Edwidge Danticat

MacArthur Fellow and Big Read author
Edwinge Danticat headshot

Photo by Jonathan Demme

Edwidge Danticat Transcript

Music Credit: "Some Are More Equal," an improvisation performed by Paul Rucker and Hans Teuber from the cd, Oil.

Edwidge Danticat:  I hope that by sharing my story I can make it easier for people to understand the things that brought my family here and that brings a lot of other families here or the things that many people wish for their loved ones, for their children, a better future and that's what we came here for and we worked very hard for it like a lot of immigrant families, worked very hard for the opportunities that they have had.

Jo Reed: That was author Edwidge Danticat talking about her book—and this year’s Big Read selection, Brother, I’m Dying and this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced by the National Endowment for the Arts. I'm Josephine Reed.

Edwidge Danticat is a powerful and celebrated voice in contemporary fiction. She has written ten books and has received numerous awards and honors, including a MacArthur Fellowship, and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Edwidge grew up in Haiti, where she was raised by her uncle. When she was 12, she moved to the United States where she joined her parents and siblings whom she hardly knew. Her memoir, Brother, I’m Dying explores the consequences of the decisions made by her uncle in Haiti and her father in the United States, and Edwidge’s deep love for both men. Brother, I’m Dying is also a story of Haitian politics, the challenge of making a home in a new country, and a bureaucratic U.S. immigration system that ensnared her uncle with tragic results.  Here’s Edwidge Danticat:

Edwidge Danticat: I was born in Haiti in 1969 during the Duvalier dictatorship, a family dictatorship that would last 30 years. And I grew up in Port au Prince, spent the first 12 years of my life there. My mother and father left Haiti before I did, my father, when I was two, my mother when I was four, and I grew up with my uncle Joseph and his wife Tante Denise in a neighborhood in Haiti called Bel Air. Back then, a very lower middle class neighborhood but one that had grown increasingly poor over the years. My uncle Joseph got cancer in the throat when I was young and came to the United States for treatment and then moved back to Haiti and started speaking and preaching with a voice box. When I was 12, my parents were finally able to send for me. I hadn’t been able to join them sooner because they had moved to the United States as tourists and had overstayed tourist visa. So they were undocumented. Once their status was changed, they were able to send for my brother, Bob and me. And I moved to the U.S. to Brooklyn, where they were living.

Jo Reed: That must’ve been quite a rupture.

Edwidge Danticat: It was quite difficult because I feel as though I had made a place for myself, an attachment for myself, with my uncle, especially he would take me with him to banks to-- I mean, to the countryside, to a lot of places where people might not understand him after he had the surgery on his throat. So I became a kind of interpreter for my uncle who I loved very, very much. It was very difficult to leave him and there was a great deal of uncertainty about what my life would be like in the States because I had not really lived with my parents before that I could remember. I was very young when they left and my brothers-- I had two brothers who were born in the United States-- who did not, I realize, even know about my brother Bob and me until we got to New York. They came to Haiti when they were very, very little but they didn’t remember us and I don’t think my parents discussed us very much with them. So it was a shock for everyone.
Jo Reed:  Tell me about your uncle, Joseph and your life with him in Haiti.

Edwidge Danticat: My uncle was a minister. He had a church in Bel Air. He also had a personal clinic, and a school. He was a very prominent person in the neighborhood, a very beloved person, kind of a father figure to the congregation but also to different people in the neighborhood. I grew up, my brother and I-- in this house where there was a little group of us, of children with parents abroad, who had been entrusted in the care of my uncle and his wife in this beautiful pink house in Bel Air. There were no strangers in that house. They were family. Everyone was related in some way but, most of the children in the house had parents who were working elsewhere, whether it was like my parents in the United States or, I had one cousin whose father was in the Dominican Republic and others who were in Canada.

Jo Reed: You were 12, when your parents sent for you and your brother. What time of year was it?

