Liesl Schwabe interviews Edwidge Danticat for NPR.
Edwidge Danticat’s Claire of the Sea Light follows an intrepid little girl on what will prove to be one of the most important and heartbreaking nights of her life.
The language in this book is so beautiful and the shifts from English to Creole are so fluid. You grew up speaking French in school and Creole at home, and then, after your family moved to New York, English. When imagining the lives and feelings of your characters, what language do you think in?
I think mostly in English and in Creole. There’s a constant flow of translation going on in my head. I hear the characters in whatever language they’re speaking—mostly Creole and sometimes also French—and I’m like the scribe in the corner taking notes. You are trained to do this in a family like mine, in which the language you speak depends on whom you’re talking to. My daughters are four and eight years old and they sometimes take on these different accents; without realizing they’re doing it, they echo the voices of the adults. I feel like when I’m writing, I’m doing a version of that.
Much of this book—both Claire’s own story and the story of the town in which she lives—unfolds in reverse, moving from Claire’s seventh birthday to her sixth to her fifth, for example. How much do you know about the structure of the book before you start writing and how much of it takes shape as you go?
I am sometimes an overplanner, but I love it when a book surprises me. This book really surprised me. Everything happens in one evening, and we keep circling back to that evening. Initially I wanted to write a book that was like a radio show, in which each chapter was an episode of that show. But it grew into a lot more—into the story of this little town and some very special people in it.
How often do you return to Haiti these days? How do these visits impact the Haiti portrayed in your fiction?
I still have a lot of family in Haiti so I return quite a bit. I don’t go seeking stories, but, like everything you love very deeply, the stories find you.
Your first book, Breath, Eyes, Memory, was published almost 20 years ago and you’ve been so prolific ever since. How has your understanding of your own writing evolved?
I hope that my writing has gotten a lot more nuanced. Things seemed more black and white to me when I was younger. Now I feel I can take smaller stories and really explore them from within. At least I want to keep trying to do that.