Birnbaum v.

Edwidge Danticat

America may believe in its own exceptionalism, but it’s also been exceptionally involved in Haiti’s history. A conversation with American Book Award-winner Edwidge Danticat about the current state of Haiti and the current state of her stories.

In a recent e-missive to Maud Newton, with whom I am privileged to correspond, I related that I had had a conversation with Edwidge Danticat and I wrote: ‘Edwidge brings a whole new dimension to dignity and compassion. I think that my occasional dark moods about the real world and going to hell in a hand truck are assuaged when I meet women like her and Barbara Ehrenreich and Azar Nafisi and read Arundhati Roy.’

Haitian-born Edwidge Danticat grew up in that nation’s capital, Port-au-Prince, and moved to the Brooklyn when she was 12 years old. She received degrees from Barnard College and Brown University. Edwidge Danticat has taught creative writing at New York University and the University of Miami and has written a number of well-regarded books including, Krik? Krak!; Breath, Eyes, Memory; The Farming of Bones, which won the American Book Award and recently, her latest book of interconnected stories, The Dew Breaker. She has also edited two anthologies, The Butterfly’s Way: Voices from The Haitian Dyaspora in the United States and The Beacon Best of 2000: Great Writing by Men and Women of All Colors and Cultures. Her writings have been regularly anthologized and translated into many languages and won numerous awards and honors. She has also has worked with filmmakers Patricia Benoit and Jonathan Demme on Haiti-related documentaries. She currently lives in Miami with her husband.

Edwidge Danticat has said of one of her books: ‘I wanted to raise the voice of a lot of the people that I knew growing up, and this was, for the most part, … poor people who had extraordinary dreams but also very amazing obstacles.’ With her newest book, her overarching interest continues to be giving voice and attention to the neglected and marginalized people and issues. Here is how Richard Eder in the New York Times sees Danticat’s The Dew Breaker:

Archimedes held that he could lift the earth if he had a lever long enough, and an extraplanetary fulcrum to rest it on. There are horrors so heavy that they seem untellable. To bear to tell them so that we can bear to read them, a writer must find somewhere outside—peaceful, unmarked—to project them from. Atrocity enters the imagination not as the violating point of the knife but as the fair flesh violated… [Danticat] has written a Haitian truth: prisoners all, even the jailers. With neither forgiveness nor contempt, she sets it upon a fulcrum from where she’s had the courage and art to displace the world even as she is displaced by it.


Robert Birnbaum: Does anyone ever shorten your name to something else?

Edwidge Danticat: Edie

RB: What do you think of that?

ED: [laughs] It depends.

RB: It depends who it is?

ED: [Both laugh]

RB: Well, I won’t call you Edie. Anyway, I know a little bit about you, a very little bit, but I have your dossier here.

ED: Um huh.

RB: It has all sorts of clippings and the material your publisher sent me—which I haven’t read yet, but I did read The Dew Breaker and I recently talked to a young writer, Ana Menendez

ED: Oh yeah.

RB: She extolled your virtues as a teacher and that meant a lot to me. So in the spirit of that let me ask, is it a burden, as part of your life’s work, to talk about Haiti to people who have no idea where Haiti is?

ED: It’s not a burden so much as that it is complicated. There are times when it is a pleasure because it is such a big part of my life and it’s a place that I truly, truly love—in all its complications and difficulties. But there are moments when it’s painful. Especially moments when things are very difficult and complicated for me and I am still trying to grasp what is happening and I am still trying to understand and to reach family back home. And it can be very complicated and often people want to hear about it in sound bites. They want you to summarize something that is a lot harder to understand and very hard to explain. So, there are moments when it is pleasurable and moments when it is very difficult.

RB: I suspect that not only is there something unpleasant about being asked for sound bites about something complex but also that this attention only comes intermittently? Most of the time Haiti doesn’t exist on the radar of the news organizations.

ED: That’s one of the most frustrating things about it. People think that there is a country there that these people are only around when they are on CNN. I don’t think that’s limited to Haiti. That’s whatever news topic, whatever political process any country is going through—whenever they are in the news, that’s when they exist. If you don’t see them they don’t exist. I think Haiti is a place that suffers so much from neglect that people only want to hear about it when it’s at its extreme. And that’s what they end up knowing about it. There is a frustration too, that at moments when there’s not a coup, when there are not people in the streets, that the country disappears from people’s consciousness.

On some level, now, we are joining the larger world and realizing that we are connected with people in these very scary ways, sometimes. What happened recently in Spain affects us here and brings questions up. It is too bad that people have to be shaken up in that way.

