Haiti's Storyteller

By Charlotte Bruce Harvey '78 / January/February 2011
January 6th, 2011

On January 12, 2010, as a 7.0 earthquake killed more than 200,000 people and left a million and a half homeless in Haiti, 700 miles to the north Edwidge Danticat's cell phone began to ring. Danticat, who lives in Miami but spent her childhood in Haiti, belongs to a large, close-knit family dispersed in both countries, and many of the calls that day were from relatives and friends worried about the fate of others.

Photos by Carl Juste
One of the Haitian organizations Danticat supports is represented by the necklace she wears. The Apparent Project (www.apparentproject.org) tries to reduce the growth of the huge number of orphans in the country by teaching mothers skills like jewelry so that poverty will not drive them to give up their children. 
Another was from a producer at CNN, asking her to appear on Anderson Cooper's news show, AC360. Over the nearly two decades since she earned her MFA in 1993 at Brown, Danticat has become one of the most celebrated writers in the United States and the principal interpreter of all things Haitian to the outside world. The recipient of a 2009 MacArthur "genius" award, she writes and speaks unflinchingly about the history, politics, and culture of her homeland in a voice that is at once intimate and global. So even before the aftershocks hit Haiti, reporters and editors were on the line asking her: What are you going to do? When are you going back? Could you come on television or on the radio and tell us how you feel? Could you write us fifteen hundred words or less?

In the days after the earthquake, as cell phone coverage returned to Haiti, news of her family emerged: a cousin had a broken back and was being transported from one tent hospital to another. Other relatives were without food or water. The four-story house in Port-au-Prince in which her cousin Maxo and his family lived, had collapsed. It took two days for rescuers to free his wife and all but one of their children.Their ten-year-old son was found dead. Two days later, Maxo's remains were uncovered.

Learning all this, Danticat felt powerless. She wanted to help, but her one-year-old was having trouble feeding, making travel impossible. So, Danticat says, "I did what I do."

Which is to say, she wrote.

Danticat's poignant account of Maxo's death ran in the New Yorker three weeks later. She gave interviews and turned out those essays of fifteen hundred words or less. When a cancellation turned up on a flight to Haiti in February, her husband, Fedo Boyer, volunteered to care for their two girls so that Danticat could go help relatives there.

In the year since the earthquake, journalists have moved on to other stories, but Danticat has not. As a masterly writer of fiction, memoirs, and essays, she has demonstrated the influence a writer can exert in keeping a country's plight before the world's eye. In the United States, she's raised money for nonprofits and given book readings, doing whatever she can to remind those with money and influence that more than a million people—half of them children—are still without homes, that schools and hospitals need to be rebuilt, that Haiti's infrastructure, always fragile, has been decimated.

To explain the catastrophe to children, she has produced a picture book, Eight Days: A Story of Haiti, about a boy who is buried under debris after the earthquake. She narrated a documentary, Nou Bouke (We're Tired), that's scheduled to air on the PBS series Independent Lens on January 25 to mark the anniversary of the earthquake. In the January Good Housekeeping, she has published an essay promoting Li, Li, Li! (Read, Read, Read!), a Haitian children's literacy group.

"Part of my role is to try to keep people's awareness up," Danticat says. "Just because you don't see this in the news anymore, it doesn't mean that it's gone. The world might have moved on to the next catastrophe, but it still goes on."

The earthquake has given Danticat a greater sense of urgency. "That day, January 12, changed all our lives, and everybody's responsibilities became greater," she said over breakfast during a visit to Providence last fall. "I've seen it in the lives of a lot of my friends who are artists of different types: you no longer have the luxury of sitting back and creating art out of the air anymore, because so many of us have lost friends and family—and in some cases homes—and your whole worldview has been altered. It would be impossible for your art to stay the same if your country is so altered, if the people you know have been changed so much by a large event."

Danticat frequently describes herself as "an accident of literacy." Born in 1969, during the dictatorship of Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier, she spent her childhood in Bel Air, the infamous Port-au-Prince slum where her family has lived for half a century. When she was two, her father emigrated to New York City to find a better place to raise his family. Two years later her mother followed, leaving Edwidge and her brother, Bob, in the care of their aunt and uncle, Joseph Dantica (he spelled his name without the final t), a pastor in a Baptist church in Bel Air. "My mother had to make these very harrowing choices, to leave us," Danticat says. "My brother was two and I was four. She had no idea if she would be coming back." For a long time, she says, "it was very difficult to say good-bye to anyone."

