“The Past Is Not Always Past:” A Conversation with Edwidge Danticat

Edwidge Danticat is an award-winning novelist and short story writer, known for her work on national identity, mother-daughter relationships, and diasporic politics. Born to Haitian parents, Danticat was raised by an aunt and uncle in Haiti until she was 12 years old, when she immigrated to New York to join her parents. After a childhood steeped in storytelling and literature, she published her first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory in her early twenties to critical acclaim. Since then, outlets like Harper’s Bazaar and The New York Times Magazine have routinely identified her as a rising star of contemporary influential writers. She has published over a dozen novels, as well as written several short stories and films.

Danticat spoke with Jessica Lanay Moore for Aster(ix) and Sampsonia Way Magazine about her literary influences, the relevance of the recent past, the role of race and performative whiteness, and acts of political and cultural engagement in an increasingly globalized world.

Jessica Lanay Moore: So my first question is probably the first question that everyone asks you, who are your writing influences or what writers have inspired you time and time again? Poets? 

Edwidge Danticat: My greatest writing teachers were the oral storytellers in my family. The way my aunts and my grandmothers structured a story, the way they told a story, was very powerful for me as a little girl. And, the immediacy of an oral story, when you have an adult in front of you and they are gauging your response, and if you seem bored, or seem like you’re falling asleep, they speed up the story. That’s a very strong connection. So oral story telling was a powerful influence for me. And then when I started reading, the first book I received as a present when I was a kid was Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline. Madeline’s life was very different from mine. At the same time it wasn’t,  because she was living in a house filled with parentless children, or children whose parents you didn’t know where they were, and that was very similar to the house I grew up in because my aunt and  uncle looked after a lot of children of people in the family who had migrated to the US, Canada, and the Dominican Republic. So I grew up in a kind of kids’ group home. But, later on, when I started reading Haitian literature, there is a writer, Jacques Roumain, who was a very powerful influence for me. He was one of the first writers I read who wrote about rural Haiti, and what it was like to live there and build community in a setting like this. His book, Gouverneurs de la Rosée, Masters of the Dew, was translated by Langston Hughes, and Mercer Cook, because he and Langston Hughes were friends. And there is another writer, Marie Vieux Chauvet, who wrote during the Duvalier dictatorship. Her book was about to be published in France, but was pulled by the family because the Haitian Ambassador in France told her that if this book came out her family would be wiped out. A few years ago I got to be part of the American translation of that book—Amour, Colère, Folie. It was published in English as Love, Anger, Madness.  I wrote a preface for it, which was an extremely meaningful for me. So those are some of my earlier influences. When I moved to the United States at age twelve, the first book I read in English was Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and reading that book opened the way for me to be brave enough to write Breath, Eyes, Memory. The fact that it was autobiography made it even more impressive to me. She was so vulnerable and that made it possible for me to be vulnerable as well. And then, of course, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, James Baldwin—I got to write a preface to Go Tell It On the Mountain recently, which was such an important book for me. So those writers, among others.

JLM: What is the relationship between joy, justice, brutality, beauty, and violence in your writing? There is a lot of verve around this idea that joy is a form of resistance in Black arts or Diaspora Black arts, and writing. A lot of times in your short stories, and your novels, and even in your essays, there is always this abutting of brutality with honesty, or this abutting. Yesterday in the Q&A session, you talked about this father and how he was everything to his daughter, and how he made that switch from systematically murdering so many people to being the light in a little girl’s eyes. You said that in your experience living in Haitian communities here in the United States, you’ve often found people being overly polite in the company of people who others know were instruments of brutality and violence, so what is your relationship with joy, in what seems like an unavoidable juxtaposition, in your work?

