Edwidge Danticat Returns to Haiti In New Stories

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Edwidge Danticat’s collection Everything Inside explores the ethereal and urgent influence of Haiti on its stories’ characters

 

“Sometimes people know our most vulnerable places,” Edwidge Danticat says. “Because of that, we do things we know we shouldn’t do—things that have tragic outcomes. This is the kind of conflict that I’m drawn to: people asking very hard questions.”

In Danticat’s new collection, Everything Inside (Knopf, Aug.), these questions may explore romantic infidelity, broken pacts, or the identity of a long-lost parent; sometimes, they involve the labyrinthine question of whether to return to Haiti—the country—from Little Haiti in Miami, where many of the stories take place. Danticat says that above all, she wished to “show all the layers” of the women in her new stories when they make their decisions—good, bad, and everything in between. And it is this core idea—women faced with choices at once mundane and magnitudinous—that perhaps best characterizes Everything Inside.

Danticat’s earliest fiction was dense with blood and violence, steeped in Haiti’s past: the history of Papa Doc and Baby Doc Duvalier’s tyrannical regimes and the horrific presence of the Tonton Macoutes, the Duvaliers’ legendarily brutal, murderous paramilitary force. In “Children of the Sea,” one of the stories from Krik? Krak!, the Macoutes’ excesses are described in excruciating detail: they make family members rape each other in front them, then murder them, acting with the impunity of their belief that vodou protects them. These earlier works subtly nod to Haiti’s other historic moments of violence, from the brutalities of the French during the slave trade to the bloodshed during the former slaves’ epochal takeover of Haiti in 1791, which made it, in 1804, the first free black republic in the Americas.

But Haiti’s history is also one of astonishing rebellion and of ordinary people just trying to get by—facts often ignored by American media, which insists on painting Haiti as an epicenter of suffering. This is what Danticat’s fiction has sought to capture, too, through the tenderness and resilience of its characters. Rather than focusing solely on the ravages, she also shows Haiti’s beauty, geographically and culturally. Her work has always been quietly revolutionary in both its explicit depiction of tragedy and its examination of deep interpersonal relationships.

Danticat’s newest collection takes this idea further, presenting Haitians, Americans, and Haitian-Americans who have varying degrees of distance from the Caribbean nation. Some of the characters have never experienced the horrors that Danticat’s earlier characters fled; many live in America. In these stories, Haiti’s enduring presence feels more ethereal—urgent in a different way for this new generation.

Everything Inside, Danticat says, is “a personal milestone”—the result of trying something new. She wanted to create a story collection that was, inarguably, a collection of stories, rather than, as with The Dew Breaker or Claire of the Sea Light, a text that can be interpreted as a novel in fragments. The narratives in Everything Inside contain “echoes” of each other, she notes, and she points out that the tales, though nonlinear, span a year. Danticat says that she composed Krik? Krak! and Breath, Eyes, Memory in her 20s; this latest book comes as she turns 50, and so, she adds, it signals a turning point for her.

Danticat says that these new characters may be thought of as the grandchildren of the characters in Krik? Krak!Breath, Eyes, Memory, and The Dew Breaker. In those works, she notes, the protagonists were “brand-new, face-to-face with exile”: they cohabited with horror, unable to escape, for long, the terrors of Haiti’s dictatorial regimes. In Everything Inside, however, the characters include people born in America—they’re from a generation that knows of Haiti’s blood-drenched past but does not feel its weight to such an oceanic degree as the protagonists in her earliest books. These new characters “have a different relationship to Haiti,” she argues. “Most of the characters have been in America for a while. They’re sort of safer than their parents and grandparents were.”

Rather than facing Haiti’s gunmen and ghosts, this post–Krik? Krak! generation is navigating more quotidian concerns such as romantic breakups and sending kids to college. Danticat says that at the same time, they are “dealing with interpersonal exile”—separated from each other by heartbreak and painful secrets. These lacunae permeate Everything Inside.

Exile, to be sure, has always defined Danticat’s work, in all of its protean, poignant forms—be it political, geographic, cultural, or existential. And though Everything Inside focuses perhaps most on interpersonal distances, Danticat’s American characters are still connected to Haiti, and so, she observes, they must face “the flip side of exile: whether or not to return.” When these characters do travel to Haiti, she notes, they don’t wish solely to see monuments to loss; they want to see “the pretty places,” too—“the multiplicity of Haiti and of their ancestry.”

Of course, political exile still appears; in one story, a xenophobic Caribbean minister expresses Trump-like anti-immigrant rhetoric. But generally, these are tales of a different exile, tales of emotional severance and reconnection. Some of Danticat’s protagonists are women who have been wronged, deceived, or dismissed, often by men—though sometimes, it is other women who wrong them. (The latter cases, she says, were “important” to show; her women are not blameless but are morally complex.)

In one narrative, a woman encounters a married man whom she fell in love with before the 2010 Haitian earthquake, when he lost his family and disappeared from her life; their feelings are complicated, as she realizes that he both is and isn’t the man she once pined for. In another, a girl who doesn’t know her father learns that he is dying and must decide whether to ignore him or go see him. With powerful grace, Danticat captures the moment when the woman sees her father’s dead body; they are worlds apart yet linked by a quiet intimacy. And this remarkable, moving tenderness is perhaps the collection’s most persistent theme. Women find moments of special nearness to other women and to men.

In one scene, a woman touches her tattoo to that of her roommate, both tattoos signifying their emotional growth. In an extraordinary moment from another story, a woman, her friend, and her husband lie together in bed in the shadows, holding each other, touching, kissing, losing, at some sense, the knowledge of whose body is whose—a moment of unabashed love, irrespective of gender or body, all the more salient because the protagonist’s husband leaves her afterward for the friend. These stories contain layers of betrayal and secrecy, but their characters find ways to commiserate, forgive, or at least attempt to understand the ones who have hurt them.

It’s important, Danticat says, that Everything Inside not be read purely as a text of a particular cultural moment—partly because she considers books to be “always behind the cultural moment”—but rather as something as much of the present as the past and future. She decries what she identifies as the day-to-day grotesquerie of the American political present. Obliquely, her book, with its focus on transnational figures who have family in Haiti and America, critiques both the closed-border sentiments of the Trump administration and governmental corruption in Haiti. Her characters “are in the middle” of all this, she says, just “trying to keep it together” in a volatile world.

But in the end, Danticat says, this is a collection about people and the complex interactions and decisions they share. Its tenderness feels striking in a hectic 2019. In the end, we are left with these characters’ brutal, banal, and beautiful moments, like a wide night luminous, every so often, with firefly stars.

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