Writing on the Threshold

• April 2011

For all the talent she possesses and the success she has enjoyed, Edwidge Danticat is in some senses in an unenviable situation as a writer. The twists of her personal and professional trajectory—her familial displacement to North America, her gift for communicating Haiti’s complicated reality to a non-Haitian audience—that conspired to make her Haiti’s first major author writing in English have also increasingly conferred on her the status of unofficial  spokesperson for her country of birth. She was one of the first Haitians that the BBC, NPR, and countless other international media organizations (not to mention scholars and fellow writers and artists) turned to for a response to the earthquake of 12 January 2010, an event that has only reinforced the perception of her as something of a representative of Haiti, a filter through which the complicated reality of the nation is passed and explained to an international public that is rarely sensitive to the nuances of Haitian history and politics. Although she manages this role with customary tact and grace, it does seem to place a degree of obligation and expectation on her to “promote” Haiti that potentially curtails her freedom as an author to address the difficult, often troubling issues on which she writes.  

While she has become for many outside Haiti (with a certain reticence, one imagines) a “voice” of the nation, she has had to simultaneously manage the suspicion and resentment that have been periodically directed toward her from certain critics both inside and outside Haiti. Perhaps the most significant example of this occurred on the publication of Breath, Eyes, Memory, following which Danticat was criticized by some Haitian Americans for her portrayal of virginity testing among different generations of Haitian women. Danticat discusses this episode in Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work, and still apparently feels compelled to defend her fictional work in the face of accusations of misrepresenting Haiti, its customs and people. Still “anguished” by her “own sense of guilt”1 over the incident and her position as a dyasporic author drawing on Haitian experiences, she carries a particular burden of expectation that, again, threatens to inhibit her freedom to explore the hidden and silenced aspects of Haitian life that she is naturally drawn to as a conscientious and empathetic observer of everyday existence in Haiti.

In effect, the criticisms of Breath, Eyes, Memory were founded in the (mis)perception of Danticat as a spokesperson for Haiti and the implicit (indeed, virtually explicit) obligations foisted on her by certain elements, especially in the Haitian American community. Accused of being a “parasite” (33), it is as if Danticat has to feel guilty for her success, and once more this underlying feeling of guilt seems bound to hinder her ability to write freely and creatively about the areas of Haitian life that interest her. Moreover, Danticat has apparently been very careful to build relations of mutual trust and understanding with Haitian authors living and working in Haiti. The relationships between dyasporic authors and those who choose to live in Haiti are another site fraught with potential misunderstandings, and one senses that Danticat is constantly aware of the need for careful and sensitive interactions with her fellow authors in Haiti. Danticat’s lot as an author amounts therefore to a very complicated situation in which opportunity, talent, and success are to some extent tempered and potentially hampered by a particularly pressing set of expectations based on a degree of suspicion and the perception of her as a representative of and spokesperson for Haiti in all its complicated reality.

Given these weighty expectations—which have no doubt increased considerably following the earthquake of January 2010—how does Danticat react in this, her first major publication since that dreadful event? Remarkably, Danticat does not recoil from these ever-intensifying expectations in Create Dangerously but meets them head-on, striking a new note of assurance and suggesting a renewed sense of mission; it seems that as the earthquake has literally and metaphorically weakened the foundations of Haitian culture and being, Danticat has been strengthened, and has emerged with a new idea of her purpose as a writer and an even steelier resolve to fulfill that purpose. 

Indeed, in reading these essays, the earliest of which was originally published in 1999, one can trace a growing sense of confidence, a gradual crystallization of the issues that matter most to her and to Haiti, and an increasingly direct engagement with those issues. At the same time, she embraces the danger alluded to in her title, which in general terms inheres in a refusal to bow to dictates on the form and content of national culture. Disobeying is considered a vital function, almost an obligation of the artist; especially it seems those from Haiti. The need to disobey and the danger that resistance creates are laid bare in the opening essay, which retells the story of Marcel Numa and Louis Drouin, two Haitian exiles who were executed in 1964 by François Duvalier for engaging in armed resistance as members of the Jeune Haiti movement. Through Danticat’s careful description of the film of the executions, we get a sense of the stark images running through her own mind in a kind of loop, constantly reminding her of the sacrifices made by previous generations of Haitian patriot artist and intellectuals. Quite obviously, too, the images remind her of the dangers associated with disobeying, and specifically the risk for the Haitian artist of losing her life in pursuit of her principles. The patriot, the artist, exists it seems in a precarious situation, and to turn away from that danger is implicitly a kind of betrayal, a moral and creative death. The need to embrace this precariousness and the danger it brings appears all the more pressing for the dyaspora or “immigrant” artist, whose relative security in exile seems to lead to an even greater compulsion or obligation to disobey and defy.

