Haitian American Author Pens Book About Immigration
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up, just in time for Election Day, my thoughts on making government work - that's my weekly Can I Just Tell You commentary.
But, first, create dangerously for people who read dangerously. This is what I've always thought it meant to be a writer. So says Edwidge Danticat in her latest book, "Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work." And Edwidge Danticat joins me now in our Washington, D.C. studio. Thank you so much for coming. Welcome.
Ms. EDWIDGE DANTICAT (Author, "Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work"): Thank you so much for having me.
MARTIN: When you say create dangerously, that evokes so many things. And then you say to read dangerously as well. Would you just tell us a little bit about what you were thinking?
Ms. DANTICAT: Well, I borrowed the words create dangerously from Albert Camus who had given a lecture at a university in Sweden in 1957 called "Create Dangerously," in which he says that art is not a monologue. It's a conversation between the artist and the society and also the writer. And that's something that I wanted to explore coming from a society like Haiti, where when I was growing up and when I told people in my family that I wanted to be a writer -it was still the time of the dictatorship. So for them it was a very dangerous undertaking.
And a lot of Haitian artists who I profile in the book are people who created dangerously. Dangerously because of political dangers, but also the ordinary dangers of ordinary, you know, of all of us ordinary artists in that the sense of, do you have enough to say? Will it matter? Will it contribute in some way? So there are of course the actual dangers, but also metaphorical danger of all types of artistic creation.
MARTIN: Tell us a little bit, if you would, about the execution that opens the book.
Ms. DANTICAT: Well, in 1964, these two young men, Marcel Numa and Louis Drouin who had been living in the United States for some time decided that they were going back to Haiti to unseat the dictatorship of Francois Papa Doc Duvalier. And they were captured and it was the last state sponsored public execution in Haiti. And the reason it's so crucial for me, and I felt like it was so crucial for the country, even though it happened before I was born, it was this moment that the dictatorship was signaling that sort of it was really doubling up.
And this execution created a whole wave of new migrations, but also a new way for a lot of artists to express themselves, so that many of our playwrights, for example, started rewriting Greek myths, Greek plays. And that had a double meaning. Suddenly they had a kind of credible deniability. They could say, well, this is about something else. But the people for it was for - was understood.
So I felt like it started this whole sort of a new way of living for a lot of people under this sort of dictatorship. But these artists, in a way, find certain freedoms even as the repression was growing harder and they had to think of new ways of creating, of expressing themselves through their art.
MARTIN: In the book you write something that fascinated me. It was about the secret plays that were produced and mounted during the dictatorship. They were done very quietly in, you know, basements, and very, you know, almost secret spaces.
Ms. DANTICAT: Absolutely, because there had been so much taken away from them. And many of these artists had families and members in prison. They had their libraries taken away, their books they burned. They were buried. And they were left with all these very few ways of communicating with people. And it was one moment, you know, that art - I think there were moments where art such a very singular personal thing - it's like a person's ultimate freedom, in a way.
But these artists, where there was suddenly this place and this moment where art became part of the collective. And it was something that they were doing as much for themselves as for the people around them. It was almost like the way people gather in church. It was a community-building thing that uplifts you, but also is healing after a natural disaster, after an execution, after a world that you'd known your whole life had been irreparably shattered.
MARTIN: What role, though, do you feel that art plays here in this country?
Ms. DANTICAT: I think art is the - especially important here in this country because it's so - on some level it's so accessible, I think that people take it for granted. And there's always these conversations with high art and low art. And even where I live, for example, in my Miami, there are walls to access to art. And there might be like a museum in a neighborhood where kids who live on the borders of it have never been. I think here the struggle is the disparity between how much art there is and how so little access there is to it for certain communities.
MARTIN: How you actually get to experience it.
Ms. DANTICAT: Exactly. Because it can change.
MARTIN: Well, you do have public commissions and things like that, but you don't...
Ms. DANTICAT: We do.
MARTIN: ...but you don't - that's not what you're, but you're not, that doesn't do it for you?
Ms. DANTICAT: No. I mean - it doesn't do it for everybody, I guess...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. DANTICAT: ...because I've just seen it over and over. I think it's - there are organizations, you know, that do try very hard to bring these communities in. But it would be great to see just more art for people who don't feel like, like it's naturally theirs.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin and I'm speaking with writer Edwidge Danticat about her latest book "Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work."
But, you know, the book has this kind of wonderful, gentle spirit while you're writing about some very difficult things. I want to read this passage where you're writing about sending your cousin's cadaver back home to Haiti from the U.S.
You write: He's a dead man whose cadaver needs to be shipped to the country where he was born. Why is this so complicated, I asked? In part, he answered calmly, because he's an alien. Were we still aliens in death, I asked, our corpses unwanted visitors still?
Do you feel that way?
Ms. DANTICAT: We'll that was the question that I was asking myself at that moment. I've had several occasions in my life here to ask that question. I had an uncle who was 81 years old, who died in the custody of Immigration officials after he was detained when he requested asylum. And I had this cousin who lived here undocumented, and when he died it was a whole complicated thing with the papers. And it felt somehow like, you know, the stories you hear about the ancient Egyptians, where you have to go through this long river and pass through all these stages with the gods, and then they ask you to verify your -you have to prove that you belong in the afterlife.
And it's interesting because in Creole, (foreign language spoken), the other side of the water, means both death and immigration. So that's something for me, especially with the different familial experiences that I've had, it's a question that I'm always asking myself: When do you truly belong? You know, when can you actually feel like you're there forever?
