For the Love of the Story: Edwidge Danticat


An Interview by Jennifer Maritza McCauley

 Photo credit: Lynn Savarse Photography 

Photo credit: Lynn Savarse Photography 

Born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Edwidge Danticat immigrated with her family to New York as a young teen. She studied French literature at Barnard College in Manhattan and received her Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from Brown University. Her thesis, a novel, eventually turned into the debut Breath, Eyes, Memory, which was an Oprah’s Book Club selection. Danticat has written award-winning fiction, young adult and non-fiction books including Krik? Krak, Farming of Bones, Behind the Mountains, Brother, I’m Dying, and The Dew Breaker. Her work has been widely anthologized and translated into numerous languages such as Japanese, French, Korean, German, Italian, Spanish, and Swedish. She is a passionate advocate for the rights of Haitian and Haitian Americans and participates in documentaries, talks and arts organizations in support of women of color, Haitians, and Caribbean immigrants. Danticat has been nominated twice for the National Book Award, she has received honorary degrees from Yale and Smith College, and she has been awarded the American Book Award, MacArthur Fellows Program Genius grant, and the National Book Critics Circle Award, among other honors. 

Here we discuss the magic of the writing process, crafting novels for a variety of audiences and the ethics of writing non-fiction, among other topics.


ORIGINS

Your work has been highly acclaimed, and you’ve helped redefine and revolutionize contemporary Caribbean writing. At this point in your career, do you feel any differently about approaching a blank page? What compels you to keep writing?

DANTICAT

It’s a bit simple, but I think I write, and will keep writing, because I love stories. I love to read. I love to listen to stories. I’m intrigued by the construction of stories. How they begin; how they continue. I’ve always wanted to be a writer, and I still write primarily for myself. That’s how I reconstruct and make sense of the world.  I still write for the pleasure of it. There’s something really beautiful about nurturing the seed of an idea and watching it flower. I still do write for the joy of it and feel privileged I can do what I love to do for my job.

ORIGINS

You still pleasure-write. That’s wonderful. 

DANTICAT

I always try to leave the audience out of the room when I’m writing. I can’t think, “So and so is going to say this or think that.” I can’t even think about the people I love most, what they’ll say about my work. I’d be very intimidated, knowing they were going to read whatever I’m working on. 

ORIGINS

Intimidated? 

DANTICAT

Because if I brought them into the room as an audience, I’d worry too much about disappointing them.

ORIGINS

That’s interesting. When you’re writing non-fiction, and with Brother, I’m Dying for example, how soon do you think about what your family’s reactions will be?  

DANTICAT

I think about them afterward. After the draft has been finished. In Brother, I’m Dying, I let my brothers read the entire thing once I was done. I’d ask them about certain events as I was going along. They would remember things very differently than I did, sometimes, and I’d have to change things. But I didn’t let them see it until I was done and once it was done I asked if there were things that offended them. Because that’s the problem with writing nonfiction. You risk alienating the people that are closest to you. I wasn’t going to lie, but I wasn’t willing to lose my family members over writing a book. For me, the people trump the book. But I really wanted to feel uncensored and uncluttered when I was actually writing the first draft. I wanted to do my version of the story and let their voices come in later.

ORIGINS

You’re really positive about the writing process. Very pure about it.

DANTICAT

I’m not always positive, but I love writing. I really love writing. Even when it’s very hard I feel like I always get something powerful out of the process. Even when I fail at it, I still feel like I can use those failures, and let them feed into another story.

ORIGINS

Your newest book Untwine is for young adults. You’ve also written books for young adults and children. What made you want to break away from adult fiction and work on these projects?

DANTICAT

I like to write on a full range. I don’t like having boxes, having them fitted so tightly for me. I’ll think of an idea that’s going to be a short story or a piece of non-fiction and I’ll go with that idea, wherever it takes me. I’ve been writing for younger people for a while. I was always interested in the middle age group. My brothers are younger than me and some of them have teenage children. So I have these teenagers in my life and they’re fascinating. My nieces, nephews, godchildren, I’ve always been interested in their lives and how they are different from me, or how their lives are so different from mine when I was growing up. I actually started writing Untwine when I was in graduate school. I’d work on it now and then, and retouch it. A couple of years ago, I came back to it. And it felt good to come back to it.

ORIGINS

It was one of those long-term projects. 

DANTICAT

Yes. I enjoyed reading young adult novels as a kid, really. Some when I was in graduate school too. In high school, I was a big nerd. I inhabited Nerdland throughout high school. 

ORIGINS

Me too. I was definitely a citizen of Nerdland. 

DANTICAT

I was always reading the same kind of young adult fiction and thinking, “Aw, these pretty girls with their first kiss and their blonde hair.” Their world wasn’t quite my world but there were some elements I could relate to. And it was obvious to me that things worked differently in my world, because of my upbringing. I wasn’t even allowed to go to parties when I was a teenager. So I wanted to write a young adult book for kids who grew up like that, but it turns out the one I wrote is about the kids’ parents who grew up like that. It seems the gates are opening, now, though, for the young adults in my world. But I did want to write about teenagers who were negotiating being smart, but not popular or pretty. And now there’s such a big range of those kinds of books. And we have such diverse books now, which is wonderful, though we can always have more. We have books you didn’t have before. Jacqueline Woodson and Ibi Zoboi, writers like that who are producing so much beautiful and important work. They are really speaking to young people in direct ways. That’s what I wanted to do in my young adult work. I wanted to write the kinds of books that would speak to the generation of my brother’s kids. Who were not new immigrants, who were born here, but Haiti is still very much part of their lives. Also big issues they worry about may not just be popularity or fitting in, but with things like police brutality. 

