The Rumpus Interview with Edwidge Danticat

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Edwidge Danticat returned to fiction this year with her novel, Claire of the Sea Light. Set in the fictional town of Ville de Rose, Danticat expertly takes us back through time on the rich story legs of this community. On our journey we meet a mute woman who has just lost her husband, a circle of girls playing ring games, a father desperately trying to make sense of his economic situation and his daughter’s life. Claire disappears for most of the novel, and her tragic story is actually the bookend of so many other heartbreaking tales. As always, Danticat mixes fable and lore, myth and virtue to tell a book deeply shaped by communal suffering and love and want.

Edwidge and I discussed resistance. We talked about the little voice inside of us that puts fires out. We talked about the kind of resistance needed to learn to read and write in the face of execution. We talked about resisting the noise of the crowd long enough to tell a story that is uniquely your own. We talked about what resistance means for hundreds of thousands of displaced Haitian people in the Dominican Republic. We talked about resisting the urge to write the truth down and then finally giving into it as if our lives depend on it. As if resistance is the only thing that makes life worth the telling.

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The Rumpus: I first want to talk a little bit about the formatting of Claire of the Sea Light because you are known for your short stories. I’ve seen this book referred to as a short story collection, novel-in-story, vignettes, a novel—what is the distinction for you?

Edwidge Danticat: I’m not sure what the distinction is, but I’ll tell you what my intention was. I’m a huge fan of Jean Toomer’s Cane. I love it because it’s such a free, unruly book. It takes genre and form and bends it and forces it into the narrative he wants it to be. I love how that kind of freedom in narration echoes back to the old traditions of storytelling, through songs, to poetry, to shooting the dozens. In Kreyol we have odyans, which is storytelling but about real people. I love that mixture of things. I was thinking about writing a book like a radio show and each chapter would be like an episode, so, to me, they were always stories. That hybrid between the short story and the novel, that thing in between that some people call the story circle or the novel-in-story, is a form of its own that’s been done before, from Toomer’s Cane, to Olive Kitteridge, to The Dubliners.

Rumpus: Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize this year for short stories. Some called it a resurgence of the form, a resuscitation of a fairly unpopular genre. Can you talk about the magic of the short story and why it’s your first form?

Danticat: The short story is like an exquisite painting and you might, when looking at this painting, be wondering what came before or after, but you are fully absorbed in what you’re seeing. Your gaze is fixed, and you are fully engaged. That’s the beauty of the short story. Some stories are really, really short, like Lydia Davis’s brilliant prose. You capture the world in this really economical way. I was very happy to see Alice win because I think it does validate the form, but I don’t know that it was ever unpopular. George Saunders, Junot Díaz, Jhumpha Lahiri are all examples of an interest in the short story. Alice Munro’s career has proven that yes, one can make a career writing short stories. I don’t know if one can make a living, though.

Rumpus: Claire of the Sea Light is set in the fictional seaside town of Ville de Rose, a town shaped by its beauty—hence its namesake—but also the mountains above it, the sea at its border, the buzz of its single radio program, and the corruption of its civil servants. Talk to me about building this world. Specifically, I’m interested in how you break up and bring together social classes using topography.

Danticat: When my first book, Breath, Eyes Memory, came out, I wrote about many real Haitian towns and a lot of people who were from those towns would say “you got this wrong” and “got that wrong,” so I decided to write about my own town by borrowing elements of different places. If you are inventing a town, you have all freedom. I added the lighthouse. Langston Hughes has a children’s book called Popo and Fafina, set in Haiti during the U.S. occupation because he used to travel to Haiti quite a bit. And I remembered that the story has a lighthouse in it, so I reread it and thought, I want a lighthouse, and the lighthouse went in. I could visually see the town and see myself walking around in it, but that takes many, many layers of writing. Sometimes in writing you have to live with things before you inhabit them, and that takes a very long time for it to stop feeling constructed and to start feeling like something real.

Rumpus: Communal belief suggests that Claire is a revenan, a spirit echo, because of the way she was born. How do you decide on the mythology of the people you’re writing about?

Danticat: Well, a lot of the mythology I create on my own. I’m really into folklore, and that’s one of the many reasons why I love Zora Neale Hurston: because she made such great use of mythology and folklore in her anthropological work and fiction. What people were calling magical realism was so much incorporated into people’s daily lives. People create their own mythologies for their lives.

A revenan is also a resting place, a vessel, one who returns. I wanted this to be the “fakelore” in this family—that people believed this girl was somehow mystical. For example, in our own folklore, we have so many stories about missing mothers and stepmothers, and I think a lot of that has to do with maternal mortality. There are a lot of stories about children who grow up with mothers and often that’s a child who suffers. I think the community often creates stories to protect our psyche, to comfort us, to give us some control back.