RB: Do you think people remember Nicaragua?

ED: Or El Salvador or Guatemala or—they don’t. In fact that is the struggle that most Americans—As rich as this country is, most Americans are very limited in their interaction with the world, unless the world comes to us in a very shocking way. People aren’t really aware of what’s happening in other places.

RB: Why do you think that is?

ED: I think we suffer in this country—and I say ‘we’ because I am part of that now too—from this idea of exceptionalism, that we are separate and different from everybody else. On some level, they can know about us but we can’t know about them. That’s why at times when the world comes to us in shocking ways, things like 9/11 happen and people then start questioning and asking and finding out. How many Americans knew where Afghanistan was before Osama bin Laden? It’s too bad that these are the ways we learn about things, continuously.

RB: I wonder about your description—though in effect I do think there is this attitude that reflects exceptionalism. But for the farmer in Iowa or the white supremacist in Idaho—I take that one back—for the cattle farmer in Montana; do you think that they consciously hold this idea? That they even think about Americans en masse and say, ‘Americans are such and such and I don’t know or care about the rest of the world’?

ED: There is a funny Chris Rock movie where he is running for president and one of the opposition candidates, at the end of every speech, he says, ‘Well, God bless America and nowhere else.’ [both laugh] And Chris—this gives him an opportunity to have a riff on that whole idea of ‘nowhere else.’ I think along with that idea of the exceptional, that part of it, there is also the lack of information. People who want alternative information have to try so hard to find it.

RB: They really have to want to—

ED: Yeah, they really have to search for it.

RB: I don’t want to belabor my point here but I think there is at the core of America a xenophobia that is different than this so-called exceptionalism. And it is somewhat benign.

ED: That’s true.

RB: It’s not like Americans particularly hate the rest of the world anymore than they hate each other, their neighbors. [laughs] Something about their process, the media, about their education. They just don’t know. Unless they see a Greek restaurant or some ethnic restaurant, their outward look is very limited. I mention it because I don’t know that we can combat this defect in our civilization unless we really grasp what we are combating. Sometimes there is a suggestion that it is conspiratorial.

ED: Not conspiratorial. This feeling that we are exempt from certain things that happen. On some level, now, we are joining the larger world and realizing that we are connected with people in these very scary ways, sometimes. What happened recently in Spain affects us here and brings questions up. It is too bad that people have to be shaken up in that way.

RB: I am getting a growing sense that there is a greater anxiety that American voters have about their leadership than I have seen before. There is some impending evil that seems linked with the Bush regime that maybe catalytic for real change, but also there is a fearful anxiety, a dread about what the administration is doing.

ED: People would understand it or would almost accept it more if there was this very different agenda than what we would see, if there was pure ideology behind it. But it is so mired in money and oil—in a non-conspiratorial way—in documented ways with Dick Cheney’s connection to the oil industry and the Bush family’s connection with the Kuwaitis. On some levels, you can also have this feeling that we are being duped, somehow. And that the world is at play for something you would understand more if it were pure ideology. It is a very strange time and also basic things are being taken away. Social Security—

RB: And also Medicare by 2019.

ED: Exactly, exactly. Actually, at the same time we are asking for the $80 billion or so from Congress, I was reading an article about a school in Oregon that couldn’t afford to get light bulbs. They couldn’t change the street lamps, they had to alternate them because they hadn’t enough money. So there are concrete things in people’s every day lives that are being compromised.

RB: Well, this is a very big subject that we have embarked upon—let’s not digress too far from you and your book. I must say I am fearful and anxious also and find the Bush people despicable in away that resonates with Hannah Arendt’s brilliant notion of the banality of evil, the likes of which we haven’t seen in some time. I believe in the ‘anybody but Bush’ position and I accept that John Kerry is also seriously flawed. But there does not seem to be a group of evil ogres around him. That aside, no matter who is elected, will anyone pay attention to the school in Oregon or the juvenile justice system or the failing health-care system? Will either candidate pay attention to these matters?

ED: Yeah. Or even the state of Florida, where they are prepared to execute children. Umm, well, you hope that at least that there is something there to be claimed. I think in very concrete ways even if the people in Oregon wanted to take the administration to the Supreme Court there might not be any money for their light bulbs even with trillion-dollar surpluses. I think daily that the country’s future is being thrown to the wind.

RB: Let’s talk about Haiti. What I know about Haiti comes from having reading Herbert Gold’s odd travelogue, Best Nightmare on Earth and Graham Greene’s The Comedians and Madison Smartt Bell wrote All Souls’ Rising, a novel based on Toussaint L’Ouverture—didn’t he write a second one [Master of the Crossroads]?

