An Interview with Edwidge Danticat

Mary Block, with assistance from Jakki Kerubo, Issue 29

I had the great pleasure to interview novelist and memoirist Edwidge Danticat. Among many other publications and honors, Ms. Danticat is the author of Breath, Eyes, Memory and Brother, I’m Dying, and is the recipient of the Pushcart Prize, the Story Prize, and the National Book Critics’ Circle Award. Warm and candid, Ms. Danticat considered her experiences as a young and successful author, the dynamics of writing while raising a family, and the challenge of writing about Haiti. The editors of Washington Square are very grateful to Ms. Danticat for sharing her time and her expertise with us.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: Breath, Eyes, Memory was published when you were twenty- five. What motivated you to become a writer when you were young?

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: I was writing way before that—I started Breath, Eyes, Memory before I was eighteen. (Some say it shows and maybe it does.) Anyway, I loved to read and I loved stories, so I always thought, “This is something I want to do.” I wasn’t exactly sure how to do it. But it was just wanting to tell a story that motivated me.

WASHINGTON SQUARE; Was there anything else that you wanted to be before you became a writer?

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Oh yes. I went to Clara Barton High School for Health Professions in New York City. I was well on my way, I thought, to becoming a nurse. That’s kind of what my parents had hoped for me. I didn’t think I’d be a doctor because it seemed like it took so long. And then I volunteered—one of the things you did at Clara Barton High School was volunteer at Kings County Hospital. I volunteered in the geriatric ward at Kings County—they would have me feed a lot of very old people, etc. And between Tuesday and Thursday, when I was there, some of the patients I was getting to know would die. And I realized I couldn’t do that job, that it would just be such a hard job to do.

Now, when I speak to kids, I always tell them that they have to do some kind of internship to really know if you really want to do what you think you want to do. Because after that time I was sure that I didn’t want to be a nurse anymore, but I spent four years in high school thinking that was going to be my life. I would write on the weekends, but I thought that nursing was going to be my real job. Volunteering saved me a lot of time in terms of knowing what I really wanted to do.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: When you decided that you wanted to be a writer, were you confident that you would be published?

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: I didn’t even know exactly what that meant. I thought, “The people I read, they’re writers, and they have books.” I always thought that somehow I would have a book. And that’s as far as it went.

I tried to publish in the places around me, in my high school and community paper and later on in college papers. But I didn’t see a direct line from what I was doing to publishing a book.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: So how did it end up happening? Breath, Eyes, Memory stemmed from your MFA thesis, correct?

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Yes. But actually, it started when I entered a couple of contests. One of them was the Seventeen magazine fiction contest. For one of the contests, I didn’t come in first, but it was good enough that they published my name and a piece of what I had written and an editor at Soho Press, Laura Hruska, saw it. Then Laura wrote me and asked me if I had more. After I sent her more, she wrote me a very encouraging letter telling me to expand the book and that’s when I decided to use my time finishing my MFA at Brown to complete the book. After I was done and turned in my thesis, I sent her a copy and she liked it and decided to publish it.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: Looking back, how do you think that having such a successful first book impacted your life?

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: I had gotten some really good advice. I started out with a really small press, with Soho Press. It takes about eighteen months to put a book out, and Laura, my editor said to me, “Get something else started even before the book comes out.” So for me, being young, that helped me to keep the focus on the work.

Sometimes it’s pure dumb luck. There are a lot of people who write wonderful books that don’t get noticed. So I thought about what was happening—the publishing of the book—as encouragement of my actual potential, for what I could do in the future, for what I am still trying to do every single day, even now. And I just kept going back to the work. Because if you take the praise too much to heart, you also have to take the criticism to heart. And you get a lot of criticism too. You have to try—or at least I do—I always keep trying to bring myself back to that first place, where I was just writing for the love of it.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: I wanted to talk a bit about Haiti. In the past you’ve written frequently about various events in Haiti’s history—the massacre under Trujillo, the Duvalier dictatorship. How has it been different or the same writing about the January 2010 earthquake?