Edwidge Danticat: It was March when my brother and I first arrived in New York. It was still cold, cold to us. It felt cold to us. It was March 21 around 1981. I remember because it was the day before one of my brothers’ birthdays and we got to the airport and I just remember being just awestruck by the vastness of the city. And an odd thought to me was-- I was like, “Oh, there’s so many lights on and they never turn off.” I was really dazzled by the lights of Brooklyn, which I thought was just this incredible country. I thought, “Brooklyn is a great country.” It was so vast.

Jo Reed: Did you have English as a language?

Edwidge Danticat: I spoke no English. I knew “Good morning. How are you,” and just a few phrases.

Jo Reed: Did you have to start school right away or could you wait until September? What happened?

Edwidge Danticat: We started school right away. We went to school the following Monday after our arrival because he wanted us to start on a Monday.

Jo Reed: How long did it take you to know what was going on in your classroom?

Edwidge Danticat: I started in the ESL class, in an English as a second language class. And my teacher, Mr. Lemond Ducek was an exile from Haiti. He had escaped the dictatorship. So it was an easier transition than it might’ve otherwise been because Mr. Ducek taught us every subject in Creole. And then he taught us life skills, sort of what you do if the kids start teasing you and things of that nature. But it was a very difficult year for Haitian kids at that school. It was the year that people started talking about AIDS and there was the list, the high-risk groups, the four H(s) and-- homosexuals, hemophiliacs, heroin addicts, and Haitians. And we were the only people on that list identified by nationality. And every night you would watch the news, there would be sort of two headlining things that referred to us. There was this AIDS announcements, and they would always go over the list, and then there were these images of people arriving by boat in Florida and a lot of pictures of bloated bodies on the beaches. So at school kids would call us boat people, AIDS people, and I remember there was a school trip, that we were not even allowed to go to, to the Statue of Liberty. Our class wasn’t allowed to go, because the other kids were beating up the Haitian kids so much and they thought they would have a kind of beat down on the bus. So our class didn’t go. So there were things like that that were beyond having to adjust with the family, getting to know my brothers, my parents again. There were things like that to adjust to at school.

Jo Reed: And what about reading. When were you-- were you reading in French?

Edwidge Danticat: After the year was over, when I started school again, they started to transition me through sort of mainstreaming. So I would have half classes with Mr. Ducek and then start to have some classes with other kids. So I started having an English class with an English teacher where English was spoken throughout the whole class so, slowly, gradually I transitioned. I got to transition before I went through high school at Clara Barton High School.

Jo Reed: Your father, what was your father doing for a living?

Edwidge Danticat: My father, when he was alone in New York, before my mother joined, he had two jobs. He used to work in a factory where they made handbags and things like that and then had a second job where he worked in a carwash. And he always said that he had one job for-- to sustain his life in New York and one job, another job, to send money to Haiti. When my mother came, they both started working in the same factory. And then my father often told the stories that the day we were coming, my brother and me, he had to pick us up at the airport and he asked his boss if he could leave early and the boss said no. And, of course, he had to get us so he quit and then, from that day on, decided he wouldn’t work for anybody else. And so he started driving a cab, what they then called a gypsy cab, where people basically had a private car that they put a partition in and rode as a cab. So, from that day that we came to the day he became sick and could no longer work again, he was driving a gypsy cab.

Jo Reed: You open your book Brother, I’m Dying, with your father’s illness. It was quite a monumental day for you. Tell us what happened.

Edwidge Danticat: Well, I open the book with the day that I find out that I am pregnant with my daughter and the day that I also find out that my father is dying.  I had gotten married and moved to Miami, Florida and he was looking more and more frail with each visit. He had a terrible cough that, over the years, we had called a smoker’s cough but that just got more and more aggravating to him, and he had been seeing many different doctors, had many tests done. And that day I flew from Miami to New York to see a lung specialist and the lung specialist waited until my father was out of the room and told me that he had pulmonary fibrosis and that he was in a very late stage of it and that there was no hope for him. And so I got that news and then I hadn’t been feeling quite well and I had cramps and then I had a test done and sure enough I found out both things on the same day.

