Edwidge Danticat: A Reader’s Guide, edited by Martin Munro, is a collection of fourteen essays followed by a personal interview with Edwidge Danticat and a thorough bibliography on her work. Divided into four sections, the reader’s guide addresses all of Danticat’s writing from her first highly-acclaimed and controversial novel Breath, Eyes, Memory (1994) up to and including the moving personal memoir Brother, I’m Dying (2007). Lesser known portions of Danticat’s work, such as her young adult fiction and travel writing, are addressed in this reader by academics, literary critics, and fellow writers of Caribbean fiction. Together, these fourteen essays provide a thorough and current perspective on the work of an incredibly prolific writer whose personal story is one Munro describes as “that of modern Haiti” (25).
The first section of the book, entitled “Contexts,” contains four essays, which attempts to examine both Edwidge Danticat’s personal life and her writing as they relate to Haitian, Caribbean, and African-American literature (11). “Inside Out: A Brief Biography of Edwidge Danticat,” a biographical essay by Munro, traces certain aspects of Danticat’s life from her youth in Duvalierist Haiti to her immigration to Brooklyn, New York and later relocation to Miami. Munro notes that Danticat’s connection to Haiti has largely been a result of the migrant Haitian communities that she has been able to find in the United States. Munro also names some of Danticat’s literary influences, both Haitian and African-American, and traces her growth as a writer from Eyes, Breath Memory to The Dew Breaker (2004), the latter of which he describes as “Danticat’s most accomplished work to date” (23). Similarly, essays by J. Michael Dash (“Danticat and her Haitian Precursors”) and Carine Mardorossian (“Danticat and Caribbean Women Writers”) examine Danticat’s work in the context of Haitian and Caribbean literature and explore how Danticat’s writing both fits into and expands certain constructions of identity (national identity, gender, [End Page 311] class and race for example) normally accepted in Caribbean literary expression. The most ambitious essay in this section is “Danticat and The African American Women’s Literary Tradition,” in which Régine-Michelle Jean-Charles compares Danticat’s writing with African-American women’s writing. This essay seeks in some way to explain Danticat’s self-identification as an African-Haitian American (AHA) woman and writer and explore how this identity impacts her writing. According to Jean-Charles, Danticat’s writing shares certain themes common to African-American women’s writing, such as “healing from sexual violence, close-knit female relationships, silence and voice” and “the transformative power of reading and writing” (59). However, Jean-Charles also notes that race does not play such a crucial role in Danticat’s work as it does in the literary tradition of most African-American women writers. Other factors, such as nationality, language and the common experience of immigration inform the identity of Danticat’s subjects as much as issues of race (58).
“Texts and Analyses,” the second section, is the most useful portion of the work from a standpoint of literary criticism. This section examines the entire corpus of Danticat’s novels, young adult fiction, and travel writing. In “Writing Young: Danticat’s Young Adult Fiction,” Kiera Voclavik examines Behind the Mountains (2002) and Anacaona (2005), noting that the recurrent themes of exile, violence and sadness that characterize Danticat’s writing are as present in Danticat’s young adult fiction as they are in her fiction for mature audiences. The understandable absence of the adult theme of sexual relations make Danticat’s young adult fiction an effective way to introduce young non-Haitian readers to Danticat’s culture and history. In his essay “Traveling, Writing: Danticat’s After the Dance,” Charles Forsdick explores Edwidge Danticat’s only attempt at travel writing. Citing literary critics such as James Clifford (author of Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century, 1997) and Christine Montalbetti (author of Le Voyage, Le Monde et La...
Born: January 19 1969; near Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
Education: Clara Barton High School, Brooklyn; Barnard College, New York; Brown University, Rhode Island.
Married: 2002 Faidherbe Boyer.
Career: 1993-95 documentary film work with Jonathan Demme; university teaching in New York, Miami and Texas.
