Art Works Blog

Art Talk with Author Edwidge Danticat

On Tuesday, we announced a new addition to our Big Read library: Brother, I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat. This memoir—our first nonfiction Big Read title—tells the story of Danticat’s family, and their long and winding journey from Haiti to the United States.

Although Brother, I’m Dying explicitly tells of the author’s life, Danticat’s story unfolds in bits and pieces through her award-winning fiction as well. Among her works include Krik? Krak!, The Farming of Bones, The Dew Breaker, and most recently, Claire of the Sea Light. Recently, the 2009 MacArthur Fellow took time to answer a few of our questions via e-mail. The interview is in full below.

NEA: Can you describe your creative process?

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: My creative process varies from day to day. I don’t really have a set process. I just try to sit down and do a little bit of  work each day. Or at least most days. Some days I’m very excited to sit down and write because I have a new idea I want to explore. Other days, I’m just trying to get something that was working before, and is now stuck, off the ground. There are times though when the work is going really well and that’s absolute bliss. Those are the best days. When my actual life feels less real than the lives of the people I’m writing about.

NEA: Is this process different when writing fiction versus nonfiction?

DANTICAT: It’s pretty much the same, though it’s less torturous when I’m writing nonfiction. With nonfiction, the material already exists. You’re recounting something that’s already happened. So with nonfiction, the principal task for me is finding a really good way of organizing my material, finding a good flow and structure, and an engaging way to tell a story that many other people can also tell. With fiction, it’s all coming out my head. I always worry with fiction that the story is going to slip away from me, that I’m going to lose a very important strand of it or lose the entire book. I worry that I’m going to wake up in the morning on page 340 of a novel and something would have happened in the world, in my life, or even in the book itself, that renders everything I’ve written so far totally unusable. So with fiction I’m always on edge about losing the book, but less so with nonfiction.

NEA: You began writing at a very early age. What first drew you to this art form?

DANTICAT: I have always loved stories, both “true” and made-up stories. I grew up with amazing oral storytellers who could effortlessly regale you with the details of the car crash they’d just witnessed before moving on to tales of the werewolves they’d heard flying over the city the night before. I was too shy to tell my stories out loud, so I wrote them down instead.

NEA: How do you think writing has helped you process your own identity and experiences?

DANTICAT: Writing is an integral part of who I am as a human being. It’s how I process everything. Everything that happens to me feels a lot more real, more permanent, after I write about it. I never have all the answers when I begin writing something. And I don’t always have all the answers when I’m done, but I get a little bit closer to having a deeper understanding of myself.

NEA: I’ve read that your characters speak to you in Creole. What is that translation process like?

DANTICAT: Some of them speak to me in Creole. Others speak to me in French and in English. The translation process is almost seamless in my mind. It’s like a spontaneous kind of translation that I don’t even realize is happening. I have the same feeling sometimes at dinner with my family or when I’m out with multilingual friends. I realize that as long as I understand them, I’m not fully aware of what language they’re speaking.

NEA: You’ve written that all immigrants are artists of survival, but that the creative path is often discouraged for the children of immigrants. Can you talk about this dichotomy?

DANTICAT: I was inspired by a quote from a novel by Patricia Engel called It’s Not Love, It’s Just Paris, in, which a character says, that all of one’s life is a work of art. I think this is a true for a lot of people but especially for people who have to start over in a new place and recreate their entire lives in a different context. This requires a great deal of creativity especially if you’re starting out with  very little. After reading this, I realized that in many ways my mother, who was a factory worker,  was also an artist. Before I turned 18, she used to make all of her clothes and mine too. She would copy the styles we saw in the magazines and in the stores and would add her own flourishes and make beautiful things for us because we couldn’t afford the other stuff. Maybe in another context, she might have been a great designer or dressmaker. But she applied  her creativity to our survival. At the same time, even people who are forced into that kind of creativity might not want it for their children. They would want them, as my parents did, to have safe and secure jobs, like being doctors, etc. They already sacrificed so much. They want a much surer thing for their children.

NEA: Among other things, you’ve written about the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the immigrant experience, and in Brother, I’m Dying, specifically, detention and political asylum. What do you see as the relationship between literature—or art in general—and social and political issues?

DANTICAT: Art does not exist in a vacuum. There is always a societal context to it and sometimes that context affects the writer personally or moves his or her conscience. Sometimes it doesn’t. But the context is always there so that even the writer’s silence on it might be notable. I have always loved this Toni Morrison quote—I hope they were not misquoting her—where she says, “All of that art-for-art’s-sake stuff is BS. …Are you really telling me that Shakespeare and Aeschylus weren’t writing about kings? All good art is political!"

NEA: We need literature because….? (Fill in the blank)

DANTICAT: We need literature because we wouldn’t fully know ourselves without it. Whether it is oral or written, we need good literature to be fully human.

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