Culture · Perspectives

Edwidge Danticat on The Art of Death

Photo: Nancy Crampton
Photo: Nancy Crampton

During Black History Month, we featured Edwidge Danticat in our list of 10 Black Writers You Should Read. Edwidge Danticat is a Haitian-American author of multiple award-winning novels including The Farming of Bones and The Dew Breaker. Her short story collection Krik? Krak! was also nominated for the National Book Award. Danticat also writes for The New Yorker. Her work there stretches from fiction to news, and she often writes insightful commentary on Haiti, and Haitian-Dominican relations. Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Edwidge Danticat on her upcoming book, The Art of Death, along with her perspective on writing, storytelling, and Haiti. 

In the introduction to your upcoming book, The Art of Death, you state that you’ve been writing about death since you began writing. What was it that drew you to this topic?

As I also mention in the introduction, writing has been the primary way I have tried to make sense of my losses, including deaths. I have always been drawn to writing about death because I was afraid of death and I wanted to desensitize myself to it. My uncle was a minister and he presided over a lot of funerals. So I saw a lot of dead people at a very young age, people I used to see walking around a few weeks or months before. I spent most of my childhood away from my parents. They were in New York working while I was living with my aunt and uncle in Port-au-Prince, so I would always worry that they could die and I would never know them. Also in Haitian Creole when someone is said to be “lòt bò dlo,” on the other side of the water, it can either mean that they’ve travelled abroad or that they have died. Even though they were still alive, my parents were also said to be lòt bò dlo, on the other side of the waters.

“We die.” Toni Morrison eloquently stated in her 1993 Nobel Lecture. “That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” I am preoccupied with death as well, I suppose, because  I am trying to “do” as much language as possible before I die.

In Haitian Creole when someone is said to be “lòt bò dlo,” on the other side of the water, it can either mean that they’ve travelled abroad or that they have died. Even though they were still alive, my parents were also said to be lòt bò dlo, on the other side of the waters.

Your young adult novel, Untwine, was also heavily focused around the idea of death and loss. Was there difficulty in trying to negotiate such a dark subject matter for a younger audience?

There was not much difficulty, because young people are used to darker materials these days. We live in a country that, for the past decade or more, has been at war, though that war has been kept hidden from the public. Young people have access to a lot online and young adult literature often speaks to harsh realities and does not really coddle. I know many young people who’ve already experienced some terrible losses and I was hoping this novel would speak to them as well as show a singular side of Haitian life from the point of view of a different generation than I’m used to writing about.

Haiti, itself, seems to have a history that is entrenched in death. This was something that you touched on in Krik? Krak! and The Farming of Bones. Do you think this history of Haiti has shaped your perceptions of death and loss, or somehow influenced how you write about the subject matter?

Haiti is a country born out of revolution, so immediately there is a lot of death in its founding. And before that revolution you had a genocide that wiped out the entire indigenous population of the island, the Taino/Arawaks from which Haiti got its name. Haiti is also a very spiritual place in which many people share the belief, whether they are Vodouists or Christians, that death is not the end of our existence. So the continuity of life past death is part of our overall spirituality.

Haiti is also a very spiritual place in which many people share the belief, whether they are Vodouists or Christians, that death is not the end of our existence. So the continuity of life past death is part of our overall spirituality.

You wrote about the events of 1937, both in The Farming of Bones and in your short story 1937. How do you think such tragic events have shaped the present of Haiti and the Dominican Republic?

There are two historical events that are often cited on different sides of the island of Hispaniola. Many Dominicans cite the post independence era when the whole island was under Haitian control as the biggest wrong done to them. And many Haitians cite the the 1937 massacre ordered by Trujillo. This year will be the 80th anniversary of that massacre and an important time of reflection for all of us, I think, on both sides of the island. The massacre was a very crucial event in the history of the island, even in the history of the world. It was a manifestation of a certain kind of xenophobia that still remains today.

The massacre was a very crucial event in the history of the island, even in the history of the world. It was a manifestation of a certain kind of xenophobia that still remains today.

Your writing has shifted across a few genres. You’ve written many books in literary fiction, including Breath, Eyes, Memoryand Claire of the Sea LightUntwine was a young adult novel, while The Art of Death is non-fiction that is merged with literary criticism. Do you find that each genre has different challenges, or are there similarities overlapping between them? And which genre do you enjoy writing the most?

I love every genre I write in. I see it all as storytelling. I have even written a few songs and even that feels to me like a way of telling a story that can’t be told any other way. I get bored easily, yet I write in a very sentence by sentence way, which is why I have not yet written a really long book. Switching genres is a way for me to keep myself engaged, to learn something new every day. I enjoy all the genres, but I am partial to short stories, which allow me to create these micro-worlds that can then exist next to one another when you put them in a collection of stories, for example.

I love every genre I write in. I see it all as storytelling. I have even written a few songs and even that feels to me like a way of telling a story that can’t be told any other way.

The Art of Death mentions writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Toni Morrison, among others, I’m sure. Are these writers who have influenced your own works?

Absolutely. I was really happy to get a chance to express the reader part of me in this book. I read broadly and I love to read that way, but there are some writers I return to over and over, and both Toni Morrison and Gabriel Gárcia Márquez are in that group. I don’t consider myself a critic. I am asked to write book reviews sometimes and I can’t get myself to do it. The idea of sitting judgement on something that took someone years to write always keeps me from trying. I also don’t trust my own opinions as dictate that much. I just know what I like and what feeds me, and comforts me, and holds me up on this journey as a person who writes.

Your collection Krik? Krak! is modelled after the tradition of storytelling existent in Haiti, and other parts of the Caribbean. How do you think this tradition has changed over the years?

I think it now involves technology. My husband was trained as an elementary school teacher and used to teach for a long time. One year he back moved to Haiti to volunteer in a school in Haiti. Over the years would go back to that school together. We would sleep in the guest house next to the school and at night people would come, talk to us, and share some folk stories. Over time—it’s been almost twenty years—the storytelling part of the evenings has diminished. Now the kids want to watch a movie, which leads to its own kind of call and response. I don’t want to be one of those old fogies who cry over old things because I feel nostalgic about them. I think people change, cultures change. A lot of the kids now have cell phones. Any kind of storytelling these days might have to take into account the notion of technology, even if it’s just taking into consideration that kids might have a shorter attention span.

Do you think that being an immigrant, and a black woman, has shaped your writing? If so, in what ways?

All of that is at the core of who I am and thus the soul of my writing. Being an immigrant eventually makes you an outsider to both the place where you are now and the place where you come from. I think that’s a really interesting place from which to write. And as for being a black woman, I am a black woman and now the mother of black girls, of course this affects the way I see the world, which inevitably leads to it showing up in what I write.

Being an immigrant eventually makes you an outsider to both the place where you are now and the place where you come from. I think that’s a really interesting place from which to write.

We wrote about your work for our 10 Black Writers You Should Read article. Are there any writers that you would add to that list?

I really don’t like to make lists, because someone always gets offended. But how about 12 black writers you should read in translation?

  1. Maryse Condé
  2. Dany Laferrière
  3. Marie NDiaye
  4. Yanick Lahens
  5. Alain Mabanckou
  6. Kettly Mars
  7. Gisele Pineau
  8. Jean-Euphèle Milcé
  9. Évelyne Trouillot
  10. Aimé Césaire
  11. Patrick Chamoiseau
  12. Léopold Sédar Senghor

You can pre-order The Art of Death on Amazon. It will be available on July 11 2017. You can also follow Edwidge Danticat on her Facebook page for updates on her upcoming work. 

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