ED: I think joy is a kind of self-preservation against brutality and violence, and destruction in general. People who have had everything thrown at them with the goal of destroying them, still manage to find some kind of joy. That in itself  is a miraculous victory; it is a triumph. I think that’s why people often talk about resilience, which has become a sort of cliché. Sometimes I resist that whole label of oppressed people’s resilience, but we do find ways to survive that are creative and that includes joy, and creativity itself, and certainly the arts, dance, song, painting, literature.  After the earthquake in Haiti, for example, people kept saying how Haitians are so resilient. And I would think that this resilience means that we can suffer more than other people, but there is something about finding joy in the middle of an environment that is meant to just destroy you, and I think that is what a lot of African Diaspora Arts emerge from … the blues, jazz, even the spirituals, or what they call Negro spirituals, that came out of slavery and merged into “ I’ll fly away” myth, stories, folktales, which  are meant to be more than comfort, but are meant to take us outside of the present moment into some future we had to imagine. There is an essay that I love by Alice Walker, “In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens.” I talk a little bit about it in Create Dangerously. In that essay, she talks about how women whose souls just yearn to be artists—in the sense that we now know artists–but because they couldn’t in their time and place, they made their quilts. They planted their gardens. They did what they could, with this creativity that was being stifled inside of them. What do you do with the poetry in you if you are not allowed to read? You know, you sing it, you hum it. It comes out  through the church. It comes out through these other means that are available to you. So, I just feel like joy as a means of survival is very important to counter all of the pain and cruelty we’ve been forced as a people to endure. Lately Toni Morrison has been talking a lot about goodness in her work. I saw her give a lecture on goodness where she basically said I am tired of evil. I think one does get to a point when you are  older where you feel like—I want joy—not just a singular joy, but that I want more joy around me. And I want more goodness around me, even as the world seems  determined not to let that happen. And, I think that’s why we hear a whole lot more about self-care these days. Audre Lorde was talking about it in her time, even as she was also talking about how we must also care for our communities.  Maybe she talked about it more than others because she was battling breast cancer for many years. So she realized that you can’t do much if you’re not healthy. I think it’s important to turn inwards now and then and find a bit of joy, in your family, in your work, within yourself,  in order to survive everything that is going on in the world around you. Art is a big part of that, because you need some level of hope, or some level of joy—or at least satisfaction in the creation of art—in order  to be able to create. 

JLM: As we are talking about environments that are made to destroy certain people, it makes me think of The Farming of Bones, and that particular structure, I feel like the language in The Farming of Bones, is so direct and simple but it plays to all of these sociocultural, racial, ethnic nuances, that exist between the Dominican Republic and Haiti, who really have a joint history. Their histories are made separate, but leaning against one another, like that exercise that people do when they put their backs together, and they try to stand up together. That interplay is always very silenced in the general media. So The Farming of Bones, is a story about immigration for work between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and also reads like a sort of family narrative, a narrative that shows how interconnected the island is through blood and circumstance, while also illustrating through the characters’ lives the rampant political obsession with race cleansing, how does The Farming of Bones remain relevant to this political, familial, and cultural relationship that still exist today? What images are in The Farming of Bones that can still occur in the imagination when we think of the contemporary Haitian/Dominican context?

ED: When The Farming of Bones was published and out in the world, I kept wishing it was the kind of story that I could say, phew, I am so glad this is all behind us. It was a sad time, but it’s over. Sadly that’s not the case. The book came out in 1998. In 1999 there was a big wave of repatriation from the Dominican Republic to the Haitian border. Thousands of people were just picked up and dumped at the border. Junot Diaz and I wrote an Op-Ed together about this for The New York Times. In 2013, the constitutional court in the Dominican Republic ruled that Dominican nationality should be based on a  1929 constitution, which puts into question the nationality of Haitians who have been born there after 1929, that is several generations back. Thousands and thousands of people became stateless as a result of this. Relations between Haiti and the Dominican keep reminding me how history is more than a shadow, and how cyclical it can be. Sometimes people look back at horrible things and think—Oh, this worked, let’s try it again. And they may not murder people en masse, but find other ways to destroy them. They say that if we don’t know our history, we are doomed to repeat it. It’s just amazing to me how often, in different ways, we repeat our histories. The past is not always past. That to me is the lesson of writing that book.

JLM: What do you think … it is always so difficult to find the right words … what do you think the investment is in returning to the cycle—and I think I see a pattern of people defining themselves based on what they can or may do to Black bodies. James Baldwin’s essay about whiteness being a lie, and a lot of times immigrant communities, his example, came from Europe to the United States, and they still had their European identity, but they became white through what they did to Black and Native bodies. And it seems to me this is a play on that, and I have always wondered what the investment is in building a political and cultural identity based on separating yourself through violence or your ability to commit violence against Black bodies? Is it a racial investment? Is it an ethnic investment? Is it a nationalistic investment? Is it an effort to separate one community from another based on tropes of primitivism in association with the Black body? What is your opinion of this reinvesting in violence all the time?