Fiction: 1994 Breath, Eyes, Memory; '95 Krik? Krak! (stories); '98 The Farming of Bones; 2002 Behind the Mountains; '04 The Dew Breaker; Anacaona (forthcoming).
Non-fiction: 2000 (ed) The Beacon Best of 2000; '01 (ed) The Butterfly's Way; '02 After the Dance.
Films (associate producer) : 1996 Courage and Pain; '03 The Agronomist.
Some awards: 1995 Pushcart Short Story Prize; '99 American Book Award.
In the run-up to this month's US elections, the writer Edwidge Danticat joined rallies in Miami's Little Haiti to spur other Haitian-Americans to vote early. Many were disenfranchised in the ballot confusion of 2000. "There was a lot of anger," says Danticat. "In Florida, with the huge number of new arrivals, the issues are very real." Many loathe an asylum policy they see as aimed at keeping out Haitian refugees, an issue made more urgent in a year marked not only by floods and hurricanes that killed several thousand people in Haiti, but by spiralling political violence after the ousting in February of president Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Yet even Danticat could not have foreseen how closely the policy would touch her. The weekend before George W Bush was re-elected, her uncle Joseph, a Baptist minister, who brought her up for eight years while her parents were working in New York, fled the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, after armed gangs ransacked his church and school. He was 81 and had an artificial voicebox after an operation for throat cancer. But as a Haitian seeking political asylum in the US, he was detained at Miami airport. He died five days later in immigration custody.
The official cause of death was acute pancreatitis. Yet for his niece, who says she begged to be allowed to see him when he was taken from the detention centre to hospital on November 2, but was refused "for security reasons", he is a "casualty of both the conflict in Haiti and an inhumane and discriminatory US immigration system". There are, she says, "so many people caught in the crossfire; my uncle was driven out with the clothes on his back and a briefcase. But he fled the frying pan for the fire. Maybe if they'd considered his age instead of applying a blanket policy he might be alive today." Aristide was forced into exile by the combined effects of internal rebellion and US pressure. In Danticat's view, "at the same time as this administration is creating situations elsewhere in the world that cause people to flee, it's closing the doors even tighter against them".
Danticat, who spoke few words of English before the age of 12, when she left Haiti to join her parents in New York, published her first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory (1994) at 25. The New York Times pronounced her one of 30 artists under 30 "likely to change the culture for the next 30 years". She is still only 35, but her fiction gives voice to unspeakable grief and trauma, genocide and torture. Fay Weldon was struck by prose that "delicately tiptoes through bougainvillea and butterflies into minefields of rape, mayhem, insanity, suicide, terror".
For the writer Junot Díaz, who was born in the Dominican Republic bordering Haiti, Danticat is the "quintessential American writer, tackling the new world's hidden history of apocalypse and how one survives it". Another US writer from the Caribbean, Robert Antoni, says she is "doing for Haiti's history of violence and vengeance what Toni Morrison did for the US in tackling the horrors of slavery and its aftermath". Her subject, he adds, is partly "exile, and the impossibility of surrendering memories, or of taking root completely because of them".
Within a year of her debut, Danticat was shortlisted for the National Book Award for her short-story collection Krik? Krak! (1995) - but lost out to Philip Roth. Her sales hit six figures after Oprah Winfrey chose her first novel for the TV book club in 1998. She was named among Granta's 20 Best Young American Novelists in 1996 and the New Yorker's 20 exemplars of "American fiction of the future" in 1999. Caryl Phillips observes that, "although everybody from Oprah to the New Yorker has tried to own her, Edwidge ploughs an independent furrow, and her work gets stronger and more confident with each book". The Dew Breaker, her third novel, out this year, was widely praised as her most accomplished yet by US reviewers, though it received surprisingly little notice in the UK. Her memoir and travelogue about the Haitian carnival, After the Dance, is published in Britain this month. Her loudest critics, however, have been among Haitian readers, who have objected to her alleged betrayal of community "secrets", or portrayed her as yet another outsider on the trail of Victor Hugo and Graham Greene, who both wrote novels set in Haiti.