Jo Reed: You know, one thing I found among the many things I found so moving about your book was the great love your father and your uncle had for one another, despite fate keeping them apart for most of their lives.

Edwidge Danticat: My uncle and father’s relationship was extraordinarily moving for me to witness as well, when I got an opportunity to see it, because they were both not very sentimental or emotional men. They were not those kinds of people. My uncle was a little bit more relaxed and laidback. I think having to be in a pulpit and having to be engaging made him more of a people person than my father. My father was a very sweet man and maybe it was also my age. I didn’t see him and my mother hug, for example. It was sort of an event if they kissed each other publicly at they’re 25th anniversary. So it was really sweet to see how brotherly he and my uncle were to each other in the quiet moments when my father was sick and my uncle would sit with him or would pray with him. I thought it was very sweet because they had spent really 30 years living apart and only seeing each other occasionally. So it was very sweet to see to see their interaction. So the subtle gestures and really how… I’m jumping ahead. When my uncle was in immigration custody, he was so concerned with my father finding out and being so worried that it would kill him because my father was very sick at that point and they were so worried about each other.

Jo Reed: Your uncle resisted leaving Haiti, even though many people in his family, including your father, encouraged him to go. Why was he urged to go? What was happening?

Edwidge Danticat: Well, my uncle always said that not everybody can leave the country. He said, “There has to be someone to receive you all when you come back.”  And he had his church. He had his school. He and the clinic. Haiti was his passion and he had overcome so many obstacles to continue. He had lost his voice and was using a voice box. So he never imagined that he would ever leave Haiti. He really was prepared to stay forever and be buried, when he died, next to his wife in Port au Prince.

Jo Reed: What happened to drive your uncle out of Haiti?

Edwidge Danticat: 2004, the bicentennial of Haitian independence. And that September was also the anniversary of a coup against the first democratically elected president of Haiti, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Bel Air had become very politically active at that point. People there were very attached to President Aristide. And there were some demonstrations and the U.N. force that was, and is still, in Haiti at that time came into the neighborhood and they climbed on top of my uncle’s church and started shooting at some people in the neighborhood, at demonstrators. And people thought that my uncle had a choice in this but it’s as if an army is running through your garden in you try to say “stop.” I mean, he could not stop them. And the U.N. force had killed a couple of people and they thought that my uncle had called them and had caused all that. And people in the neighborhood that he had known for a very long time, many of them, especially some young men in the neighborhood, turned on him and they tried to storm the house and somehow a neighbor hid him, but in the meantime the house was ransacked.  The church and everything was taken and he could not return to the house.

Jo Reed: How did your uncle get to the United States and what happened when he got here?

Edwidge Danticat: My uncle had a trip plan to come to the United States previously and just a few days after that happened and so he decided to proceed with the trip and to come to Florida.  He had been coming to the U.S. for more than 30 years and when he got to immigration and customs, he was asked how long he would be staying and knowing that everything he had or ever had was now destroyed, he said he might be staying longer than the 30 days that the Visa required and asked if he could temporarily have asylum not understanding the full implications and so he was taken into custody by the immigration and customs enforcement.  He was brought to a place in Florida called Krome. He was detained and as part of his processing his medication was taken away and he died a few days later in the prison ward of the local hospital chained to his bed.

Jo Reed: Meanwhile, you're hearing about this on the phone.  You're expecting your uncle in Miami airport?

Edwidge Danticat: I get a phone call this Saturday that he arrives.  I was expecting my uncle to come in the afternoon and I always go by and I call the people in Haiti and they assure me that he actually got on the plane.  They knew that he got on the plane and the plane when we checked seemed to have arrived and we wait, we wait, nothing happens and then around late in the evening we get a call from the immigration people at the airport saying that they have him in custody and he would be sent to Chrome and my uncle in New York also, my uncle also got a similar call and we were very shocked because my uncle was 81 years old and spoke with a voice box, was a minister and so forth.  So I thought there would be some mercy for him, but he was detained.

