„Death is connected to the art of writing in that what we do between being born and dying is our story.”
Interview with the Haitian born American writer Edwidge Danticat, winner of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature (2017)
-I want to express my whole gratitude that you accepted this dialogue, in my opinion you are a classic of contemporary literature, the first Haitian born American writer ‘’married to narrative” who won the prestigious Neustadt International Prize for Literature, the so called American Nobel. When someone speaks about Haiti, the first issues which come in my mind are Edwidge Danticat’s cutting edge books and the Vodou religion, with its priests (bòkòs) and rituals and the strange stories about zombies (humans without an inner life, a kind of human robots), related to some practices of black magic. I know that zombie became a philosophical theme in the last decades, there are thinkers who speak about zombie-universes and p-zombies (philosophical zombies). Did you ever met in Haiti a zombie bab pou bab (face to face, in Creole language)?
– It’s interesting that you start off with this question. Often young journalists who go to Haiti for the first time go looking for zombies, which is part of the stereotypes you, I think, are saying we might want to avoid. As you may know the idea of zombies is connected to enslavement, where people whose bodies are worked beyond their ability to continue have their will taken away and exist in a state where all they can do is work. Zombies were also in the memoirs written by US Marines from the time of the US occupation that linked Haiti specifically to the zombie of horror movies, which many people are familiar with today. Haitian novelist Rene Depestre in his novel “Hadriana dans tous mes reves” talks about how not just one person, but a whole town can be in some way zombified. That might be the philosophical version of zombification. But to answer your question, no I have not ever met a zombie bab to bab, unless the zombie was very well disguised and I missed that it was a zombie.
-You come from a small and poor country, with a traumatic history in the last century and I can imagine that you survived as a nation through a vivid and strong spirituality and a special relationship with death, the central theme of your writings. I’m so impressed by the destiny of your country, that sometimes I think death is Haiti’s stepmother…What about your impressive relationship with death, why did you write that death is the final conclusion of every story? Is the art of death, in your opinion, so connected to the art of writing?
– I think we are living a moment right now where you can’t turn on the news and not see death being talked about, due to the Coronavirus, so death is the stepmother of all humanity and has always been. My mother used to say that we’re all walking around with our coffins under our arms every day, that is in the midst of life, we are in death. People who live in vulnerable places know that intimately because they have watched people die in ways and for reasons that are so incomprehensible that they must be assigned some magical cause. Now even more of us can understand that feeling of the fragility of life and our proximity to death. I have always been intrigued by these issues. I wrote my book The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story, which you are quoting from, in order to better understand them. One of the writers I quote, Margaret Atwood, has said that all stories end in death and she is right. There are two certainties in life, we are born and we die. Death is connected to the art of writing in that what we do between being born and dying is our story.
-I suppose that a major writer cannot appear from an empty spiritual space, do you have a tradition of women’s writing in Haiti?
– Do we ever? We have extraordinary women writers in Haiti, starting with a writer named Ida Faubert to the contemporary Haitian writers of today including Yanick Lahens, Ketly Mars, and Evelyne Trouillot, among so many others. Among my all time favorite women writers who I read when I was very young are Marie Vieux Chauvet and JJ Dominique. I wrote about both of them in more detail my essay collection, Create Dangerously.
-In the history of humanity we may count a lot of injustices against women, do you think that in our times these problems have been solved or the struggle between men and women continues? What is the situation in Haiti, the world’s first black republic (in 1804), compared to the facts from your stepmother’s country, USA?
– I think women from many places around the world face similar issues in terms of misogyny and sexism, and gendered violence, in small or large numbers. The difference is how much the society tolerates it and what avenues are offered to women to seek justice and thus deter reoccurrence. Sexual violence, assaults and rapes, for example are very common in both countries, but perhaps someone who commits those crimes in the US is more likely to face charges because there is, though it might be imperfect, a justice system that though not applied equally to everyone, might still be open to hearing a case, even though there are back up of rape kits and all these other injustices here in the US. But in a country with a more fragile justice system, it’s harder for women to confront their abusers if they know they’re not going to get justice in some way.
-You came in USA at the age of 12, with only some English words in your vocabulary. How was the transition from French and Creole language to English, how did you become at the age of 25, when you published your first novel, ‘’Breath, Eyes, Memory”, a true prose stylist of the new American literature?
– I don’t know it I’ll ever be a true prose stylist of American literature. I do the best to write the best stories I can in my own voice, which I hope is a merging of all the living and reading I’ve done in my life. So my voice is a merging of every voice I’ve ever encountered, in person and on the page.
-Most of your characters are women and you focus especially on the relationship between mother and daughter, like in my favorite novels, ‘’Breath, Eyes and Memoir” (1994) and ‘’The Farming of Bones” (1998). You write compelling words about your mother in the book of memoir and history of ideas, ‘’The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story” (2017), a thought provoking one, powerful and even lyrical, a book with many references from your favorite writers about the ways we think and write and feel on the subject of death. Do you consider that she was among the catalysts of your inspiration and writings?
– My writing starts and ends with my mother, even though she was not present in my childhood, having left Haiti to work in the US. I used to imagine my mother inventing stories to tell me, so later I imagined that all the stories I told were for her. This is why I wanted to make The Art of Death book part memoir and part literary criticism, to tie in all the books I have read with all the stories I wanted to tell my mother and the stories I wish she’d been able to tell me.
– “Writing is sometimes a bit like being an actor”, you asserted. Do you intend to remain an actor in love with the tragedy and you’ll continue to explore the close and complex links between birth and death, love and death or solitude and death?
– When I said that writing was like acting, I was thinking of how we have to immerse ourselves into a character to write that character honestly and fully. In order to write about the people, I write about, I have to almost become them. I have to live inside them, in their skin, and I have to learn as much about them as I can so I can convey that to the reader. As long as I am writing this is something I will continue to do.
-How your life has changed after you have won the prestigious Neustadt prize?
– It was certainly a great honor to win the prize. At the heart of any prize is the thought that “Some people who are really smart and read a lot of books, thought that my work was okay and were kind enough to offer me a reward that they didn’t have to.” How can that not be wonderful?
Constantin Severin & Edwidge Danticat, April, 2020
Bio Edwidge Danticat: