Interview: Edwidge Danticat Author of Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work

Shelf Unbound: You’ve subtitled your book “the immigrant artist at work.” Is being an immigrant equal in weight to being an artist in terms of how you think of yourself?

Edwidge Danticat: There are so many ways that I think of myself: as woman, mother, writer. Being an immigrant and being a writer is in many ways another layer along with all of that. They are all part of the totality that makes me who I am.

Shelf: You depict atrocities—execution, assassination, torture—in a sober voice: “Blood spills out of Numa’s mouth. Drouin’s glasses fall
to the ground, pieces of blood and brain matter clouding the cracked
lenses.” How hard is it to write soberly about such gut-wrenching events?

Danticat:As you can imagine, it’s not as hard as living those things, or even living through them. I try to write very simply because the events themselves have so much weight, so much power. The most you can do while writing about such painful things is to be truthful, reflective, and respectful of the people and events you are writing about.

Shelf: In a new collection from Granta, The Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists, the editors comment on a shift in perspective of the post-dictatorship generation. “For them, censorship, blacklists, exile and persecution are historical facts, rather than actual memories,” they say, referring to the “quotidian” rather than political nature of most of the stories. What do you see happening with the next generation of Haitian writers? Do you foresee a time when it will be less necessary for them to “create dangerously?”

Danticat:Unfortunately, for the next generation of Haitian writers, especially the ones still living in Haiti, tragedy is not a distant memory yet. I am sure we all long for that day. Tragedies just take different forms. However, I know they want to be like all other writers. They want freedom within their art, to follow their art in the direction it leads them, to not be defined by others, to tell the stories they want to tell, just like any other writers anywhere in the world. The new generation is also more diasporic, more hybrid, inside and outside of Haiti. They mix genres. They mix themes. They are not homogeneous. They fall along different gender and class lines, use different styles of writing. It will be exciting to see what comes next.

Shelf: You’ve written about Haiti extensively in fiction and nonfiction. Which allows you the most authentic expression?

Danticat: I enjoy both. Some stories fit one form better than another, but both involve storytelling, and I love and feel privileged to be able to tell (write) my stories in whatever form they come.

Shelf: You went to Haiti 23 days after the January 2010 earthquake. In the final essay in the book, you end with, “Great black country. I too bid thee farewell, I think. At least for now.” Do you think you will ever bid Haiti farewell in terms of writing about it?

Danticat:Whenever I bid Haiti farewell, it will always be “for now.” That’s the immigrant dilemma, artist or otherwise. Part of you is always saying good-bye and hello to one place or another. I used to play a game with daughters when they were babies called “Hello Goodbye” where I look at them then away from then and each time say either hello or good-bye. I am always doing that with Haiti as well. Even as I am saying good-bye, I am always looking forward to the next hello. 

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