Jo Reed: Your father, of course, is sick.  You're pregnant.  That whole triangulation it's just so tragic.  I mean, that's the only word for it.  It's so tragic.

Edwidge Danticat: It was-- when one is living a situation like that all you try to do is just you try to go from the moment to the moment.  So immediately I started making phone calls and tried to get a lawyer, but it was the weekend and the lawyer couldn't get there until Monday and my uncle called me whenever he had an opportunity from inside the jail and we spoke a little bit. My uncle son, my cousin Maxwell, was traveling with my uncle and was also detained and we spoke a couple of times during that period over the weekend before the lawyer could reach my uncle and he was reassuring me.  He was asking about my dad and it was incredible.  I was so terrified for him.  I was so worried about him, but he was very calm and he was very reassuring and I imagined him probably something he was trying to frame a type of sermon around that he would one day give.

Jo Reed: And it turns out that after he died he could remain in the United States.

Edwidge Danticat: Yes, my uncle is now buried in Queens, New York, which would have shocked him because he had everything planned for his own burial, but the irony is that he ends up being buried next to my father and they spent all these many years apart and now they're both buried together in Queens, New York, something that neither one of them could've possibly imagined.

Jo Reed: Your father lived long enough to see the birth of your child.

Edwidge Danticat: My father, I think, waited for my daughter Mira to be born. The whole time he was sick, he would say, "I want to see the first born of my first born," and I really think he kept himself going to see that moment.  I have a very sweet picture of my dad, very skeletal with an oxygen mask holding my daughter Mira who is named after him, and he said, "the two Miras" and he died a couple of weeks after Mira was born. And we spent some of those weeks with him in New York, Mira and me and him and then finally we had to go back to Florida and 48 hours after I left with Mira my father died.  

Jo Reed: When did you begin writing?

Edwidge Danticat: I started writing when I was about nine. The first book I ever got when I was a kid was from my uncle was the Madeline, the first one in the house in Paris that was covered with vines.  It was in French, of course, and I wanted to write one.  For a long time, I want to write one of those books because I really felt like our house was like that house. I had the great sense of identification with that book and I didn't know how one goes about being a writer.  I loved stories, the stories I was told.  I loved the stories that I eventually ended up reading and I didn't know how one would write one, but I knew, I said, "I want to do what that book does for me, what the Madeline book does for me.” I didn't know how to put into words, but I knew from very, very early in my life that I wanted to tell stories in some way.

Jo Reed: Tell me about the writing of your first book, Breath, Eyes, Memory.

Edwidge Danticat: Well, Breath, Eyes, Memory started with another kind of writing that I started doing in high school.  I joined a newspaper called, New Youth Connections in New York City that was written by, and it's still published and distributed through high schools and is written by high school students.  When I started writing for them, I got a little bit more authentic in my writing.  So I started writing about Haitian Christmas rituals, things that our family did at Christmas time. And then started writing about that, wrote about things that were happening in my school and then for my final piece for them they asked me to write about my first day in the United States and I had to go back.  There are things that I remember. The lights, of course.  When I was looking back I thought, the most impressive thing to me that day in retrospect was the escalator.  This was like this moving carpet.  So I wrote about my first day.  I wrote about that and other things that I experienced that day and then when I was done I thought, oh, there's something else here and I continued, but I didn't want to write it in my name.  So I created a character who was 12 whose name was Sophie and I started writing about her time in the countryside with her grandmother and then her mother sends for her and so my first book, Breath, Eyes, Memory started that way.  I started writing about Sophie and wrote about her all through high school, all through college and graduate school until the book was published when I was 25.

