An Interview With Edwidge Danticat

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As a writer, Edwidge Danticat is revered for her elegant prose and her moving depictions of Haiti and the Haitian diasporic experience. She has written more than a dozen books, including her debut novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, which was an Oprah Book Club selection, and the memoir, Brother, I’m Dying, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 2009, she was awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant.

Danticat has a BA from Barnard College, an MFA from Brown University, and holds honorary degrees from Brooklyn College, Smith College, Yale University, and the University of the West Indies. She has taught creative writing at NYU and the University of Miami while continuing, throughout her career, to be a strong advocate for Haitians, immigrants, and women of color.

In March 2018, Danticat was the Robert L. Hess Scholar-in-Residence at Brooklyn College. In this capacity, she met with students to discuss politics, immigration, race, ethnicity, and gender. Some highlights from her residency include her powerful memorial lecture, A Right to Be Here: Race, Immigration, and My Third Culture Kids [watch here], and her participation in a panel with fellow writer, Madeleine Thien. Even with her full schedule of events, Danticat was generous enough to find time for an interview with The Brooklyn Review. Below, she answers our questions about craft in the context of her 1996 story collection, Krik? Krak!; her most recent novel, Claire of the Sea Light; and her stories in progress.

 

Krik? Krak! opens with “Children of the Sea,” which is told through the perspectives of a man on a boat (bound for Miami) and a woman in Haiti. What inspired this story?

I started writing “Children of the Sea” when I was an MFA student at Brown University. I attended a Haitian church in Providence, Rhode Island that became a second family to me, and I knew some Haitian people on campus as well. Somehow, word got around both at church and on campus that there were some new Haitian families coming into the community in Providence. They had arrived by boat in Miami after a military coup against the democratically elected president, President Aristide, then were relocated to Providence by the organization, Catholic Services. A few of us were asked if we could help these families adjust by spending time with them and helping them get a start in the community. I spent some time with a family with one daughter, and also with a mother and her son. The father had died during their trip. From my conversations with them, I learned a lot of things that ended up inspiring “Children of the Sea.”

I was always interested in these journeys and in what it is physically like to be at sea for days, not even knowing where you are going. For me, there is a historical resonance in that with the Middle Passage, with how our ancestors got to this part of the world in the first place: on ships and on a terrible journey.

How did you decide on the epistolary form?

Along with plot, I am always thinking about structure. Sometimes the story guides you to the best structure for its telling. Using letters seemed like the best way to tell this story. When writing these letters, the characters are selecting what they want to tell. In this case, the woman is writing in a way that would not endanger her or her family if her letters were found by the military authorities who took over the country, and the man is writing with the urgency of someone who could die at any minute while at sea.

Can you speak to the similarities and differences in the language used by the two lovers?

When people are young and in love, it’s so overdramatic, especially if there is some obstacle to that love. (Cue Romeo and Juliet.) They’re very passionate and their emotions are heightened anyway. In addition to all of this, these characters are in a very dangerous political situation. It was important for me to differentiate their voices in some way, beyond just putting their names at the top of the sections, like dialogue in a play. The man on the boat doesn’t have as much time as the woman does, so he writes more urgently, and he tells her quite bluntly what is happening to him. These might possibly be his final words, so he’s not protecting her from the danger he is facing. I wanted to convey the difficulty of being in danger while knowing that the person you love most in the world is also in danger and desperately wanting to say something to them that you can’t. Both characters feel this, but for the man, the danger is more imminent.

What was your research process like for “Children of the Sea”?

I suppose I was doing research without thinking too much about research. With the families that I came into contact with in Providence, I would sometimes hear them testify at church services about their experiences. Sometimes I would just ask questions, if I felt it wouldn’t upset them. I have heard people tell their stories on the radio, to immigration lawyers. I have been on congressional delegations to detention centers where people tell their stories. So it’s research without necessarily thinking you’re doing research. At that time, there were Haitians who were denied entry into the United States and could not be returned to Haiti, and Haitians who were HIV positive and were detained in Guantanamo, Cuba—so these stories were public record. It was very important to me though that the story [“Children of the Sea”] ring true, so I included a lot of the actual details I learned.