MARTIN: Do you ever think about not writing about Haiti?
Ms. DANTICAT: I think I've written a few small things about other subjects but I'm just really very passionate about Haiti. And I sometimes think, you know, even if I weren't from Haiti I would be intrigued by Haiti. And it's just, it's just what moves me, what intrigues me. And there's, of course, a long family history and the stories, the country, the people, every, just my own personal connections, that's really what intrigues me.
MARTIN: You know, the dedication to this book reads simply 200,000 and more.
Ms. DANTICAT: I was borrowing there from Toni Morrison where her dedication page in "Beloved" were 60 million and more. Two hundred thousand and more, of course, of the number of estimated number of people who died during the earthquake on January 12th, 2010.
MARTIN: And I'm asking about how, faced with such a disaster of such, you know, magnitude, how do you even wrap your mind around it?
Ms. DANTICAT: You don't. And I think at least I have the luxury of art, I guess. It's a kind of - and I feel like somehow personally for me, it's been therapeutic because we lost family members, we lost friends. And there is often that sense as your writing and sort of wrestling with these questions that, of course, the things that you're writing, the things that you're saying and singing or painting will never replace that.
But in a way I think art can be both a celebration of life, a celebration of the memory of people, but also it's an elegy. It's a way of mourning your losses and it's a way - and it reminds us - I mean I think everything we do artistically reminds us that at some point we won't be here and we hope that the thing that we've created, that the things that we've painted, the songs that we've sung will somehow stay behind.
MARTIN: To that point, if I could ask you to read just a short piece from the new book, and I've marked it for you. It's from the last chapter.
Ms. DANTICAT: Okay.
MARTIN: And you're telling the story about boarding a flight from Haiti to the U.S. This is after the earthquake. And the flight attendant is thanking the aid workers on the plane who are there. Could you read that passage for us, please?
Ms. DANTICAT: On the plane, I listen quietly as a flight attendant thanks the doctors and nurses who are returning to the United States from stints as volunteers in Haiti. I bet you're looking forward to hot showers and warm beds and U.S. eyes, she says. The doctors and others clap and whistle in agreement. Well, she says, I can only offer you one of those things: the U.S. eyes. Wrapping up she adds, God bless America. Feeling overly protective of an already battered Haiti, I hear myself cry out, God bless Haiti too, drawing a few stares from my fellow passengers. The man in the seat behind me taps me on the shoulder and says really, God bless both America and Haiti.
MARTIN: It's a lovely scene. It's a complicated scene. Yeah.
Ms. DANTICAT: It's very, I mean it's very complicated. I could, on some level, understand sort of the people's enthusiasm to return. And actually, right before that scene, it's a scene that I didn't put in the book, there's also sort of some scuffling because you have like high-level surgeons, doctors, people who were sort of exhausted and - but you could understand their desire to go home after doing this wonderful service that I can't do. I'm not a, you know, I'm not a doctor, I'm not a surgeon, and there was that appreciation for it.
But there was also this feeling of sitting there sort of like there we were again sort of the poor people who others were coming to help, and that sense of also myself being amongst the people who are leaving and I was leaving at that time. I was leaving - I had a very small child in Miami, but I was leaving, of course, the home where I had grown up that had just been shattered, and I was leaving family members who were still wounded, some we had helped move to the countryside.
But it was - it's - I felt, you know, I didn't leave Haiti as an adult. In a way I had chosen my migration, so I felt really that pull. I just, you know, I just I was going to my parents. But after that first trip on the plane, it was the first time that I felt like what it must've felt like, for example, for these people who were leaving when my parents left in the '60s, you know, or my parents when they were leaving me to come here and make a better life and then send for me. So I just had never felt that sort of sense before while leaving. And there was a sense of like sort of who do I belong more to: these people in the plane who are hooting and waiting to go home to the Super Bow, and or the people, my aunts and others who I was leaving behind in Haiti?
MARTIN: What would you wish for us to draw from this book?
Ms. DANTICAT: Well, Haiti has in a way traveled this journey before in that you have the heightened moment of, you know, the immediate coup or the immediate disaster, the headline, and then it sort of withers away. And I think a lot of people assume that it's solved, that it's gone once they don't see it until it surfaces again.
I think it's important for people to know, to remember that in some way the emergency continues and it can be potentially be worse. For example, you know, the potential for another earthquake exists. There are about a million and a half people still living in tents and the tents are wearing a way because people are not supposed to live in tents that long.
MARTIN: And there's been a cholera outbreak, which has recently gotten attention. On the other hand, I do get the sense in reading this book and, of course, you know, your other work, that you do get a little tired of the kind of the poor, you know, poor Haiti, as you were describing sitting on the plane earlier
Ms. DANTICAT: Well, that's the other narrative, too, I think that's worth telling, because a lot of people came to help and it was extraordinary. But a lot of Haitians also helped themselves. I mean this amazing story of people digging, you know - and my own relatives, you know, many of them were dug out of the rubble with hammers and by other people in the neighborhood. People have for what they've gone through and what they've in these nine years have been extraordinarily resilient and I want people to know that. I also, of course, is, you know, I want people to know we produce great art. We produce great music so that it sort of - there's more complexity to their gaze when they do turn their gaze to Haiti.
MARTIN: Edwidge Danticat is author of the new collection of essays "Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work." And she was kind enough to stop by our Washington D.C. studio on a visit to Washington.
Thank you so much again.
Ms. DANTICAT: Thank you for having me.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.