"Haiti Really Haunts and Fascinates Me"

Edwidge Danticat comes to the Free Library this week to promote her new book and field the inevitable questions about her Caribbean homeland.

By Sara Kelly
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Mar. 24, 2004

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Just 12 when she moved with her family from Haiti to Brooklyn, Edwidge Danticat, now 35, can't seem to shake the island's ghosts. She comes to town this week to read from her new book, The Dew Breaker, the fictional tale of an enforcer for Haiti's infamous Duvalier regime forced into a new American life.

Recent events have made Danticat, who now lives in Miami, a poignant voice of Haiti in America. Having written several books and short stories inspired by her formative years living under the Duvalier dictatorship, Danticat seems uniquely qualified to speak about Haiti's current political situation. But, she tells PW, understanding requires more than just a sound bite. That's why she writes stories.

Your book about political strife in Haiti is landing at the same time the government there is collapsing. What do you make of the timing?

"When I finished the book, I was worried about it coming out this year because I didn't want it to taint the celebration of the bicentennial of Haitian independence. I thought, 'Oh my God, this book, with its dark self, is just gonna change all that.' So I never imagined all this would happen."

Did you see the current situation coming?

"When I was there in mid-January, things were just starting to brew, and you kind of saw things coming to a head. But I never imagined we were going to have this other aspect of it. Armed people coming in and pushing out the government. I saw a peaceful opposition growing and a government trying to react, and I thought there would be some sort of resolution to it."

Has the coup in Haiti taken some of the focus away from your book?

"I am put in these strange, awkward positions. For example, today I find myself correcting this AP article that ran yesterday saying that I hate Aristide and I think he got what's coming to him."

How'd that happen?

"It's very hard to explain a nuanced position in very quick-like AP speak. And what I was trying to say to the reporter is that, yes, Aristide made some mistakes, but he shouldn't have been deposed in that way. He was democratically elected. There was a process that put him in power, and there should've been an equally valid and legitimate process that removed him from power. When I'm speaking to people, they want me to take an extreme side, which is not my position at all. These are very complicated things that they need historians and economists and other people to talk about. But that's not as sexy, I guess, as a fiction writer commenting on them."

How do you weigh the competing responsibilities you must feel as a Haitian-American and as a writer?

"The most important thing I attempt to do is to tell a story--a good story. And I think through that you can sometimes tell things in a more complicated way."

The Dew Breaker is about an enforcer for the Duvalier regime. How do you write a sympathetic story about such an unsympathetic character?

"We tend to oversimplify and say, 'This person is really bad,' or, 'This person is really good,' while excluding ourselves from that. As in: 'I could never be as good.' Or, 'I could never be as bad.' And in fiction, you can put yourself in both kinds of shoes. You can imagine what it's like for both kinds of people, and explore that space in between. So that's what I'm trying to do. Not to get people to sympathize with somebody who's a killer or somebody who's bad, but to try to imagine yourself in their place. Which is a harder reach than it is, for example, to try to imagine yourself in the place of a victim."

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