The Hollywood director Jonathan Demme, for whom Danticat co-produced documentaries on Haiti (she is godmother to his youngest daughter), describes her as a "great, new world-class writer", whose presence had "extraordinary power" even in a bit part in his 1998 film of Morrison's novel Beloved . Friends cite her gentle strength, subtle humour, shyness, modesty and reserve. A New York film-maker and close friend, Patricia Benoît, sees that reserve as "partly a Haitian wariness, because the world is not always a safe place".
Danticat shares a pink stucco bungalow on the border between Miami's Design district and Little Haiti with her husband of two years, Faidherbe Boyer, a Haitian New Yorker who owns a translation agency for English, Spanish and Creole. They bought the house, which was in need of improvements, 18 months ago, and she is longing to have it renovated and surrounded by a neat hedge. She has been making frequent trips back to New York to be with her father, André, who is bedridden with pulmonary fibrosis. But she is also expecting her first child in April. "With my father's illness and my uncle's death, it felt that, if not for the baby, it would have been the year from hell." Her family feared for her, because "my true reputation is being a hysteric. My body reacts to things; it's very Victorian and dramatic, like fainting spells and passing out at funerals." But pregnancy "has been a blessing; it's kept me up".
At a neighbourhood restaurant she is a poised and thoughtful presence, fluidly translating the political debate raging on a Miami-based Creole radio station. Though some have anointed her the "voice of Haitian-Americans", she shrugs off the title. She anthologised others from Haiti's "10th province" in The Butterfly's Way: Voices from the Haitian Dyaspora in the United States (2001), in which she likened criminal assaults by NYPD officers on Haitians - notably Abner Louima and Patrick Dorismond in 2000 - to the violence Haitians have fled. She also wrote the introduction to an essay anthology, Let Haiti Live: Unjust US Policies Towards Its Oldest Neighbor (2004). Hers is a voice insistent on the deep, often obscured, ties between her two countries.
"Most Americans have zero knowledge of Haitian history," says Madison Smartt Bell, author of Four Hundred Years , a trilogy of novels on the Haitian revolution of 1791-1803, the modern world's only successful slave rebellion. "Of the French, American and Haitian revolutions, only the Haitian extended to everyone -not just white men. That explains why Haiti was a pariah state for 200 years and also the economic misery that produces what we know about: boatloads of immigrants. Without Edwidge telling their story in all its complexity, they're just bodies washing up on the beaches in Florida."
This year marked the bicentenary of Haitian independence from France in 1804, when the "Black Jacobins", in CLR James's phrase, defeated the armies of Napoleon and George III to found the first black republic. But on Miami's Toussaint L'Ouverture Boulevard, named after the Haitian revolutionary leader, the few bicentennial banners that withstood the hurricanes flutter forlornly. Almost 200 people have been killed in political violence in Haiti in the past two months. "We all knew this was going to be a bittersweet year," says Danticat. "We knew we'd still have high illiteracy and unemployment, and that, more than celebration, this would be a time for reflection. But it was an extraordinary reversal: it felt like natural and political forces were conspiring to punish us for that moment 200 years ago."
In the Libreri Mapou, a Little Haiti bookshop and cultural centre, Danticat sadly traces the line of succession on a bicentennial poster. The founding heroes give way to puppets installed by the US occupation of 1915-34; to the 1957-86 US-backed military dictatorships of François and Jean-Claude Duvalier, the infamous Papa and Baby Doc; to juntas, and the Catholic priest Aristide, elected in 1990, ousted in a coup after seven months, reinstated in 1994 with the muscle of the Clinton administration, and now exiled in South Africa. She says she feels "personally terrified by the Bush administration's messianic desire to reshape the world ... If you've lived in a place like Haiti, which has experienced invasion, and whose destiny has always been grasped by others, you know people live with those scars for generations."
