A radical for the ages.
By David Barsamian
October 2003 Issue
Edwidge Danticat won the American Book Award for her 1998 novel, The Farming of Bones. Born in Haiti in 1969, she immigrated to Brooklyn in 1981 to join her parents, who had come years earlier. Her father drove a cab, and her mother was a textile worker. After her parents left Haiti, she was raised by her aunt, for whom she has great affection.
Danticat mines the immigrant experience and the history of her native land for material. Her first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, was published in 1994. The following year, her collection of short stories Krik? Krak! was nominated for a National Book Award. “When you write, it’s like braiding your hair,” she writes in Krik? Krak! “Taking a handful of coarse, unruly strands and attempting to bring them into unity. . . . Some of the braids are long, others are short. Some are thick, others are thin. Some are heavy. Others are light.”
Last year, in a departure, she wrote a nonfiction work called After the Dance: A Walk Through Carnival in Jacmel, Haiti. Rich in reportage, it is a book of both great travel writing and sociological insight. Her forthcoming book is called The Dew Breaker. And she’s working on a children’s book about Anacaona, an Arawak woman who was a chief in pre-independence Haiti.
She doesn’t like to be pigeonholed as some kind of oracle or interpreter of Haitian Americans. “I think I’ve been assigned that role, but I don’t really see myself as the voice of the Haitian American experience,” she once said, adding: “There are many; I’m just one.”
I first interviewed Danticat when she was in Boulder in the mid-1990s. I was struck then by her acute intellect and her desire to say things precisely, but also by her sense of humor. In that interview, she didn’t have formulaic answers. That was the case again when I called her in Miami, where she now lives, in early August.
Question: What’s your new book, The Dew Breaker, about?
Edwidge Danticat: It’s a collection of interrelated short stories like Krik? Krak! It’s centered around a torturer during the thirty-year Duvalier dictatorship. The book is about this person and some of his victims. The main character now lives in Brooklyn and owns a barbershop. I wanted to explore how such a person carries on with his life, and how his victims live with the scars of dictatorship. Often when we migrate, we find ourselves with these types of persons—the torturers and the victims mixed together in the same neighborhood. One of the things that sparked my interest in this is the case of Emmanuel Constant, who started a militia called FRAPH that was backed by the CIA. FRAPH killed thousands of Haitians in the early 1990s. Now while Constant is living comfortably in Queens, other Haitians are being deported. I wanted to see how those who have been bruised by people like that deal with coming face to face with their torturers.
Q: Faulkner said, “The past is never dead—it’s not even past.”
Danticat: Exactly. Especially in the case of people who have migrated from other places. We try so hard to keep some aspects of the past with us and forget others, but often we don’t get to choose. We try to keep the beautiful memories, but other things from the past creep up on us. The past is like the hair on our head. I moved to New York when I was twelve, but you always have this feeling that wherever you come from, you physically leave it, but it doesn’t leave you.
Q: Constant is wanted in Haiti.
Danticat: He’s been tried in absentia for crimes against the Haitian people, and has been given a life sentence. But he’s safely in the United States. And it’s not just Haitian torturers who find refuge here. There are examples of people who carried out massacres in the Balkans, Central America, and Indonesia who are now living with impunity in this country. The Administration is very selective in whom it considers terrorists.
Q: Your novel The Farming of Bones traces an important but much overlooked aspect of Haitian history: the 1937 massacre, directed by the Dominican dictator Trujillo, which killed thousands of Haitians. Trujillo’s army, using repatriation as a ruse, rounded up Haitians by the tens of thousands who were living in the Dominican Republic. How many people were executed?
Danticat: It’s estimated that from 14,000 to 40,000 were killed. I lean more toward the higher number. Afterward, the Dominican Republic offered the Haitian government something like fifty cents in compensation per person killed.
Q: What did you discover in writing that book?
Danticat: The saddest part of that whole experience was seeing how that event is so linked with what’s going on today. We still have our people working in the cane fields in the Dominican Republic. People are still repatriated all the time from the Dominican Republic to Haiti. Some tell of being taken off buses because they looked Haitian, and their families have been in the Dominican Republic for generations. Haitian children born in the Dominican Republic still can’t go to school and are forced to work in the sugarcane fields. It really isn’t a memory; it’s an event that has a continuing relationship. And the massacre is something that people always fear can happen again.
But the whole history between Haiti and the Dominican Republic is complicated. We share the island of Hispaniola, and Haiti occupied the Dominican Republic for twenty-two years after 1804 for fear that the French and Spanish would come back and reinstitute slavery. So we have this unique situation of being two independent nations on the same island, but with each community having its own grievance. Even today people will look at each other and say, “You occupied me,” or “Trujillo killed members of my family.”