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Well, I think that when I’m writing about Haiti, I’m just writing one long, ongoing story. But I really did feel, like a lot of people did, that after the earthquake, there were suddenly two Haitis: the Haiti of before the earthquake and the Haiti of after the earthquake. So I feel that I’ve been writing about the first one much longer. And writing about the earthquake... it’s been such a short period of time and it’s still such a raw experience that the few things that I’ve written about it, I feel like I’ve written them to process it myself.

It’s maybe like writing about 9/11. Recently, with the anniversary of 9/11, there was so much debate about whether one could write fiction about 9/11 and whether it was too soon and all of that. We’re still processing the earthquake, and it’s very hard. Even to process it enough to see something new that everybody hasn’t seen or heard, in this big way that we all share information, is challenging.

Writing about it will become a way of examining my relationship to this new Haiti that’s very different from the one that was before January 12, 2010. And I mean that in all ways—beyond the earthquake. The leadership and who’s in power, the fact that these tent cities are now part of the landscape. I think part of the process of even thinking about post-earthquake Haiti is trying to understand this whole new reality that the country finds itself in now.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: What do you feel has been the greatest challenge for you as a Haitian-American author writing for and from the diaspora?

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Living in between places, you have this feeling that you don’t know enough about where you come from, and you don’t know enough about where you are. So part of the challenge has been to do justice to both places, and also to this middle experience—to accurately describe it. And the Haitian experience has the extra...not burden, but responsibility to this legacy in which people have sacrificed everything for the freedom to practice their art. My challenges have been nothing compared to the people that have come before me.

There’s no place where one is freer than in the practice of one’s art, and I think that’s why so many people sacrifice for it. Because even if you’re in jail, writing on a napkin, in some ways in that moment, you’re free.

I feel that so much was sacrificed to allow me to be able to do what I do. And I’m allowed the freedom to not always carry the burden of it, and to do things that are completely outside of it, but to still be aware of the importance of it.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: You’re married and the mother of two young girls. How has it been balancing your family life with your writing and work life?

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: It’s not always easy. What you lose in sense of time, you gain in material. You get an opportunity to see the world again. You start over. And there are so many things that your eyes see in different ways.

A friend of mine put it this way: you have more material but less time. You become more of a multi-tasker: you become more efficient in the management of time, you do lots of things at once, faster. I used to write all the time, but now I write when I can instead of on a schedule. It definitely makes you a more efficient manager of your time. I used to spend hours searching the Internet, but now sometimes I have just two hours per day for my writing and I really have to use them for that. It makes you a more efficient person.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: How old are your daughters?

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: My older daughter Mira just started first grade. She is six. My baby, Leila, is two years old.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: Do you hope that they’ll become writers?

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: I don’t know, because there was no precedence for me in terms of being a writer. There were no writers in my family, but I loved writers. It’s hard to tell what will catch kids’ interest. I don’t have any specific hopes—in a way I feel like, just as I was a lot more privileged than my parents were in terms of the choices I have, I think they’ll probably have more choices than I have. I don’t feel like I need to start them on what they should do.

I think probably from watching my life, they’ll get a sure sense of what it means to be a writer because they’ll probably suffer the consequences of it more than anybody else (laughs). They’ll know the real deal. If they still choose that path, then that’s something that I couldn’t have stopped because they’ll have seen it close up.

I think a lot of people see the more distant part of it. They see the traveling, etc. But the kids—like the other day I was going to New York, Mira, the oldest one asked, “Why are you leaving again?” (laughs) These are the things about the balancing you never expect, and they cut a mother’s heart in two. I feel like they’ll truly understand what it means. The nights that you stay up... the bad moods not being able to write put you in. I just hope ultimately they choose something that makes them happy.

But you know, as a child I never quite understood when my parents said, “You have to have a way of earning a living, no matter what you do artistically.” Most writers I know have some other job. And so I hope that even if my daughters do become artists, they’ll have some means of supporting themselves, while being good, kind, empathetic and happy people.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: Which other writers inspire you?

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: I’m inspired by a lot of writers. I think back on the writers of my childhood, Haitian writers like Jacques Stephen Alexis, Jacques Roumain, and Marie Vieux-Chauvet. I also love the Marcelin brothers, Thoby and Philippe, who are amazing but who don’t get much glory.

