One inevitable consequence of any migratory pattern – of any Diaspora – is that the displaced population and, consequently, their relocated offspring develop a multi-layered sense of identity, which often maps the journey of their kind. Edwidge Danticat’s story reveals a miniature version of the history of the Caribbean, so it is hardly surprising that her literature deals directly with the issues – loss and parting, suffering, memory and the forging of identity, acceptance and atonement – most latently present in the reality of the contemporary immigrant.
Edwidge Danticat was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on January 19, 1969 towards the end of the tyrannical rule of Dr. Francois Duvalier – aka Papa Doc. When she was just two years old, her father André, left for New York. It would be almost another ten years before he was reunited with his daughter. Meanwhile, Edwidge’s mother, Rose, toiled with the authorities to obtain a visa to enter the United States. Two years after the departure of her husband, she was allowed to visit the country for one month. She, too, would leave with no intention to return. At the age of four, and now firmly into the dictatorial government of Jean-Claude Duvalier (Baby Doc), Edwidge was left to the care of her uncle and aunt in Port-au-Prince. She lived with her surrogate parents for eight years, before finally joining her mother, father and two new brothers in 1981. At the age of twelve, when Edwidge was introduced to her new home in New York, she was not quite a teenager, but she certainly was old enough to have assembled a cultural baggage that signaled her out as distinctly different in America. Consequently, her literature can be seen as a compelling attempt to marry the two selves (the two languages, the four parents, the two homes) that so contrastingly shaped her life.
Danticat first came to notoriety when her second published book, Krik? Krak! was nominated for the National Book Award for fiction in the United States in 1996. An enticing collection of nine short stories, Krik? Krak! often delves into sordid, dismal situations, which nonetheless fail to stand out as unique, rendering them ordinary in a sense that is meant to both create awareness and encourage engagement in the reader. The collection progresses from the hopeless portrayal of the harsh reality lived in Haiti, through the letters of two young lovers who, upon parting, pledge to write daily, despite ignoring the whereabouts of each other, to the depiction of another side of the country, evident in the relatively peaceful, although still delicate, environment of Ville Rose, “the city of painters and poets”, to the vivid representation of the problems faced by the Haitian immigrant community in America – problems of adaptation, problems of survival, problems of reconciliation between past and present.
In 1996 Danticat was selected for her first book, Breath, Eyes, Memory, by the prestigious literary publication GRANTA as one of the Best Young American Novelists, a list that included twenty writers under thirty years of age. The same book was chosen two years later by Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club, which certainly did not harm Danticat’s popularity. Roundabout this time, she published her second novel, The Farming of Bones, a sentimental reconstruction of the largely forgotten Haitian genocide incited by the Dominican authorities under the auspice of President Rafael Trujillo in 1937, which merited her the 1999 American Book Award.
The Farming of Bones tells the story of this massacre, where between 15,000 and 30,000 Haitians lost their lives, from the inside, carefully building a detailed context around the life of the female protagonist, Amabelle Desir, whose servile existence has been linked to a prosperous Dominican family since the tragic death of her Haitian parents, when she was still a toddler. This allows Danticat to depict the high levels of tension that could be sensed between the dominant Dominican population and the Haitian community living in the Dominican Republic prior to the events. However, by creating a melancholy protagonist whose profile is already largely defined by death and bereavement Danticat mitigates the effect on the reader of the contrast between her situation before and after the ordeal that sees her move back to Haiti as a ravished refugee who has lost her fiancé along with the rest of her past. At the same time, while the view from within allows Danticat to weave an emotional tale that appeals directly to the feelings of a sensitive reader, it also prevents her from reaching the distance necessary to look at the incident and its aftermath in its full historical context. In this sense, Danticat falls short of directing towards her adoptive homeland the sort of scathing criticism that, for instance, Graham Greene voices in The Comedians in relation to the same affair. Ultimately, however, Danticat’s intention is testimonial rather than political. This is the very reason why further ignominies, such as the piffling half a million US dollars which Trujillo eventually agreed to pay the Haitian government as retribution for the crime, find no place in an account that presumably seeks to resonate on a higher moral, more human forum.
Danticat’s prolific output has not diminished in the past decade, during which she has published two works of fiction for young audiences (Behind the Mountains, 2002, and Anacaona, 2006), a non-fiction study of the carnival in Jacmel (After the Dance, 2003), another collection of short stories (The Dew Breaker, 2004) and she has edited an anthology focusing on the Haitian Diaspora in the United States (The Butterfly’s Way, 2003). Most recently, she published her memoirs, Brother, I’m Dying, for which she was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award for autobiography in 2007. Starting on the day when she learned, almost simultaneously, that she was unexpectedly pregnant, and that her father was terminally ill, Brother, I’m Dying is as much a tribute to her parents (both biological and surrogate) as it is a social critique of the deplorable state of affairs in Haiti. Written in a more colloquial style than her literary fiction, her propensity to highlight the dramatic vein of certain situations becomes particularly obvious in the way she structures and editorializes anecdotes pertaining to her childhood – especially those understandably vivid months between her biological parents’ first trip back to Haiti and the moment when she and her brother are finally given the required paperwork to enter the USA.
From the 1937 massacre to the death of her father through two collections of short stories dealing with the perils and vicissitudes of being Haitian, Danticat’s corpus is more real than uplifting. However, she is evidently passionate about writing, as much as she is about human stories and human rights. Consequently, carefully constructed phrases provide often crude, sad or plain horrid tales with an unbecoming beauty. If sometimes Danticat’s commitment leads her to err on the sentimental side, more often than not the reader is rewarded with a thoughtful, sophisticated and complex product that places its narrator somewhere in the middle, simultaneously near and far, as she tries to remain fair and faithful to the facts of two conflicting realities.
PUBLISHED BY THE WEEKENDER SUPPLEMENT OF SINT MAARTEN’S DAILY HERALD ON NOVEMBER 14, 2009.