Onè, Respè

• April 2011

I have always been reluctant to read scholarly responses to my work. Not because I am thin-skinned, but because I know that the people writing are a lot smarter than me. I also worry that their analyses will connect all the dots and I will have nothing left to say. Call it creative paranoia, but so much of what a writer does is inexplicable to him- or herself that having a smart detective (or three) on his or her heels can be rather nerve-racking.

I am still extremely honored that Elizabeth Duchanaud, Michael Dash, and Martin Munro have taken the time to write these very insightful essays on Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work.1 My anxiety about this process is such that even as I am writing this, I fear that I am doing it wrong. The last time I was asked to do something like this I could not even manage it. The book had been Brother, I’m Dying, a memoir about the deaths of my father and uncle and the birth of my oldest daughter, Mira. Living through then writing about these events had torn then healed such a huge hole in my heart that I could not experience them again.

My books have no tougher critic than me. Once I write a book, I move completely away from it. I don’t even reread it, except for short and often painfully revised sections read at podiums, in public. By the time a book reaches the reader’s hand, there is already so much I wish I would have done differently. With Create Dangerously, I wish, for example, that in some sections I didn’t sound as certain as I did, as confident in my declarations. At the same time, I wish I had not offered so many mea culpas for my immigrant status, for my being a dyaspora. I also wish I had confessed my shame about not signing every progressive petition that has come my way, about being considered “silent” on many important subjects. I wish I could have conveyed how being a mother to two young daughters takes up a lot of the time and energy that my potential political commitments require. I wish I could have offered Toni Cade Bambara’s mantra about writing being the way I participate in the struggle, while at the same time acknowledging that sometimes struggle has to do with other people’s hunger and thirst. I wish I could have shared how much I sometimes fear that my political concerns will lead to good citizenship but bad writing.

Again, begging forgiveness for not doing this right, I will point out something that caught my attention in each essay and will attempt a brief response, since I don’t think writers should ever really respond to responses to their work. The book, once you have read it, is yours—though maybe with a few small exceptions.

Elizabeth Duchanaud’s “Finding Inspiration in Chaos” opens with a description of Pascale Monnin’s brilliant cover drawing. I had admired the drawing and an accompanying poem (“People walk in a daze / A city upended, destroyed / The dead, so many dead . . .”)2 in the New York Times soon after the 12 January 2010 earthquake. A few weeks later, my publisher forwarded me the same image with a note: “What do you think about this as our cover?” My answer was an enthusiastic yes, especially because Pascale’s drawing mirrored another one I had seen in a tent city in Léogane, an image of a woman levitating. That image inspired my painter friend Jhon Charles to declare that Haitians will have their “Guernicas,” their own tragedy-inspired masterpieces.

I am deeply grateful for Duchanaud’s analysis of dyasporatic individuality and I fault myself for portraying it as only restless, and, in Martin Munro’s interpretation, as something between “full living” and death. There is, in dyasporic identity, also space for joy, simple human joys born out of the melding of two cultures. Furthermore, the earthquake has made, even those who live in Haiti, those who according to Martin Munro have “a more direct sense of national belonging,” dyasporic citizens of that pre-earthquake place.

Can tragedy expand our dyasporic identity?

Soon after the earthquake, I read Dany Laferrière’s L’égnime du retour. I also read a collection of stories by the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami called After the Quake. In Murakani’s description of “the liquified earth”3 I find yet another link with Laferrière’s Montreal-based, Haitian-born fictional novelist from his novel I Am a Japanese Writer. Both that novelist and Murakami are now equally dyasporic citizens of liquified earths.

The late Edouard Glissant is the connecting thread between Elizabeth Duchanaud’s essay and Michael Dash’s “The Pregnant Widow,” which opens with a quote from Glissant’s Caribbean Discourse. One of the things I wish I had done is to incorporate more Caribbean thinkers like Glissant into the book. I wish, for example, that along with Caribbean Discourse I had also addressed George Lamming’s The Pleasures of Exile and Michele Cliff’s If I Could Write This in Fire, among others.