ED: Toni Morrison has a great essay on that. It’s called “On the Backs of Blacks”, I think. It’s  about how the Italians came, and the Irish came to America, and they were Italian and they were Irish until they realized that by participating in the oppression of black people they could become American and white. So these people realize that there is this group of people that they could separate themselves from and abuse and that was their entry to whiteness. I once heard someone ask her how immigrants of color participate in that, in trying to acquire honorary whiteness by separating themselves from African Americans and by parroting the things white people say. I think the investment is accessibility, or what these people perceive as accessibility. To get access to certain spaces people will say to themselves and even to others,  I am not one of those people. I am this other thing. I am the good immigrant. I am the good Black. I am not that oppressed person the society I’ve just migrated to seems to loathe, even though one of them has been the president of the country. And because America itself has invested so much in the idea of white supremacy it can easily become a goal for new immigrants, however possible,  to join those at the top and that means folding into an existing structure as much as they can. We are now in an age where there are more overt expressions of white supremacy. I keep hearing these so called Alt right people say “We’re going to take our century back.” They mean from people like us, from brown and black people, from immigrants.

JLM: In the beginning of Create Dangerously you quote Osip Mandelstam, “Only in Russia is poetry respected—it gets people killed,” can you speak to this danger to create in the context particular to Create Dangerously, which is the immigrant writer’s experience, and then on a wider scale as perhaps to what might be coming for writers who “other” period, whether they are immigrant or not in today’s contemporary atmosphere.

ED: It is interesting to see this moment from the perspective of someone who grew up in a dictatorship. The dictatorship was already rolling along when I was born, so you just kind of land in the middle of it if you are born at that time. There are people in my family who saw the dictatorship emerge from the beginning. The dictatorship wasn’t gradual. Back then, there was a coup and the guy takes the power and he is a strongman from day one. But I remember living through the Reagan era when I was a kid and hearing about immigration raids nearly every day. I remember living through the second George W. Bush era and seeing the post-September 11th 2001 wars begin, and seeing the Patriot Act be put in place and seeing people debate in newspapers whether or not pouring water down someone’s nose for an hour is torture. I feel like we are going back to a combination of those times where it was brute force and bombings, and accentuating otherness. I am also seeing a lot of artists engage more, even with simple acts. For example,  if someone gets a prize and makes a speech, it is a different speech than it would have been four years ago. Artists are becoming more vocal. I think that’s important. I think what will come out of this era is more engagement. That engagement is not always in the press but quietly in communities as well. We are seeing that engagement from our citizens as well as from our artists. That’s really what I wanted to share when I wrote Create Dangerously, that these things have been happening around the world for a long time and that they keep happening. People can take over power who undo everything we know. That’s not an anomaly. It’s been happening forever. What’s  crucial is how people respond. I am hoping that life in the US these days will also make Americans more empathetic towards what other people have been going through around the world, and what other artists and citizens around the world have to sacrifice for their self-expression.

JLM: Can you speak towards Black women as vessels of memory, and actors of resistance, and as political symbols in your work?

ED: I don’t want to assign Black women any more special roles. God knows we already have so many assigned to us. We already do so much. I think we are exceptional, but I don’t want to assign us any more jobs. Black women certainly are at the center of my stories. I think part of this is from my personal experience of growing up with women who are very powerful—to me—but very vulnerable in their society. That duality has always struck me, watching how people have to live in these situations, live in the bodies that we live in, and have to contort who we are in different spaces. Especially if you are poor and female in very stratified society. I think that as vessels of memory, of people who carry their stories, I see that as more than symbolism, I see that as survival. When you attach migration to it, there is a hunger in people like me to know everything from the storytellers, the story carriers in my life, because I absolutely need those stories. I desperately need them. I especially need them for the next generation of my family. I need them for daughters and nieces, and for my nephews too. I need them to know how we lived before they knew us. I need them to know who we were before we came here. I need them to know how we managed to survive, how we managed not to die. I need them to have these stories as tools for their future. In migration it becomes even more important because you are so afraid to lose all that. You’re separated from the physical space where you were born. You can go back but it’s always changing. You’re always changing. What you are left with are the stories, and these stories come in bodies. And for me, it’s often a black female body like mine.

JLM: Your short stories and novels are very rich and specific. They call on the descriptive action that reads like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, while still having enough breath in the lines to offer some Voltaire-esque commentary from characters. And through these images you build community. Can you speak towards the religious and cultural braiding that happens in your work? And the relationship those have with politics?