Rumpus: I’m absolutely a huge fan of Zora Neale Hurston and she has informed my work in so many ways. What do you think of her work around zombies in Haiti?

Danticat: Many Haitians have trouble with that… There was a Haitian president whose goat died, and he had a full Catholic mass for the goat—very similar to the scene in Their Eyes Watching Were God, with the horse. Her other observations, her travels to the countryside, are so important, because had she not been around and gone there, some details would not have been recorded because society was changing so much both in Haiti and Jamaica. So much would have been lost. The outside eye can also be a sympathetic eye and that’s powerful.

Rumpus: I’m really intrigued by the notions of “twinning” and “resurrection” in this book. For example, a pregnant Gaelle swallows a dead frog for life. Louise believes Claire may carry her otherwordly birthmarks. The rain births and kills frogs. Lasiren protects and swallows fishermen. Can you discuss these mirror reflections in terms of Claire’s twinning—when we see her at the beginning and end of the novel?

Danticat: It is tied to the notion of the revenan and the dual notion of coming and going. For me, the closest my life came to a big theme in literature was when I was pregnant with my first daughter and my father was dying. I was in the middle of the cycle of life. If I were a poet, I think I would have written a grand poem about it, to capture what felt to me like a slip into the cycle of universal truth: a life was coming and my father was going. I felt like I was living a story that was beyond me. My father kept saying, “I want to meet the first child of my first child.” And sure enough my daughter was born and we spent a month with him and then he died. Everyone said he held on to meet her. We call her Mira, and his name was Maracin.

Maybe the book reflects this a bit too much, but I’ve been sort of looking into these notions of twinning. This sort of idea of looking for the other half, and looking for your place in the world. Because Claire was born out of this tragedy, she is looking for that. Many of the characters in the book are looking for their place in the world.

Rumpus: The radio is its own character in this novel—almost that of the Greek Chorus. Its listeners are speakers and jury and judge. Why did you make the radio such a major part of this book?

Danticat: I grew up listening to the radio, and it’s a very powerful medium in Haiti. It’s a medium of justice, of entertainment, but also it’s where things are aired and talked about where they wouldn’t be otherwise. I imagined the entire book would be like the radio. In a way, the book is the book Louise is writing. The radio is probably the most democratic form of justice where people can be heard. I think of the book as part of Louise’s show and her narration of the town.

 

Rumpus: I want to talk about the heart of this book without giving away its secrets. I was dispirited by the narrative around same-gender-loving people. There are already so many tragically gay characters in literature; what was new for you in the story between these two men?

Danticat: If you are writing about same-gender-loving people in an environment that is hostile to their relationship, I think the dilemma is, do you reflect that reality? For those two characters, their class issue would actually trump their homosexuality within their community. Class is the first strike and the issue of their love is second. To portray their situation honestly, the overwhelming odds against them has to be written in. I tried very hard to validate them, and I imagined them as everyday love relationships. In reality, they would be Romeo and Juliet times two. Everyone in the book suffers for their love, but I agree with you about tragic portrayals. I agree with you, and I’ll try to do better.

Rumpus: Maxim’s decisions work for the plot but not toward self-actualization. Why don’t we ever see the lovers together in the way that we see their straight counterparts? I want to juxtapose this question in relation to a quote from your novel, The Dew Breaker: “Life was neither something you defended by hiding nor surrendered calmly on other people’s terms, but something you lived bravely, out in the open, and that if you had to lose it, you should lose it on your own terms.”

Danticat: Really, they were hiding. They don’t live in a place where either one of them feels like they can be fully who they are. Their entire struggle was to try to be together, but in this town, based on where my mother grew up, the only type of homosexuality that people would be willing to see unhidden is a caricature: a cross-dresser at Carnivale that everyone can laugh at. But the more honest, loving, everyday homosexual love, they would have to hide much more.

Rumpus: I want to switch gears and discuss the Dominican Republic’s decision to revoke the citizenship of Dominicans of Haitian ancestry. You’ve written extensively on Dominican-Haitian relations on your own accord, but also with Junot Díaz. Can you talk about the social justice work that needs to be done, the work ahead, future collaborations between you and Junot?

Danticat: This has been an ongoing concern for a very long time, because Haitian cane workers and other workers have been going to the Dominican Republic for a long time. Also, little is known that there is a reverse migration for Dominican workers who come to Haiti with contracts to build roads and et cetera. Haiti is the number two, if not the number one trading partner of the Dominican Republic. It’s one of the few places in the world where you have one island that occupies two very, very different countries. Haiti has become a kind of scapegoat for Dominican problems, but there have been moments of unity. For example, after the earthquake, the Dominican Republic was one of the first places to respond.