ED: It’s actually a trilogy, and the third one will be out this year. [The Stone That the Builder Refused is due for release in November.—ed.]

RB: One of the great things about Smartt Bell’s novel was that, like so many people, L’Ouverture, if there is any basis in fact for the character in the novel, sounds fascinating and brilliant and has the same kind of weight as someone like José Martí. And at some point in the ‘90s, Aperture put out a book of photographs about Haiti, Dancing on Fire [also Bob Shacochis wrote The Immaculate Invasion on the 1994 Clinton-initiated U.S. marine intervention]. So that’s what I know about Haiti.

ED: Um huh.

You can see that people if given an opportunity would do wonderful things, would do great things with their lives. So [Haiti] is a hard place to live, especially [at] moments like this where you have the political squabbling, which leads to actual battles with guns and shooting and so forth. But it’s a place that hasn’t really been given a good chance by our own horrific dictators and other forces that press on us.

RB: What would you think North Americans should know?

ED: To start with, for example this year, 2004, is the bicentennial of Haitian independence. Haiti was the first black republic in this hemisphere, the second republic along with the United States. And actually the Louisiana Purchase [less than a year earlier] gave the U.S. a big part of this country from France. It happened as a result of the Revolution. Napoleon had been fighting this army of slaves and free people in Haiti and it depleted his forces. And after the Revolution, when the French were driven out, they stopped and sold this big chunk of North America to the Americans for very little money.

RB: $15 million?

ED: Something like that. It’s the best real-estate deal ever in the history of the world. And [John James] Audubon from the Audubon Society was born in Haiti. He was born in Les Cayes and we have a man, Jean Baptiste du Sable, who was the founder of Chicago, a Haitian man. So his name lives on. All those connections and that one of the first presidents, Henri Christophe, who was considered one of the three fathers of the country along with Toussaint L’Ouverture and Jean Jacques Dessalines, he came here with a group of men to fight in the American Revolution and they fought in the Battle of Savannah, Ga. And the fact that Haiti was occupied for 19 years by the United States, from 1915 to 1934. In terms of the idea of long-term occupation—I have been reading a little bit more about this period—and you can see in that occupation are many lessons for the current occupation of Iraq. So we have these connections that go way back that people aren’t aware of. Also, people are not often aware of the way the United States’ policies influence what happens in places like Haiti or El Salvador or Nicaragua. Or in Columbia right now. And how these polices sometimes—

RB: Sometimes?

ED: [Both laugh] Most of them, they serve the interests of the United States but are not building any kind of permanent structure for the country they are affecting.

RB: They don’t even come close to building democracy.

ED: Exactly, exactly. And then we have this recycling—we have Saddam Hussein, who [was] supported by U.S. government interests for a very long time before this moment. And [Manuel] Noriega. And in our case, we had one of the generals who was responsible for the first Aristide coup in 1990, who was trained in Fort Benning—

RB: At the infamous School of the Americas.

ED: Yeah. And who was on the CIA payroll. And so all these things, and people wonder why are people angry with us and they’ll see these images on the news and say, ‘Those Haitians just can’t get it together.’ Not realizing there is a fundamental structure behind it.

RB: That would be the mythology that is relentlessly piped in. At primitive and subtle levels. We are the good guys and so when we show up anywhere we are doing good and why do these people hate us?

Credit: Robert Birnbaum

ED: That’s what I meant by that notion of exceptionalism, in the sense that ‘God bless America and nowhere else.’ Creating these messes that go from administration to administration and then you swoop in and clean them up—with that heroic Delta force—people not realizing that they were always there but doing different things than what we see them doing at the moment.

RB: The Chris Rock anecdote reminded me of the Mexican proverb that goes something like, ‘So close to the United States and so far from God.’

ED: Um huh, there is a wonderful book with that title, Ana Castillo’s So Far from God.

RB: I am struck by the oddity of selective indifference and ignorance. People are outraged about Cuba and continue to be but in no way is Fidel Castro—though I wouldn’t know how to quantify these things—as bad as the Papa Doc and Baby Doc Duvalier. [François Duvalier and his son, Jean-Claude, were Haitian dictators one after another, from 1957 to 1986.—ed.] And I never hear mainstream American voices lifted against those regimes and our complicity in supporting them.