Q: C.L.R. James wrote, Haiti was “the greatest colony in the world, the pride of France, and the envy of every other imperialist nation.” Contrast that today with Haiti being one of the most heavily stigmatized countries in the world, almost synonymous with destitution, desperation, violence, boat people, and AIDS.
Danticat: We were referred to as “The Pearl of the Antilles,” the most productive colony—but productive for whom? Not for the slaves working in the plantations. It was a wealthy colony, but once the colonizer left, he left with all the wealth. This is not to make excuses. We made a lot of our own mess, too. But we started out with a lot of negatives that are still against us today.
Q: The Haitian revolution was met by hostility from the United States, which didn’t like enslaved blacks leading a revolution and throwing off the French.
Danticat: This was a “bad” example for U.S. slaves. Haiti was subjected to an embargo from the United States, which, along with many other countries, refused to recognize this new republic.
Q: The leader of that revolt was Toussaint L’Ouverture, someone who is practically unknown in the United States.
Danticat: He was one of the leaders. There were others: Boukman, a Jamaican who in 1791 organized a Vodou ceremony where people pledged to fight for liberty or to die. There was Mackandal. And then L’Ouverture, who was on a plantation, who started organizing, and had military training. There were also leaders like Jean-Jacques Dessalines, whose motto was, “Cut their heads off, burn their houses.” L’Ouverture was taken from Haiti and imprisoned in France, where he died. Wordsworth wrote a poem about him. One of L’Ouverture’s most quoted sayings was, when he was about to be taken off by the French, “You can cut the branches of the tree of liberty, but you can’t destroy the roots because they are too strong and too many.” He was a phenomenal leader, but it’s important to acknowledge the others. Because it’s a problem we have thinking that one person can make a revolution, whether it’s now or in the past.
Q: The United States invaded Haiti in 1915 and remained there until 1934. Decades of dictatorship followed. What kind of legacy has that left on Haiti?
Danticat: It had a very potent legacy that we’re still living with today. For example, the whole military structure in Haiti that existed until the early 1990s was put in place by the American occupation. At the top there were Southern white officers, who led an army that crushed the indigenous resistance—the cacos. A high-ranking U.S. officer said when he arrived, “To think these niggers speak French!” Later, Haitian officers attended the notorious School of the Americas at Fort Benning. The threat from the U.S. is something that is always hanging over people’s heads: If we don’t behave, we’ll have occupation again.
Q: You mentioned Boukman. There’s a well-known Haitian musical ensemble called Boukman Eksperyans that does roots music. Talk about the relationship between culture and resistance.
Danticat: Boukman really speaks to the people and the roots of the problem, and their carnivals are often extremely popular. People will sing and dance, but still get a message from it. The group has transformed what was before ceremonial Vodou (notice that it is spelled V-o-d-o-u) and brought it out in a public sphere as beautiful and celebratory but also protest music.
Q: Why do you spell it that way?
Danticat: Because when people think about this religion, they’ll say “voodoo” this and “voodoo” that in the way the Hollywood movies show it: the sticking of pins in dolls. It’s very different than Vodou—which is a religion that comes to Haiti from our ancestors in Africa. I want to differentiate it from the stereotypical, sensationalized view that we see of the religion. “Voodoo economics,” “voodoo this and that.” Vodou is one of the religions practiced in Haiti, a rich religion for the people.
Q: In your book After the Dance, you write about AIDS being “a painfully complicated issue for us Haitians.” Why is that?
Danticat: In the 1980s, when people were just beginning to talk about AIDS, there were just a few categories of those who were at high risk: homosexuals, hemophiliacs, heroin addicts, and Haitians. We were the only ones identified by nationality. Then it seemed from the media that we were being told that all Haitians had AIDS. At the time, I had just come from Haiti. I was twelve years old, and the building I was living in had primarily Haitians. A lot of people got fired from their jobs. At school, sometimes in gym class, we’d be separated because teachers were worried about what would happen if we bled. So there was really this intense discrimination. The FDA placed us on the list of people who could not give blood. So AIDS was something that was put upon us, and we were immediately identified with it. That is unfair. That is unjust. I always say, “We are all people living with AIDS.” It’s not like you can avoid it. It’s part of our world.
Q: You’ve looked into the treatment of Haitian immigrants. Attorney General John Ashcroft says Haitian refugees constitute a threat to national security. What’s that about?
Danticat: I recently moved to Florida. I see the sharp inequality between how Haitian and Cuban refugees are treated. Both groups come here because their lives are equally desperate. But on arrival, the Haitians are incarcerated, and some are immediately repatriated, whereas Cubans get to stay and are eligible for citizenship. I’m not saying Cubans don’t deserve asylum, but if it is a national security issue, there are people who are coming from Cuba on hijacked airplanes. Why isn’t that a national security issue? And recently the Attorney General made another astonishing claim, that there were Pakistani terrorists possibly coming on these boats from Haiti. No one has ever seen a Pakistani coming on a boat from Haiti yet. Ashcroft couldn’t even name one case.
