In “Edwidge Danticat on Her Caribbean Immigrant Experience,” Danticat discusses her short story “Without Inspection” with Deborah Treisman (The New Yorker). Read the story and listen to her podcast at The New Yorker. Here are excerpts of Treisman’s interview of the author:
Your story in this week’s issue, “Without Inspection,” is a love story of sorts, between two undocumented immigrants from Haiti, who have travelled to Miami by boat. Are their stories completely invented, or do they draw on the stories of real people who have made that journey?
This is indeed a love story, but it’s about more than romantic love. When I first moved to Miami from New York, about sixteen years ago, among the recurring news items that often caught my attention was one about boats coming ashore filled with people from either Cuba or Haiti. The Cubans were considered political refugees and were allowed to stay. The Haitians were considered economic refugees and were often sent back. Twenty-five years ago, I wrote a short story called “Children of the Sea,” which was based on some interviews I did with people who’d travelled from Haiti to Miami by boat. These many years later, I wanted to write about what might happen to one particular man, Arnold, after he got here. Arnold’s circumstances are a bit different from those of others who came in the past, and even from some who are making this trip today. He comes in a speedboat, for example, rather than in an overcrowded raft or fishing boat.
As the story begins, Arnold is falling from a great height—from the scaffolding of a building that is under construction. While falling, he flashes back to scenes from his life. Was that framework what you started with when writing this piece? Why?
From the moment the idea for the story first came to me, I imagined it as a story in which the main character is falling and is considering the most important moments and people in his life. I think that framework gives some flexibility to the narrative, some elasticity, because that experience would be very different for each of us, depending on our personal and larger history, who we are, what we value most, and who or what we are most concerned about. Another news item that often catches my attention here in Miami is how many construction workers fall while working to build very expensive hotels or apartment buildings that they would not be able to afford to stay or live in—so that became one of the elements at play in “Without Inspection.”
There’s something almost mythic about the image of this man’s life flashing before his eyes as he falls. Did you mean to push at the boundaries of what is plausible in this almost magical flight?
Yes, boundaries are being pushed. The story kept demanding more: more time, more space. Six and a half seconds is not a lot of time. I am both extremely intrigued and terrified by heights and by flight, though flight is a powerful spiritual motif for some of us who are children of the African diaspora. Many of our ancestors saw flying, both real and imagined, as an escape from the unbearable circumstances of the Middle Passage, slavery, and some of what came after. Halfway through writing the story, I began thinking of that beautiful line at the end of Toni Morrison’s magnificent novel “Song of Solomon”: “If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.”
Both Arnold and Darline survived a sea landing while others around them drowned. How common is this experience among Caribbean immigrants in Miami?
I remember the first time, after I moved to Miami, that people in the Haitian community pooled their money to bury a young woman whose body had washed up on the beach after one of these boats landed. She came to Miami to join a young man she was in love with. Her family didn’t even know she was leaving Haiti. Many people, including me, went to her funeral service to make sure that she had a proper sendoff after this very long and sad journey. In the story, Darline says that one out of five people on these journeys drown, but it’s hard to know. We’ll never have a fully accurate count of how many boats take on water in the middle of the ocean, how many never make it to shore. In the last couple of years, there has been a similar situation in Europe, with people coming from sub-Saharan and northern Africa and Syria, among other places. Somehow that seems familiar to me. We may know who arrives, but we’ll never know exactly how many didn’t make it out of the sea. [. . .]
Read the story and listen to her podcast at https://www.newyorker.com/podcast/the-authors-voice/edwidge-danticat-reads-without-inspection
[Photo above by Ernesto Ruscio / Getty.]