ORIGINS

Do you feel your debut Breath, Eyes, Memory speaks at all to Untwine? They both feature younger women but were written at two different periods in your life.

DANTICAT

Oh, yes. The books definitely speak to one another. I think my work is getting more nuanced too, as I go along. And that comes from writing more and living more. Of course, the emphasis, for me, is living more. After twenty years, one can go through a lot of love and death and pain. And with those things comes a much better understanding of the human experience. That human experience gets built into your work after you’ve lived more. What writers do is they give their characters little bits of themselves. For Breath, Eyes, Memory, I was 25 when I published it, 18 when I started it. Now, I’m 47 and there are a lot of things I understand a lot better about life than when I wrote that first book. Another thing I have to do now is not repeat myself. I’ve written quite a few books and I don’t want to be writing the same plot lines or characters again and again. But I do think Breath, Eyes, Memory and Untwine bookend each other very nicely. Breath, Eyes, Memory is a story that’s closer to my life, my story. Untwined is another generation. The people in Breath, Eyes, Memory would be shocked that these young women are even dating. I think both of them bookend each other historically too. They’re like travelling experiences for me; they’re shadows. I have travelled from this experience of defining myself and have come to this new experience of trying to understand another generation. And now this is their story, the story of the next generation. 

ORIGINS

That’s wonderful. Much of your fiction also speaks to these complex relationships amongst black, Caribbean and American women as well. The fraught and the beautiful. Do you consciously set out to explore female relationships in your work?

DANTICAT

I’ve always been very interested in female relationships. Especially in my first book. I’ve been very interested in the grey areas of female relationships too, how the good and bad work together in those types relationships. On the one hand you have support and sisterhood and love and on the other end it’s sometimes fraught and complicated. One of the books I was influenced by was Toni Morrison’s Sula. There’s love and hate and passion in the central relationships in that book, and it’s very real. I think a lot of people try to define female friendships as very simple and black and white. When really, different types of relationships amongst women can be quite hard to define. These relationships are so fascinating because sometimes they’re life sustaining. Other times they maintain a culture. I’m interested in seeing how these relationships change over time. 

ORIGINS

I’m thinking of your lovely collection Krik, Krak here, where the relationships seem to be informed, influenced, maybe even defined by the Haitian community, African diaspora and urban New York environment. All of these different settings, so many voices. Are you interested in how the environmental circumstances influence these relationships?

DANTICAT

Yes. And all we can do, as writers, is write from our experiences and observations, I think. And what you are doing then is working from collaborations. Of your experience and how others and your culture and other elements of your life have influenced you. We create misconceptions and stereotyping when we don’t have a multiplicity of voices, we just rely on one voice. In [the talk] Danger of a Single Story [by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie], she talks about the telling of a variety of stories and the need for all of these different types of stories. That’s important. Having these conversations or counter-arguments. The many conversations our intellectual heroes have had with one another across the African diaspora with one another are extremely interesting to me. You can’t have empathy though if you don’t have a multiplicity of voices in your life and in your writing.  

ORIGINS

I first saw you read when I was an undergraduate in Pittsburgh. You were the first Haitian writer I’d ever been exposed to. Do you consciously think of your work as being representational of the Haitian or Haitian American experience? Is that something you think about when you leave Miami or Haiti and have to talk about your work? 

DANTICAT

I think it would be crazy for me to think of my work as singly representational, like I represent all of Haiti or every Haitian, but I have always been proud to be connected to Haiti, to have Haiti in my blood and to rep Haiti, as the kids say, whether I was a chef, and taxi driver, like my dad, a seamstress like my mom or anything else. One person can’t speak for ten million people. I can only write from my perspective. And I hope it hits home for some people. And I know that perspective might be outright rejected by other people. So I’m not forcefully trying to be representational. I think it would be arrogant to say I’m representing anyone but myself. I think artists need that freedom to tell their stories. Or you’ll be shackled by everyone.

ORIGINS

I love that. And it can be frustrating. There’s this overemphasis on genres and labels for writers of color too, nowadays. 

DANTICAT

Oh, yes. I’m black, Caribbean and Haitian. I am proud of these labels and don’t reject them. But I think sometimes writers of color are asked to be sociologists, historians, politicians. If you write about men they say will say where are the women? If you write about women, they will say, where are the men or why are the men always so mean? If you write about poor people, they will ask why are they so poor? If you write about rich people, you’re accused of ignoring the poor. I think you should write for yourself. It’s important to write one’s truth as one sees it, whether it’s popular or accepted or not. It’s okay to demand that kind of freedom for yourself in order to be the best writer you can be.