The Haitian-American rapper Wyclef Jean was in Port-au-Prince this month to try to mediate in Bel-Air, scene of reported clashes involving pro- and anti-Aristide camps of "slum-dwellers". Danticat, who worked with the musician on Demme's documentary The Agronomist (2003), about the radio journalist Jean Dominique, assassinated in 2000, says: "I applaud what he's trying to do; the situation is deteriorating, and people are shooting until they run out of bullets." Yet for Danticat, whose uncle lived in Bel-Air, "it's hard for me to recognise it as a slum, because I lived there. Most of us were poor; that was our world. But when you leave, you realise you were part of a population that's completely written off, as though they're not human."
She was born near Port-au-Prince in 1969, under "Papa Doc". When she was two her father left on a tourist visa to work as a cab driver in New York. Her mother, Rose, a seamstress, joined him two years later, leaving Edwidge and her younger brother, André, with their uncle Joseph. "At the airport my uncle had to peel me off my mother's body. The hardest part was not knowing if it would be for days or years." Both parents had no papers in the US, and returned just once when she was seven, when they had applied for residency, and by which time they had two younger sons. "I felt that was the first time I saw my father; I was very distant with him."
Her uncle was a strict disciplinarian - "we were loved but not cuddled", but gave her her first books. His home, Danticat wrote in a 2002 essay, "My Personal Journey", was "filled with children whose parents had migrated to other countries - the US, Canada, France, the Dominican Republic - promising to send for them as soon as they were settled abroad". It was a "house full of kids in which we vanished", she recalls. "I retreated into silence. Children are resilient, but you get layers of sadness and melancholy."At private school, paid for by her parents, there were many hard beatings, and "if you spoke Creole not French, the teacher didn't hear you". Her happiest memories are of summers in the mountains of Léogne. After sundown, her aunt's mother would tell stories in Creole. "I loved the vibrant interaction between teller and listener." She heard of her grandfather, who had resisted the US occupation. "These things are not written anywhere. Sitting with an older person tells you another side."
With a typewriter her father sent, she wrote letters for adults in a country where half the people are illiterate. Advocates of writing Creole were persecuted by the Duvaliers during the cold war, says Jan Mapou, a Creole poet and playwright, founder of the Creole movement and of Miami's Libreri Mapou centre, who was jailed in 1969. "If you talked about the masses and literacy, they saw you as communist, and they jailed communists to make themselves look good." Danticat once glimpsed Baby Doc in Bel-Air throw ing newly minted coins from the window of his motorcade, and tales were rife of the Duvaliers' brutal henchmen, the Tontons Macoutes. Her uncle had campaigned for a rival in the election that brought Duvalier to power, but, as repression bit, "put all his energies into the church".
When her parents finally sent for her and her brother in 1981, she was reluctant to go, having become her uncle's mouthpiece among the illiterate after his laryngectomy. "It was very painful to leave him." In New York it was a "big challenge for us to become a family again; I felt like we'd been discarded". She was angry with her mother, who worked in a textile factory. But I started to understand all she was wrestling with."
The early 1980s were a "strange time", Haitians branded not only as refugees but, erroneously, as originators of Aids. "At school, kids belittled you as 'boat people', 'Aids people', 'Frenchies'." Her parents had settled among Haitians in Flatbush, Brooklyn. "The community was a cocoon," Danticat says, and she remains at ease in it. Her third language became a "neutral" tongue, a "place of safety and privacy. I didn't have to worry about offending my parents." She was sent to a school for would-be nurses, but studied French and economics at the Ivy League Barnard College and, in 1993, gained a master's degree in creative writing from Brown University in Rhode Island.