ED: All of those things are weaved into daily life, into your need to go on living, or just go on about your day, which then involves what is going on in the country in general, what’s going on in the world, in your personal relationships, your memory, your past, your spirituality. I think that all of that is embodied in the human being, and that’s why I try to encompass all that when I write about a person. When I am writing about a person, I am writing about a community. And this involves writing about the different spiritual faiths and beliefs of those people and how that flows with or against the community. Claire of the Sea Light, for example, is a book about a little girl, but she comes with a whole community. And not all of the stories  I write show a whole community, but the community is always there. We are all part of these communities. We have these personal concerns, but we also have these global concerns, and those concerns are heightened when you are talking about people who have a lot of needs, who lack a lot of things, who have very urgent daily needs. I think it’s also important to be also allowed existential crises. Our people, our characters too, should be able to ask who am I? Do I belong here? At the same time, they are looking for food. They are going to church and praying to get a visa to leave the country. They dance at weddings. Every character comes with a world and is a world to me. Every character embodies a history, a culture, different types of spirituality. So all of that comes in each of the stories that I write.

JLM: Since we are talking about craft already, you are also the editor of anthologies, like Haiti Noir 1 and 2, Best American Essays from 2011, and The Butterfly’s Way. When you are choosing texts for anthologies what do you search for in the writing? Is the editorial practice different for essays than for stories for let’s say Haiti Noir? What are craft points that you look for if you have any? What is it like working with other people’s work?

ED: I love working with other people’s work, both fiction and nonfiction work. And what I really love about it is that it opens a space to different points of view. With Best American Essays, I had a bit of curating. There is a series editor and they narrow from hundreds of entries to a smaller number, and then you pick from that. But for Butterfly’s Way, for example, I sought people out that I know or have heard about. I also received work out of the blue. The same with Haiti Noir 1 and 2. When I do an anthology, no matter what the genre, I like it to almost be a party on the page. I think to myself—if I were throwing a literary party in this context or around this theme, who would I want there? And not just who would I want there, but I want those people to meet each other there. I want them to mingle. I want the young Haitian-Canadian author to meet the sort of elder statesperson author from Haiti. I imagine a reader like me at fifteen years old coming across these anthologies and having their minds blown and being relieved that they are not the only ones who feel the way they do. 

JLM: My last question is a selfish question, I think my favorite characters out of all your books is Kongo from The Farming of Bones, because he is so there, he is definitely a participant in the text, but he has so much mystery. It is incredible to me how some characters manage to keep secrets and hold their own in a text that seems against the author’s drive to make them visible, the characters are very independent. Can you talk more about thinking/imagining up Kongo and if you felt that Kongo gave you some resistance? 

ED: When I was doing research for The Farming of Bones, I would go to bateys, which are communities where people like Kongo live and work. And I would meet so many old men like Kongo on those bateys, men who had left Haiti when they were boys, or teenagers, or when they still had all their strength or all their limbs. These men had been in the Dominican Republic for so long that even if they went back to Haiti, they would not recognize it. And there is an example from the recent constitutional ruling when some people were going back initially because they were afraid. There was one old man who had been in the Dominican Republic since he was twenty. He had been working in the sugar cane fields. He recently came back to the southern town of Le Cayes where my mother-in-law’s house is, where we go all the time. And, he just sits there all day behind his brother’s house, which is the only spot where he can get Dominican stations on his old transistor radio. He’s been away so long that his own brother thought he was dead. He came back with nothing. He wakes up every mooring, sits there, and dreamingly listens to this Dominican station, all day. When I met him,  I thought that would be Kongo if he went back. I called the character in the book  Kongo because in the colonial-slavery period in Haiti, there were the Creoles, the enslaved people who had been in Haiti one generation, and the Kongos were the new arrivals. And people used some of the same type of categorizing on the bateys at times and since this man was the oldest of the old, he was nicknamed Kongo, like an old African. Kongo might seem mysterious because like the old Africans, he had too many stories to tell. He was also a quiet man, whose emotions we only saw displayed in grief, because he had experienced so much grief. There is so much contained in bodies like Kongo’s, so much history, so much pain, more than we are able to know. 

JLM: Next projects?

ED: I am working on a short story collection that I am very excited about. I am in the middle of a very long story. It’s a rewriting of Julius Caesar that’s set in the Caribbean. I love that moment where you are in the fever of creation, and I just can’t wait to dive back into the world. I am at that point in the stories where I’m very comfortable in that space. I know where I am going. I can see the place. So yeah. That is what I am working on now. 


Image Credits: Edwidge Danticat. Image via The New York Times.