Interview: Edwidge Danticat
Edwidge Danticat was named one of our twenty best American novelists under forty in 1996. Since then she has published The Farming of the Bones, which received an American Book Award, followed in 2004 by The Dew Breaker, a novel-in-stories and a memoir Brother I’m Dying in 2007, which won the National Critics Circle Award.
She edited the newly published Haiti Noir, a collection of stories focused on Haiti, and her most recent book is Create Dangerously, a collection of essays published in 2010. Ellah Allfrey asked her about the inspiration behind her story in The F Word, ‘Hot-Air Balloons’, as well as the 2010 earthquake and what she’s working on now.
EA: In your story, ‘Hot-Air Balloons’, a college student has an affair with her best friend’s father. Both these young women seemed bent on self-destruction; that they were both are troubled and having difficulty finding their place in the world. Where did the idea for this story come from?
ED: The genesis of the story actually was far from what ended up being the central idea. I was in Haiti once with some family members. We were going to visit someone and we were driving up a very steep hill and accidentally the person who was driving ran over a dog with his car. I was deeply struck by our different reactions to this event. There were four of us in the car. One blamed the dog. One blamed the owner. Two of us – I was in that duo – were just horrified that hurting the dog would lead to something awful (karma) happening to us at some point in our lives. The owner of the dog was naturally furious and we had to pay for the dog’s care (the dog lived for two weeks after the accident), but the driver’s impulse just to keep going really haunted me.
On that same trip I saw these plastic bags filled with water that are supposed to frighten away flies and these two images of unwanted animals just kind of stayed with me and left me pondering about wanted and unwanted human beings and how we sometimes physically and emotionally destroy ourselves and others after certain emotional experiences. This is, I think, also a story about coming of age, becoming women, in an environment where you are trying very hard to have empathy for the world and for yourself, but are not always succeeding on all fronts.
One of the characters in your story goes to Haiti to work for a women’s organization. The abuse of women and girls that you describe is horrifying – so much so that both characters, and the reader, cannot bear to think about it. How much does your story reflect the reality of women’s lives in Haiti today?
Women in Haiti are called the poto mitan, the middle pillar of the society, because they are so very strong and work so hard for their own survival and the survival of their families. ‘Poor women bear the brunt of the difficulties Haitian women face.’Poor women bear the brunt of the difficulties Haitian women face. Rural women are resourceful, but they are working with very little. They probably put in the most work to yield the least. Since the earthquake, poor women and girls have become even more vulnerable than before. Rape has increased, especially in the displacement camps, as has prostitution and survival-sex, which is talked about in the story. I have travelled with women’s organizations in Haiti – organizations like the one in the story – and these are things that I have heard from women who have either treated other women who’ve experienced them or from women who have experienced this themselves. I also have to tell you that there are some wonderful Haitian women and men who are fighting against this, who are defending women and girls in Haiti, organizations that have been doing this for years. They need a lot of support and they need a lot of help, but they keep at it and they keep going. The story also addresses the issue of how we sometimes use other people’s pain to make ourselves feel more whole. Sometimes you see a lack of self questioning in people who go to places like Haiti to ‘help’. They are helping so what does it matter, folks say. But it does matter whether you’re treating the people you’re helping as equals, as human beings. They may be good, bad or indifferent, but they are human beings. I think this understanding is essential to the interactions between feminists of the developing world and feminists of the so-called developed world. No one is a total victim or a total saviour. This story is also a love triangle, which you don’t quite understand until the very end.
In your recent anthology Haiti, Noir you write that you began work collecting the stories before the January 2010 earthquake that devastated the island. It must have been an incredibly difficult time. And yet you describe the ‘sense of joy’ you derived from the project. What did you mean by that?
In the midst of heartache, Haitians have always created great art – music, paintings, stories – so I considered myself privileged to be working on a project like Haiti Noir during such a difficult time. I felt joyful working on the project because it felt as though we were rebuilding a world, albeit a sinister one. We don’t always have to create pretty pictures around Haiti, but we are obligated to reflect or create fully realized human beings and that’s what our seventeen fiction writers did. I am really proud of that book. It’s not a rosy picture of Haiti, but it is nuanced and complex one. We are neither angels nor savages. Maybe that’s what fiction does best, define that middle ground. In the midst of chaos, we were recreating a complicated community on paper, both the Haitian and non-Haitian contributors.
In your collection of essays, Create Dangerously, you write ‘Perhaps there are no writers in my family because they were too busy trying to find bread’, and of the responsibilities of ‘the immigrant writer’. Do you feel your work been changed by the event of the earthquake and its aftermath? To what extent are you a writer shaped and/or influenced by your home country and do you think this is true of all writers to a certain degree?
I worry a lot that I could never live up to the very principled examples of the wonderful people profiled in that book. I suppose one can’t help but be changed by something like the earthquake in Haiti, whether you lived it from near or far. We lost family members and friends and even under normal circumstances, that changes a person. When you change, the work changes of course, though it may not be evident right away how it’s changed. Getting older, with all the new experiences and even personal growth and contradictions that maturity brings, has also changed my work. I am a writer who is shaped by everything that I have experienced and loved, including Haiti. I think that is probably true for all writers. We are being shaped every day by every interaction, every encounter, wherever we are. The trick is how to get that out of you and turn it into something truly worth sharing with others.
What are you working on now?
I am working on a kind of eclectic novel in the form of a weekly radio drama. I’ve been working on it for almost five years now. Writing stories allows me to take a break from it. Writing this story certainly did.
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Photo by Kathy Stanley
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