ED: You have also at the same time Castro and the revolution being the glue that held the United States together with a lot of these dictators. In Haiti you had the Duvaliers for 29 years and they were very well supported by the United States. People make the argument now that they couldn’t bear Aristide in this hemisphere, when they supported the Duvaliers and at the same time they were supporting people like [Rafael] Trujillo in the Dominican Republic and maintaining him and fighting on his side against other forces who were more liberal. It’s very complicated. Someone has said that nations have interests, they don’t have friends, and you see that over and over in U.S. policy.

RB: That’s not part of the mythology of Uncle Sam, the doting avuncular cartoon character. So how do we combat this miscasting of so called objective realities? If a constituency is not energized to look past the slogans and imagery, then the idea of America is just as creditable as the products in a beer or auto commercial and people won’t care much about the truth.

ED: That’s true. More and more people are able to access information—thank goodness we have the Internet and if you are interested you can find things. Which is different than even 20 years ago. So at least the people who have another voice and people who are interested in other things can have a place to put their information and be heard.

RB: So from what little I know it seems that Haiti is a horrific place to live.

ED: For the majority of the people it is a difficult place to live. That’s a reality that we can’t ignore. But there is also great beauty to it. For example I was there with my husband in January and we decided we wanted to be there for the bicentennial and we wanted to be near water and in the mountains. It was our attempt to be closer to what it might have been like during the revolution. And we went to some beautiful places. They were very hard to get to—there are problems with roads.

RB: And fuel?

ED: Exactly. It was a time with very inflated fuel prices, as there always are. There is always a spike at different moments. We get a lot of fuel from Venezuela and there was a strike there at the time. Another interesting connection. But it was just gorgeous, the places we went to. Untouched because a lot of people can’t get to them in a touristy way. So there is also great beauty in the country. You can see that people if given an opportunity would do wonderful things, would do great things with their lives. So it’s a hard place to live, especially [at] moments like this where you have the political squabbling, which leads to actual battles with guns and shooting and so forth. But it’s a place that hasn’t really been given a good chance by our own horrific dictators and other forces that press on us.

RB: My contact with the Caribbean Basin, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, Costa Rica—it’s clear that in the 20th century, masses of people emigrated to the cities and left the countryside—in Puerto Rico, I don’t think they grow anything anymore. In Cuba, Havana has four times more people than its infrastructure can rationally support.

ED: Exactly. There are a lot of people, especially in this current time—they will get very nostalgic for the dictatorship. They’ll say, ‘Oh, it was so good then. And food was so cheap.’ And what people aren’t taking into consideration is exactly what you are saying. In 1970 you had something like 150,000 people in the capital, Port-au-Prince. Now you have three million [recent estimates put the number closer to two million—ed.].

RB: Oh my.

Credit: Robert Birnbaum

ED: And very little has improved in terms of infrastructure to support that many people. So, of course, things are worse. And you have the erosion problem, which has only gotten worse. Back then the Duvaliers contributed to that—they were often attacked by people coming in and trying to unseat them. So the father, Papa Doc, was known to cut down an entire forest so that invaders wouldn’t have a place to hide. So you have erosion and the land is not producing as much as it used to. You have all these people in the city and everything has become centralized. If you live outside the city and you need a birth certificate or some official paper from the government, you have to travel to the city. People feel like their kids won’t get an education unless they are in the city. So there is a strong centralization and you have overcrowding and it becomes very difficult. And we have that problem that people aren’t growing anything. And globalization is killing us.

RB: Haiti used to manufacture baseballs.

ED: They don’t make them anymore, that’s moved on. Even when they were, that was something like 10 cents a day. People were being paid that, with no benefits and ruining their health. But there’s not many opportunities in the city and fewer now in the country. For example, someone who would spend a couple of months growing a chicken and now you can buy chicken legs from Miami that arrive the same day [as they are slaughtered] for less than that, so who is going to waste their time doing that? We had a cochon oui, the local pig, and that was, for a lot of people, that was a bank account. You grew your pig and if your child has to go to school, you sell the pig or you slaughter it and sell the meat. And in the 1990s the U.S. had a campaign where they eradicated all the pigs because the FDA decided they had swine fever. So there was a complete eradication of that whole population. One of the last indigenous animals to this island.

RB: No replacement?

ED: There were replacements of these pigs from Iowa who couldn’t live there. [both laugh] They had to build houses for those pigs. They had to buy grain from the U.S. So they killed the pigs and now you have to buy the Iowa pigs from the same people, buy the grains to feed them because they couldn’t eat what local pigs had eaten. And it took more than a decade to replace some of them—now you see more of them because they also came from Jamaica and other places. But it was a valuable resource that was completely depleted.