Although Danticat grew up poor, her inner life was rich, fed by a loving surrogate family and by the many stories she heard told in Haitian Creole. In school, she began to recognize the common threads that ran between those stories and the ones she was reading in books. She spoke Creole at home and in daily life, but French in school, where she recited passages from Les Trois Mousquetaires and the Fables de la Fontaine.

Under the dictatorships of Papa Doc and his son, Jean-Claude Duvalier, nicknamed Baby Doc, reading was a dangerous activity. Anyone could be killed for having the wrong kind of book in the house. "I wasn't in a position to just pluck a book from a shelf," she says. "They were chosen for me." The only book she owned was Ludwig Bemelmans's Madeline.

What she did have, though, was paper. Her aunt, who sold school supplies, would bring home white paper that Danticat would stitch into notebooks. With her brother and a cousin she'd create comic books inspired by the French Tintin series and Western comics.

When Danticat was twelve, her parents sent for her and her brother to join them in the United States. In Brother, I'm Dying, her 2007 memoir of her father and uncle, she describes the trauma, first of being wrenched from her mother as a child, and then of leaving her beloved aunt and uncle for New York City. There, she met her new brothers, who were born in New York City and spoke English as their first, rather than third, language.

Entering school as an immigrant, Danticat worked hard to learn English, studying the classics in graphic novel form. She says the first book she read entirely in English was Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. English became the first language she used both in school and out in the world. It became the language in which she would write.

Danticat at her home in Miami with one of her two daughters, Leila, who is two.
For Danticat, writing has always been a delight. She says that as a child she longed to write, but had no idea what that meant or how it was done. After moving to New York, she joined the teen magazine New Youth Connections, her first after-school activity. It was there that at age fourteen she found her voice, publishing her first article—an essay about coming to America. Arriving at her new graffiti-covered school, she wrote, "As far as I was concerned, the teachers might as well have been hitting spoons against the blackboards, I understood nothing." What she did understand though was the word Haitian and the venom with which her classmates spat it at her. To them, all Haitians were filth—AIDS-infected boat people. "If only those who abuse us would ask," she wrote, "perhaps we'd explain that it is not our fault that we are intruding on their existence. To avoid brutal deaths and lead better lives, we are forced to leave our homes. We'd plead with them to accept us and accommodate us, not make life miserable for us. Because, yes, we are strangers. Unfortunate strangers in a world of strangers."

Danticat's parents wanted her to become a doctor, but she believed the training would take too long, so she settled on nursing. She attended Clara Barton High School in the Bronx and volunteered twice a week in the geriatric ward at Kings County Hospital. "The patients there were on death's door," she says. She'd feed and read to them, but many died before her next visit. Abandoning the idea of nursing, Danticat enrolled at Barnard, where she majored in French literature in English translation.

Unsure of what she wanted to do after college, she took a job as an administrative assistant in Barnard's financial aid office, and because free tuition was an employee benefit she enrolled in a course at Columbia's School of International Public Affairs. At the first class meeting, she says, she looked around the room full of former Peace Corps volunteers—worldly students with actual experience—and panicked. The teacher asked a hypothetical question about transporting corn to Africa, she says, "and I was thinking, 'Mail it! Mail it!' Everyone else had good ideas. I dropped out of the class and the program."

One day Danticat wandered into the English department at Barnard, where a poster advertising Brown's MFA program caught her eye. "It was fantastic," she says. "You didn't have to take a standardized test—no GRE! When I applied and actually got in I was thrilled." Plus, she says, "They paid your tuition and even gave you a little stipend to live on. All the other programs I had seen you had to take four classes, but Brown was so loose. I felt like [the MFA program] was meant to give you this opportunity to write with the least academic burden. I put all my classes in one day and tried to write as much as possible."

In a class with Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Paula Vogel, she befriended Nilo Cruz '94 MFA, who would become another Pulitzer winner as well as a fellow Miami resident. Danticat wrote a play, The Education of Adam, that was produced at Rites and Reason theater.

She joined a writing workshop led by novelist Robert Coover. When asked recently about Danticat as a student, Coover recalled that all but one of the students in the workshop were women, an especially worldly and international group. Danticat was younger than the others, who by then were already accomplished writers. Still, Coover recalls, she stood out for her "integrity, compassion, commitment, richness of story material, and seriousness of purpose, together with a distinctive voice of her own that was immediately appealing." Although she struggled to make her sentences work together, "One had the feeling that, temporary stylistic and structural problems aside, here indeed was a writer."