I’m curious about your thoughts on what makes a story a story. How might the standard notion—that a story requires ‘the possibility of change’—apply in the case of something shorter like “Night Women” from Krik? Krak! ?

Today one might think of “Night Women” as more of a vignette than a short story, a sort of parallel tale to “New York Day Women.” I wrote “Night Women” when I was still in college. Back then, I was very interested in theatre and was reading a lot of French surrealists. I also come from an oral story telling tradition; that is, I was told a lot of stories as a child and I saw how orality—tone, pitch—can make a story different each time. So I didn’t put these sorts of limitations on myself. In the shortest vignettes or the longest narratives, a story takes us on a journey. I would say what makes a story work is that no matter what the length of the story, the character—or some other element—is in a slightly different place at the end of the story then at the beginning. That being said, it’s your story, do what you want or what you feel the story needs or demands. Invent new forms, if you must. That’s very exciting too.

“Night Women” came to me in one sitting and was meant to be like a monologue. I could see someone performing it in a dark theatre with props around them. I felt it could work in different spaces, but also I just felt such liberty in what a story could be, that I thought surely it was a story. All of this is hindsight, of course. In the moment, I was just writing what was on my mind. But there is movement from beginning to end; it’s night, it’s day; and the underlying feeling that carries it through—and carries through it—is longing.  In much longer pieces, it can be harder to carry a singular, strong emotion all the way through. Some of the stories I am working on now are ones I wrote a while ago and have been returning to over the years, and they are much  longer and have more reach and more depth. Still, there is something to be said for a story that gets written in one sitting, as if out of breath, a story you write quickly because you absolutely must.

Can you share when your next collection will be published?

It is scheduled for summer 2019.

I’m in that stage of editing when you think you’re done, but then something else occurs to you, and you want to add it—and luckily you still can! When I was younger, I was a more impatient writer. I just wanted to write fast and finish quick. I remember hearing writers say, “I started this story ten years ago,” and would think “No! [Laughs.] That’s not possible!” But I have stories like that now too, stories that have taken ten years to fully make sense. Twenty-five years after Krik? Krak!, I appreciate having the time and the distance that comes with telling a story in that way as well. I think it happens as you get older. You put things down, you pick them up again, and if you’re lucky they age well.

Are there stories from the Krik? Krak! era that you are still revisiting?

No, no. That book is closed. The earliest story in this forthcoming collection is from 2006.

Because the stories in the new book come from different periods, the styles and subjects vary. This time, I was determined to write something that could not in any way be mistaken for a novel [Laughs]. These are clearly stories. Still, they have unity of themes: rites, rituals, notions and ideas that carry throughout most, if not all, the stories.

Ville Rose is the fictional setting of both Krik? Krak! and Claire of the Sea Light.  Did you choose to return to Ville Rose because of the town itself? Have you considered using your fictional town as Gabriel García Márquez uses his [Macondo]—as a sort of repository of characters that can be used to populate other stories?

For Claire, I needed a coastal town. I already had Ville Rose from Krik? Krak!, and I could expand on its description. I haven’t done what Márquez did: pulling characters from one work and put them into another. But now that the town exists in my imagination, it will always be an ancestral home for my characters. In the new collection—though no stories are set in Ville Rose—there are characters who are from the town and remember it and talk about it.

Why use the fictional town?

In response to my first book, Breath, Eyes, Memory, some people argued that I described Haiti inaccurately—because if you say ‘Haiti’ to twenty Haitians, it means something different to each of them. With Ville Rose, I avoid that problem. And I can blend elements from actual places with several creations of my own. A fictional town can be its own singular thing—something specifically yours—and still feel like a place that people know.

Even though Ville Rose feels specific to Haiti, for me—a reader from elsewhere in the Caribbean—it easily feels like home, whereas that feeling might come harder with an actual Haitian town.

Yes, exactly. It’s a town of the imagination. From what I’ve seen of the Caribbean, there are physical similarities, but also nuances. The familiarity of the physical space, together with the connection to the characters—who can also feel very familiar if you develop an emotional attachment to them—can make you see a story, and its nuances, as your own.

