The Pregnant Widow: Negating Frontiers in Danticat’s Create Dangerously

• April 2011

Each time I return to the Americas, whether to an island like Martinique, which is where I was born, or to the American continent, I am struck by the openness of this landscape. I say it is an “irrupted” landscape—it’s a word that I coined obviously—, in it is irruption and rush, and eruption as well, perhaps a lot of the real and the unreal.  

Edouard Glissant, Introduction to a Poetics of Diversity 

Edouard Glissant first used the word irrué (irrupted) to describe American space in his 1981 book of essays Caribbean Discourse. In theorizing a poetics for the novel of the Americas, he wanted to distinguish American landscape from European landscape by contrasting the unsettled, exploded, and rent nature of the former to the ordered shapeliness of the latter. In the very same year, the late Haitian novelist Emile Ollivier, in an interview with Jean Jonassaint, spoke of the need for the Haitian writer to express the “irruptive” (irrué) dimension of the world. Two decades ago Ollivier, using Glissant’s neologism, felt that Haitian literature was poised between the aging aesthetic of literary nationalism or indigenism and “finding, inventing new structures to better translate the Haitian imaginary.”1 Indeed, Ollivier had graphically illustrated the failure of the imagination of the traditional Haitian intellectual in the tragic figure of Normand Malavy, in his novel Passages. As his name suggests, Malavy is doomed to failure because he cannot adapt to the “irrupted” space of exile. The stable center he craves is forever lost and he is incapable of accepting a new, less-grounded Haitian identity. The picture Ollivier painted in 1981 can be likened to the image of the pregnant Annaise at the end of Jacques Roumain’s iconic novel Masters of the Dew. There was a future waiting to be born as an old order had lost its legitimacy. However, the length of this richly symbolic gestation remains unclear, as Annaise is today still waiting to give birth and an aging Duvalierist discourse continues to persist after Duvalier.

In Create Dangerously Edwidge Danticat seems to pick up Ollivier’s challenge and reflects on the dilemma of the Haitian writer in the wake of the separate tragedies of the Duvalier dictatorship and the earthquake of 12 January 2010. Danticat assesses the meaning of the Creole expression that is often used to describe Haiti—tè glise, slippery ground—for a Haiti where now “even the ground is no more.”2 Tè glise almost echoes espace irrué. “Creating dangerously” can mean practicing a new ungrounded poetics for Haitian writing in which national and ethnic difference gives way to a collective, borderless identity that is increasingly hybrid and unstable. Indeed, in the face of the politics of containment and the insistence on Haitian exceptionalism characteristic of Duvalierist political discourse, a call for an ungrounded poetics is a defiant maneuver on behalf of the liminal citizens of the hemisphere. In her own way, Danticat is continuing Ollivier’s call for “inventing new structures” for the Haitian imaginary. Instead of seeing Haitian writing as the product of a unique Haitian space, the challenge is to inscribe the Haitian experience as more global and cosmopolitan in nature. Rethinking Haitian identity as profoundly diasporic becomes crucial to all writing in post-Duvalierist Haiti. As Glissant puts it in Poetics of Relation, such a poetics offers a vision of identity that is both grounded yet borderless, that “permits each individual to be here and elsewhere, rooted and open.”3

With the election of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier in 1957, cultural and racial cleansing of the body politic became the cornerstone of an inward turning, isolationist dictatorship that lasted twenty-nine years. After the departure of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier in February 1986, the desire for change manifested itself in jubilant and angry crowds that tried to physically erase the Duvalier dictatorship from the face of Haiti. Dechoukaj took the form of destroying the headquarters of the Tontons Macoutes, the homes of Duvalier officials, the BMW dealership of Ernest Bennett, and ultimately the mausoleum of the Duvalier family in the national cemetery. Uprooting the physical traces of Duvalierism did not, however, guarantee the end of the politics of the regime, which divided Haitians into patriots and apatrides, authentic and bovaryiste. As Dany Laferrière writes in The Cry of Maddened Birds, “With Papa Doc in power, it is dangerous to maintain contact with someone in exile. The exile is Duvalier’s personal enemy. And Duvalier is the state. He even identifies himself with the national flag.”4 The ghosts of Duvalierist discourse haunt the present unending transition from the politics of Duvalierism. Today, the use of the word dyaspora to designate Haitians who live outside of Haiti has all the sting of apatrides. This obsession with defining authenticity is denounced by Dany Laferrière in his memoir Everything Is Moving Around Me. He mentions the “the language of guilt directed against the diaspora. Why weren’t you there when we needed you?” He tellingly adds, “A society which prefers its citizens dead rather than alive does not have much of a future,” since “it is not by dying that one becomes a Haitian.”5

