Author Edwidge Danticat

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Award-winning Haitian American writer, author of Create Dangerously, explains why art is both a luxury and a necessity.

As a 12-year-old immigrant to the U.S., Edwidge Danticat spoke little English. She's since become a celebrated novelist, with work that evokes the wonder, terror and heartache of her native Haiti. Her much-praised first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, was an Oprah Book Club pick, and her short stories have appeared in over 25 periodicals. A MacArthur "genius" grant recipient, Danticat has taught at NYU and the University of Miami. In her latest book, Create Dangerously, she examines what it means to be an immigrant artist from a country in crisis.



Tavis: Edwidge Danticat is an award-winning Haitian-born author whose previous books include, “Breath, Eyes, Memory” and “Brother, I’m Dying.” Her latest is called “Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work.” The book is based on the lecture series by iconic writer Toni Morrison. Edwidge, good to have you on the program.
Edwidge Danticat: Thank you for having me again.
Tavis: I’m glad to have you back again. I know something, of course, of this lecture series, because it’s so renowned, at Princeton, and it is an honor to be asked to be the Toni Morrison lecturer at this series.
So tell me how you went about – before we get to the book – how you went about deciding what your series of lectures were going to be about for the Toni Morrison lectures.
Danticat: Well, first of all, it was an extraordinary honor, and for a year, the year that I knew I was going to do it, I was terrified.
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughs)
Danticat: Because I was bookended between the great Cornel West and Mayor Booker of Newark, so they had done the lecture and did in between. But I went over many things that I wanted to talk about, and one of the things that intrigued me was creation, that art of creativity, and writers that I loved in Haiti who had – as Albert Camus, who the lecture is based on his own lecture – created dangerously in very difficult times. So I decided to make that my subject.
Tavis: Tell me about this title, which I love – “Create Dangerously.”
Danticat: Well, Albert Camus, one of the last lectures he gave in 1957, the great French-Algerian writer, gave a lecture called “Create Dangerously,” where he talks about art, and he says that art is not a monologue. He talks about sort of art, we should all be free in creating art, but sometimes, art is part of a greater collective.
For example, he gives the example of being on – if you’re on the slave galleys you’re on one of those middle passage ships, do you talk about what’s happening on deck or do you sing about the constellations? If you’re in a coliseum do you talk about the conversation on the stands or do you talk about the lion crunching the victim?
In a way, you can talk about both, and both react. So it sort of takes off on his idea of how writers create, but also – and I brought in my part of how you create as an immigrant writer.
Tavis: To your point now – I’m glad you went there – is there a difference in how an American-born artist works versus, as the subtitle suggests, an immigrant artist at work?
Danticat: Probably very little, because I think both artists are always looking for freedom. To be able to create you have to have peace of mind on some level, but there are places, of course, art is a luxury but also a necessity, and in the lecture, Camus talks about that sort of where, depending on what’s happening and the interesting times in the society that you live in.
But ultimately, I think all artists are looking for a subject or are sometimes unsure of their subject, but immigrant artists bring another culture to that and they bring also the place where the original culture meets the new culture.
So part of – not everybody who’s an immigrant who’s an artist chooses that kind of subject, but all of that merges in who you are as a person, and sometimes in the type of work that you might create.
Tavis: Do you think that gift is still appreciated, welcomed by the American people or is it becoming increasingly underappreciated and for that matter infringed upon?
Danticat: Well, I think a lot of the literature – there’s a whole rich slew of immigrant literature that is increased that’s sort of enriched, I think, American literature. This is supposed to be the land of immigrants.
Tavis: That’s why I asked – supposed to be.
Danticat: Yeah. (Laughter) Well, recently, there’s richness in subject in that too, on the conflicts that lie ahead, the conflicts that immigrants are facing, because as soon as you – when we’re in difficult economic times you have the blaming of immigrants, and it’s hard and uncomfortable but it’s also rich subject matter for artists and writers.
Tavis: You describe art as both a luxury and a necessity. What do you mean by that?
Danticat: Well, it’s a necessity – the way I grew up in Haiti, for example, it’s a necessity. It’s just all around. The lottery stand is covered in art, the transportation trucks we take in Haiti is covered in art. In a way, I sort of grew up feeling like art was another way besides breathing that we let the world, that we let people know that we’re alive.
But it’s a luxury – Albert Camus says it’s sometimes a deceptive luxury. It’s a luxury in that you have to have time, you have to – that’s probably why in a lot of immigrant families it takes another generation for you to have an artist in the family, because the first generation is, especially if they come from economically disadvantaged situations, they’re all about survival, they’re all about getting along.
So for me to become an artist, essentially in my situation my parents did the struggling and allowed me the time and the freedom to be able to sit home in a room all day and try to write books.
Tavis: For those who aren’t familiar with your work, tell me more about your journey to being the celebrated MacArthur genius, award-winning author that you are now.
Danticat: Well, the last time I was with you we talked about this, too. I feel like I’m an accident of literacy, as I say. I come from a family of modest means in Haiti. I moved here when I was 12 and I started – I loved stories. I grew up in a storytelling family, I listened to stories, and when I started reading, I thought, oh, this is what I wanted to do.
