Edwidge Danticat is a writer known for her short stories and novels. Her most notable works include Breath, Eyes, Memory; The Farming of Bones; and Brother, I’m Dying. She has received the MacArthur Fellowship and the American Book Award, among other accolades.
Harvard Political Review: In your recent New Yorker article, “Poetry in a Time of Protest,” you denounced President Trump’s executive order on immigration. As he eases rules on deportation, how do you balance “living in the along” (the self-care) with “tangible action” and resistance?
Edwidge Danticat: What inspired me to write that article was this recent effort for me to go back to work that is both inspiring and political. Frankly, I live in Little Haiti in Miami, in the middle of a big, huge immigrant community; I’ve never seen people so afraid since the election. They’re afraid they’re going to be picked up on their way to work, and some of those people are undocumented but not all of them. There are so many people in mixed-status families—with US-born children, parents who are undocumented—that wake up with this really big burden for them.
For me, thinking about what the artist-citizen role is, is something that I’ve always thought about. But I feel like we live in a climate that now is demanding action because you see all that your neighbors are going through. Language is where I’ve always turned to for inspiration, for solace. After the election, starting with the inaugural speech, I’ve felt this hostile language in that speech, which I wanted to counter with other language that’s also political speech, that’s also urgent speech, but is very different from that.
Audre Lorde is a writer-poet-activist I love. One of the things I love about her is how in the works that she writes, she writes about self-care, but it’s not self-care that’s taking you out of the community. Of course, we have to take care of ourselves, especially as we walk around in bodies that are despised: black, female, immigrant bodies. At the same time, we’re also part of a community. We belong to a community, and we can’t neglect that.
Writing is the biggest weapon I have. For me, it just felt like one of the ways that I do self-care and also get inspired for what seems now a daily struggle that I see in my community, is by revisiting the works of writers like Audre Lorde, or Gwendolyn Brooks, or Langston Hughes, and others who really had similar struggles in their own time, and to go back and revisit what they’ve done, to inspire us to move on.
HPR: How has your experience as an immigrant affected your work as a writer?
ED: The experience of most immigrants in any place is initially that of an outsider: you left a place where you felt at home to come to a new place where you have to remake your home. I think that experience of an outsider is essential to this role that we have as writers, because you have to observe things from the outside while at the same time writing about them intimately. The way that writing mirrors the immigration experience is that in both you are an insider-outsider.
Certainly, when I’m here, in the United States, I’m writing about Haiti with a different gaze. I also write about the United States from the perspective of a Haitian-American, or a Haitian immigrant. That duality is really helpful to being a writer because it gives you enough distance, or enough perspective, to write about things. I think those roles are complementary. Every writer is an immigrant. Every immigrant is a writer. This friend of mine, Patricia Engel, has a line in a novel of hers about all immigrants being artists, because a great part of the immigrant experience is an act of creation, or a re-creation of self. I think being an immigrant can definitely feed into being a writer. Being a writer is kind of being an immigrant in words.
HPR: Your book, Brother, I’m Dying, explores some of the complex relationships between the United States and Haiti, especially with your uncle seeking medical treatment in the United States but also dying in immigration custody. What would an ideal U.S.–Haiti relationship look like, and how can we get there?
ED: I really don’t know what that relationship would be like because the ideal version has never existed. And it’s hard. It’s not just the U.S. and Haiti, but it’s like the U.S. and any other country with less wealth and power. Haiti has great wealth, but our wealth is still hidden from the world. It’s like a lot of places that have proximity and history with larger powers. It’s exploited.
I think an ideal U.S. relationship with Haiti, or any other place, is less disruptive interference. Often, that’s the history of larger powers with smaller countries: ‘we get you to do what we want.’ The interactions of smaller countries with larger powers often occur through occupation, the disruption of choices that people make. It’s not just Haiti: it’s the history of the rest of the Caribbean—Grenada, for example—and other places in Latin America. There’s a great imbalance.
In all of these places, people would think less disruptive interference would be a good start to a better relationship. But when you’re a small country standing before one of the great powers of the world, often the idea that you can have equal footing doesn’t occur to the greater power. Haiti and other countries in the Caribbean and Latin America have suffered from those imbalances.
