This interview is an excerpt from The Bloomsbury Handbook to Edwidge Danticat. Order your copy now to read the rest of the interview.
Edwidge Danticat: The Haitian diaspora today, in my view, is very big and complex. You now have a lot of Haitian-born millennials who are adding another very important layer to the conversation. Some of them are in media, and what is highlighted about them is not even that they’re Haitian. They’re just out there excelling and doing their thing.
Sadly, we also have a lot of problems in the poor communities within the diaspora. In Miami, for example, we have a lot of young Haitians in prisons and new arrivals in detention centers. The parents of some school-age children are older and are rather perplexed by what’s happening with their children. So while some of us are doing really well, we have a lot of children in our communities being left behind.
Nadège T. Clitandre: What do you think the literature of the diaspora offers to contemporary Haitian literature in Haiti in terms of themes and aesthetics? Did you get a lot of feedback on the book from writers living in Haiti?
ED: I think since we have so much migration out of Haiti, dyaspora writing can offer a lot of insight to Haitians in Haiti on what it’s like to live outside of Haiti. Our work can show both the difficulties and advantages of that life from up close. Perhaps readers in Haiti can learn as much about our realities as we can learn about theirs.
But in terms of other feedback, earlier feedback, when I was first published, I felt some tensions between the literatures of the diasporas and the work being published in Haiti. And it wasn’t just the Anglophone diaspora. What people seemed to be saying, some to my face and some not, was that there were better writers in Haiti, but mediocre writers were being published and marketed abroad. I still hear that. Someone once sent me a link to a public forum where scholars were debating whether enough had been written about me and it was time to move on to others. I’d be the first person to say move on to others. My own literary education began with Haitian writers. I think I have tried to promote Haitian writers. I just don’t like the false dichotomies that in order to praise one group of writers we have to trash others.
This part has gotten a lot better, but when I just started writing, I would go to conferences and would sit in the audience and listen to people debate whether I was a Haitian writer or not, whether I had any talent or not, or was some creation of the blans, because of course the blan so desperately needed a Haitian writer that they had to create me. At the same time, I was reading criticism of my work by white people who said that the American literary establishment was pandering to people like me and giving us prizes because of multiculturalism. So at some point, I just had to stop traveling so much and really just concentrate on my work and my personal life. Otherwise I would have lost all desire to go on. I was just tired of defending my right (my write) to exist. I just have to let the work do it, make its own way without me.
Again, most writers I have personal relationships and friendships with, we don’t talk too much about work. That tends to be across nationalities, Haitian or not. I am not seeking that from them, and they are not seeking that from me. But one thing I notice with writers with similar immigrant backgrounds: they’ve faced a similar kind of situation. One of Julia Alvarez’swonderful essays in her book Something to Declare—the essay is called “Doña Aída, with Your Permission”—speaks perfectly about being in that place initially where you might be rejected by both sides.
NTC: How do you engage with non-Haitian writers who write about the diasporic experience in the contemporary moment and the immigrant experience in the United States? What do you learn from these writers that may be different from your experience? Or do you find more similarities than distinctions?
ED: I learn a lot from them. And as I mention above, they make me realize that I’m not alone. I often have the experience of saying to a reader from the home country of a writer I love how much I love that writer, only to get a tirade from that reader about how much the writer gets wrong. Even that makes me feel less alone. Things that I think are unique to my experience these writers also face.
The way we’re talked about in this country is also similar. I remember when Jhumpa Lahiri did a “By the Book” column in the New York Times in 2013, and she said that there’s no such thing as immigrant fiction. “What do we call the rest?” she said. “Native fiction? Puritan fiction?” “All American writing is immigrant writing,” she said. I found that very empowering. So it’s wonderful to know that there are other “dyasporic” writers of different ethnicities on this journey as well. These anthologies certainly brought us together under a different tent than I’m used to being put in. If you say “Best American,” then based on your choices, you broaden the definition of even what it means to be American.
NTC: Over the years, you have talked a great deal about being both insider and outsider. I find that the concept of duality and notions of the double are prominent in your work but are used to blurring a number of binaries, including the binary between who is insider and who is outsider. I also think this complicates the divide between the homeland and the host country, between the nation and its diaspora. What do you think?
ED: I think I have multiple identities in which I fold myself. I am Haitian. I am black. I am a woman. I am Caribbean. I am a black woman Caribbean writer. I think I hold on to multiplicities. When I was first published in the period that I was talking about, people used to talk a lot about authenticity. I often felt very inauthentic because I was writing about Haiti in English, so I would say I am the least authentic writer ever, just to free myself from the burden of it. But in the inauthenticity I was claiming, I always saw a kind of welcomed multiplicity.