Interview: Edwidge Danticat
Edwidge Danticat is the author of Breath, Eyes, Memory, The Farming of Bones, and the memoir and social criticism piece, Brother, I'm Dying, published in 2007. She is the editor of Haiti Noir, an anthology published in 2011 by Akashic Books, in which she pieces together works of Haitian authors like Madison Smart Bell, Mark Kurlansky and M.J. Fievre, that are mostly centered on the 2010 earthquake and on the Haitian experience in the noir genre.
The following interview was conducted via email.
Fabienne Josaphat: It would be difficult to begin this conversation without bringing up Haiti's 2010 earthquake and current cholera epidemic. How have you found yourself, as a Haitian woman and a Haitian writer, affected by all this?
Edwidge Danticat: Of course, I have been personally affected, having most of my family still living in Haiti. All these things have brought a new level of concern in them and, of course, for them. Haiti is like a chronically ill family member, you worry about her all the time, but when she's going through an especially difficult time, you worry even more.
FJ: The most recent project just published by Akashic Books, Haiti Noir, is an anthology you've started editing and worked on before January 12. How has it changed since the earthquake?
ED: I was almost done with the book when the earthquake happened. We had made most of the selections by then. I worried once the earthquake happened that the stories might be read differently, that they wouldn't have the same power. However, I found that they had even more strength, more power after the earthquake. Some of them become elegies to lost neighborhoods. Some of them had this even deeper under layer of loss whether the earthquake is mentioned or not. After the earthquake however, we decided to add three stories that dealt directly with the earthquake or its aftermath. Sometimes right after such a large tragedy, it's hard to get good fiction so soon, but we were lucky in that we got those wonderful stories to join with the other wonderful stories we'd already acquired.
FJ: What was this process like for you in editing this anthology? How do you find contributing writers? What were the criteria?
ED: I had edited two other anthologies before and I am in the process of editing one now (The Best American Essays 2011). The first time I edited one, The Butterfly's Way: Voices from the Haitian Dyaspora in the United States, we were accepting submissions across all genres so it was a bit looser. The others, including this one, you have a series, the Noir Series, there are some boundaries in terms of what types of stories go into the series, so that immediately gave us some boundaries. I asked as many writers as I knew to consider submitting and asked them to recommend or tell others. We wanted to have a good mix of established and emerging writers in the book, but the stories had to be top notch so that we would have a book that was as good as the other books in the series. Of course we got more stories than we could publish, which is always too bad. Some of the stories were great but had a similar plot as another story and some were less formed, but it was great to see how many talented writers were out there writing about Haiti. It's also great to have that mix in the book of writers emerging outside of Haiti with writers living in Haiti.
FJ: Tell us a little about some of those stories that made an impression on you, and why?
ED: They all marked me in some ways. That's why they're in the book. I'm like a mother here and can't really point out the brilliance of one child without highlighting the great ingenuity of the other, which would take forever. I honestly love each and every one of those stories. Some made me laugh. Some made me cry. Some gave me nightmares. But that's how it's supposed to be. The worst thing that can happen after you read a story is that you immediately forget it. There's no risk of that with any of the stories in this book.
FJ: Can you tell us a bit more about Claire of the Sea Light, your story in the anthology? How did the inspiration come about for this story? It speaks of a common issue of restavek in Haiti, children in domesticity, but you've taken a different direction with this particular story. Was it already part of your repertoire or did you write it specifically for Haiti Noir?
ED: I hadn't written fiction in three years when I wrote that story. In the last couple of years, I lost my father. I lost my uncle. I've had two children and several tragic deaths in my family, including during the earthquake. So in the past three years, nonfiction has come easier for me than fiction, though I never stopped reading it. This story came to me in an image, a little girl aglow, almost like a human firefly. There was a sea behind her and a rogue wave. I started writing and I couldn't stop and that's how that story came about. I wasn't necessarily trying to write about the restavek system. I did however want to explore why people give away their children and how difficult that is for both the parent and the child. I was not a restavek by any means, but I did grow up without my parents so I could easily plug in to that longing and now that I am a parent myself, I can also put myself in the parents' place and imagine how heartrending the choice of giving your child away can be.
FJ: Is there a central theme on which all these stories are based on? A single narrative thread connecting all these stories together?
ED:Noir, however you define it, is the single thread that links not just the stories in the book, but all the stories in the series of noir books. Our book is, I think, the 36th book in the series and in each book each writer defines for him or herself what noir means. Usually in noir stories in which Haitians are featured, we are the bogeymen, the mysterious element. If there is a singular thread in our book it's that our writers attach noir to many dark complexities of Haitian life—like burglaries and kidnappings and police corruption—and humanize both the criminals and the victims and give us a whole nuanced way of looking at our own darkness, without stereotyping or over-sensationalizing our realities.
FJ:How do you feel your role as a writer can impact Haiti?
ED: It would be rather arrogant of me to think that what I am doing can impact anything, or anyone, except perhaps make people think, just a tiny little bit. If even that. The truth is my role as a writer probably only impacts my small daughters because it sometimes keeps me from playing with them when they want me to.
FJ: Do you feel that Haitian Literature has changed through the years, and how?
ED: Haitian literature, like all other literature, has of course changed over the years. We have more women writers, for one, and world class wonderful writers both inside and outside of Haiti, writers like Evelyne Trouillot, Marie Celie Agnant, Yanick Lahens, Kettly Mars, Emmelie Prophete, to name just a few of the women. Evelyne Trouillot just won the prestigious Prix Carbet de la Caraibe, which more Haitian writers have won, I think, than writers from any other place. Dany Laferriere won the Prix Medici last year and our writers continue to be recognized all over the world. We have a literature that I think is world class that is specific to Haiti, but also has universal themes. After the earthquake, it turned more internal, more testimonial. But so much work poured out of writers both inside and outside of Haiti after that. Marvin Victor, one of our contributors, is being praised to the heights for his new novel, Corps Meles. We have a vibrant literature that continues to grow both in Haiti and in the Diaspora and it's less centered in one class of people, it has many more branches now, in many languages, in many locations. It's thrilling to see it continue to emerge in both the young people coming up and the established writers too.
FJ: What projects are you currently juggling right now? Fiction? Non-fiction?
ED: Motherhood is my biggest project. I am cleaning my "work" plate so that I can return to a fiction project I have had on hold for three years now. I am writing short fiction again. I even wrote a play, but what I am really anxious to do is start working on a novel. And—as soon as my plate is somewhat cleared—I will.