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Edwidge Danticat on the Luxury of Creating Art

October 21, 2010 at 6:23 PM EDT
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Haitian-American author Edwidge Danticat speaks with Jeffrey Brown about her earthquake-ravaged homeland, feeling guilty for having the time and security to create art and her new collection of essays, "Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work."
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JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight: reflections on Haiti and the life of an immigrant writer.

The earthquake this year put Haiti once again into the international spotlight, and again in the harshest of circumstances. The country’s plight through the decades has led more than a million Haitians to leave and live elsewhere. One of those was Edwidge Danticat, whose fiction and memoirs have explored the disconnections of history and place in and outside her native land.

She’s done so again in a new book of essays, “Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work.” Edwidge Danticat came from Haiti to the U.S. at age 12. She now lives in Miami and join us. Welcome.

EDWIDGE DANTICAT, author, “Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work”: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

JEFFREY BROWN: “The Immigrant Artist at Work.” One theme here is, you have left, but, in some ways, you can’t leave. What explains the hold of this place on you?

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: It’s an extraordinary hold. I think, when you come from a place that is so full of joy on one hand, and so full of pain in another, it’s very hard to — to leave it, even if your body leaves it. My parents used to say as soon as we got here that we left Haiti, but it never left us. And that certainly has proven true.

JEFFREY BROWN: What comes through here very strongly, though, is that it is a kind of fraught, tenuous relationship, right? A feeling that you belong, but don’t belong, of writing of something you know, but you don’t know.

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Well, the thing is, I think most artists have this feeling of being outside the experiences, because we’re writing, whether we live in the country or not, of a place of our imagination.

But, being outside of a country, especially in a time of great crisis, offers definitely a sense of tension, of pull and tug, and wanting to be there, but realizing that, on the daily life way of it, you’re not there.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, explain that. I mean, take in the wake of the earthquake, the biggest thing to have happened. How did that change the equation for Haiti? How did that change the equation for your relationship to…

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Well, it changed it a great deal for Haiti, certainly, the physical landscape and the psychological landscape, if you will.

But, for people outside, people like me, who — who lost family members, who still have family members in very difficult circumstances, it suddenly became more than a — certainly more than a subject, something to write about. It became something very real, in terms of actually locating people.

And, so, as an artist, there’s that moment where you’re frozen about — I kept thinking in the first days that maybe I should have taken my father’s advice and become a doctor, that perhaps I might have been more useful that way.

JEFFREY BROWN: But, I mean, it’s interesting, because it plays into something that you’re pretty open about, is the sense of guilt.

You are writing, as an artist, as a writer, about the experience of people going through lots of tragedy and — and the impact that has on you.

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: And on me and on others. Albert Camus, who I borrowed the title of the book from, “Create Dangerously,” writes in an essay of the same title that art in a way is a deceptive luxury. And any artist I think in any culture, the fact that to be able to create, you’re allowed — you have to allow the time.

There’s a friend of mine, a Haitian writer, who says that — Dany Laferriere, who says that the great Haitian novel would be about hunger, but, if one is hungry, you can’t write a novel. So, there is that guilt of having that type of luxury that so many — when so many are longing for basic necessities.

JEFFREY BROWN: There’s a lot of beautiful parts here, but one essay called “Walk Straight” about a visit you made back to your ancestral village, and the one surviving relative who still lives there, an aunt, right?

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: My aunt Ilyana.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right. Yes. But it shows how — how striking it is, how familiar and yet unfamiliar, how close and yet far away in distance and time.

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Yes, because it’s the Beausejour, which is my father’s side’s ancestral village. It’s about a two-day walk, before the motorcycles that are so common in Haiti.

And when I went there to see my aunt, she was the last person to have stayed. And I remember, after walking two days there, and I told her, “I want to be buried here when I die.” And she said, “Well, who’s going to carry you all that way, after all the trip?”

And so there’s that — that visit to her, as many other visits, sort of it’s striking, the idealization. You idealize what you’re — going to happen. And you face sort of an elder, someone who lives there sometimes, and just kind of slaps you straight with like — with a very real fact of the distance, the physical, but also sometimes the ideological differences.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you go, as you said, as a visit. It’s, you’re a visitor, right, someone who’s going to then go back to your own life.

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Well, it’s — it’s a visit in the sense that my daily life is elsewhere. But, often, it’s also a homecoming.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, what is it that you want to convey of Haiti in your writing that we don’t get in the news reports?

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: I want to convey the strong sense of the beauty of Haitian art, which is a lot, what also this book is about, sharing with other people the strength and the power of the great art that I grew up with, that I admired from a distance and from up close when I was living in Haiti.

So, there are a lot of other artists, writers, photographers, Haitian, who are profiled also in the book.

JEFFREY BROWN: And where do things stand now? I know you continue to go back.

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Well, things are very difficult. We have a half a million people homeless, jobless. It’s a very sad situation.

But, at the same time, the people are very strong. And they’re still waiting for things to turn around. And the artists are, sad — as sad as it is, they’re flourishing. They have created wonderful music, wonderful paintings, wonderful art out of the rubble, out of this very hard time.

JEFFREY BROWN: And have you resolved for yourself — I mean, that’s sort of what you’re trying to do in this book — but the responsibility of the immigrant writer to her homeland, particularly one as troubled as Haiti? What is your responsibility?

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Again, it goes back to Camus, you know, sort of art is not a monologue. And it would very, very hard for me, as someone who comes from a place that, when it’s in turmoil, to just be in my tower creating.

So, we’re both connected. The responsibility is my reflection back and my sharing with other people the Haiti that I know and the Haiti that so many other people have created so much, creating dangerously, but also creating beautifully against extraordinary obstacles.

JEFFREY BROWN: And that’s something you expect to continue? Can you imagine writing about something else?

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: I — maybe, because I think artists are eternally curious. But Haiti is sort of — it’s sort of where my heart is and what I’m passionate about. And there are so many stories. And there are just more and more stories to tell.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the book is “Create Dangerously.” Edwidge Danticat, thank you very much.

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Thank you for having me.