Q: You’ve been to these immigration holding centers in Florida. What are they like?
Danticat: I went with a group of people to Krome, the largest holding center. It’s a male facility. We met with a group of people who came to the recreational area. It’s sort of out in the middle of nowhere. We met with a lot of people who were depressed, feeling that they were criminalized for having tried to come here. Many men talked about committing suicide. Some had been there for more than a year, and had no idea what their fate was going to be.
Q: What do you think of Bush’s attack on Iraq?
Danticat: That situation could have been resolved in a different way. And the justification—the idea that we have a right to invade another country and determine another people’s destiny—is frightening. And I fear really for the future of that occupation. What happens now, and twenty years from now, and forty years from now, given our case? People in the United States may feel like when we don’t see it on CNN twenty-four hours a day, it sort of disappears. But it doesn’t disappear for the people who have to live under occupation—and their children and their children’s children.
Q: What’s your assessment of Aristide?
Danticat: That’s a tricky one. My view still is that he was voted in power. I can’t really gauge how much change there’s been since 1990. I know he has his supporters and detractors. I will quote Brecht: “I’m on the side of the people.” Whatever the people decide about him, I will follow. Life’s hard in Haiti right now. And the hardest thing is that the future does not lie with one person. A lot of the focus is often put on him. He can’t save Haiti. No one individual can. He can’t pull the strings and make everything better. It all becomes a personality cult: Can one person save Haiti?
Q: I sense your reticence in talking about Aristide.
Danticat: I do have trouble talking about him because I just don’t know. I can’t read the situation very well. I can’t say, like some do, that he’s all bad, or like some other people, that he’s all good.
Q: Tell me about your craft. You’ve said that at a very early age, writing was a “haven” for you. As a child, you had “secret artistic aspirations.” What models did you draw upon?
Danticat: My models were oral, were storytellers. Like my grandmothers and my aunts. It’s true, a lot of people in my life were not literate in a formal sense, but they were storytellers. So I had this experience of just watching somebody spin a tale off the top of her head. I loved that. She would engage an audience, and she would read people’s faces to see if what she was saying was captivating them. If it was boring, she would speed up, and if it was too fast, she would slow down. So that whole interaction between the storyteller and the listeners had a very powerful influence on me.
When I started going to school, writing itself was painful. But when I started reading other things—the Madeline books about a little girl in France—I thought, well, that’s kind of what my grandmother does, except this story never changes. But I don’t know where exactly I got it into my mind that I wanted to write, that I could write. It just sort of came about.
Q: I was impressed with After the Dance as a work of journalism. How did you take it on?
Danticat: After the Dance was my first attempt at nonfiction. I’d never really participated in carnival, and I really wanted to go. It sounded like a wonderfully fun thing to do. And I wanted to write something happy about Haiti, something celebratory. And going to carnival gave me a chance to do that, because it is one of the instances in Haiti when people shed their class separation and come together.
Q: Masks are a big part of carnival. You seem drawn to them. Why?
Danticat: Even when I think of writing fiction, it’s being kind of a liar, a storyteller, a weaver, and there’s that sense of how much of this is your life. The story is a way you unravel your life from behind a mask. But the idea of just putting on a mask in a big crowd where you can be anybody was always something that was interesting to me because sometimes when we’re most shielded is when we are boldest. And, being a shy child, I always longed for a mask. Even in my adult life, I have glasses, they are my mask. When I meet people for the first time, I always put on my glasses because I feel like that’s a little something extra between me and them. It’s like the Laurence Dunbar poem “We Wear the Mask.” I think we all wear some kind of mask. There are masks that shield us from others, but there are masks that embolden us, and you see that in carnival. The shiest child puts on a mask and can do anything and be anybody. So sometimes we mask ourselves to further reveal ourselves, and it’s always been connected to me with being a writer: We tell lies to tell a greater truth. The story is a mask; the characters you create are masks. That appeals to me. Aside from that, too, in the carnival the masks were beautiful, and offered a vision of Haitian creativity.
Q: There’s a wonderful moment in After the Dance about the U.S. ambassador, who is attending the carnival.
Danticat: On the VIP stand, you had the foreign dignitaries, the carnival queen, the senators, the important people who’d come from afar. And that year, the biggest float was depicting a scene of Haitian refugees with men dressed as Coast Guard officers and people spilling over, and the crowd serving as the sea. Suddenly, the U.S. ambassador heard the crowd sing a popular song about how “we are selling the country in U.S. dollars.” It was one of those absurdist moments, where carnival and life merged. Carnival is a celebration of history, and it echoes so much of who we are from the Arawaks to slavery to colonization to the current day. It’s just something that throbs with this living history. People often think of Haiti as a place where you’re not supposed to have any joy. I wanted to show that this is a place with joy.