I pick up Edwige Danticat’s Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work and am stricken immediately by the charcoal motif of hollow-eyed skulls that wraps around the pages as the book’s cover. No title or author’s name on the front helps to redirect my attention: instead, a woman with her arms outstretched in mourning and the face of a young girl who never seems to take her eyes off me. “Open at your own risk,” the latter seems to say, and I do.
A first epigraph, “two hundred thousand and more,” makes reference to the devastating human loss after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and seems to give a voice to the cover’s artwork. And yet, a second epigraph, from Russian immigrant Maya Deren’s Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods in Haiti, chimes with words such as beginnings, celebration, and creation. “Not,” as Deren writes, “in memoriam.” The juxtaposition of epigraphs indicates a certain immediate communication between ends and beginnings, between farewell and rediscovery, that recalls the book’s title, where danger and creation grind against each other strangely as verb and adverb, the one somehow actively uprooting the connotation of the other. Only a couple of pages in, and already I too feel uprooted and somehow in between two worlds.
For Danticat and other Haitian artists who have left or fled Haiti’s political unrest in the name of self-expression and safety to become long-time immigrants in the United States, Canada, or elsewhere around the globe, a similar straddling of different worlds is not a means to an end but an end in and of itself, a restless state of being. Danticat recalls a conversation with the late writer Jean Dominique:
I had told him that I envied the certainty with which he could and often did say the words, “My country.” . . .
My country, I felt, both as an immigrant and as an artist, was something that was then being called the tenth department. Haiti then had nine geographic departments and the tenth was the floating homeland, the ideological one, which joined all Haitians living outside of Haiti, in the diaspora.1
When voicing disagreement with the political views of her family and friends still living in Haiti, Danticat recalls the shame of being called herself a dyaspora, or “a foreign being but still not a blan” (50–51). Indeed, life for the immigrant artist is a never-ending negotiation of borders and identities; and, for Danticat, these liminal spaces are as concrete as they are intellectual and emotional. When she tries to carry coffee back to the United States for her father, it is confiscated by customs officers at New York’s JFK airport. In yet another essay, she describes the exasperating red tape that was necessary to have her cousin, an illegal immigrant living in Miami, shipped back home to Haiti in a casket. “He’s a dead man whose cadaver needs to be shipped to the country where he was born. Why is it so complicated?” she asks (91).
And yet despite—perhaps, I would argue, even because of—such border-crossing, this dyasporatic individual, floating in an ever-changing third space, or “tenth department,” becomes a perpetual adventurer and creator, forging new routes and relations. Guadeloupian writer Maryse Condé, who has spent much of her life in the United States, suggests that origin is connected not to a sense of order but to a certain creative disorder, going so far as to ask in the name of artistic freedom: “Must a writer have a native country?” (“Est-ce qu’un écrivain doit avoir un pays natal?”).2 Similarly, Martinican theorist and writer Edouard Glissant, who has also spent much of his professional life in the United States, idealizes the transversal inter-connectedness of a world beyond borders through his figure of the wanderer, a poet-magician who lives in the moment: “To know the unpredictable is to embrace one’s present, the present that we live, in a different way that is no longer empirical nor systematic, but poetic” (“Connaître l’imprédictible c’est s’accorder à son présent, au présent que l’on vit, d’une autre manière, non plus, non pas empirique ni systématique, mais poétique”).3 In her essay aptly entitled “Flying Home,” Danticat grapples with this middle space, this space between point A and point B, in a very real manner. Her fear of flying was finally quelled by her conscious effort to “fully embrace the ‘magic’ of being suspended in midair” (116). When a passenger has a heart attack mid-flight, Danticat writes of a certain magical unity that developed, one not bound by nationality or political viewpoint but by something else: “Community, like family, is sometimes the result of arbitrary grouping. . . . . Suddenly we were a kind of village in the air and one of our own was in danger” (118). Danticat’s tenth department proves itself not exclusive to the Haitian immigrant but open to all. This ephemeral village in constant motion above the clouds is not defined by a fixed territory but instead rooted in a common approach to or respect for human life.
Such a sporadic and humane vision of connectedness puts into question more hegemonic means of conceptualizing unity. In “Another Country,” Danticat approaches the attacks of 11 September 2001 through the eyes of American immigrant Masood Farivar, a former Afghan mujahideen who waved his flag in an effort to express his solidarity with America, and Isabel Allende, who writes “We can’t be neutral in moments of crisis. . . . I no longer feel that I am an alien in the United States” (113).4 In other words, weren’t we all Americans that day? Similarly, Glissant asks, “Don’t we all come from the same place? Don’t we share the same cantankerous land under our feet?” (“Est-ce que nous ne venons pas tous du même endroit? Est-ce que ce n’est pas la même terre acariâtre sous nos pieds que nous partageons?”).5 As borders between officially recognized spaces crumble and a certain connectedness to the earth itself takes place, Country is transformed into countryside, Territoire into terre. The concept of Country as a singular, homogenous entity is further destabilized from within by questions of inequality and any number of isms such as racism, sexism, and ageism. As Danticat illustrates via the fate of New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina, the marginal can be found within the walls of Country itself, where citizen is often treated as alien. Referring to the needy, the elderly, and the infirm as communities on the periphery, Danticat concludes that “perhaps this America [has] more in common with the developing world than with the one it inhabits” (111). It would seem, therefore, that to be an immigrant does not necessarily mean to live beyond the borders of one’s own homeland. After all, it was in Haiti that Danticat was called a dyaspora, that Louis Drouin and Marcel Numa were executed as enemies of the state, and it was in Haiti that Jean Dominique was assassinated.