As readers we are always bringing our own mental images into a story. For example, Esmerelda Santiago’s writing about eating guavas made me think: “That’s how my grandmother did it!” And it may seem strange, but I remember reading a lot of Amy Tan and thinking, “Oh my God, that’s my mother!” [Laughs.]

In your Robert L. Hess memorial lecture, you mentioned how you brought your daughters to the border of Haiti and the Dominican Republic in 2015 to assist refugees, and how you wanted to tell them “Those bodies [the refugees’] could have been ours; in fact, they are ours.”  For me, that bridging of self and other seems crucial to the work of fiction, particularly when it comes to reading. But what about in the act of writing? In your work, would you ever feel comfortable inhabiting the body of someone with a life that is vastly different from your own—someone, perhaps, from an unfamiliar country?

That one is tough. First because where I come from, there are so many stories left to tell. But also, I would certainly be more intimidated to try, for example, to write about someone from Iraq. Actually, I was recently asked by someone to write a ballet set in the Amazon, and I said to this person that, as conscious as I think I am, I worry that I would inevitably find myself with the inability to find nuance, to just revisit clichés. It would’ve been really cool to write a ballet. But I would’ve probably just read books and articles and found some sort of consensus among them to use. To get beyond the tropes that people already know about a place, I’d have to go beyond book research; I feel I’d have to go there, immerse myself in the culture, and learn the language. And even at that point, if I don’t think I can understand an experience well enough to say something absolutely new about it, then it doesn’t feel like my story to tell.

Of course, I can write about being a stranger in a strange land. It’s a common theme in literature, and it works sometimes, because built into that perspective are the weaknesses of looking from without. The hard thing is doing it from within.

I’m reminded of the Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk [The Danger of a Single Story] in which she emphasizes the importance of where a story begins and who is telling it: the insider or the outsider.

And Americanah is a great example. The text itself acknowledges that Ifemelu is a “non-American black.” An outsider perspective. It’s like Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. There is plenty of sharp, extraordinary insight, and we know what gaze we’re getting it from. The problem is with people who go to a place and assume their view of it is more important than that of people who’ve been there for generations, the people who become experts on a place in one day. As fiction writers, we know what it takes to inhabit someone else on paper, so it might be harder for us to claim that kind of authority. At best, if we are humble, we can say we are trying.

Your characters’ experiences—Madame Gaëlle’s grief, for example—feel so inhabited. How do you make that happen? Do you put a lot of yourself into your characters?

Yes! And I highly recommend it! [Laughs.] It sounds hokey, but you have to love all of your characters—even the ones you don’t necessarily approve of—and you have to become them in some way. In The Dew Breaker, when I was writing about the torturer, I had to consider that character as somebody’s father, somebody’s husband. I had to remember that the gaze of his loved ones would be very different from the gaze of his victims.

In fiction, we want to see a whole person—a 360-degree vision of an individual. So writers need to in some way become that person. Almost like method actors. Or like actors who think about their own experiences in order to cry. If you’re writing about something you don’t know, you should call upon everything you have. Toni Morrison once said in an interview that she always tells her students that if you’re writing about a black father, for example, it’s not a black father, it’s your black father. And if you’re going to imagine what it takes to kill a baby, then you have to put that baby in your arms in some way. Then there’s also the research. I think it’s important for writers to immerse themselves in both the larger canvas and the individual space, know the context, but go as deeply as you can into the soul of a human being.

In Claire, you have several recurring and focalized characters. But with characters who are less important, how do you know if you’re over-characterizing them (and therefore giving them too much of the page)?

I always overwrite my first drafts. Because if, for example, I say early on that a character has a certain feature and I edit it out later, in some ways, I feel like that detail is still there. At least, it allowed me to see the character and the setting and atmosphere—the full world—more clearly. Later, I revise to a point where I feel that every word counts.