There are extraordinary human rights groups in the Dominican Republic that disagree with and are protesting the decision. On September 23rd, when the decision came down, Julia Alvarez and Junot Díaz immediately wrote me to ask, What do we do? What can we do? I thought it was brave and courageous to recognize a wrong just because it is a wrong. People have called Julia and Junot traitors. Ultimately we share this island and we share humanity. This is wrong, and it is unprecedented. It’s not even creating an underclass or second citizenship—it is saying that you are stateless and you have no place to go.

I remember reading something by Toni Cade Bambara where she says that writing is the way she participates in the struggle. And it’s not the only way, you need boots on the ground, but writing is most at our disposal. Junot and I first wrote about this fourteen years ago, when we wrote the op-ed for The New York Times, and now it has gotten worse. I want to encourage people to vote with their economic choices and actions. Do you want to go on a vacation to a place like this? To a place that treats people like this? Jacques Roumain, one of Haiti’s great novelists, has a book called Masters of the Dew. In it, he says, “Cooperation is the friendship of the poor.” It’s been wonderful to not have to respond on my own, to have Julia and Junot’s voice.

Rumpus: In the novel, Gaelle observes the struggles of documented and undocumented countrymen abroad. She fears that if she leaves Ville de Rose, she will be buried with strangers rather than her ancestors. There is the fear of not being able to return but also the fear of being forced to return. Can you elaborate?

Danticat: Recently we’ve had an increase in the number of boats that we’ve seen coming from Haiti. Just a few weeks ago, four people died in a boat that was capsized right off the shore. I went to the funeral of a young woman, twenty-four, who had gotten on a boat and died getting here. People die and others are returned. My own uncle died in immigration custody. He came on a plane with a valid visa—he had been coming for thirty years—but he came at a time when the UN was shooting in his town and he requested asylum. At eighty-one years old, he was arrested, put in jail, his medication was taken away and he died five days later. From the people who are coming across the border in containers in trucks, to the people who die at sea, it is a very complex matter of life and death. When people get here, certainly in terms of Haitian migration, there is unequal treatment in part to do with race and in part that we come from a poor country. You can talk about it ideologically, but when you are looking down at a young girl in a coffin who made that journey and realize that had she lived, she would have been turned back anyway, it becomes a very urgent problem.

Rumpus: Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist At Work is the most important book for me in terms of understanding the artist’s life and the trials in truth-telling. The idea of being haunted by personal creation myths—those stories that have shaped and informed us and haunt our work—completely changed my understanding of my work and how I approach my writing. This framework of accepting the haunting and inviting the spirits in: when and how did you discover it?

 

Danticat: It comes slowly. I read Toni Morrison’s Sula a lot. I read it for time. I read it for setting. I read it for every book I write. I read it for language and I read it for how much she squeezes in that little book without leaving anything out. It is the godmother of every one of my books.

When I was writing Create Dangerously, I had so much resistance, from myself and my family. What are you going to do with your life? When are you going to get married? I used to feel like if I had enough for groceries and a roof over my head and I could write my stories, I would be happy. Then I started looking into the lives of people who had it worse, who had greater struggles but still came into their art. A guiding essay for me is Alice Walker’s “In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens.” I read it a lot.

Create Dangerously was about giving myself permission. There are people who come into writing emboldened and formed. I wasn’t like that. I had to give myself permission. People asked me, “Well, what do you know of Haiti? What do you know of America?” I learned to give myself permission, that this is a worthwhile endeavor, that I would fail sometimes, it would work sometimes, but like Maya Angelou says, that place had been earned for me. All I had to do was claim it.

Rumpus: Create dangerously, for people who read dangerously. This is what I’ve always thought it meant to be a writer. Writing, knowing in part that no matter how trivial your words may seem, someday, somewhere, someone may risk his or her life to read them. Do you still stand by these words?

Danticat: I do. I know families who had to bury their libraries in their backyard. I know people who have gotten through impossible moments because of a book. I know the power of words. I am an accident of literacy, and in a way, we all are. When Nikky Finney accepted the National Book Award, she immediately cited that. For a lot of us, it goes back generations. If you come from a place where literacy is a luxury and not everyone gets to go to school, and not everyone gets to read, it makes it an even more powerful notion. I’ve seen the power of words in action. I saw Nikky Finney’s ancestors in that glorious moment delivering that speech. I saw them smuggling words against death and censorship.

For aspiring writers, seek your truth and tell it. We live in a moment where it’s so easy to see what everyone else is doing and to compare yourself to that. Seek your truth and tell it. Just seek your truth. It is a harder thing to sit in the stillness. You’re the best person to tell your own story. Trust that.

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Featured image of Edwidge Danticat © by Ernesto Ruscio.


Kima Jones has received fellowships from PEN Center USA Emerging Voices, Kimbilio Center for African American Fiction and The MacDowell Colony. She has been published at NPR, PANK and The Rumpus among others. Kima lives in Los Angeles and is writing her first poetry collection, The Anatomy of Forgiveness. More from this author →