And yet despite such oppressive efforts to cleanse worlds of diversity, difference never fails to find a voice through Danticat’s immigrant artist, who resembles Glissant’s own wandering poet. Through these often tormented but free spirits (free often despite themselves), kaleidoscopes of stories are forged that offer alternative perspectives of a heretofore totalizing History. Danticat opens her book with a devastating historical event: “On November 12, 1964, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, a huge crowd gathered to witness an execution” (1). The two men in front of the firing squad were Marcel Numa and Louis Drouin, both from Jérémie (a town interestingly dubbed the “city of poets”) and both back in their homeland to fight against the Duvalier regime. Official, government-censored accounts of the execution were reported, but Danticat offers alternative threads of the event throughout her book, one in particular. The eleventh chapter, titled “Acheiropoietos,” begins as does the first: “On November 12, 1964 . . .” (137). But the story that follows is one of a young boy, Daniel Morel, who, after witnessing the execution, picked up the bloody eyeglasses that Drouin had been wearing. “Perhaps if he had kept them,” Danticat writes, “he might have cleaned the lenses and raised them to his face, to try to see the world the way it might have been reflected in a dead man’s eyes” (137). While Morel may not have peered through Drouin’s glasses, an alternative perspective is drawn, one that transforms the official event-that-silences into a story of creation. For Morel, this single terrifying event changed the course of his life, leading him into a career in photography and eventually to the United States. “People sometimes say my photos are too negative,” Morel says. “They’re shocked by them, but that’s exactly the reaction I want. . . . I am just showing people the way things are because maybe if they see it with their own eyes, they’ll do something to change the situation” (141).
For Morel and other immigrant artists, shock and discomfort do not seem to quiet but to, in fact, catalyze change. The words of Alèrte Bélance, Haitian citizen brutalized by FRAPH (Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti) and now (at the time of Danticat’s interview) pregnant and living in New Jersey, resonate for all people persecuted and silenced: “They tried to take my life away, but not only couldn’t they do that, I’m producing more life” (83). I think back to the motif of skulls and rubble that stands as the cover of this book and am reminded of Danticat’s words as she watched from a distance teams scavenge for survivors after the 2010 earthquake. “Each time I saw someone rescued from the rubble on television, . . . it looked a lot like a vaginal birth, the rescue teams nudging, like midwives, a head, then a shoulder, then some arms, and then some legs, out of the expanded earth” (172). Similarly, Dany Laferrière is able to pull Haiti into the light as a Canadian immigrant in his L’énigme du retour, a work that Danticat calls a love song to the Haiti before the earthquake. According to the novel’s narrator, the book would not be the same if from Haiti: “I wouldn’t have written like this if I had stayed there,” he claims. In other words, Laferrière’s idealization of Haiti is a direct result of his distance from it. In addressing immigrant artists of the world, he fuses once more concepts of loss or mourning and restless creation: “[Had I] stayed there / Maybe I would not have written at all / Living outside our countries, do we write to console ourselves?” (161–62). 6
I close Create Dangerously and stare at the young girl on the cover who looks back at me still. The interwoven narrative routes across the book’s twelve essays have turned me, the reader, into a traveler too, hopping from one world to another, breaking down borders and fraying rigid black-and-white History into colorful narrative threads. Breathless and on the periphery, I have become Glissant’s wanderer and perhaps, also, Danticat’s immigrant artist. And it is precisely from this space of chaos, disorder, and danger that Danticat has inspired me.
Elizabeth Duchanaud received her PhD in French literature from New York University, where her research focused on works from the francophone Caribbean. Her doctoral thesis has since been published as Reading the French Caribbean through Edouard Glissant (2009).
1 Edwidge Danticat, Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010), 49; hereafter cited in text.
2 Maryse Condé, “Notes sur un retour au pays natal,” Conjonction 176 (1987): 23. Unless otherwise indicated, all translations are mine.
3 Edouard Glissant, Introduction à une poétique du divers (Paris: Gallimard, 1996), 89–90.
4 Danticat quotes Isabelle Allende, My Invented Country: A Nostalgic Journey Through Chile, trans. Margaret Sayers Peden (New York: Harper Collins, 2003), xi–xii.
5 Edouard Glissant, Traité du Tout-monde (Paris: Gallimard, 1997), 101.
6 Danticat quotes Dany Laferrière, L’énigme du retour (Montreal: Boreal, 2009); Danticat’s translation.