One important consequence of this perilous situation is that death is never far from the artist’s consciousness. In effect, issues of mortality perhaps constitute the most important sub-theme of the book.  In the opening essay, death is the fate of the two rebels, a tool of control and manipulation for Duvalier, and perhaps even more significantly, a very real, “living” force that shapes the immigrant artist’s existence. It is death “from hunger and executions and cataclysmic devastations at home,” that takes the immigrant into exile, and that keeps her there. Also on her mind are the deaths from the “paralyzing chagrin” of exile, not to mention the “other small, daily deaths” that are complicated by her separation from the place of birth. If popular belief on death and the afterlife in Haiti make it a place where “people never really die,” Danticat implicitly raises the question on the extent to which Haitians at home and abroad can be said to really live. This question is related to that of belonging, as Danticat suggests in citing the passage from Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude that states: “A person does not belong to a place until someone is dead under the ground.” Danticat imagines that the Colonel’s wife’s reply—“If I have to die for the rest of you to stay here, then I will die”—would have been echoed by the parents, guardians, or supporters of many an immigrant artist (17).2 One senses too that she is thinking of deaths in her own family, the lonely and sometimes tragic demises in a foreign land of first-generation immigrants that, as in Márquez’s novel, seem to enable subsequent generations to remain in the place of exile.

A related concern for Danticat is the interrupted process of mourning from a distance the deaths of family members in Haiti—the difficulties of remembrance when one is physically separated from the place of death and burial. The essay “Walk Straight” explores this theme through an account of the author’s trek to see her ageing aunt Ilyana, who has spent all of her life in Beauséjour, in the hills around Léogâne, refusing to relocate from her remote abode. When Ilyana dies, Danticat is in New York, unable to get to Haiti in time for the burial, and the essay becomes her means of celebrating and mourning her aunt. Danticat draws an implicit contrast between Ilyana and herself, two poles of a spatial and generational continuum that has taken the family in less than two generations “from the valley to skyscrapers” (22). One feels that Danticat cherishes Ilyana’s uncomplicated attachment to her simple home, and the aunt’s certainty that she will be buried next to her daughter in the mausoleum that stands on the grounds of her modest home. Danticat’s underlying concern for her own ultimate destiny is shown when she announces that she would like to be buried in Beauséjour. The exile’s wistful hope of a final return to Haiti is however challenged by the pragmatic Ilyana, who states “There is already enough dust in Haiti. . . . You should be buried where you die” (31). The two contrasting perspectives on death—the exile’s romantic wish for a final return to Haiti to mark the end of the journey, the more prosaic and practical outlook of the one who has never left the land—set up a dialogue on death (and living) that is not ever fully resolved, neither in the essay nor, one imagines, in Danticat’s own mind. The question of where one should live is forever accompanied by that of where the exile should die and be buried.  In these ways, exile, or “immigration” as the author prefers here, appears as a ghostly existence, a precarious situation on the precipice between “full living” and death.

If exile is a dangerous condition, then return is also fraught with risks. For Jean Dominique, the radio commentator celebrated in Jonathan Demme’s The Agronomist, to return from exile was to revisit a situation in which the search for journalistic truth would lead to his own death. In Danticat’s view, it was Dominique’s staunch patriotism, his “exceptional passion” for Haiti that finally “betrayed” him (42). In this sense, Dominique’s death recalls those of Numa and Drouin, and perhaps also of Jacques-Stephen Alexis, whom Danticat also mentions and who was murdered in 1961 following his own attempt to return and overthrow a dictator. Interestingly, it is not quite clear whether Danticat cites these stories as cautionary examples of the dangers of artists and militants naively confronting ruthless authority, or whether she is commending them as cases that illustrate the unavoidable dangers that a life of engaged creativity brings. Perhaps she is doing both things at once. It does seem though that she stops short of committing herself to such a fate. Danticat appears to hold back from this type of commitment principally because she realizes that the relationship between Numa, Drouin, Alexis, and Dominique to Haiti is different to her own bond with her place of birth. She indicates this when she writes of how she envied the certainty with which Dominique could talk of Haiti as his place. “My country is slowly dying, melting away,” he would say. Danticat, in contrast, has a more complicated sense of belonging. “My country,” she says, “is one of uncertainty,” the “floating homeland” of the dyaspora (49). Thus she seems to hesitate before the kind of martyrdom that she nonetheless commemorates and appears to commend for those who have a more direct sense of national belonging. There may also be a gender element at play in this, since all the cases she cites involve men, and historically Haitian women seem less drawn to that kind of patriotic sacrifice, with the exception perhaps of Marie Vieux-Chauvet, who sets out a particularly engaged vision of the role of the Haitian artist in her final work, Les rapaces.

