Edwidge Danticat on art in the aftermath of the quake

“Art is Haiti’s own ambassador – it can make its own path,” says Edwidge Danticat, who recently talked to the Reporter about her most recent works, Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work and Haiti Noir. The former is a collection of essays compiled over the years and completed as part of Toni Morrison’s Society Lecture Series. Haiti Noir is an anthology of stories Danticat edited for the acclaimed Akashic Noir Series. This compilation of dark tales illuminates the complexities and nuances of Haiti and her people. The literary adventure opens with the eerily ominous Odette, a harrowing tale set during the earthquake, written by Boston-based poet Patrick Sylvain.

BHR: When did you first start working on Create Dangerously?
Edwidge Danticat: About two years ago I was invited to do the Toni Morrison Society lecture series. I was only the second invitee, Cornel West was the first – no pressure there. When you’re doing these types of things, it’s good to find something you’re passionate about. If you share your passion, then you can share something meaningful. So I picked “the immigrant artist” as my subject. And part of the series is to publish a book. I’ve been writing these essays for years, although some of them were new.

BHR: In the middle of telling each story you stop to share your thoughts and insights. Is this part of your responsibility as an
immigrant artist?
ED: I was trying to interpret my own sense of it – the way I interpret my own path. It’s nearly impossible for me to come from the place I come from - to pretend that I’m just writing. It’s a lot. When you’re writing an essay you hope to interpret your own journey. Happily taking the responsibility and duty to share and tell personal, intimate stories. The artist’s responsibility is to try to represent as truthfully and as carefully what that individual knows (to be true).
Also, I wanted to try different things, to experiment with these essays. I wanted to start an argument with a subject before I even finished an essay. This is a book about writing and about reading – I really had my readers in mind.

BHR: Over the last couple years, there’s been a notable shift in subject matter and tone in your writing.
ED: Yes, there was a shift in my writing – as early as the Butterfly’s Way in 2001. First as a writer, you want to be a good storyteller and not to bore people with your writing. I’ve been lucky to be exposed to Haitian literature. I’ve always wanted to be an advocate for Haitian literature - to express our complexity. I now can share a book to show the different facets of [Haitian society and history]. It makes my job easier to explain these things through Haitian literature.
When you get older there are certain things you understand better. Art is such an introspective thing. When you get older, you become firmer in your beliefs. It’s negotiating all the different sides [of you] that takes time to nurture.

BHR: What are some reactions within the Haitian community to your writing and do you take that into consideration when you write?
ED: I’ve been at this for over 15 years now. I can almost predict [readers’] reactions: Fi sa, gen bagay li fè mwen renmen, men gen lòt bagay li di m pa dakò. Se pa tout bagay pou w pale. (This lady, there are some things she writes that I like, but there are others I don’t agree with. There are some things you shouldn’t talk about.) They want to be represented well. And you cannot represent everybody.
Some places you go they say I was expecting a real Haitian, not one with a New York accent [she laughs].
I’m supremely aware that there are things I write that will offend others. Haiti is one of those places that people can be very protective of. The idea that it also belongs to others is hard for many. But I don’t worry about that during the writing process. I’m obligated to tell my own truth! When I read, I want to be challenged in [every thing I know].
Some people think certain subjects are off limits. This Noir genre allows us to revisit ‘dark tales.’ It gives us a more internal, nuanced, complex take on storytelling.

BHR: Odette is such a powerful story - it reads like a vivid dream. Why did you choose to open Haiti Noir with it?
ED: It’s quite amazing because it’s going on now! People are accusing the vodouyizan (Vodou practitioners) of bringing cholera...I’m a big fan of the Noir genre and this series. Our book is the 36th in the series... I really wanted to do it because I knew it was a supported anthology – there was an audience that already existed. It would be an organic way to showcase different Haitian writers – to share rich, contemporary Haitian literature. We decided on a 2011 publication date before the earthquake.
After I re-read the stories, some become nostalgic. The “new” Haiti in a way has more intrigue. You have all these new possibilities in Haiti for intrigue – for noir. We needed to reflect the new reality...Art can create a more intimate vision of Haiti.

BHR: In your introduction you say, “Haiti’s more nuanced and complex face often comes across in it art.” How does this anthology do that?
ED: I’m proud of all the stories and the authors. We have 18 stories, more than the usual 14 [in the series]. I feel like it’s a conversation with all of these writers, across borders. They live in different countries across the diaspora - some live in Haiti. I was excited about this project because I want this to be a book I can give my nephews – that would make younger people excited about reading Haitian literature.

BHR: Given that Haiti’s been in crises-mode since last January, do you feel the people continue “to be conquered anew?”
ED: Absolutely! When you have to rely on someone else for clean water, a bag of rice – physically dependent on someone else for survival – you are vulnerable. There are echoes of slavery in the current conditions. However the Haitian spirit is unconquerable. The people perform miracles with little. But now there is less than little.
Haitians are very conscious about [their] sovereignty. The needs are so great – it’s becoming more possible for [the powers] interested in conquering Haiti – to do so during this great tragedy. Ultimately, the Haitian people’s pride in being Haitian keeps them sovereignty-conscious.

BHR: So then, is it the immigrant artist, who helps us “to be humanized anew?”
ED: I think artists help represent other views of Haiti. I don’t think we need to be humanized anew, per say. When I used that excerpt from Roumain in the introduction of Haiti Noir, I was referring to adding different faces and voices. Since Haiti is in the news so frequently, many think Haitians live in the news clips. Artists provide a different snapshot of Haitian life. Literature has more space to develop these stories. The writer is given special attention – with one reader. It’s harder to think of a person, a people [based on stereotypes] if the reader can relate to the characters. Characters do things the reader does in their everyday life.

BHR: What are your thoughts on the mainstream media’s portrayal of Haiti during this year?
ED: There was some effort made to get Haitian perspectives – more than before, especially within the last 10 years. I read quite a few pieces in the New York Times, Washington Post and Miami Herald written by Haitians. There’s also social media and other outlets that provide more possibilities for different stories and perspectives.

BHR: What impact has goudougoudou had on Haitian literature?
ED: It’s interesting. I’m a reader as well as a writer. After the earthquake, I found myself re-reading Haitian literature and it felt different. Since the earthquake, many writers shifted from fiction to non-fiction. There was a great outpour of testimony. After tragedy, it’s harder to get to fiction. It takes more time to get there. So most writers produce non-fiction as a testimony to what they experience. Although, you can never tell with creativity or inspiration – there’s no timeline on it.

BHR: What impact has goudougoudou had on the country?
ED: The earthquake amplified many things and conditions that existed before. The extraordinary disparity of who has and hasn’t. The moral revolution that many thought would happen – sort of didn’t. Or hasn’t yet. It’s what most people have found shocking – including myself. Life continues. The sense that this was going to be a transformative thing for us as a nation – it didn’t happen.

BHR: What are your thoughts on last fall’s elections?
ED: If it had been truly communal, if there was true inclusion, the elections could have been the first possibility for us to have that collective, transformational [experience]. But that didn’t happen.

BHR: What do you see or hope for 2011 and beyond?
ED: What we need is a communal reconciliation. Maybe we can use this upcoming anniversary for more reflection, so that at 4:53pm, where ever Haitians are, we can reflect on how that moment affected our lives. Hopefully in that moment, every person would commit to working together for a better country. Maybe it will be a moment of remembrance of those who died and a recommitment to the survivors.

BHR: What’s your favorite Haitian proverb?
ED: Piti piti, zwazo fè nich (Little by little, birds build their nest). Maybe that’s how we’ll have to rebuild.