When I start out, I’m not sure if someone’s a minor character yet; if a work is unfolding, any character can take over. But in revision, when I’m sure of the characters’ roles, I pare down the minor characters to their singular, hair-on-fire details. Especially if you have a crowded field—and you don’t want the minor characters to be so spectacular that readers wonder why they aren’t major characters—just find a distinguishing feature. One that makes them memorable. For example, in The Farming of Bones, to differentiate Juana, who works in the house, from Amabelle (the main character), I gave Juana an obsession with saints.

In your work, there seems to be a strong relationship between character and form—particularly in The Dew Breaker, a ‘linked collection,’ and Claire, a ‘novel-in-stories.’ What attracted you to these connected structures?

In The Dew Breaker, one story leads to the next. It starts with “The Book of the Dead,” which is about an artist traveling with her father to deliver a sculpture to the person, a famous actress, who commissioned it. On their trip, the father throws the sculpture away because it was about him being a victim of torture when in truth, he says, he wasn’t the victim; he was the torturer. When the character said that, I wanted to know what he was talking about, so I had to write the next story to understand what he meant. And then in the middle of that story, I realized I had to tell his wife’s story, too.

Claire was similar. I was sort of chasing characters around. I wanted to see if I could enlarge these little seeds that the characters drop in the middle of the dialogue in each other’s stories.

Why do you think you’re writing the new stories differently?

In some of the earlier work, I liked to keep readers guessing: one story asked a question, and another resolved it. For the stories I’m working on now—both the new ones and the older ones I’m revisiting—I want to wring everything out. That way, I don’t have to write separate stories for every character who surprises me.

With Claire, there is a clear formal unity: it centers on one character’s disappearance.  And the way time functions feel very novelistic. Why else do you think it works as a novel?

Because my editor said so. [Laughs.] Seriously, I think it works as a novel because the town, Ville Rose, is really the main character of that book and the different characters each make up a chapter of the book. I also wanted the book to be like a radio show in which each chapter was an episode of the show. It’s an unconventional novel, but one anyway. I do tell myself that maybe if the title was Ville Rose, it would have felt even more like a novel. Still the novel is a flexible form and I wanted to make use of that flexibility in these books.

For me, the structure of Claire—even without the radio show—brings out a feeling of community.

That’s really what I wanted to do. And if I approached the novel in a traditional way, it would probably be huge. I would say, “Let’s go to her house today… Okay, now let’s go to his house!” [Laughs.]

Are there other (maybe external) reasons why someone might choose to write a linked collection?

I don’t feel this way, but some people look at linked stories as a shortcut to a novel. [Laughs.]  Maybe it also happens because at most MFA programs, stories, not novels, are the focus. What I like about story-based training is that it allows you to hold a whole narrative in your head. Then later you can apply that towards a longer work. After I graduated from Brown and started working on The Farming of Bones, I was writing chapters that were just one character’s thoughts, which alternated with the regular narrative, and if you plucked out those chapters, the novel could still stand by itself. Even though I did it that way, it was still different from writing short, yet the practice of writing short stories was something I could also transfer to the novel.

You’re working on this new collection in a country whose president regularly disparages women, people of color, and immigrants (focusing twice now on Haitians). As an immigrant woman of color, do you find yourself wanting to respond in your writing?—Or do you feel that the pen is not the right weapon here?

As I am answering this question, children are being separated from their parents at the border between Mexico and the United States. The world has enough histories and stories of forced parent/child separations that it is not something that should be allowed to happen ever, but it is happening now, in our time, in this place, as an immigration measure, and as deterrent to keep people from coming to the United States. And this administration is using the Bible to justify it.

We live in heartbreaking times, which make fictional stories, to my mind, even as I write them, feel small and useless, but when I look back at stories I have written during previously difficult times, I am happy I wrote them. Whether they address directly what is happening or not, it feels like I am bearing witness. I guess this is what I will continue to do, with my pen, and with my feet, and with my time and whatever other ways I can be helpful. As Toni Morrison wrote in her April 2015 essay in The Nation magazine, No Place for Self-Pity, No Room for Fear:  “This is precisely the time when artists go to work—not when everything is fine, but in times of dread. That’s our job!”

This interview has been edited and condensed.