Ironically, I started reading Haitian literature when I came to the United States, because we weren’t really taught Haitian literature in our school when I was a girl. So I started reading Haitian literature in this really hungry way when I came here. And I was inspired certainly by writers like Toni Morrison, Jamaica Kincaid, Maryse Conde, Julia Alvarez, Alice Walker, Sandra Cisneros, and Amy Tan.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: What sorts of communities of writers do you consider yourself a part of?

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: I have writer friends, and friends who happen to be writers. That’s basically my writing community. And being in Miami, of course, we have a big Haitian community here that’s full of all kinds of artists. For example, I live just a few blocks from the studio of Eduard Duval-Carrie, who’s a very famous visual artist. I spend time with people from different creative fields in the Haitian community down here.

But the writing life is solitary. Especially with two kids it gets harder and harder to withdraw and find enough of that silence to do your work. So I’m not always going out seeking social situations. I think that’s part of the balancing. You’re looking more and more for a space to withdraw into and to be able to write; and then when you come out, you have people to have drinks with now and then. We like to feel like we’re not alone in what we’re doing, but you still want and need that time alone to be able to do it.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: What motivated you to write a book for young adults?

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Well, it’s funny because a lot of people think that Breath, Eyes, Memory—aside from the sexual content, the sex pathology—is a young adult novel. People say to me, “Oh I gave it to my daughter. She’s twelve.” And I’m like “Oh My God! Have you read it?!” (laughs)
But I just started drafting another young adult book. I’m drawn to writing for young adults because I often feel like the person I’m writing for is the person I was at fifteen. And so, I feel like when I write in that voice, I’m back there again. I’m speaking exactly to that particular moment.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: Do you have a different process when you write for young adults versus for adults?

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Not really. I’m more conscious of the audience. When I’m writing for adults, the idea of the audience is more amorphous—you are writing for anyone. I’m more conscious when writing for young adults, not in a language way, but more in a content way.

It keeps me energized to dabble in different genres, including film and nonfiction. It’s all part of this ongoing project of working with words. I always say it should be about freedom—to be able to explore different ideas. If I could paint, I would paint too.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: In 2009, you were awarded the MacArthur “Genius” Award. Has that impacted your life in a significant way?

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: It impacts your life a lot, certainly. You get a certain kind of freedom. For example, I don’t have to teach at the moment and so I’m able to really concentrate on writing.

It came in very handy after the earthquake, because so much of my family was just devastated. We lost family members, and so many people lost everything in our family. The earthquake “put on pause” some of the things that I thought I would do with the grant money, but it came to a lot of people’s aid. It couldn’t have come at a better time.

And I think sometimes you get to a point—and I have been at this a while— where you want to still feel like you’re adventurous and you’re only answering to yourself, but sometimes there are other realities. This, in a way, allows me to pause to figure out where I want to go with my writing and not have to worry about the rent.

And a lot of times you get these things or you’re nominated, and people are like “Why her?” and you really get torn apart. The MacArthur grant is one of the few things I’ve gotten that no one has come out and contested, so that’s been nice. This award, for some reason, you don’t get backlash. Or at least I didn’t. Yet.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: As a way to wrap up our conversation, I wanted to talk to you about the way that you end your stories. Often it’s so hard to find an ending. What do you do to finish your stories?

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: When I’m starting to write something, I have a framework, or some idea where I’m beginning and where I’m ending. I think endings are very hard. Endings are almost impossible, because you want them to seem inevitable, but you also want some element of surprise, and you don’t want it to seem like you just got tired and stopped. More than anything, I work so hard at my endings, and yet sometimes, it still feels to me that an ending will come months after the story’s been published. But I know a
story’s over when I keep writing the same thing and then taking it out and
putting it back in.

Allow the story to age, too. Put it away for however long you can bear it— for two weeks, two months. Put some other experience between you and that ending. For instance, when I was living by myself and writing all the time and I wanted to finish a story, I would go watch three movies to put some other endings between my draft and my revision. I can’t do that anymore, watch three movies in one day. My kids would call the police to report me missing. But I still try to put some other experience between myself and my endings. It’s important to let things rest.