The first book she read in English was Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970), but she also discovered Haitian writers in French, many of whom had been jailed, exiled or killed. Among them were Marie Chauvet; Jacques Roumain, whose novel Masters of the Dew (1944), translated by Langston Hughes, was the first time she saw an attempt at representing the peasantry, "people I knew"; and Jacques Stephen Alexis, whose 1959 novel, In the Flicker of an Eyelid, Danticat has co-translated. Her parents thought her vocation impractical and dangerous, and she retains a sense "drilled into me, that my people are vulnerable, not living behind high walls". She was 17 when Baby Doc was forced out by a popular uprising in 1986, and recalls an "enormous sense of jubilation", with street parades in New York, Boston and Miami. But juntas followed. In 1989 her cousin Marie, Joseph's adopted daughter who worked at his clinic, died of a heart attack at 36, "frightened to death" by a gunfight between rival army units in Bel-Air. Later, Danticat lost one cousin to an ocean crossing to Miami, and another to Aids.
She recalls the 1991 coup against Aristide as shocking, "but people rallied". After college, she lobbied for his return while working as an intern for Demme. Another Hollywood activist, the actor Danny Glover, who is directing his own screenplay of the life of Toussaint L'Ouverture, found her "strikingly mature". Danticat met Aristide in New York ("he was very charismatic") and again at the presidential palace in 1994, when she first went back to Haiti to work with Demme on a documentary about the priest's return. "He seemed to embody the pains of the poorest people of Haiti; people loyal to him were so loyal," she says. She was later associate producer on Benoît's film Courage and Pain (1996), testimony from Aristide supporters who survived torture.
As an undergraduate, Danticat had sent her embryonic first novel to the New York publishing house Soho Press, which took it on after it became her master's thesis. In Breath, Eyes, Memory, as Sophie is torn from her Tante Atie and grandmother in Haiti to join her single mother in Brooklyn, she learns she is the offspring of her mother's rape by a Tonton Macoute, in a land where nightmares are "passed on through generations like heirlooms".
Sophie elopes with a Louisiana jazz musician after her mother begins "testing" her for an unbroken hymen. Growing up, Danticat was aware that some families were so concerned about their daughter's virginity that they'd test them. Yet she was unprepared for the furore the book caused among some Haitians. "People were very upset. I was accused of making it up." In an afterword to the 1999 edition, Danticat protested that, of course, "not all Haitian daughters are tested", and pleaded that the "singularity of [Sophie's] experience be allowed to exist". Díaz, who has shared readings with Danticat, says: "Nobody questions my right to say anything, but women are supposed to be the bearers of culture and maintain the secrets." For Díaz, all Danticat's work is about "how one deals with historical silence and amnesia - national, personal, inter-generational".
She is aware of centuries of dubious portrayals of Haiti. For Danticat, who considers herself a "Unitarian - and a backsliding one at that", vodou is an extraordinary religion of memory, passed on from person to person by descendants of African slaves, with no known book and despite persecution. Yet it has been reduced to stock images: "sticking a pin in a doll, or trance-like dancing". She adds: "Bela Lugosi B-movies are often cinematic versions of memoirs by American marines in the US occupation. Many were Southerners and had never been anywhere where black people ruled themselves: it was so incomprehensible, they saw it as an island of hypnotised zombies." But while she understands Haitians wanting positive images to balance the negative, she sees fiction as a "strange place to be celebratory; fiction is to deal with nuance, to probe a darker place".
Her novel The Farming of Bones (1998) fictionalised, through the eyes of a Hait ian housemaid, the 1937 massacre of thousands of Haitians working as cane-cutters in the Dominican Republic under the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo. "In a 30-year dictatorship there are so many silences, fears," she says. "I try to fill in the gaps, at least for myself." The massacre, "just a line in my textbook", was "still so real to people: Haitians working in the Dominican Republic in the 1970s and 80s were afraid it could be repeated." She met an artist whose grandmother had survived it. "Incorporating these stories anchors it for me; it's keeping them alive by retelling."
According to Patricia Benoît, "Edwidge ignores praise - she changes the subject. She has a modest perseverance, not a grandiose sense of self." When she appeared on a major television show, "her parents were watching the football". Danticat lived with them after college and they remain a close family. She has three brothers: André is a teacher, Kelly a gospel musician and Karl a stockbroker, and she has two nieces and a nephew. "She's dealt with her anger," says Benoît. "She saw how hard her parents worked, and understood her mother had to leave because of the economic situation."