For her master's thesis, Danticat built upon the New Youth Connections essay and a subsequent short story she'd published there about being forced to leave Haiti. From the pain of being left by her parents and then reunited with them in a foreign land, at Brown she spun a novel about three generations of women: a Haitian grandmother; her daughter, who is raped and impregnated by a stranger; and the granddaughter, Sophie, who is the product of that rape. Sophie, brought up by her grandmother in Haiti, is forced to leave at age twelve to rejoin the mother she scarcely knows in New York City.

Sophie's mother still has nightmares about the rape she'd endured, and she inherits from her own mother the tradition of "testing," in which she assures herself of Sophie's virginity by probing her vagina with a fingertip. The resulting novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, was published in 1994 to critical acclaim. Still, many Haitians criticized Danticat for making the practice of testing seem more widespread than it is and casting their culture in an ugly light. She struggled to explain that Sophie was a fictionalized character, an individual, not a stand-in for all Haitian girls.

Danticat followed Breath, Eyes, Memory with Krik? Krak!, a haunting collection of short stories that draws its title from the Haitian Creole call and response, in which the storyteller will call out Krik? and listeners will answer Krak! One of the stories, "Night Women," originally had been published in 1994 under the title "Voices in a Dream," in the Brown student literary magazine Clerestory. Krik? Krak! was nominated for a 1995 National Book Award, and in 1998 Oprah Winfrey chose Breath, Eyes, Memory for her book club, bringing Danticat to the attention of a broad audience.

With her second novel, The Farming of Bones, Danticat won a 1998 American Book Award. Set in 1937, when Dominican Republic president Rafael Trujillo ordered his soldiers to slaughter Haitians working in his country, the book imagines this horrifying chapter in Hispaniola's history from the perspective of an orphaned Haitian girl who was raised as a treasured housemaid in a Dominican home. The novel mingles eloquent personal observations with brutal historical facts. To make it appear as though Haitians were killing one another, General Trujillo's soldiers butchered their victims with machetes, or forced them off cliffs into the river between the two nations that has been known as Massacre River ever since a seventeenth-century battle between the French and the Spanish for control of the island.

Danticat broadened her reach with the 2004 novel The Dew Breaker, a group of loosely linked stories that collectively reflect on guilt and expiation. She says she intended it as neither a novel nor a short-story collection, but a mixture of the two. It tells the story of a member of Duvalier's private security force, or tontons macoutes, and his attempt to free himself of the atrocities he has committed in Haiti by moving to the United States to create a new, peaceable life as a barber. His wife, Anne, finds a way to forgive his past, reasoning that he has left the killing behind him. But his daughter cannot stomach her discovery that the loving father she'd always believed to be a victim of the tontons macoutes was actually one of them.

The Dew Breaker's experimental structure marked a leap forward for Danticat. And the novel's characters are so fully realized that judging them becomes difficult. A generous, even humble, writer, Danticat raises the thorniest of moral issues, turns them this way and that, and finally lays them out for the reader to ponder. The Dew Breaker leaves you shaken, as if you've traveled to a country filled with both beauty and horror and returned to see your former easy convictions in a new light.

While writing her novels and short stories, Danticat has worked steadily as a journalist, contributing to such newspapers and magazines as the Miami Herald, The Nation, Harper's Bazaar, and Essence. "I don't sleep much," she says. She has written a travel book about Haiti's Carnival and two young adult novels. She has written prefaces to other writers' books, including one of her own favorite novels, Zora Neal Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. Danticat's preoccupations are immigration and identity, the relationships between mothers and daughters, and Haiti's storytelling tradition and fraught political history.

In 2004 and 2005 Danticat lost both of the men she calls her "two fathers": her uncle, Joseph, who had raised her in Haiti, and her father, Mira. In the biographical memoir Brother, I'm Dying, Danticat tells their stories and her own, culminating in her father's death from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and her uncle's while in the hands of the U.S. Office of Homeland Security. Threatened by gangs in Haiti, Joseph had flown to Miami with his son Maxo, and made the mistake of saying he might need temporary asylum. Because of this, officials classified him as an asylum seeker, confiscated his medications, and put him into a holding facility. He died in a prison hospital. (Later, Maxo would return to his family in Haiti only to die in last year's earthquake.) Between these two deaths, though, Danticat gave birth to the first of her two daughters, whom she named Mira, after her father. Suffused with a family's warmth and determination to help one another through painful times, the memoir is also a chilling account of a callous failure on the part of the U.S. immigration system. Brother, I'm Dying was a finalist for the 2007 National Book Award for autobiography and won the 2008 National Book Critics Circle. At Commencement that spring, Brown gave her an honorary degree.

