Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
“Writers are kind of morbid,” joked novelist Lorene Cary to the audience during the October 10th panel “Create Dangerously: A Conversation with Edwige Danticat,” as the discussion turned to death under the Haitian dictatorship. Danticat is the award-winning author of eight acclaimed books and the recipient of the 2009 MacArthur “Genius” fellow. Despite the casual and conversational setting, both writers remained eloquent, thoughtful, and humorous throughout. Seated at a low coffee table on the stage of the theater, the two acclaimed authors spoke to each other and addressed the audience on a wide range of subjects pertaining to art, including the immigrant experience, immigrant creativity, and the creative process of writing itself.
One of the central topics was the American immigrant’s art. Danticat, whose parents fled to the United States from Port-au-Prince and the Haitian dictatorship in the early ‘70s, has written a great body of work about the Haitian immigrant experience. Her most recent book, Creating Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work, grapples with the immigrant artist’s duty to document the events occurring in their native countries.
The first essay of the book opens with a historical anecdote about the execution of two revolutionaries, Marcel Numa and Louis Drouin, who returned from their education and careers abroad in the United States in hopes of toppling the then-dictator Doc Duvalier’s rule. The execution was a massive spectacle at the time, and is so imprinted in cultural memory that Danticat’s description of the event is as vivid as if she had witnessed it herself, even though it happened before she was born.
To Danticat, this shattering national event was an ultimate act of creativity on the part of these two young men, who still live on even in death as symbols of rebellion. “In the face of both external and internal destruction,” her book reads, “we are still trying to create as dangerously as they, as though each piece of art were a stand-in for a life, a soul, a future.”
In an interview with the Daily Gazette, Danticat described immigrant creativity by recalling a quote from Patricia Engel’s book, It’s Not Love, It’s Just Paris: “All immigrants are artists.” In other words, immigrating to an alien country and remaking one’s life requires ingenuity, creativity, and perseverance – exactly the things an artist needs. “Starting all over like that is itself an act of recreation,” said Danticat.
Because of the great challenges of recreation, the stakes involved in immigration are dire, especially in failure. During the panel discussion, Danticat spoke of immigrants’ experiences with aspiration to success. “There is a tendency when people like me come back, they put on such airs,” she said, talking about her observations of other Haitian immigrants at airport customs, some of whom, despite struggling financially, would return in “flashy” fur coats. “They want to come back in a way that says ‘I didn’t fail, this enterprise was a success.’”
When asked whether an immigrant writer has a “responsibility” to his or her own community, Danticat answered, “It’s a constant balance between my responsibility to my community, and my responsibility to my work.”
Danticat and Carey also spoke extensively about the creative writing process. When talking about how her life experiences have shaped her writing, Danticat noted the irony that “living adds more to writing, but gives you less time to do it.” She acknowledged that the richness of life experience allows her to empathize with unfamiliar life experiences, saying that “living allows you to tap into other parts of yourself.”
Danticat has published both novels and short story collections in the past. When asked about the appeal of the short story form, she compared the short story to a singular moment captured in a painting. “You can imagine what comes before and what comes after, but you can look at that moment,” she said.
Danticat spoke to the Gazette of the simplicity of the art of writing that appeals to her. Whereas art requires all manner of physical material and film needs actors, directors and props, “with writing, all you need is a pen and paper,” she said. To be trained in writing, “all your mentors are in a bookstore.”
As for her ongoing writing projects, Danticat said that she is currently working on a Young Adult fiction novel. “I like taking a break…, so that I’m not having the same conversations with the same characters,” she said. Much of her inspiration for her Young Adult work comes from her younger relatives, as interacting with them as they change keeps her from “the danger of being stuck in the past.”
In their hour-long conversation, Danticat and Carey offered the audience a glimpse into the world of writing and the creative process. Moreover, they reminded us of the power of art and writing to capture not only the immigrant experience, but also the passion of the human experience.
Image courtesy of The Duke Chronicle