On Something Else – Words Have Wings, Words Have Feet: Edwidge Danticat and John Freeman in Conversation
Three weeks before the PEN American Center World Voices Festival, Wild River Review asked me to report on Haitian/American writer Edwidge Danticat’s presentation titled On Something Else.
Over the years, I had heard Danticat talking about Haiti on various news programs and had promised myself I would read her work. The day Wild River offered me the assignment, I immersed myself in Danticat’s work. In three weeks I read six of the eight books Danticat has published, plenty of time to fall in love with her writing, her political worldview, her rich descriptions of life in Haiti and New York.
On the drive to Webster Hall in Greenwich Village I wondered about the title of her talk: On Something Else. What else?
The auditorium was large and full, two chairs on the stage. A handsome young man, John Freeman, was slouching in his chair, facing Ms. Danticat. I thought, “Sit up young man. You are before greatness.” But as he introduced her, his obvious admiration gave a different cast to his posture: a comfort with this woman who takes on heinous events, brings you inside and makes you a participant in the lives of humans in the midst of the juggernaut that is Haiti and its Diaspora.
John Freeman began, “What is the Something Else that inspired you, changed your mind?”
“Stories,” Edwidge Danticat said… “Not the reassuring stories told back and forth from the other side of the water (-lot bo dlo in Creole), on the telephone and in the money-letters, reaching across great distance and long years, designed to blunt the impact of the Diaspora. No, the stories ‘of bad children who should be good’, told always at night because it’s bad luck to tell them in the day or because the electricity for that day is cut off, a performance, a warning to behave or else the (real) bogey men would come. Many stories about mother’s who have died.”
Next, she added that she was afraid she was “A cliché in grief. Only two months earlier I watched my mother die.”
Although dressed in black, her incisive words and gentle smile were no cliché. She cushioned her pronouncement about grief with a story. Her children say that “when a mother coughs in a Disney movie you know what is coming. She will soon be dead.”
Squeezed into my chair in the packed auditorium, I was writing furiously, wanting to catch every word. At the same time, I am silently reflecting on her history. Danticat came to Brooklyn from Haiti as a twelve year old and has written about the challenges and imperatives of writing as a “Diaspora” (a construction she uses to include those who comprise it as well as the phenomena). She slips in the Haitian saying, Paròl gin zèl. Paròl gin pie. “Words have wings. Words have feet.”
Yet she also writes for everyone who is human. In the essay “Create Dangerously” she quotes LeFerriere: “When a Japanese reader reads my books, I immediately become a Japanese writer.”
Reading Edwidge Danticat’s stories my world recedes. For a time I am Claire of the Sealight’s grieving usurper of another woman’s child while living in the terrible fear of the child herself. In Breath, Eyes, Memory, I, like the central figure, am the inheritor of the wounds of a mother who has gone lot bo dlo. All the tragedy and loss that is her country’s history (and present) is embedded in the beauty and humor and connection that is Danticat’s beloved Haiti.
More of that “Something Else” in a moment.
A champion, and devoted lover of Haiti and its people, Danticat writes, “The story is not really yours. It’s community property…”
When John opened up the session to the audience, Danticat responded to a question about how she does her research: “There was a massacre of Haitian cane workers in the Dominican Republic in 1937. There was a curiosity of me wanting to know more. The river flowed with blood. You read about it, talk with people who were there. You create a character. You write because you were told stories.”
Then, she added, “I came to this country at a hard time to be Haitian. They called us boat people, beat us up. Breath, Eyes, Memory was the book I wanted to read. You can’t tell the story in just one voice. Not only from the point of view of the survivors (and those who didn’t), but from the torturers and rapists and exploiters, “too.”
Danticat told us of a book tour event promoting The Dew Breaker, a story of Papa Doc’s Tonton Macoute. At the end of the event, a man who looked as if he had stepped out of that story—including the sunglasses—approached her. She was frightened. “He leaned toward me,” she added. “And in a harsh whisper said, ‘We had to do it. If we flinched, hesitated, we were dead that night.’”
Still I wondered about the title of her talk, On Something Else. Then Freeman asked her, “What is the SOMETHING ELSE that inspires you?”
“The art,” she answered. “Those words in the library books were like the paintings. I could imagine the colors and everyday life, visual literacy even if they couldn’t read or write.”
Suddenly the auditorium went black. A screen descended behind chairs and Danticat and Freeman retired back stage. We were shown an explosion of traditional Haitian art. The video was accompanied by a Haitian band singing “Haiti Won’t Be Broken…”
After the lights came up and Freeman and Danticat were once more in their chairs, she said, ”A lot of my work is sad. I have the art to look up at (on the walls of her Miami home and in the streets, shop signs and buses in Port Au Prince). To see how someone had interpreted an ideal. They paint their dreams and hopes…People painted on the tent walls after the Hurricane…Haitian painting reminds me that I’m not trying to capture exactly what is but what could be.”
She smiled, a little sadly. “The markets in the paintings don’t have trash.
Rebirth-The best of what Haiti has to offer.”
Yes. She is.
Through the Holland tunnel and west on route 78, I returned to my wondering: What about the “Something Else”? I am assailed by the other—the not Something Else, the brutal US-sponsored dictatorship lasting thirty years, the crippling debt paid to their French enslavers for 200 years, the stolen trees denuding the hills and causing deadly mudslides, the devastating poverty, the lot bo dlo—all refracted in her exquisitely intimate intertwining stories of the Haitian collective. And, like a sympathetic vibration, the more she speaks (and writes) of the art, music, and humanity of her Haiti, the more I am able to let in the desperation of the people on that island.
Danticat’s words echo in my head, “You write because you were told stories.”
Judith Lockard grew up in NYC, Cape Cod, Fire Island and the Green Mountains of Vermont. She has a BA in English Literature from the New School for Social Research and a Masters in Social Work from Rutgers University. She has been a trainer, teacher, supervisor and clinician in Family Therapy for over 30 years and has published on Addiction, Domestic Violence and the Cultural Context Model of therapy. She lives on the Delaware River and is working on a novel about family legacies and addiction.