Edwidge Danticat Interview

Edwidge Danticat

Interview by Alexander Laurence

Edwidge Danticat (author of Eyes, Breathe, Memory, Krik Krak, and The Farming of Bones) lived in Brooklyn, New York. I interviewed her in 1996 on the lawn in Bryant Park. This interview has never been seen or published.

AL: Maybe we should talk about Haiti. Are you still in contact with people there?
Edwidge: I still have a lot of family there. I still keep in touch with friends and family there. I keep in contact with Haiti. Last December there was an election. At the end of February there was an inauguration of a new president, Rene Prevtal. It was the first time in Haitian history that a president had been elected democratically, where one president turned power over to another. It was a big deal. So the new president is trying to move things forward. Rene Prevtal's biggest obstacle is that the country is bankrupt because of all the stuff that happened before, since 1986. Our problem is that we are very dependent on outside aid. The monetary fund want the president to privatize.
AL: The relationship between Haiti and the United States has been good?
Edwidge: It's been okay. But there are always those moments when it turns a little bit. The last thing that Clinton did was establish relations with Cuba. That didn't go over so well with Haiti.
AL: What sort of politics are there in Haiti?
Edwidge: They have had elections since the dictatorship ended in 1986. The military has stepped in a few times. My Uncle who lives there is a minister.
AL: How did you get involved in writing?
Edwidge: I think it started from reading so much. My Uncle worked in a school and he gave me books. I started reading when I was very young. From reading I developed a love for writing. It is wasn't because there was a writer in my family.
AL: Does you family think that it's odd that you wanted to be a writer?
Edwidge: There's some much involved with immigration. So much is sacrificed in my parents coming here. They leave their lives behind. They expect you to do something stable and grounded. My parents wanted me to be a doctor. They got over it. But I was also the oldest. I was supposed to set a path for the others. I have three younger brothers. My brother Andre is a teacher. Another one is a musician. None of them want to be writers.
AL: Wouldn't you like to write things in French or Creole?
Edwidge: I don't think it's odd. I came here when I was twelve. I adapted. I spoke Creole at home and French at school. I liked to write in English. When I first started writing, I wasn't thinking about publishing it. I was working and writing. It just happened. It wasn't very calculated. Writing in any language is difficult. Only about twenty percent of people in Haiti speak French everyday of their life. I've written some stuff in Creole for the radio because radio is a strong medium in Haiti. I go back there whenever I can.
AL: Is there a publishing or writing scene in Haiti?
Edwidge: There's a lot of writers. The obstacle there is that you have to pay for it yourself. So if you are poor you can't really published. There are musicians and performers.
AL: The Haitian immigration has been going on for how long?
Edwidge: There were a lot first in Savannah, Georgia. Then in the 1920s and 1930s, there were a lot of immigrants concentrated in Harlem. Not just from Haiti but all over the Caribbean. Then the biggest immigration from Haiti was in the 1960s when Papa Doc was in power. He drove a bunch of people out when he was dictator. Especially people who were professional. Some went to Africa, some came to France, but most came to the United States.
AL: Was the Castro revolution in 1957 affect anything there?
Edwidge: Papa Doc was already in power at that time. When Castro came in, it gave Papa Doc a scare. That might have given people an idea for revolution. Instead people started leaving in droves up until the 1980s. Poorer people left in the 1970s, when my parents left, then you had boat people in the 1980s. Then you had the military, and economical and political pressures. My dad left in 1971 and my mother in 1975.
AL: How did they leave?
Edwidge: My father came out the normal way with a visa and stuff. He sent for my mother. My brother and I couldn't come till eight years later. I was talking to my brother about this last night. He was remembering things. I was poor but I didn't remember being poor. I just remember kid stuff and going to the countryside in the summer when it was really beautiful. We used to have kite wars. When it rained you would go outside.
AL: When did you start writing the books?
Edwidge: I came here in 1981. I went to high school in Crown Heights. I worked for a newspaper that was sent out to New York City public high schools. I wrote an essay about my experiences coming here. After that I started writing stories. I was writing all the time since I was sixteen. When I went to college I started taking some writing classes. I started showing it to people at Barnard. I had about seventy pages of it then. I put it away for a year. Then I finished it at graduate school.
AL: Were there any writers that you were influenced by?
Edwidge: You always look up to writers but you don't think that you can do the same thing. Writers are always like tired old baggage. I remember reading Jacques Roumain early on. He was the first person to write about the peasant life. It was the first time I had seen Haitian imagery. He had written the book in the 1930s. Most of the Haitian writers modeled themselves on French Writers. Victor Hugo was big back then. We were stuck in a Romantic style for a while. I think that Roumain was one of the first writers to look what was going on in Africa and his own environment, rather than relying on abstract models of the Symbolists. There was a whole moment happening at the same time of the Harlem Renaissance. That was the first time I read about people I knew. That made a strong impression on me.
AL: Granta picked you as one the best writers under forty. How do you feel about that?
Edwidge: It's always nice to be chosen. I didn't campaign for it. I'm not sure how it happened. It's fair to protest. For the people who were chosen: we had nothing to do with it. For me the most important thing is the writing and the process and the enjoyment. I know that the Granta thing was controversial. This passes and people forget it. You go on by yourself and write.
AL: What are some of your other influences?
Edwidge: I like to walk and think things out. That is really inspiring. Also the movies. You really think about the economy about storytelling. Nothing is wasted. Even in the worst movie everything has a purpose. I prefer silence when writing. That was hard to come by when growing up with three boys. You can tune out.