Edwidge Danticat: an Internationally Acclaimed Literary Force
It was a thrill, to be able to reach out and interview one of my favorite not only Haitian authors, women authors but author period Edwidge Danticat. As a young girl reading and writing became an early escape and was a way for me to travel to different places and meet new and interesting people. I was exposed to all kinds of writers and books not only in school, but at home as well. F Scott Fitzgerald, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison, were and are just a few of my favorites.
Edwidge, who began writing at the age of nine was born in Haiti, and immigrated to the US as a preteen at the age of 12. Danticat has penned several books, including Breath, Eyes, Memory, which was an Oprah Book Club selection, Krik? Krak!, a National Book Award finalist and a favorite of mine, as well as The Farming of Bones, The Dew Breaker, Create Dangerously, just to name a few. Her passion and skill for writing was something she began to develop early on, writing for newspapers geared for high school students, especially one called New Youth Connections and participating in writing contest as well. Her works focus on the lives of women and their relationships. She also addresses issues of power, injustice, and poverty and truly in so many ways universal stories pertaining to the immigrant experience as well as being a woman.
She has become a recognizable figure in the Haitian, literary and American community and uses her voice and platform as an author to advocate for those whose voices are often silenced. Hope this glance into Danticat’s journey as a writer and her inspirations prompts you, if you haven’t already to discover her body of work for yourself.
CE: What are some of your fondest memories growing up in Haiti?
ED: Some of my fondest memories of Haiti are of spending summers in the countryside with my cousins when I was a girl, and later on spending time in the summers in the countryside with my daughters and their grandmother, my husband’s mother. A lot of time had passed, but some things have not changed. There were a lot of kids from Port-au-Prince spending the summer in the countryside too when we were recently there. There were a lot of trips to the river, soccer games in the afternoons in nearby fields, visits with friends in the early evening, and flocks of moths invading the house after the rain. Of course the country has changed a lot and keeps changing, but there are so many beautiful moments like that that you might take for granted.
Photo provided by Edwidge Danticat
CE: What was the change like spending most of your early childhood in Haiti, then moving to NY? Was it a big culture shock for you?
ED: I moved to the United States in 1981 at age twelve soon after cases of AIDS were first being discussed in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control named four groups at “high risk” for the virus. We, Haitians were the only ones solely identified by nationality. Some of the non-Haitian students would regularly shove and hit me and the other Haitian kids, telling us that we had dirty blood. This was of course more than the regular culture shock. I did have a wonderful teacher, Mr. Dusseck. He taught us everything, including what exit to use in the school to avoid getting beaten up after school. One of my best memories of being in the US early on though was April 20, 1990 when thousands of us marched across the Brooklyn Bridge to protest the FDA ban that kept us from donating blood, even to our own family members. Everyone I knew was there, old, young, everybody.
CE: When or at what age did you start taking writing seriously as a career path? You began writing at the age of nine years old, did you know from that young an age you wanted to be a writer?
ED: I did, even though I wasn’t really sure how I would go about it. I would just read books and think to myself I want to do that. Even though I was writing through high school and published in newspapers for high school students, especially one called New Youth Connections, I didn’t think of writing as a possible career until I was in college and started winning some writing contests. That’s when I applied to the Masters of Fine Arts program at Brown University and started writing my novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory there.
CE: Did your family encourage and support your passion for writing, did you grow up in a creative artistic environment would you say?
ED: My parents wanted me to be a doctor, and if not that, a nurse. They thought writing was risky, both in terms of having no guarantees of making a living and putting yourself in danger by sharing intimate things about yourself. My parents came of age during the Duvalier dictatorship, in the Papa Doc era in Haiti so they were always worried about words coming back to hurt a person or that person’s family. For them being a writer seemed like something you would do as a hobby but not a job. My father was a cab driver and my mother worked in a factory. They felt that my brothers and I had been given such extraordinary opportunities that we should do extraordinary and safe things that offered a clearer path to success. In that sense, they were not that different from many other immigrant parents from all over the world.
CE: What inspires you as a writer, creator?
ED: Everything really, everything that is happening around me, in my life, in the world. Whether it shows up in the work or not, a seed is always planted in some way when I see or experience something, or whenever anything happens to me or those around me.
CE: Which one of your books was the most challenging to write? Please explain why.
ED: Probably Brother, I’m Dying. It was hard because it was very painful. It’s about the death of my father to a lung disease and my uncle, who raised me in Haiti, and died in immigration custody here in Miami. The book was a memorial to both of them and a celebration of the birth of my oldest daughter who was born that same year. The fact that they are both now gone made it very challenging to write, but ultimately rewarding too.
CE: Your latest book Everything Inside was named Best Book of 2019 by NPR, Buzzfeed, Time, and Esquire. What was your inspiration?
ED: A lot of the stories in the book are set in Little Haiti, which is gentrifying very quickly. One day I was walking in the neighborhood and I saw a sign that looked like one of those shooting targets with the words NOTHING INSIDE IS WORTH DYING FOR. It seemed to me, if you applied this to a hostile immigration climate, like some kind of extreme xenophobic threat. All the characters in the book took great risks because they believed a better future was possibly worth dying for. So that’s how I landed on the title of the book. All the stories in the book are about love in some way, romantic love, country love, parent child love. Love and immigration are at the heart of the book.
CE: Arianna Rebolini, BuzzFeed described Everything Inside as “Astounding … written with the kind of emotional precision that leaves you gasping. We meet a whole cast of characters who feel absolutely real: so striking in their ordinariness, so complex in their humanity. Danticat is a fiction master.” Your work has been acclaimed and you have received many awards, how does such recognition make you feel?
ED: I’d be lying if I said it didn’t feel good, or at least like a kind of relief. I have to say I take to heart something my mother once told me, that if you celebrate too much over praise then you also get crushed when you’re trashed, so I am grateful but either way I don’t let it go to my head.
CE: Who are some writers you admired growing up and now?
ED: I admired and still admire writers like Marie Vieux Chauvet, Jacques Roumain, Jacques Stephen Alexis, J J Dominique, Ida Faubert, and Dany Laférrière. They were some of the first Haitian writers I got to read at The New York Public Library in Brooklyn when I first moved to New York.
CE: What are some accomplishments or experiences thus far in your career that have made you proud?
ED: Just the fact that I’ve been able to write the books I have and that they have connected with people makes me extremely proud.
CE: What would you say is the best advice you’ve received personally and professionally?
ED: My first publisher told me to always have something started before your previous work is published. That way no matter what the response, good or bad, you will still be a writer. No one will take that away. I have always followed that advice. The other bit of advice I mentioned before. If you over value praise then you might also have to take criticism close to heart.
CE: What advice or wisdom would you give a young aspiring writer?
ED: I’d say remember that your story matters. Be your own muse. Don’t wait for a sudden strike of inspiration. Discipline is not often discussed when we’re talking about writing. Professional musicians must practice a bunch of hours a day. This craft too requires discipline. Don’t get discouraged by rejections and give up. Seek fellowship where you can find it. Read a lot. Keep trying. Keep writing and kenbe la.
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