JEFFREY BROWN: So, what was it like when you first came here at age 12?
EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Well, it was a huge shock. Everything was so different, the language...
JEFFREY BROWN: In 1981, Edwidge Danticat came from Haiti to this neighborhood of immigrants in East Flatbush, New York.
EDWIDGE DANTICAT: It was as if I was taken from one planet, really, and put in another.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now you're writing about these people.
EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Well, because I know that experience, and it's as vivid today as it was then.
JEFFREY BROWN: It's from these streets that Danticat draws the characters in her new novel, "The Dew Breaker," the story of Haitian-Americans who bear emotional and physical scars from Haiti's violent past, the Duvalier dictatorship of the 1960s and '70s, when the infamous Tonton Macoute police terrorized the population. The name "Dew Breaker" comes because a character in the book says, "Often they'd come before dawn, as the dew was settling on the leaves, and they'd take you away."
The novel's main character is a former dew breaker and torturer living in New York today, a quiet older man now, father, husband and barber, sharing the same neighborhood with some of the people he once victimized. "The Dew Breaker" is Edwidge Danticat's fourth book. Her first, "Breath, Eyes, Memory," published when she was just 25, quickly established her as a leading young writer. Now 35 and living in Miami, she recently met us at the home she grew up in in New York.
JEFFREY BROWN: Edwidge Danticat, welcome, and thank you and your parents for letting us come visit.
EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Thank you for coming.
JEFFREY BROWN: Early in your novel a terrible secret is revealed: A young woman who thought her father had been tortured long ago in Haiti discovers that in fact that he was the torturer. What made you want to write this story?
EDWIDGE DANTICAT: I wanted to explore all the ways that we don't always choose what comes with us in immigration. And then in our own experience, in the Haitian-American experience, we have many people who are now living in the United States who once worked during the dictatorship as torturers, and some were notorious, and people knew their names. And there were others whose names are not known. So that whole dynamic of escaping, or thinking you have escaped, only to find that down the street or at the market or at a party that you go to is the person, or one of the many people you are escaping from.
JEFFREY BROWN: You use a series of linked stories to tell us about the characters around the central character. In fact, in some ways, we learn more about these people than we do about him. Why did you choose to write it this way?
EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Well, because for a long time this person was the ghost, you know, the center of these people's lives -- you know, the kind of machete, the killer of their memories. It took over their path. So I wanted to give them a say in this story. And it is through them, it is through these different people who have had terrible encounters with the central character, the Dew Breaker, and it's through their eyes that I wanted him to be revealed.
JEFFREY BROWN: Clearly, one of the running themes here is memory, and how we have to live with it, how we cannot escape it, particularly for people coming from one country to another.
EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Well, because memory is the only thing that we're able to take with us. A lot of us, when we have to flee and sometimes we don't even have time to pack a couple of suitcases, we have to leave immediately, as a lot of people had to during the Duvalier dictatorship. And so, what do we take with us? We try to take our... a few of the pictures, some, you know, swaths of clothing or other things that we might have. But most of it, what we take with us, the wealth of it is in our minds; it's in our memories.
JEFFREY BROWN: Even if it's terrifying.
EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Especially if it's terrifying. I think when it's terrifying we try to work with it, we try to rewrite it, or we try to forget it. But it comes with us regardless.
JEFFREY BROWN: One of your characters learns, as you write, "of men and women whose tremendous agonies filled every blank space in their lives." These are "men and women chasing fragments of themselves, long lost to others." Do you think there are people like that walking the very streets of this neighborhood we're sitting in?
EDWIDGE DANTICAT: I would say this neighborhood and many, many other immigrant neighborhoods where, really, the ghosts of the past just follow people around, whether in actual faces or people they see, or in their memories, there are things that haunt them about the past.
JEFFREY BROWN: You know, even as we sit here now talking about your book, which goes back, looks back 30 years, Haiti is, of course, in another period of turmoil.
EDWIDGE DANTICAT: It saddens me that there... that so many people have to suffer so continuously in that. This cycle, you know, this almost repetitive cycle of suffering just keeps going on, especially this year, you know, the year of the bicentennial, 200 years of independence. And it just... as a person, as a Haitian, as a writer, it just causes so much reflection, but also in the deepest places in your heart, so much sadness.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, you've had remarkable success for someone still fairly young.
EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Relatively. ( Laughs )
JEFFREY BROWN: Yet you grew up in poor, modest circumstances in Haiti. You didn't speak English when you came here at 12. What compelled you, and what compels you now, to write?
EDWIDGE DANTICAT: I didn't know when I was very young that I could be a writer. But I always admired writers. And in our tradition, you know, especially at the time that I was growing up, a lot of our writers were, you know, were persecuted. But we have an extraordinary number of writers, given our literacy rate. So I was always inspired by that. But it's one of the great passions of my life. And I feel blessed, you know, I feel very privileged that I'm able to write and tell these stories that live so deep in me.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Edwidge Danticat, thank you very much.
EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Thank you for coming.