Last October Danticat returned to Brown, where incoming students had been assigned to read The Dew Breaker over the summer. Before she spoke, a group of Africana studies and writing faculty joined her for lunch in a basement seminar room. Everyone ate Indian food off paper plates while the faculty peppered their former student with observations and questions about her newest book, a collection of essays called Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work. Written over several years, the book's dozen pieces examine her complex relationship to the country that was her home for the first twelve years of her life, and the particular financial, political, and ethical constraints that immigrant artists face. Ama Ata Aidoo, the acclaimed Ghanaian novelist and a visiting professor at Brown, sat near Danticat, and across the ring of seminar tables was her former professor Robert Coover, who runs Brown's International Writers Foundation, which gives fellowships to writers whose work endangers their lives. When Breath, Eyes, Memory was published in 1994, Danticat said, her mother worried about its political repercussions, warning her, "'Things can change at any time.' Many parents want their children not to become writers or artists because of the money," Danticat observed, "but for us, we could be killed."

"You remind me of the seriousness and the stakes of writing," observed John Edgar Wideman, professor of creative writing and Africana studies.

Later that afternoon Danticat addressed an auditorium packed with students, faculty, and community members. She read a passage from The Dew Breaker in which the torturer awakes, having botched a job the previous night and murdered a preacher. There was a struggle, and his bloody face is swollen and cut. A woman, Anne, whom we know to be the preacher's sister, and whom the torturer will marry and start his life over with in New York, stands by his bed with ginger, honey, and herbs to place on his wound. "What did they do to you?" she asks him.

"This was the most forgiving question he'd ever been asked," Danticat read. "It suddenly opened a door, produced a small path, which he could follow....

"It was obvious to him that she now felt she'd been there to save him, to usher him back home and heal him."

As Danticat read, you could hear the sharp intake of breath in the audience.

"What is your view of redemption?" someone asked during the question-and-answer period.

"I wanted to leave that open," Danticat said simply. Growing up in Bel Air, she said, she would see people go from being macoutes back to being ordinary people—neighbors. She structured the book loosely, she explained, because "I wanted to have multiple voices to explore the ripple effect of torture. It came out of my own curiosity." Then she added with a twinkle, "The great thing about writing is you get a front-row seat on the story."

In December, the editors of Foreign Policy named Danticat one of the top 100 global thinkers "for affirming the moral necessity of art, even in the worst of circumstances." Danticat says that when she started reading to children in Haiti's tent cities last winter, some adults challenged the idea. "We need bread, not books," they'd tell her.

"You can have both," she replied.

"Even in a place like Haiti," she says, "where the quest for food is constant—people wake up in the morning and go out and have to come back at a certain time with something to eat—even there, people need other distractions, other possibilities." She continues, "Stories go back to the beginning of time. People have always told each other stories: stories told on cave walls, stories recited over the campfire, stories about the quest for bread. They need the story of who they are." Storytellers were the original archivists of those stories, she says, and "now we have books." Reading to children in the camps, she says, "You can see their world extend before your eyes."

Talking by phone from Miami the day after last year's Haitian national election, Danticat sounded low. The election had been followed with reports of fraud, and protestors were taking to the streets. On the heels of the earthquake, the hurricane, and the recent cholera outbreaks, the possibility of failed elections seemed impossibly cruel.

"Sometimes I think Sisyphus is a great metaphor for Haiti," Danticat said. "In Haiti, every time the people push that boulder up the hill, they think it will be the last time. And then they go down the mountain again. Today we're at the bottom of the hill again, looking up."

Still, she said, "You have to have hope. If you don't have hope you just die." Plus, she added, "There are the children. Half of Haiti's population is under twenty-five. You have to imagine that there is something better ahead for them."

Charlotte Bruce Harvey '78 is the BAM's managing editor. You can find reviews of Brother, I'm Dying and The Dew Breaker at www.brownalumnimagazine.com.

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