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Edwidge Danticat Reflects on ‘Going Back’ to Haiti Through Her Writing

September 17, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
In a seaside town in Haiti, a fisherman's daughter goes missing on her seventh birthday. What happens to the community as they search for her is the subject of a new novel, "Claire of the Sea Light." Acclaimed author Edwidge Danticat joins Jeffrey Brown to discuss her latest work and how she stays connected to the past.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, Haitian-born novelist Edwidge Danticat returns with her first novel in a decade, and her first work of fiction about her native country since the 2010 earthquake there.

It’s called “Claire of the Sea Light.” Jeffrey Brown sat down with her earlier today.

Here’s an excerpt from their conversation.

JEFFREY BROWN: What is the story you want to tell, the story of Haiti that you reach for in so many of your works?

EDWIDGE DANTICAT, “Claire of the Sea Light”: Well, I want a multiplicity of stories to be told about Haiti.

I think Haiti is one of those places that is often portrayed in a very singular way. And I certainly wouldn’t want to participate in that. And maybe this is where — hearkens all these voices in this one town. I want people to see the story of communities.

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There’s a story of poverty, but also great wealth next to that poverty, and an environmental story, the story of different religions. So that — there’s little bit of that in the town, but if people also — you go back to read other literatures of Haiti. It’s — certainly, Haiti is not a monolithic community. It’s a beautiful artistic and spiritual community, but it’s nothing — it’s — monolithic about it.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you reach back for that — in this case, this is based on your mother’s story or your mother’s town. So you reach back for that in a — kind of a personal way?

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Absolutely.

And then I reach back. And I think that’s what all writers do. We reach back, but we also reach forward. You also try to present a world in a way that you would like it to be. You try to solve problems in a way that you wish they would be solved.

And so there’s the reaching back. There’s also an acknowledgment of the present, because Haiti lives in a very ever-urgent present, even with this extraordinary history, extraordinary art, extraordinary people. But it also lives in a very difficult present. So it’s the marriage. I think art — the arts allow us a kind of merging of all of these elements.

JEFFREY BROWN: This story has a sort of timelessness to it. You told me before we started that it was set in 2009, before the earthquake. But I’m wondering, how has the earthquake changed the kind of story that you think needs to be told?

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Well, I mean, the earthquake is part of now the present of Haiti and will always have a life that — before the earthquake, a life after the earthquake.

I personal don’t feel capable or ready yet to write stories that are set after the earthquake. So I wanted to set this story actually on the cusp. You know, this town is right — it’s right before the earthquake and how people were living their lives. And maybe it’s my attempt of hanging on a little bit longer to something that was.

JEFFREY BROWN: And how do you do this now living in the United States, not living in Haiti?

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Well, I — you do it — I do it by returning. I do it by reading, by the great literature. I do it by just staying in touch.

I think there’s a part of me — like all migrants or children of immigrants, there’s a part of us that is always in Haiti. Of course, we’re not in the physical place right now, but I do it by staying connected. And when I write about Haiti, it’s also a way for me to go back, just in the way that when I read or when I look at the beautiful art or listen to the wonderful music.

It’s another way of — for me to go back when I’m not able to physically go back.