Jo Reed: In both your fiction and your nonfiction you really keep Haiti in the conversation. It really is at the center in a lot of ways about your writing. Its tragedies and its beauties as well and I wonder what a fictional story might give a reader that a nonfiction essay might not.
Edwidge Danticat: Well a fictional story makes the reader intimately connected with the characters in the story.  Nonfiction can also do that and I always try to balance both and I was very glad that I had written some fiction before I wrote my memoir because there are many techniques in fiction that you can use in memoir in terms of pacing.  In the first drafts of Brother, I'm Dying I thought I had to put everything that happened in because it happened and then going back to my muscle memory of writing fiction I realized you still have to tell an engaging story.  You still have to have pacing.  You have characters except they're real people and plot except that it actually happened.  So I think there are places where they meet and Brother, I'm Dying, I wanted to have the reader be both become part of my family and also be a distant observer.  In order to write this book, I had to go through a lot of official documents and wanted to present them as I would to a family member asking for what do you think of this.  What would you do if this happened to someone in your family? So there is in nonfiction also that opportunity to draw people close, but you have a limitation that you don't have in fiction and that you're working with events that have already occurred.  You don't have the freedom of just going wild with your imagination and adding and stuff, but in nonfiction, you're working a lot with the structure, how to tell the story once you've chosen what story to tell.

Jo Reed: Why did you choose to tell that story Brother, I’m Dying?

Edwidge Danticat: I had no choice but to tell that story.  I remember the exact moment I decided that I would write this book.  After my uncle died, we went to the nearest immigration office to get his briefcase and we were still trying to figure out how to clean the body from the hospital where he was in and things like that, but the briefcase had his documents and his passport and such things.  We were, at that point, not sure whether we were going to send the body back to Haiti or what we were going to do.  So we're given my uncle's briefcase and in the briefcase is a transcript of his initial immigration interview.  It was such a cold exchange and there was a picture of my uncle looking like the proverbial deer in headlights.  He looked really like he didn't know what was going on.  He was scared and I read the transcript of that interview, part of which is in the book and I thought, I have to write this story.  It's Kafkaesque.  It's surreal and it's my opportunity to bring light to this situation because over the years too I've met so many families that have been in this similar situation.  I ended up testifying before Congress and going on 60 Minutes and doing all these other things and that allow you to meet other people in the same situation and there were a lot of us and so I also thought I wanted the book to be artful.  I didn't want it to be a rant.  I didn't want it to be weepy.  I wanted it to be artful.  I wanted it to have some element of objectivity, which is why I used a lot of documents in it and I wanted it to be a way of remembering my father and my uncle and what they meant to me and this moment that they left me at the same time that my daughter came into my life.

Jo Reed: As you know, Brother, I’m Dying was chosen for the Big Read. What do you hope readers take away from this book I general and also about Haiti in particular?

Edwidge Danticat:  Well I hope my book becomes one of many that presents a face of immigration that people should find familiar because ultimately we are a like everybody else.  Our parents were dreamers.  They were pioneers.  They were these people who decided, hey, I want a better life.  I'm going to travel to a different country.  I'm going to work really hard.  I'm going to try to do the best for my children. So I hope the book gives a face to that to at least one immigrant family, an immigrant family that functions the way a lot of immigrant families function these days in that we are very committed to the country where we are, in this case the United States, but also have very strong ties back home.  I hope it offers also a glimpse into a problematic immigration system.  One that as we have seen over the past year or so with all these children who are coming, any of these kids could have been me or my brother.  People who are afraid for their families who feel desperate do desperate things.  So I hope the book will allow people to have a context to those stories and also chime in into this immigration debate that we're constantly having because the best way I think for people to understand one another is by sharing their stories. I'm hoping that people will get a glimpse of Haiti that is singularly mine, I supposed.  I don't want to generalize about Haiti, but I hope the book will also offer some insight into the challenges that many families face not just in Haiti but also when they come here.  

Jo Reed: Edwidge thank you so much.  I really appreciate it.

Edwidge Danticat: Thank you.

Jo Reed: It's a wonderful book and it was wonderful talking to you.

Edwidge Danticat: Likewise, thank you.

Jo Reed: That was Edwidge Danticat talking about her memoir, Brother, I’m DyingBrother, I’m Dying is the newest selection of The Big Read and the program’s first non-fiction selection. You can find out more about it at neabigread.org.

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For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

We explore the writing of her powerful memoir, Brother, I’m Dying.