful legacy of Haiti’s violent history….” To what degree your mastery in writing fiction helped you in the coming of Brother, I’m Dying?

E.D. A lot. Fiction is so much about storytelling. This helped me a great deal. I wanted to talk about injustice in this book, especially as it relates to my uncle’s situation, but I also wanted the book to be a piece of art, if you will. I wanted it to be a good read. So having written fiction helped a lot in teaching me how to tell a good story whether it was made up as in my fiction or factual as in this story.

A.I. In your gut-wrenching novel Farming of Bones, some critics saw Jacques Stephen Alexis’ influence. They have made some comparison between Farming of Bones and JSA’s 1956 best selling novel Compère Général Soleil. How do you feel about this assertion?

E.D. The Alexis influence is there, of course. Just as in some ways The Dew Breaker has a Jacques Roumain influence and Breath, Eyes, Memory has a Marie Chauvet influence, sort of. My work is very much influenced by an earlier generation of Haitian writers. Their influence mixed with the African American, Caribbean and Latin American and other North American and immigrant writers makes for an interesting stew.

A.I. You have collaborated with professor Carrol Coates in the translation of Alexis’s great novel L’espace D’un Cillement. Is it fair to say that Alexis is one of your favorite Haitian authors?

E.D. Yes, that novel especially is one of my favorite books, ever. In a lot of ways, Espace is one of Alexis’ least “political” seeming novels. The love story is so strong. The festive period, the details of life in Haiti at that time. It’s a wonderful novel. Working with Carrol on the translation gave me a chance to read it many, many times, which was a great treat because as writers we read to learn as well. And I always learn a lot from Alexis.

A.I. Edwidge, when did you realize that your talent in creative writing was something that you could not afford to waste?

E.D. Not sure what you mean, but I never waste anything. I love writing so much; I can’t imagine my life without it. I would have been a very unhappy person if I weren’t writing. Maybe that’s why I do it so much, which I know annoys some people.

A.I. You and I know that Haitian parents always seek something more concrete in their children, meaning that they would want them to become doctors, lawyers, and engineers. Remember the old saying pitit se pi gwo byen paran (children are their parents’ greatest assets)? So growing up in a Haitian household, did you find the support that you needed there to pursuit a career in writing?

E.D. Not at first. And it wasn’t because my parents didn’t want to support me. I think they just didn’t understand what it meant. To them a writer was someone like Alexis who was murdered and disappeared and also a kind of journalist that no one will like. They didn’t want that for me. They also wanted me to have a safer more stable way of making a living. At my age, nearly forty, I can now understand that. We all want a surer way for our children, especially immigrant parents for immigrant children.

A.I. Last March, you and Dominican writer Junot Diaz won prizes at the National Book Critic Circle awards. This was cited by The Associated Press as a win for Hispañola, the name for Haiti and the Dominican Republic combined. How do you feel writing Haiti or about Haiti in English? Do you consider yourself an ambassador for the Haitian literature in the Anglophone world?

E.D. An ambassador? That would be pretentious of me to say that. I am merely a storyteller. I love stories and try to tell them. Now if people understand Haiti better or try to understand Haiti a little better because of something they’ve seen in my work, I rejoice, of course. I’d love for people after they read me to go and find more to read about Haiti. That’s the most I can hope for.

A.I. Is it fair to say that literature transcends race, ethnicity, language and culture? If yes, could you please elaborate a little bit?

E.D. I hope that’s true. When I read a book, I understand that character—if the writer has done a good job of it—better than I understand or know my closest friends. So art, not just writing, has the power to transcend every ism and speak directly to the human heart.

A.I. You and I know that it isn’t easy to break through the great publishing wall. Many writers with impeccable talent simply gave up trying after receiving countless rejections from publishing houses. How did you get discovered?

E.D. Funny you ask that question. Yesterday I was at a thesis defense for a Creative Writing student of mine at the University of Miami and one of the writers at the school gave her some advice and she said, “you know a lot of people are super talented out there and are wonderful writers, but the people who publish are the people who keep at it.” So if you want to succeed you can’t give up. I was discovered, if you will, when I entered a writing contest and won second place then my first editor, Laura Hruska at Soho Press wrote me a nice note and I sent her part of Breath, Eyes, Memory. She told me to work on it some more, and when I did she published it.

A.I. What advice would you like to give to our promising writers seeking to be published?

E.D. I would say don’t give up. Get your story in the best possible shape and before you send your work out research the places you’re sending it so that you’re not sending a love story to a science fiction magazine. But the best thing is to fine-tune your talent and read what’s out there, read the classics, read as much as you write, if not more.

A.I. Have some of your books been translated into French? If so, which are they? And where can they be found?

E.D. All of them have. Brother will be published in France in the fall. They can be found at Haitian books stores in New York and in Miami and sometimes even at some Barnes and Nobles, and online too at Amazon or Borders.com or online bookstores in France and Canada, which also ship tot he US.

A.I. We know that Haiti has produced great writers that the whole humanity has claimed as its own. Jacques Roumain is a great example. Which one is your favorite Haitian writer?

E.D. Aside from those already named. I really like what Gary Victor’s doing. He’s a real plot-driven writer. I can’t put his books down. I like what Paulette Poujol, Evelyne Trouillot and Ketly Mars are currently doing. Also I like what Rodney Saint Eloi is doing in poetry, JJ Dominique and many others. And there is a lot of young Haitian American writers coming up. Ferentz Lafarge among others, Joanne Hyppolite, Jaira Placide. Myriam Chancy, who’s very established, Patrick Sylvain. A whole bunch of folks.

A.I. Between fiction and non-fiction, which of the two literary genres do you prefer?  And why?

E.D. I don’t really have a favorite. I like them both, and hope to go back and forth more and more.

A.I. What are you working on now? What’s cooking?

E.D.  I’m currently working on a book based on a lecture I delivered at Princeton, my first ever lecture, The Toni Morrison Lecture. It was called Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist At Work. It will be a short book, but nonfiction and I just finished another collection of essays. I hope to go back to the novel, a long linear novel at some point, but I think my mind is a bit fragment now. I started a young adult novel some years ago that I might have to go back to help train me to write an adult novel again.

A.I. As we come to the end of our conversation, is there anything you would want to share with the readership of our magazine?

E.D. I want to thank your readers for their support. I’ve had such faithful support among your readers. Many of them have been with me since the beginning and have seen me—are seeing me—grow. I’m really grateful for that, especially at a time when we have to pick between half a tank of gas and buying a book. So thank you is really all I have to add. And thank you too for taking your time for this conversation.

A.I. It was a pleasure talking to you again, Edwidge. Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to have this little chat with me. On behalf of CSMS Magazine, the readership has sent you tons of bisous!

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