Danticat wrote her second novel with a $35,000 foundation grant for three years ("I felt like I'd won the lottery"). She also worked with the National Coalition for Haitian Rights in New York. On visits to Haiti, she has sensed some hostility. "People felt I was getting more than my share," she says. "I was an oddity because I write in English. Some say I'm my own kind of outsider." But Díaz objects: "What's the test of who's an insider or outsider? No matter how tough her books can be, they're the product of love."
She met her husband, "Fedo", when he acted as tour guide on a trip to Haiti with students, and, in Little Haiti, they are only a 90-minute flight from Port-au-Prince. According to Mapou: "They love her in this community, one of the poorest in the country. Everybody can understand her books." She has also written for young people: Behind the Mountains (2002), in which a girl joins her father in New York during the 2000 elections that were disputed in Haiti and the US; and the just finished Anacaona: The Golden Flower, about a pre-Columbian heroine and warrior-poet who resisted the Spanish.
The Dew Breaker, her third novel, which has just been optioned by HBO films, alludes to a Creole phrase for a hitman, who comes for his victims before the dew. Ka Bienaimé, a Brooklyn sculptor, learns that the idolised father she thought a former prisoner had been a jailer, the "hunter not the prey". Through linked tales of the lives he has scarred, it moves back in time to expose a torturer who liked to stand on the cracking backs of his victims and "jump up and down like a drunk on a trampoline". Yet a woman's forgiveness "opened a door, produced a small path, which he could follow". For Danticat, it was a way to "look at the human face of the dictatorship. We knew the Tontons Macoutes, went to school with their children. I wanted to explore the aftermath on another generation."
"Technically, it's astounding," says Robert Antoni. "Inverting the story allows us to enter it as a puzzle with pieces missing, so we have to reconstruct it." For Antoni, hers is a "feminised, humanised historical realism, with a tone that's gentle and ultimately forgiving, redemptive - not the masculine voices of magical realism we're familiar with." Many people, says Benoît, "will tell Haiti and think they understand it, but Edwidge doesn't simplify; she can't because she has a first-hand knowledge of the complexity."
In fiction, says Danticat, "you have to put yourself in everybody's shoes", though she herself is clear that "the abusers should be punished; people are never held accountable, so they're recycled in these systems". Though interested in trauma, she says, "healing is harder; it can take generations. I try to resist being trite." After the Dance, about a visit to the annual carnival in Jacmel, records a personal homecoming. Yet its title is from a Creole proverb, "after the dance the drum is heavy". The brief release and exhilaration of carnival become a metaphor for Haiti's heady evolution and possibility, repeatedly crushed by reality.
In her view, this year's bicentenary offered an irresistible symbol both "for those who wanted to change the government and those who wanted to fight to maintain it". Aristide's exile has left her with "very complicated feelings. I wish there could have been a mediated solution, in which those who voted for him didn't think their vote meant nothing. Now there's a wave of violence because they feel they have nothing to lose." As for the desired outcome, "it's not up to me, and certainly not up to the US and France to decide".
Danticat feels her uncle may have been a casualty of the clashes in Bel-Air. He was driven out of a neighbourhood after 30 years by young people he saw grow up," says Danticat. "Even for a minute, that has to make you despair. He'll be buried in New York, where truly he never wanted to live. The irony and sadness bear heavily on my mind."
Her own allegiances have also been shaken. "I live in a country from which my uncle was catastrophically rejected, and come from one which he had to flee," she says. "I'm wrestling with the fact that both places let him down."
· The Dew Breaker is published by Abacus. After the Dance is published by Vintage. To order a copy for £9.99 or £6.99 respectively, with free UK p&p, call Guardian book service on 08709 836 0875.