I have often been asked since the book’s publication, “Why Albert Camus?” The book explains how Camus’s work was read and performed in the neighborhood where I grew up. But Camus also because—blessed or cursed with a novelist’s desire to inhabit and understand both sides—he was sometimes ambivalent. When he was asked why he could not inevitably support Algerian independence and he answered that he was concerned about his mother, there was the kind of human truth in this that the anti-colonial activist in me might abhor, but that the novelist (and certainly the mother) can appreciate. Absolute certainty is perhaps at the center of activism, but ambivalence is at the heart of art, where gray areas abound and nuance thrives. The book, I wished—I hoped—would also make a case for those gray areas and for artistic nuance.

I deeply appreciate Michael Dash’s attempt at addressing what he calls “the obsession with defining authenticity.” It makes me want to recount here a rather impolite story.

Among the many ways I go to Haiti, I go least often as a public person, as a “writer.” Part of this has to do with some very painful early experiences. A few years ago, at a meeting of writers, an older gentleman writer, with whom I’ve had one or two previous conversations, came up to me and said to me in Creole, “When you first used to come to Haiti, you didn’t speak Creole or French.” (The language-less dyaspora became mythic with similar accusations being hurled at Wycelf Jean when he attempted to run for president of Haiti.)

I could understand how he would think I spoke no French, I told him, because even though it was my college major and I spent my junior year in France, I never felt very comfortable speaking the language. But since he didn’t speak English, if I hadn’t spoken Creole or French how had he and I ever communicated?

The question of authenticity gets reinvented for every new immigrant or dyasporic writer.

It took me nearly a decade to stop caring whether people thought I was “authentic” or not. And it took reading Julia Alvarez’s essay “Doña Aída, with Your Permission,” in which she describes being told by Aída Cartagena Portalatín, the grande dame of Dominican letters, that it doesn’t seem possible that a Dominican should write in English.

“Come back to your country, to your language,” the Doña tells her.

To which Julia responds with her eloquent essay, which ends with the following words: “Ay Doña Aída . . . I know I don’t really have to ask your pardon or permission. Beneath our individual circumstances and choices, we have fought many of the same struggles and have ended up in the same place, on paper.”4

The title of Martin Munro’s essay, “Writing on the Threshold,” echoes a notion that is also very dear to Julia Alvarez, the idea of writing from the hyphen, which is its own kind of island. I am deeply appreciative of Martin Munro’s attention to the human elements of the book, the issues of mortality, which are always at the forefront of my mind and have been even more so since the earthquake. The connection between art and mortality is often missed in this book, the idea of any artist—immigrant or not—struggling to create something that remains long after he or she is gone.

I think of my artist friend Jhon Charles, whose bright naïve paintings suddenly became spare and dark after the January 2010 earthquake.

“I will paint color again when I feel joy,” he said, when I asked about his stylistic shift. His bright and sunny work made some assumptions about life, he said, that if not today, all might be well tomorrow. The new work had people with raised arms digging themselves out of the ground.

Martin Munro pities me just a tad bit much, however. I am not in an unenviable position. It is not fair to bombard a scholar with clichés, but one of the simple human joys of my dyasporic experience is that I love what I do. I would not say that the earthquake has given me a new purpose as a writer. It has given me, as I think it has given many others, much cause for reflection. It certainly has given me a greater desire to return “home,” though it is not always clear to me where that might be. Would it be my grandmother’s house in Léogane, our collapsed family compound in Bel Air, the homes of good friends in Jacmel who have become like family, with my in laws in Les Cayes? How long would it take me to belong? (My friends in Jacmel were considered outsiders for many years after moving there from Port-au-Prince.) No, I am not citing the stories of the brave people I profile in the book as “cautionary examples of dangers of artists and militants naively confronting ruthless authority.” I am not offering them as examples either, models for others to follow. I am simply honoring them. (Onè, respè.) And if that most crucial point has been missed, then I have miserably failed.

 

Edwidge Danticat was born in Haiti and moved to the United States as a young adult.  She is the author of two novels, two collections of short stories, two books for young adults and three non-fiction books (including Create Dangerously). She has also edited two anthologies of writings on Haiti, one of which, Haiti Noir, was reviewed in sx salon 3. Danticat received a MacArthur fellowship in 2009.

 


1 Edwidge Danticat, Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010).

2 Pascale Monnin, New York Times, 24 January 2010; http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2010/01/24/opinion/20100124opartSS_2.html.

3 Haruki Murakami, “Thailand,” in After the Quake, trans. Jay Rubin (New York: Knopf, 2002), 76.

4 Julia Alvarez, “Doña Aída, with Your Permission,” Calaloo 23, no. 3 (2000): 821, 823.

 

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