2018 NBCC Finalist Award Interview: Edwidge Danticat’s “The Art of Death”

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See excerpts below from Edwidge Danticat’s interview about writing The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story and her experience as a finalist for The National Book Critics Circle Award.

For the past four years, the National Book Critics Circle has partnered with The New School’s MFA Creative Writing program, allowing the students to interview each of the NBCC Awards Finalists. In addition to building excitement for the Awards Finalist Reading and Ceremony held at the New School March 14th-15th, these interviews have built an intergenerational bridge between the writers of today and tomorrow. [. . .]

I was drawn to Edwidge Danticat’s NBCC Award Nominated Book, The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story (Graywolf), from the second I laid eyes on it. The book is small, chic, but inside it’s jam-packed with advice for writing about one of life’s most difficult topics. She states in the book’s first chapter, “I have been writing about death as long as I have been writing,” and from her debut novel Breath, Eyes, Memory (1994) to her NBCC Award Winning memoir Brother, I’m Dying (2007), she’s proven one of the best ways we can understand death is through reading and writing about it.

The Art of Death is a masterful addition to Danticat’s body of work. From the painstakingly thorough reflection on her own mother’s death to the literature she so flawlessly references, I’ve yet to come across a book as helpful on writing about death as this one. [. . .]

Kelly McHugh-Stewart: [. . .] I loved what the New York Times says about the writing in The Art of Death, how you write this book with a “reader’s passion and a craftsman’s appraising eye.” One of the first things that struck me was the amount of literature you reference throughout. Did you have these passages set aside beforehand, or did you seek them out in the process of writing the book?

After my mom passed away in October 2014, I was at this point where I felt empty. I had friends who sent me things: a book of poems by Lucille Clifton; C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed; people would also send poems and things of that nature. So I just started reading. Most of the books I mention I had read before, but I wanted to go back to them with my grief in mind.

Reading and rereading those texts, for me, was very comforting. I knew I was going to have to write about my mother in some way before I could write about anything else, but I didn’t want to write about it the way I did my father in Brother I’m Dying, then this opportunity came and I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to do it, to do something that had a very clear structure and at the same time: it would allow me to talk about my grief and some of the books I was drawing comfort from.

Of all the books you reference, do you have one you consider your favorite or found yourself returning to more often than others?
Definitely the Lucille Clifton poem I reference, “Oh antic God / return to me / my mother in her thirties.” A friend sent that one to me soon after my mother passed away. That one really, really, struck me because I was not with my mother for most of her thirties; she was here in the U.S. and I was in Haiti with my aunt and uncle. Reading it, I just had that longing doubly so.

To imagine my mother young, I felt like the whole enterprise was something that, ultimately I wouldn’t be able to have. I wouldn’t be able to have my mother in her thirties, but often, when writing something, having a task that you know is impossible and trying to get as close to something as possible is a wonderful challenge. It’s something that keeps the act of writing it fresh and exciting; you have a quest that is, maybe, impossible. I couldn’t get my mother back, but I felt like there were some things that I could memorialize in this process and then put her death in the company of these other deaths that are just as epic.

Death is one of those things that, it happens every single day, but when it happens in our life, it feels new, it feels like it’s never happened before. [. . .]

For full article and interview, see http://www.bkmag.com/2018/02/28/nbcc-2018-award-edwidge-daniticat/

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