Danticat documents truths about Haiti for the world to see

In documenting painful truths about her Haitian homeland, Miami writer Edwidge Danticat demands that the world not turn a blind eye, writes Lydia Martin, who interviewed Danticat for the Miami Herald in the wake of the renewal of U. S. deportations of Haitians.

Music blares on a hectic Friday afternoon at Buena Vista Bistro, Edwidge Danticat’s favorite lunch spot, just a quick stroll from her house on the edge of Little Haiti. Patrons bellow in that wound-up, weekend’s-here way, and stressed-out servers do a valiant job of avoiding eye contact.

You’ve been sitting here 20 minutes, and no one has brought even water. But Danticat, who spent the morning wrestling with a deadline for one more op-ed piece about Haiti and will have to run soon to pick up Mira and Leila, her young daughters, is unperturbed.

“After the earthquake, we went a year without deportations,’’ she says, explaining in her unhurried, even way the topic of the piece she just finished for The New York Times as the low pitch of her voice pulls you in and mutes the clanking and clamoring around you.

“But then the deportations started again. A South Florida man died of cholera when he was sent back. It’s just inhumane. Many of the people who are sent back don’t have criminal records. It’s as if you were deporting people to Japan right now. It’s almost like a death sentence. A study says that 800,000 people could get cholera in Haiti this year once the rainy season starts. I just want to get the word out.”

For Danticat, Haiti has always weighed heavy. At 12, she moved from her homeland to join her parents, who had left her in Port-au-Prince in the care of an aunt and uncle a few years earlier to find jobs in New York that helped support several folks back home.

Hers is one of those shining immigrant tales — the shy young girl who barely opened her mouth those first years in Brooklyn because kids made fun of her accent and clothes and then, against all odds, became a celebrated literary figure.

Since the 1994 publication of her debut novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, she has won numerous awards, including the Pushcart Short Story Prize, American Book Award (for The Farming of Bones) and National Book Critics Circle Award (for Brother, I’m Dying.) In 2009, she received a MacArthur Fellows Genius Grant.

Fiction has always been her passion. But when the moment has demanded the immediacy of nonfiction, as it did after her elderly uncle died in Miami in the custody of U.S. Immigration (the subject of Brother, I’m Dying), Danticat has gone there unblinkingly, putting aside the vivid, poetic imagination that courses through her short stories and novels to tell the plight of her people straight.

But can’t having to explain Haiti all the time feel like a burden to a woman who, one could say, long ago moved away and rose above?

“I love nothing more than being a novelist. But it’s very difficult to come from a place like Haiti and pretend that’s all there is. Because it’s such an ever-changing and urgent reality that anyone who has something to contribute should. At times it does feel like a lot of responsibility. The risk for an activist/artist is always that their activism is considered great, and their art sucks,’’ Danticat says and laughs.

“That’s the balance — in addition to regular life and tiny children — to do good work artistically but to also help bring people closer to understanding the situation in Haiti. I don’t know how good a job I’m doing, but I guess if I believed I couldn’t make a difference at all, I wouldn’t keep at it.”

And Danticat, who has been in overdrive since the earthquake hit in January, 2010, writing essays and columns, appearing on news shows, traveling to Haiti to aid relatives and work with the broader community, won’t abandon the place she still considers home. Or her calling to document its truths and demand that the world not turn a blind eye.

She explains the compulsion, against all the inherent challenges, to give voice to her people’s triumphs and tragedies in her most recent book, Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work (Princeton, $19.95).

In the book, published in late 2010, she explains the courage of her countrymen and women who, even during the bloody repression of the Duvalier regime, found a way to read books and stage plays that were banned or considered subversive:

“They needed to be convinced that words could still be spoken, that stories could still be told and passed on. So as my father used to tell it, these young people donned white sheets as togas, and they tried to stage Camus’ play [ Caligula] — quietly, quietly. …”

She invokes Camus’ last published lecture, Create Dangerously, which “suggests that it is creating as a revolt against silence, creating when both the creation and the reception, the writing and the reading, are dangerous undertakings, disobedience to a directive.”

But the act of creating has other ways of being dangerous, Danticat says.

“There’s the courage it takes for anybody to create something, to say to yourself, ‘I’m going to extract this thing out of myself.’ In some societies it can get you killed. In others you can be completely ignored. That can be a sort of death of something in you. Maybe that’s the more mundane element of courage. The ‘Will I fail? Will it matter?’”

And for the immigrant kid whose parents risked all to insure that she and her three younger brothers would have a chance at a better life, there’s also the courage required to take that artist’s gamble.

“Your parents made all these sacrifices to give you a fighting chance, so you better use it well. You better not become a singer or a dancer. Or a novelist. You better become a doctor or a lawyer so that you can help your family and maybe do something to save people back home,” Danticat, 42, says over salmon and greens. She’s going to be late picking up her girls from school, but husband Fedo Boyer agrees to collect them and drop them off at the restaurant.

“I remember a Haitian radio show I was on years ago, after my first book was published. This woman called in to say, ‘That’s all fine and good, but you better get your nursing degree.’”

If an immigrant artist can get past the fear of failing the whole family by trying something as potentially irresponsible as an artist’s life, then she might have to overcome another trap — the accusations from those who will say she is profiting from her people’s suffering.

“Anguished by my own sense of guilt, I often reply feebly that in writing what I do, I exploit no one more than myself,” Danticat writes in Create Dangerously.

“You never quite overcome the guilt,’’ she tells you. “It can be a touchy balance. There are people in my family who have said to me, ‘You wrote about me. I want to be paid.’”

What does she do?

“I pay them,” Danticat says, laughing again. “Not when it’s about my fiction. But if I write an essay, sometimes the money goes to the relative it’s about. I do feel they contributed to it. It’s not like actually paying them. It’s more that I’ll contribute to something they need back home.”

Her dream is to go back one day and build a little house on the piece of land she and her husband keep in the southern countryside. She’ll write, she says. And teach.

“I’m in the nascent stage of motherhood. So I’m not planning that yet.”

What happens if her daughters, who have already traveled to Haiti several times, don’t feel the same pull of their roots? What if, as the second generation often does, they identify more as Americans and less as Haitians?

“I think Haiti will always be in their lives. But if not, maybe I’ll just stay here and stalk them wherever they move.”

For the original report go to http://www.miamiherald.com/2011/04/07/2171948_p2/in-documenting-painful-truths.html#ixzz1JoziPzaF

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