Edwidge Danticat, a Haitian-American author and lecturer, spoke with students at St. Joseph Academy about diaspora and the healing power of writing, as Jake Martin reports for The Augustine Record. Our thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.
Edwidge Danticat, a Haitian-American author and lecturer, spoke with students at St. Joseph Academy about diaspora and the healing power of writing. The author’s work has earned her many accolades including an Oprah’s Book Club selection with “Breath, Eyes, Memory,” her 1994 novel.
Improvising, Danticat took questions from the class over speakerphone after having some technical difficulties in setting up a Skype video chat this week.
Michael Arnold, an English teacher at St. Joseph, said his world literature class had just finished a unit on diaspora and the countries most affected by it. Among others, Haiti and the United States have shared a history of dealing, or not dealing, with the effects of displacement and marginalization in their societies.
Diaspora is the dispersion of any people from their original homeland. Danticat is no stranger to strange places. She spent much of her early childhood away from her parents. Her father left Haiti for America when she was 2 years old and her mother left two years later.
Danticat, who began writing when she was 9 years old, said she tries to write about families dealing with separation and how they attempt to reconstruct their lives afterward.
When she was 12, she left Haiti for Brooklyn, New York, to join her parents in a predominantly Haitian-American neighborhood. She entered her teenage years disoriented with her new surroundings and turned to writing to try and salvage her identity.
“I write fiction, I write non-fiction, I write for kids and I write for adults,” she said. “I try to address issues of desperation. I try to address issues of family and family separation.”
Many times, diaspora occurs on a large scale after a natural disaster or political upheaval. Arnold asked Danticat why people might be willing to separate themselves from faraway tragedies.
After Hurricane Katrina she heard many people say they couldn’t understand how the slow response to the disaster could have happened in this country. Danticat said while there could be some truth to the idea of American exceptionalism, many issues are simply not brought to light.
“There are other things that we share with the world, like extreme poverty, that you don’t see all the time, but there are millions of children going to bed hungry in the United States,” she said. “Sometimes people in this country are not aware of that.”
She said there is a responsibility to educate students that there are people living in difficult situations around the world and that many of them live in the U.S.
“For me, writing is a kind of prayer, almost,” she said. “If I didn’t write I feel like I would be carrying a bigger load through the world. I’d be angrier. I’d be much unhappier.”
One student asked if it was more harmful to be marginalized by your home country or to be marginalized in a new county. Danticat had experienced both. She said both situations are hurtful, but to be marginalized a new country is disorienting and prejudices can keep people from finding work and building a life.
“She’s elbowed her own space in a world that wanted to take that away from her,” Arnold said after the conference with the author. “It’s humbling to consider how quickly we take things for granted.”
He said speaking with Danticat was the perfect way to wrap up the students’ work on tracing themes of diaspora through literature. Arnold has been a teacher with St. Joseph Academy for six years. He originally reached out to Danticat through Facebook and from her response was able to arrange the discussion.
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