HPR: At yesterday’s lecture, Doris Salcedo’s “Circles of Sorrow,” you talked about how “one can’t create work about death without creating work about life.” Could you explain what you meant and how that relates to the way you think about your writing?
ED: I think the flipside of death is life: you have to have lived to die. I’ve written this book, The Art of Death, which examines the way people write about death, and that’s something that I find even when you are looking at a painting which depicts a kind of death.
Let’s say you’re looking at Pietàs, for example. It’s usually Mary holding Jesus, but often you see them in different settings where it’s a mother holding a child, and often it’s a child Jesus in distress. Even works like that, like Salcedo’s work, or a photograph where you see a muddy shoe, or something like that, immediately what moves you about that work is that this was the end of a story. This is what’s left of a life.
Even when that’s present, I think what’s behind death is ultimately life. That’s what I meant when I said you can’t truly write about death without writing about life. When we’re mourning, we have to know what we’re mourning, or whom we’re mourning. Even when it’s not visible, or fully represented, what came before is always there. That’s what I meant. Just now, we were in the Harvard Art Museum, and I saw a Picasso, it was like a double-sided painting, and I was like ‘woah, that’s so cool!’ I think if we can use that as a metaphor, that’s the life and death, two sides of the same coin.
HPR: At yesterday’s lecture you also talked about how language can divide people, and one of your books explored how language can divide Dominicans and Haitians. Can you talk more about how language can divide but also unite people?
ED: Speaking of two sides of the same coin, I was born on one island, which is two countries. It’s two countries that speak different languages, and some of the people look the same. What’s also happening in Hispaniola is that the borders have shifted so much over time, which also shows the fluidity of borders.
In the modern era, as time has gone by, there are more and more borders because there’s more and more inequality. We’re seeing that now, so much in the news, where you see this big flood of migration that’s due to war, but also due to environmental displacement. The UN has said there’s something like 65 million people who are currently displaced throughout the world. Some of them are internally displaced, and something like half of those people are kids, or children, or young people.
People have always migrated throughout time. There’s a flood on this part, and that’s how we have people in different parts of the world, who started out in that place in Africa, and then they migrated. But, migration now, it doesn’t come up as much, but you have environmental refugees. It’s not just war. People don’t migrate because of their whims. You have 65 million people who are mobile, and each is a story; each is a person. For me, that’s all part of our current reality.
Sometimes, people look similar, and so accents can also be a border. The example that happened in Haiti is that people looked similar, so they said ‘okay, this is how we’re going to tell if you’re from here: you say this word.’ It had happened the word “shibboleth,” which comes from a Biblical experience where something similar happened, where there was a war between two groups of people. But the people had lived together for so long that at some point you couldn’t tell them apart, and someone says ‘oh, I have an idea. You say this word ‘shibboleth,’ and I can tell by your accent.’ In that sense, the language becomes a border. The story of babel, where suddenly people were trying to build this tower to Heaven, and God said, ‘okay, I’m going to make you speak different languages so you won’t be able to communicate.’ So language can also be something that separates people.
HPR: In your work, you intersperse Creole phrases in a primarily English text. What prompts you to use Creole for a specific phrase?
ED: If I can’t say it in any other way, that’s what I do. Sometimes people will read it and they think I’m just throwing it in for spice. But for me, my use of it is when there’s no possible translation. When I do a translation, it’s an equivalent, and I try to use a word that’s very different from what a Creole speaker would use. I don’t want the Creole speaker to feel like they’re reading the same word twice. It’s usually a very ambiguous word, and I try to attempt at an equally ambiguous translation in English that comes close.
HPR: You’ve written memoirs, novels, short stories, even films. How do you move between these mediums?
ED: I see it all as storytelling. It’s just different methods of storytelling, but you’re still always telling a story. Sometimes there are things that demand to be told as stories, or as poems, or however they want to be told, but I see it all as storytelling.
HPR: It looks like you’re finishing up your most recent book. What are you working on now?
ED: I love doing short stories. I really feel like they’re my favorite medium, so I’m working on a collection of short stories right now.
Image Source: Flickr/Knight Foundation