There is greater self-doubt in Create Dangerously. Danticat is equally aware of the opposition between authentic and foreign that persists in the wake of Duvalierism. She attests to her own personal experience “of being called dyaspora when expressing an opposing political point of view in discussions with friends and family members living in Haiti, who knew that they could easily silence me by saying, ‘What do you know? You’re living outside. You’re a dyaspora’” (49). Create Dangerously points to the roots of this dismissal of those who belong to the “floating homeland” of the tenth department (ibid.). The founding moment for Danticat artistically was Duvalier’s public execution of two members of Jeune Haiti in 1964. They were brutally put down not just for their opposition to the regime but for the fact that they had lived abroad:

 Marcel Numa and Louis Drouin were patriots who died so that other Haitians could live. They were also immigrants, like me. Yet they had abandoned comfortable lives in the United States and sacrificed themselves for their homeland. One of the first things the despot Duvalier tried to take away from them was the mythic element of their stories. In the propaganda that preceded their execution, he labeled them not Haitian, but foreign rebels, good-for-nothing blans. (7)

 

Otherness could be deployed in a deadly manner by the Duvalier state. Danticat goes on to say that the late agronomist-turned-journalist Jean Dominique was one of the few to defend those who were not seen as true Haitians: “The Dyaspora are people who have their feet planted in both worlds,” he had said to her (51). Dominique understood that resisting the Duvalier regime meant also rejecting its ideological tenets. He fiercely argued for the importance of recognizing multiple Haitian identities, for a kind of intellectual dechoukaj. He therefore could, in Danticat’s words, “commiserate with all of us exiles, émigrés, refugees, migrants, nomads, immigrants, naturalized citizens, half-generation, first-generation, American, Haitian, Haitian-American, men, women, and children who were living in the United states and elsewhere” (ibid.) in a post-Duvalier Haiti. Dominque’s own experience of exile, return, and assassination makes him a latter-day Numa or Drouin.

 The terrible martrydom of Drouin, Numa, and Dominique, and the nightmarish suffering of Alerte Belance (see “I Speak Out,” 73–85), haunt these essays. Drouin and Numa could be said to have demonstrated their Haitianness by dying at the hands of the Duvalier dictatorship on Haitian soil. This question also has gained added poignancy because, when Port-au-Prince was destroyed by an earthquake a year ago, Danticat was “at work” on her writing (18). Her use of quotation marks convey a sense of guilt or at least self-consciousness at not being there to die with her fellow Haitians. Danticat acknowledges that “writing is nothing like dying in, for, and possibly with, your country” (12). Writing is ultimately about distance, absence. She raises a question here that is much broader than that of the immigrant writer’s problematic claim of belonging, of collective identity. Is the writer’s work equivalent to that of a journalist or an agronomist? The photographer Daniel Morel has the advantage of being an eyewitness whose images are testimony (see “Acheiropoietos,” 137–51). Dominique, when asked whether he was a journalist, was quick to reply he was an agronomist (53). However, while writers are “at work” anywhere in the world, Danticat writes in the opening essay, “bodies are littering the streets somewhere. People are buried under rubble somewhere. Mass graves are being dug somewhere. Survivors are living in makeshift tents cities and refugee camps somewhere” (18). This is not a new question in Danticat’s works. In a poignant moment at the end of The Farming of Bones, Amabelle, the protagonist, returns to Massacre River where her parents had drowned. She remembers: “Together they were both trying to signal a message to me, but the force of the water would not let them. My mother, before she sank, raised her arm high, far above the pinnacle of the flood. The gesture was so desperate that it was hard to tell whether she wanted me to jump in with them or move farther away.”6 The guilt of having survived is assuaged by her testifying. In Brother I’m Dying, testifying is Danticat’s way of responding to her uncle’s tragic experience as an asylum seeker in the United States. She uses official records to piece together the actual events that led to her uncle’s death in detention. But she was not there. She has to use her imagination, to be a writer, in order to produce the testimony her uncle could not.

