Novelist Edwidge Danticat

The Haitian-born writer discusses Claire of the Sea Light—her first novel in almost a decade and hailed by critics as one of the best novels of 2013.

As a 12-year-old immigrant to the U.S., Edwidge Danticat spoke little English. She's since become a celebrated author, with work that evokes the wonder, terror and heartache of her native Haiti. Her much-praised debut novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, was an Oprah Book Club pick, and her short stories have appeared in more than 25 periodicals, including The New Yorker and The New York Times. A MacArthur Foundation "genius" fellowship recipient, Danticat taught creative writing at NYU and the University of Miami and has also worked with filmmakers on Haitian art projects and documentaries about Haiti. Her latest work is the novel-in-stories, Claire of the Sea Light.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Award-winning author Edwidge Danticat writes with insight and compassion about modern-day Haiti, a country that is often viewed solely through the monolithic lens of poverty and corruption.

For Edwidge, who was born in Port-au-Prince and raised in Brooklyn, presenting a more complex view of this troubled country is at the heart, it seems, of much of her writing, including her latest novel.

It’s called “Claire of the Sea Light,” which has been praised by reviewers using wonderful words like “intoxicating” and “compelling.” Edwidge, I’m always intoxicated and compelled when I have you on this program, so it’s good to have you back.

Edwidge Danticat: Thank you for having me.

Tavis: The kids are well?

Danticat: They’re doing fine, getting big.

Tavis: Getting big, yeah? Good, good, good. In this project, this novel, “Claire of the Sea Light,” the sea is as much a character as anything or anybody else.

Danticat: Well you know, the sea is such an important part of our history. It’s how so many of us got here to this part of the world and we lost so many people from the middle passage on.

It’s something that for us as Haitians continues, with this migration to other places to look for work. So the sea, we’re in an island surrounded by the sea, and the sea is both friend and foe. It’s how we survive, and it’s also incredible point of view from which to explore the environment and the changes that are made in our environment.

Tavis: Tell me more about the story, though, “Claire of the Sea Light.”

Danticat: Well, Claire is a little girl whose mother dies in childbirth, and so her father every year is struggling with this decision, whether he should keep her with him or give her away to a richer woman to raise her.

So it’s the story of that decision, which I think sometimes is underestimated, the difficulty of a decision like that, and it’s also the story of this little town called Ville Rose, where Claire’s father, who’s a fisherman, lives, with the rest of the residents, rich and poor, and how they interact.

Tavis: You wrote part of this novel before the earthquake, and the other part after?

Danticat: Yes.

Tavis: How did the earthquake as a dividing line impact or not the writing of the novel in toto?

Danticat: Well, I started writing the novel in 2005, and the earthquake happened in 2010. The town that this – Ville Rose is based on a real town, where my family, my mother’s family is from.

So going back and having seen all the changes in the town of course, all through the years, even though it is a fictional town in the book, it affects a lot of the reflections.

I didn’t write yet for myself a novel about the earthquake, because I felt like if I was – I’m not ready. I wasn’t there, and there are elements that would be missing, that would be so competing with the actual reality.

So I wanted to keep it in the time right before the earthquake, but also have some of the reflections about loss, about the environmental changes and things that has been brought about by the earthquake, without having the earthquake be the center of the story.

Tavis: Yet I was flipping through here – yet on page 152 there’s a wonderful line that I wanted to get to that says, and I quote, “How do you even choose what to mend when so much has already been destroyed?” It’s a powerful question.

Danticat: Yeah. Well, how do you? I think it’s a question that a lot of people all over the world are always asking themselves. Whether right after Katrina or right after the earthquake in Haiti, after a tsunami somewhere else.

What you pick up, as a lot of people have done and they do the best that they can and try to continue and carry on for the next generation, for the children, for themselves.

Because in many cases you have no choice. So it’s a question, I think, that’s at the core of any disaster. What do you repair, what do you – there’s always something lost.

Tavis: I didn’t mention it tonight. I have many, many times and I always do, and I brag about you as a friend of mine that you are a MacArthur genius, and as a MacArthur genius, when they give you this high honor, you can do anything you want to do, basically, with the award.

Yet you have chosen, as I said at the top, for the breadth and depth of your career to keep this story of Haiti and the complexity of Haitian life and the challenges and the ups and the downs, which we’ll get to in a second.

You have made that the centerpiece of your life’s work, at least to date. I don’t need to ask why. I know why; because it means so much to you. But do you expect that that will continue? Is that what you are unapologetically offering as the epicenter of your corpus?

Danticat: Well unapologetically certainly, because there’s so many stories, and I’m not the only one telling those stories, but there’s so many stories that even in my own life I feel like I could explore more deeply.

An artist should never predict, say, what you will do for the rest of your life. But so far it’s been an honor for me to have been able to tell the stories that I’ve been able to tell, because they’re, along with other people telling them, they’re not often told in the same way from this particular perspective of someone who knows both the inside and the outside.

So I’m happy to be part of this chorus of people who are trying to tell more complex stories about Haiti.