Although she clearly reveres Alexis, Roumain, Depestre, and others in the great Haitian tradition of politically engaged authors, Danticat seems more in tune with the less direct, though nonetheless potent, resistance that exists in the female literary lineage, and with the examples of figures such as Marie Vieux-Chauvet and Jan J. Dominique.  These authors, Danticat says, write “passionately, fearlessly, dangerously” (71). The interesting aspect of Danticat’s admiration for Chauvet and Dominique is that it shifts the focus subtly from the extra-literary acts of defiance and resistance onto the question of the content and form of creative works. To “create dangerously” is as much, if not more, about style and the act of writing (or painting or singing or dancing) as it is about outward, political gestures of insubordination. This seems to be the most interesting and enduring side of dangerous creation: working with style and form to challenge, subvert, and transform reality. It is also perhaps an underdeveloped element in the book, and it will be interesting to see how it manifests itself in Danticat’s future literary work.

Styling Chauvet, Dominique, and herself “daughters of memory” (59), Danticat indicates the importance of remembrance to the creative act. One of Haiti’s obsessions, she says, is “grappling with memory,” and it typically involves recalling selectively the glories of the revolution while forgetting less inspiring periods in national history (63). The result, Danticat claims, is forgetting: “We cultivate communal and historical amnesia, continually repeating cycles that we never see coming until we are reliving similar horrors” (64). Such forgetting is for Danticat “a constant fear.” The risk of amnesia is even greater for the immigrant writer, for whom memory potentially becomes “an even deeper abyss” (65). Generally, throughout these essays memory is attached to traumatizing events and to dead people who refuse to die in the artist’s imagination, remaining there before being transfigured into the creative work, which retains an ineradicable haunted quality.

These themes of memory, trauma, death, and haunting crystallize with unprecedented intensity when the artist turns to the earthquake of January 2010. How can one create—should one create—in the face of such unimaginable human devastation? Not surprisingly, words “failed” Danticat immediately after the earthquake, not just because of the difficulty of expressing the enormity of the event but also because it triggered a new exile-related sense of guilt. “You were not there,” she tells herself, “You did not live it. You have no right even to speak—for you, for them, for anyone” (159). A further, related reason for her inability to write lay in the growing realization that the earthquake had done more than destroy buildings and lives; it had ushered in a whole new era in Haitian history. There was to be no turning back from this moment, no comforting recollections of familiar places, as these memories now belonged to a previous Haiti, one that “no longer exists, the Haiti of before the earthquake” (161). Reading Dany Laferrière’s 2009 chronicle of return to Haiti, L’énigme du retour, she finds it to be already like a “historical novel,” one assigned to the Haiti of before the earthquake. Culturally and creatively, the stakes have also been radically altered, as in post-earthquake Haiti the practices of reading and writing “will never be the same.” Everything has changed, including artists like herself, who find that their muse has been “irreparably altered” (162).

Just as there is a Haiti of before and after 12 January 2010, so we imagine the Edwidge Danticat of before that date is different to the author and person that exist now.  Danticat’s previous writings (and those of her contemporaries) already belong to the pre-earthquake time, which seems like a distant period, now hopelessly out of reach. Creative works produced in the last ten years now appear something like the epilogues to more than two hundred years of history, and the earthquake itself has to some extent created a kind of void, a tabula rasa upon which a new history will be written, though for now it is still difficult to know just how that history will unfold. In the past many Haitian authors have written of the circular, repetitive nature of Haitian history, but maybe this event has finally broken that circle and new patterns of historical and social development will emerge, however discouraging the first year following the disaster has been in that respect. In Lyonel Trouillot’s 2009 novel Yanvalou pour Charlie there is a line that now reads like a prophecy: the young militant Yanick is said to believe that “pour construire, il faut détruire,” to construct, one must destroy.3 Time and history will tell if meaningful and sustainable construction will result from so much destruction in Haiti. Reading these essays, one senses that Haitian artists will have crucial roles to play in building the nation anew, and that Edwidge Danticat in particular will be a major force in agitating for and helping create that new reality. The final impression one has with this book is of its author altered, newly determined, confident and emboldened, and on the threshold of something new, a potentially thrilling and creatively dangerous period in an already remarkable career.         

 

Martin Munro is professor of French and francophone studies at Florida State University. His recent publications include Different Drummers: Rhythm and Race in the Americas (2010), Edwidge Danticat: A Reader's Guide (2010), and Haiti Rising: Haitian History, Culture, and the Earthquake of 2010 (2010).

 


1 Edwidge Danticat, Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010), 33; hereafter cited in text.

2 Danticat quotes Gabriel Garcia Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (New York: Harper, 1998), 13.

3 Lyonel Trouillot, Yanvalou pour Charlie (Arles: Actes Sud, 2009), 120.

 

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