If Haiti is slippery ground, tè glise, it is particularly precarious for the dislocated writer. Create Dangerously is the fullest response to date by Danticat about the nature of the creative act and the artist’s credentials. A recurring question is that of the Haitian writer’s origins, or, more precisely, how Haitian is a writer from the diaspora who writes in English? In this regard, Danticat quotes a comic assertion from Dany Laferrière’s recent novel I Am a Japanese Writer, in which the narrator admits to being baffled by the question of literary origins. He retorts, “I am surprised to see how much attention is paid to a writer’s origins. . . . I repatriated, without giving it a second thought, all the writers I read as a young man. . . . They all lived in the same village that I did. Otherwise, what were they doing in my room?” (15).7 As Laferrière has demonstrated, you can foreground in his writing the slipperiness of Haitian space and the precariousness of belonging. His novel An Aroma of Coffee is not a typical novel of childhood, that is, a nostalgic return to origins: Petit Goave in 1963 is remembered not as a quaint provincial town but one that has all the features of cosmopolitan urban New World space. It is open on all sides to the surrounding towns. Petit Goave is not a point of origin; for Laferrière, it is neither periphery nor center, neither inside nor outside. In the same way that Laferrière repatriated writers, Danticat tells of the importance of Haitian readers during the Duvalier dictatorship and the way they made Sophocles, Genet, and Camus into “Haitian” writers. Reading dangerously was a way of resisting the regime: “Papa Doc Duvalier could not make their words go away. Their maxims and phrases would keep coming back, buried deep in memories by the rote recitation techniques that the Haitian school system had taught so well” (9).

Ollivier’s warning two decades ago that writing would lose its relevance if it did not invent “new structures to better translate the Haitian imaginary” is even truer today. Create Dangerously suggests that art is as unlikely as it is unpredictable. There is no knowing where it will emerge or who would produce it. The final essay, “Our Guernica,” offers a memorable example of art’s ability to surprise. In a devastated Léogane, Danticat sees “a large white tent with a striking image painted on it: a stunningly beautiful chocolate angel with her face turned up toward an indigo sky as she floats over a pile of muddied corpses” (169). The anonymously painted angel on the side of the tent is compared to Picasso’s Guernica. This improvised canvas answers the question as to whether there would be “any poetry amidst the Haitian ruins” (159).The question as to who will translate the new Haitian imaginary and how it will manifest itself is raised by Dany Laferrière at the end of Everything Is Moving Around Me. Will it be on the walls of the city or on the sides of the tap-taps? Will it be Franketienne or an unknown female writer? Dalembert or a German writer who had never heard about Haiti before the earthquake? What would we think if the great tragic Haitian novel were written by “an inspired and affected young bourgeois”?8 Danticat’s concerns are similar as she questions, like Laferrière, whether being present confers legitimacy on the artist. Her source of inspiration for the book of essays, as well as its title, is the Algerian French writer Albert Camus. In the very essay that gives Danticat’s collection its name, Camus writes:

 

If we listen attentively, we shall hear, amid the uproar of empire and nations, a faint flutter of wings, the gentle stirring of life and hope. Some will say that this hope lies in a nation, others, in a man. I believe rather that it is awakened, revived, nourished by millions of solitary individuals whose deeds and works every day negate frontiers and the crudest implications of history.9  

In 1957 Camus could not have been more presciently Haitian. 

 

J. Michael Dash, who was born in Trinidad, has worked extensively on Haitian literature and French Caribbean writers, especially Edouard Glissant, whose works The Ripening (1985), Caribbean Discourse (1989), and Monsieur Toussaint (2005) he has translated into English. After twenty-one years at the University of the West Indies, Jamaica, where he was professor of francophone literature and chair of modern languages, he is now at New York University, where he was director of the Africana Studies Program and is currently a professor of French. His publications include Literature and Ideology in Haiti (1981), Haiti and the United States (1988), Edouard Glissant (1995), and The Other America: Caribbean Literature in a New World Context (1998). He has also translated The Drifting of Spirits (1999) by Gisèle Pineau. His most recent books are Libeté: A Haiti Anthology (1999), with Charles Arthur, and Culture and Customs of Haiti (2001). He is currently completing a book on the francophone Caribbean in the 1940s.

 


1 Jean  Jonassaint, Le pouvoir des mots, les maux du pouvoir (Montreal: Les presses de l’universite de Montreal 1986), 87. Unless otherwise indicated, all translations are mine.

2 Edwidge Danticat, Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010), 157–58; hereafter cited in text.  

3 Edouard Glissant, Poétique de la Relation (Paris: Gallimard, 1990), 46.

4 Dany Laferrière, Le cris des oiseaus fous (Quebec: Lanctot, 2000), 45–46.

5 Dany Laferrière, Tout bouge autour de moi (Montreal: Memoire d’encrier, 2010), 129.

6 Edwidge Danticat, The Farming of Bones (New York: Penguin, 1998), 308–9.

7 Danticat quotes Dany Laferrière, Je suis un écrivain japonais (Paris: Grasset, 2008), 29–30; Danticat’s translation.

8 Laferrière, Tout bouge autour de moi, 127.

9 Albert Camus, "Create Dangerously," in Resistance, Rebellion and Death, trans. Justin O'Brien (New York: Knopf, 1961), 272.

 

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