Even though I tried to be a nurse when I graduated from high school, when I was thinking about college, but I always knew I wanted to write. That was the passion of my life. I loved books, I loved reading and I loved stories, and I’m lucky in that I also have a passionate subject in Haiti and my connections there. So Haiti is the subject of both the fiction and nonfiction that I’ve written.
Tavis: What is there for those of us Stateside to learn from your work that is so Haiti-centric?
Danticat: Well, I think there’s a lot that we can learn Stateside about Haiti outside of my work, even, because in the United States, Haiti and the United States were the first republics in this hemisphere, pretty much started around the same time, have a common history that has merged over the years, with the United States coming in and out of Haiti, and of course now a lot of Haitian immigrants living here in the United States.
What I hope people learn from my work and what I hope then they go seeking in other works is that there’s also beauty in Haiti, because I think people often see the news, the tragedies. That there’s great beauty and the physical landscape, despite the destruction that we’ve seen in Port Au Prince, and there’s beauty outside of Port Au Prince.
There’s a great strength in the people, there’s very artistic beauty, there’s great music, there’s great art, there’s great literature. So this is what I hope that when people see my work or when they see the work of other Haitian artists, it makes them curious and interested in that other Haiti.
Tavis: To your point now about what we tend to think of when we think of Haiti, what we hear about Haiti all the time, the destruction and the devastation, I asked this question of someone on this program some time ago after the earthquake, and I want to ask it of you now because, to your earlier point, a lot has happened in Haiti since you were last on this program.
Now we have this cholera outbreak that we’re trying to contain in Haiti, and the question was and is if I were a cynic, I could argue that the gods, that the cosmos is aligned against this country ever becoming everything that it can be – if I were a cynic, I could argue that. I am not, but your thoughts about that?
Danticat: Well, there’s such spirituality in Haiti, and people who are actually facing this, and I’m sure that this occurs to some people there, too, because it just seems one tragedy after another.
But there are reasons for it, of course. There’s history, there’s the environmental devastation that preceded all the things that followed, and you’re right – we currently have the cholera. But it’s something that had been foreseen on some level in that since the earthquake happened.
But I suppose if you can think of an up side to sort of a spiral like this, you can think, okay, no, it can’t get worse anymore, so now there’s possibilities, hopefully for it to get a little better. Because you’re right – there’s a great deal of suffering and we can’t sit here and pretend that there’s something like 1.5 million people on the streets who are vulnerable to the weather, to disease.
So people are still – it’s still a state of emergency, almost as much as it was on January 12th, when the earthquake happened.
Tavis: What does all this say to you about the spirit and the strength of the Haitian people?
Danticat: It’s extraordinary, and I’ve been a couple of times now since the earthquake to see family and friends and others. It’s extraordinary. People talk often about the resilience of Haitians, and it’s become almost a cliché, but I think in part it’s because it is so true.
I’m always worried, though, that as we talk more about resilience that people mistake that for complacency. That they think that these people are able to suffer more than other people. But it’s an extraordinary sense of survival that is also born out of community, because people – and it’s a story that we don’t see often – people really, really help one another, because after the earthquake happened, when I couldn’t reach relatives, and finally when I was able to reach them they would say people helped them, their neighbors helped them.
The first rescuers were really Haitians who dug people out, their neighbors out of the rubble with hammers and their bare hands. So there is a sense of community also that helps, that has helped people overcome – if not thrive, but at least survive up to this point.
Tavis: What do we do – again, back to your formulation – to make sure that that resilience, that super-resilience doesn’t, in fact, become complacency?
Danticat: Well, I don’t think it can become complacency because it’s so urgent for the people involved. People are very patient and they’re waiting for the corner, I guess, to turn. They’re waiting for some things to get better.
What we can do is empower the people on the ground, because we’ve had, on smaller scales before, disasters in the past where people, once they have an opportunity, once they are given something, they can help themselves and we can learn from what people have survived these hurricanes and these floods before, how they’ve re-started, and not impose all of it from the outside.
But I think the point is to empower people, give them ways to help themselves, because ultimately, they will have to be the ones to rebuild the country, to sustain it and to continue its existence.
Tavis: If the Haitian people have nothing else, so many of them are just regular old everyday people, wonderful everyday people, and I close on this note – these Toni Morrison lectures at Princeton can be art, in fact, and I say this lovingly and earnestly.
It’s pretty highbrow when you are asked – by your own admission, you’re intimidated a year ahead of time – when you’re told that you are the person selected to give the Toni Morrison Nobel laureate lectures at Princeton.
So it’s pretty highbrow stuff, so what’s the takeaway from this new text, “Create Dangerously,” for everyday people when they read it?
Danticat: Oh, I think everyday people will get a lot out of it. You’ll learn a lot about art and Haiti and resilience, and there’s also a lot about some personal stories in it. It’s entertaining. Highbrow can be entertaining. You do highbrow. (Laughter) You’re entertaining.
Tavis: No, I’m very lowbrow. I’ll take that compliment, though. Edwidge Danticat is her name. She’s the author of the new book “Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work.” The book comes forth from the Toni Morrison lectures at Princeton. Edwidge, a great text, and as always, good to have you on this program.
Danticat: Thank you for having me.
Tavis: My pleasure.
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Last modified: September 30, 2013 at 5:45 pm