Edwidge Danticat by Cassandra Gainer photos by dellas drawing(detail) by breverman
The first thing that will strike you about Edwidge Danticat is her...
The first thing that will strike you about Edwidge Danticat is her stunning success. National Book Award finalist, American Book Award winner, Oprah book-of-the-month author, and a shortlister for New York Times Magazine’s young-artist-most-likely-to-change-the-world list. The second thing that will strike you about Edwidge Danticat is her youth–the smooth, flawless skin, girl’s smile, the shy yet somehow confident, even defiant way she holds the camera’s gaze.
Add to the record that Edwidge Danticat is the first Haitian-American writer to publish in English and probably the only Haitian writer that most Americans can recall by name, and she is a study in improbabilities–novelist published to acclaim at the age of 25; Haitian writer read by millions of middle American housewives; young immigrant woman from troubled island country living the American Dream.
At an age when many authors are still teaching community college freshman comp or working at dive bars and daydreaming about the day when they see their names in typeface on the pages of the New York Times Book Review, Danticat has four critically praised books to her credit and has been called one of the most important writers working today. At just 35, Danticat is at a strange and wonderful intersection of improbable accomplishment and incomparable promise, a place where she has defined herself as someone to watch, and the world is watching to see what she will do next.
What she has done next is to write The Dew Breaker, a wrenching tale of a Haitian immigrant coming to grips with his secret past as a torturer under Duvalier’s brutal regime, the wreckage his former life left in the lives of his victims, and the daughter who is shattered by the truth of his history. Told from multiple viewpoints and through a series of related but discrete stories, the structure of The Dew Breaker is unconventional–it’s been called a novel, a story collection, and a “novel in stories”–and has challenged even the most versed of critics to characterize it. Though linked and seemingly part of an organic whole, many of the stories were published individually and stand alone as heartbreaking, life illuminating and beautiful.
“The structure sort of came together as I was writing the stories,” Danticant says, explaining how her break with structural tradition was born of the story itself, of her internal desire to learn the whole truth about her characters. “I wrote the first story in which the Dew Breaker, the former killer, confesses his past to his daughter. Then I wrote the last story to find out about his past. There he meets a woman so I write a story to get to know the woman better. The pieces of the puzzle sort of came together that way.”
Danticat came to America from her native Haiti at age 12, joining her parents who had left her as a toddler in the care of her aunt and uncle to go seek a better life for the family in Brooklyn, N.Y. Her younger years were shaped by the brutal truth of life in Haiti under the Papa Doc regime, but also by the rich storytelling gifts of her family, the hard yet joyous and hopeful nature of life in Haiti, and the glimmers of mystery and magic inherent in Haitian culture with its folklore, voodoo and diverse history. The roots of Danticat’s talent took hold early, growing in her even before she had learned the language in which she would one day write to worldwide praise.
Her English in those early years following her immigration was imperfect and she continued to speak Creole at home, but her love of language flourished and within two years she earned her first publishing credit with an autobiographical essay for a newspaper that chronicled her immigration experience. That essay grew into her first book, Breath, Eyes, Memory, the story of a 12-year-old Haitian girl who is reunited in New York with a mother she only vaguely remembers.
Breath, Eyes, Memory thrust Danticat onto the world’s stage at the age of 25 and immediately the literary world recognized her as an important talent. The success of her first book was followed by more praise for her story collection Krik? Krak! and her second novel, The Farming of the Bones.
Now, with The Dew Breaker, her fourth book rooted in Haiti, Danticat has established herself as the Haitian writer. And, Danticat writes about Haiti, it’s true, but to typecast her would be a mistake. She wrestles with themes larger than that small country 600 miles off the coast of the U.S., themes so large in fact that they transcend the borders of any country, any culture. Her work is more born of Haiti and its people than it is about Haiti; more about the human experience–love, relationships, cruelty, passion, history, redemption, hope–than it is about any one place. She won’t be trapped by geography, but admits, especially in light of recent events, that her native country is what inspires her at this point in her life.
“I think that whatever I write next, if I write it well and convincingly, people will accept it. I think as long as I tell a good story–or at least I hope that’s true–people will be interested in it,” Danticat says. “But right now, everything that drives my passions has to do with Haiti, so at least for now my subject is Haiti, different aspects of Haiti.”
At the moment she is finishing a fifth book, a novel for young adults based on the story of a female figure of Haitian folklore, Anacaona. It is a slight departure for her–a different audience, a more fantastical subject–but like many artists, Danticat admits that sometimes her subjects, her characters choose her, revealing themselves from the shadows when the time is right.
“Sometimes stories come to you like gifts. They drop out of the sky like snow,” she admits. “Other times, I have to work harder for them to come to me. The ones in The Dew Breaker, some were gifts. I didn’t work too hard. But others took about two dozen revisions. I guess it’s like everything else. If you wait long enough, you will see the light. But I enjoy writing more than anything, even the hard patches. And I consider it a blessing that I’ve been able to stay on the journey this far.”
Her journey, however incredible so far, is young. Now married to a Haitian man and living in Miami, Danticat is determined as both an artist and a daughter of Haiti to stay the course and tell her stories to the world. A lesser talent would be (and many have been) intimidated by such early and great success, but to Danticat her writing is a personal journey far removed from the book contracts or the reviewers’ praises or the bestseller’s list.
“Of course no one wants to fail. I don’t want to fail. But success, in this case, must be gauged in steps,” Danticat says, explaining her fearless approach to writing. “I feel successful when I finish a chapter and finally when I finish a book, I already feel like a big success. I know a lot of people find this really hard to believe, but if suddenly I ran out of things to write, I would just stop and do something else.”
Besides, she says, in many ways her passion for the written word is beyond her control; her genius for rich, lyrical prose and life affirming stories are a product of some force she cannot name.
“I believe that in some ways all creative people are vessels,” she asserts. “The inspiration will come when it is meant to come and it will stop when it is meant to stop.”
Danticat’s latest book, The Dew Breaker (Knopf, hc, 244pp, $32) is available now at all booksellers.