Off the Cuff with Edwidge Danticat

Winner of the 2009 MacArthur Genius Grant, Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat presented the final lecture of the 2011-2012 Convocation series yesterday evening. Known best for her memoir Brother, I’m Dying, which was a finalist for the 2007 National Book Award for autobiography, Danticat has published extensively in genres from short stories to novels to articles. On the afternoon before her lecture, Danticat met with the Review to talk about her latest collection of essays, Create Dangerously, and the power of fiction.

Liv Combe, Editor-In-Chief

In Create Dangerously you write that “this immigrant artist, like many other artists, is a leech and I needed to latch on.” You call yourself as a writer a liar, a parasite, a leech, and yet you say that your role is also to show the beauty of Haiti that people don’t see in the media. Which role as a writer you feel you are most often filling?

I think writers are like sponges. We’re always trolling for stories, whether we realize it or not… I feel like I’ve been probably all these things at different times because there are moments where you’re having an experience while at the same time, you’re outside of it, thinking what it would be like to write it; you’re always this insider/outsider, because you’re sort of organizing things through narrative.

You were called a “literary ambassador” for Haiti. How do you feel about that title, and also the responsibility that comes along with it — for speaking for an entire country?

I’ve always lived near or in a Haitian community. So I know a lot of [Haitian] people, I know the whole range of the experience. I’ve always seen myself as one of many people who can carry that title…because I know a lot of other people like me who were writing like me…. So I don’t think it’s useful or even accurate to say that one person can be a literary ambassador to any culture, because ultimately writers are writing from a singular point of view… I know that it’s impossible for one person to be the voice of any culture, especially a very layered and complicated one like Haitian culture.

In Create Dangerously, you often refer to the 1964 execution of two Haitian men who were working against the Duvalier dictatorship. Though this happened before you were born, the story stuck with you. You write how “all artists, writers among them, have several stories — one might call them creation myths — that haunt and obsess them. This is one of mine.” Could you clarify what you mean by “creation myth”?

One of the things I was trying to do in this book was to talk to people…to see [if] they had a Eureka!moment, through their work…to see if there was a moment where they sort of became creators, or they became artists… I feel like for me it was with storytelling, listening to stories when I was little and then transitioning to books. But it’s sort of a more roundabout way… And I saw in [the execution story] a big parallel for immigration for me: you had these men who were banished from where they came from, who had left and came back, and tried to create this new place. A lot of what happened to them was meant to illustrate what could happen to my parents and other people. And our life as immigrants began there, when the dictatorship started to buckle down, when it became difficult then dangerous then all these people left. This is sort of where my immigrant life springs from; this is my creation as an immigrant.

Is there a genre that you prefer to write in?

What I like most about the whole thing is the ability to have variety. I love writing fiction because you have a kind of liberty with the material that you don’t have with nonfiction. I love being able to invent things… But what I like most is… being able to jump between genres, to do different things, because for me it keeps it all so exciting.

You once said, “I sometimes think I am doing simultaneous interpretation while writing: the characters are speaking Creole, and I am interpreting for them.” How does this idea of interpreting affect your writing?

It’s just become the method. It’s simultaneous to the point where I’m not even thinking about it… But I think [writers] are translating anyway; whether you’re writing from the same language [or not], you’re selectively plucking out moments in a character’s life that are leading to some kind of epiphany or conclusion… Maybe it’s the way I live between languages, but I see language as a tool… When you come from another language, English is so new; all the possibilities of it, things that you might be too shy to do in your own language.

You also said, “Maybe English also offers a veil, some kind of distance that makes me bolder.” You’ve also talked about how the “idea of just putting on a mask… was always something that was interesting to me because sometimes when we’re most shielded is when we’re boldest.” How does this idea of shielding yourself play into creating dangerously?

Whatever it takes to get you past that hump, past those fears, in that moment and situation where you’re able to [write] but some inner thing is preventing you, I feel like whatever it takes, [do it], [even]if it means hiding out somewhere. And it requires that, it requires so much time alone, it requires so much hiding to expose yourself. With fiction, you can lie, and that’s why I call myself a liar: a liar in terms of the fiction world. In fiction you can lie to tell these other truths.