Tavis: What do you hope or believe that the value of doing that vis-à-vis novels is?

Danticat: Well, the great, wonderful thing about novels is that sometimes we read a novel and we know the person in the novel more than we know people in our own lives.

We’re really allowed and permitted and privileged to go deep into someone’s soul. We know the experience of what it’s like to be a mother in slavery thanks through the great work of Toni Morrison, through “Beloved.”

You can really travel with that person, that choice, through that novel. So I think novels just really show us the deepest parts of people’s hearts, and you cannot walk away anymore and say, “I don’t know.”

It’s not the news, it’s not journalism. It’s another more in-depth way of looking at somebody’s individuality, which is so often denied to people like us, to people like me, to people who come from places like me.

Because people already think they know who you are because they’ve seen sound bites on the news, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. So I think literature in general, art, music, and all these arts that just transcend the everyday, can reach people so much more deeply, in a profound way.

Tavis: Even in this new novel, “Claire of the Sea Light,” there is death, and there is some destruction. I wonder whether or not you think that in your lifetime or even beyond, and you’ve got a lot of living left to do and two babies to raise.

But I wonder whether or not you think that the narrative, writ large, about Haiti can change, will change, and if so, how does that happen?

Danticat: Well, it has to change. It has to change, because it needs more voices, it needs more voices from within, and it also needs all of these stereotypical views overturned.

How do you overturn them? By counter-narratives. Not that we have to write novels for that, but that to raise these other voices from within Haiti, voices from the Haitian American experience.

I think also the narrative itself, the way people are living, these types of situations also have to change. Often, our stories are written, and when I mean written I don’t mean just, like, told.

Tavis: Sure.

Danticat: But they’re also decided so much by the outside. So because Haiti has this history for which it’s been punished, of a great revolution, of great visionaries in our past, I think we are always looking towards that next step where someone or a group of people will come and change that narrative.

Half of the population of Haiti is under 25, so I have great hope that at some point that there will be this change in narrative, but also this change in course.

Tavis: Let me move from fiction to non-fiction – that is to say from the book, “Claire of the Sea Light,” to what’s happening in real time, in real life, in Haiti. Has the relationship – that is to say the U.S. relationship with Haiti – changed much at all in the era of Obama?

Danticat: Well I think in this time that we’re living now, pretty much I think Haiti was delegated to the State Department, and there’s been – the U.S. intervention in Haiti has always been forceful one way or the other.

We want you to take out your leader, or it’s always the hand is felt in ways that sometimes totally change. There’s been a sort of hands-off, I think, in the age of Obama, of Haiti. There was some response after the earthquake.

But there’s some renewed interest. There’s been some hearings recently, with some of the congresspeople have spoken out in terms of what’s happening as the time for the elections have passed.

The parliamentary elections are two years late, so that now you might have a consolidation of powers at the top, and you might have an administration that’s ruling by decree if you don’t have these elections.

But those interventions, always two-headed and sort of a do what we want or else kind of situation, so one has to be very careful when we ask for the interventions.

Tavis: Let me jump from Haiti to the Dominican Republic, the DR, because there is obviously a relationship. I wasn’t aware of this, and I felt kind of stupid, quite frankly, that I wasn’t aware of it, but I know you can enlighten me.

There is this intransient law that’s now taking hold in the Dominican Republic that I think the audience ought to be aware of. Tell me, just kind of top-line for me what’s happening in the DR.

Danticat: Well recently the high court in the Dominican Republic passed a ruling in which they considered anybody who was born there from 1929 on who did not have a Dominican parent to be intransient.

Usually when one is intransient in a country, you’re in there for 10 days, a couple of days. So that means for the Haitian migrants, or the majorities of immigrants in the Dominican Republic who’ve been there for four generations, they will neither have Haitian citizenship nor Dominican citizenship.

So they have essentially become stateless, which makes it impossible to go to school, to get a job, and you could be removed at any time. So Haitians – Dominican-born Haitians or even people who have been Dominican longer than 1929 sometimes were picked up because they’re dark-skinned, and it’s hard to tell, frankly.

Then they’ll ship to the border and end up on the other side. So it’s something that I think for anybody who goes to vacation in the Dominican Republic, who has planning a holiday, it’s worth knowing that these things are happening.

That you have close to a quarter of a million people who are essentially stateless by a court ruling that’s considered, even by the president of the country, who has since spoken, to be irreversible.

So there’s no option, then, to go to other bodies internationally to try to reverse this, because you can’t essentially make four generations of people stateless in one swoop.

Tavis: To Edwidge’s point, for all of you hanging out and vacationing in the Dominican Republic, consider yourself now made aware. The new book from Edwidge Danticat is called “Claire of the Sea Light.”

She, of course, is the best-selling author of “The Dew Breaker,” MacArthur genius, and just all-around good sister. Edwidge, good to have you on the program.

Danticat: Thank you for having me again.

Tavis: Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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Last modified: March 11, 2014 at 1:24 pm