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Edwidge Danticat: Create dangerously, for people who read dangerously

"All artists, writers among them, have several stories--one might call them creation myths -- that haunt and obsess them," observes Edwidge Danticat in the strikingly vivid title piece of her essay collection "Create Dangerously:The Immigrant Artist at Work" published last August as part of Princeton University Press's Toni Morrison Lecture Series.

For Danticat, who is the featured guest of tonight's  BABEL Series author lecture and discussion at 8 p.m. at Kleinhans Music Hall, one personal "creation myth" that animates her work is the public execution of Marcel Numa and Louis Drouin, two Haitian expatriate writers who returned to their homeland to join the opposition to the brutal dictator Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier in 1964, only to be quickly captured, summarily convicted by a secret military tribunal, and gruesomely executed outside Port-au-Prince's national cemetery in a spectacle of authoritarian bloodlust organized by Duvalier's feared paramilitary force the Tonton Macoutes, who enforced the death decree as the occasion for an impromptu public holiday.

Brilliant scene-setter that she is, Danticat -- who was born and spent the first twelve years of her life in Haiti, before rejoining her mother and father (who had left earlier) in Brooklyn in 1981 -- foregrounds the unfolding spectacle with newsreel-like narrative detail, before explaining to the reader why this ignominious episode of her homeland's history has left such an indelible mark on her own expatriate writing career.

"Like many a creation myth," she writes, "aside from its heartrending clash of life and death, homeland and exile, the execution of Marcel Numa and Louis Drouin involves a disobeyed directive from a higher authority a brutal punishment as a result...Like most creation myths, this one too exists beyond the scope of my own life, yet feels present, even urgent.  Marcel Numa and Louis Drouin were patriots who died so that other Haitians could [someday] live."

This is where these writers placed their bets," she argues, "striking a dangerous balance between silence and art...How do writers and readers find each other under such dangerous circumstances?  Reading, like writing, under these conditions is a disobedience to a directive in which the reader, our Eve, already knows the possible consequences of eating that apple but takes a bold bite anyway."

Recalling the title of Albert Camus's famous 1957 essay on realism and artistic freedom, Danticat offers this prescription: 

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.

Immigrant artists in particular, she notes, face issues of self-doubt in bearing witness to culture they are no longer a part of, yet feel they owe a tremendous debt to those cultures and those ancestors whose sacrificed so much to make their lives possible.  "Some of us think we are accidents of literacy," she writes.

The focus of tonight's lecture and discussion will be “Breath, Eyes, Memory” (1994), Danticat's debut novel which became one of the first selections of Oprah Winfrey's Book Club in 1998, but it may also touch upon some of the themes in "Walk Straight," the second essay in "Create Dangerously" in which the author, on a trip back to Haiti in 1999, confronts many of the paradoxes success creates for the immigrant artist, not the least of which are the accusations that her work--particularly her depiction of the sexual inspections of daughters by their mothers and other aspects of the relations between three generations of Haitian women--misrepresented traditional cultural practices, as well as the more general charge among the diaspora that "You are a parasite and you exploit your culture for money and what passes for fame."

Thoughtful consideration of  these issues led Danticat to add an afterword addressed to her protagonist Sophie to all subsequent editions of "Breath, Eyes, Memory."  In it, she wrote of how "blessed" she felt to have encountered a character and family "as full of love and grief" as Sophie's and to share in their secrets and mysteries. If she depicted some practices that were common in some families, she meant it to be the truth of their particular experience and not Haitian women in general.  "Walk straight, you are in the presence of family," she urged her protagonist.

Danticat, whose other books include "Krik? Krak!” (stories, 1996), “The Farming of Bones” (novel, 1998), “The Dew Breaker” (a novel-in-stories, 2004), and “Brother, I'm Dying” (memoir/social criticism, 2007), was awarded a 2009 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship for her ongoing work.  She is a two time National Book Award finalist, the winner of an American Book Award in 1998, and the recipient of the 2008 National Book Critics Circle Award in non-fiction for “Brother, I’m Dying.”

In addition to "Create Dangerously," which also includes ten other essays on art, exile, domestic violence, political oppression, and natural disaster, Danticat's most recent most recent publication is “Haiti Noir,” an anthology of Haitian genre fiction she edited for Akashic Books.  It was released in January to coincide with the first anniversary of the devastating Haiti earthquake of January 12, 2010, in which as many as 316,000 people are estimated to have perished.

--R.D. Pohl

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