RB: That kind of arrogance reminds me of a story I read recently [in Todd Balf’s The Darkest Jungle] about a plan to cut another canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific in the Darien Gap, the area in Panama that borders what is now Colombia. Apparently in the ‘70s the plan was to cut the second canal using eight nuclear devices to blow up the channelway. This was a reserve that was inhabited by 40,000-50,000 indigenous people whose roots are prehistoric. And, of course, these people would be resettled.

ED: Yeah, yeah, it’s collateral damage. And all the people who starved because their pigs were killed, they were collateral damage.

RB: I don’t know if this is an apocryphal story but I was told that the border between the Dominican Republic and Haiti is clearly demarcated, with the Haitian side being barren and foreboding and the Dominican side being lush and green.

ED: That’s true in a lot of places where you have the boundary. There was a very large program behind that. Trujillo, who was a president [of the Dominican Republic] for many decades, had a program specifically aimed at that, sprucing up a lot of the border towns in order to contrast them from Haiti—it was a very conscious effort. Haiti has a larger population, in a smaller area. Not that there isn’t poverty in the Dominican Republic, but aside from that you have more tourism, so part of whatever preservation has been connected to that, too. Trujillo was interested in the contrast. And even for myself, when I have had to go there, if I am staying in Cap-Haitien, which is on the Haitian side close to the border, there are times when I, shamefacedly, need to make a phone call or something, [and] I have had to cross the border.

RB: And now what about the writing of a book about Haiti? Some parts of The Dew Breaker have appeared before, what was the very first story you wrote?

ED: The very first story was ‘The Book of the Dead.’

RB: Did you know that you were going to write this as an interwoven collection of stories?

Credit: Robert Birnbaum

ED: No, I had just finished my book The Farming of Bones, the book about the Dominican Republic and Haiti, and I was going back to writing stories. I didn’t feel like I could go into a novel just then. So I went back to writing stories and I started this one story about a father and a daughter who went on a trip. And the father makes this revelation to his daughter, that he was not a prisoner, as his family had thought, but was a ‘dew breaker,’ a sort of a torturer.

RB: That is an interesting phrase for such an odious thing.

ED: It comes from the Creole. It’s an expression choukèt laroze; it really means somebody who breaks or shakes the dew. That’s where that comes from. Creole is very forgiving of things like that. There is also an expression on the other side, gouverneurs de la rosée, people who govern the dew, who are kinder people, people of the land who nurture the land and try to control their destiny through the land. But that was the first one I wrote and I was very intrigued by the father so I started writing the very last story, which talked about his past and the last time he was in Haiti.

RB: That story that is called ‘The Dew Breaker.’ And so the stories in between?

ED: The stories in between really came in between. The third one was in the middle, which involved the family. So I was always circling around this family. But how do you write a book about Haiti? And this particular book, like a lot of the other books I have written, came from a kind of desire to go back to Haiti and to revisit and maybe to understand better some things from the past. I am very much intrigued by Haitian history and the way it is connected to current struggles. So the book is an attempt at exploring that.

RB: The notion of Creole being very forgiving is fascinating. In the very first story the father does something and—without giving it away—the daughter is clearly angered and she gets around to getting angry but first she says something to the effect that she had always thought anger was not a useful thing. I thought, ‘Oh really?’

ED: [laughs]

RB: All through the stories I have this sense of the Haitian ethos having so little malevolence—[pause]

ED: I’ll give you an example of something very real and similar. In the 1990s we had a man who, again, was backed by the CIA and he was on 60 Minutes, Emmanuel Constant, he started an organization called FRAPH. There was a point in the late ‘90s in New York where people would say, ‘Guess what? I was at party…’ and they would mention his name. For me, that was always extraordinary. How forgiving are we? Even the fact that people think now that they would accept Jean-Claude ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier coming back. How either forgetful or forgiving that Emmanuel Constant—whose organization killed 5,000, and if you hear 5,000 in a Haitian estimation it’s probably double that number—that he can feel safe to walk in the community, some of whom are wounded people. That to me was the kind of lack of malevolence—

RB: Danny in one of the stories has an opportunity to harm the dew breaker and doesn’t.

ED: But he didn’t want to be wrong—like many of the characters that felt they would want to repeat exactly this thing. Because on one level they were wrong about his parents—that there was a mistake made and his parents shouldn’t have been killed.

RB: I have been thinking about forgiveness. I caught some piece of Elie Wiesel’s speech at Auschwitz, where he said something like, ‘No, you cannot forgive these people’—

ED: Umm—

RB: My sense of the conditions in Haiti with these predatory dictators and their elite killers, the Tonton Macoute, sustains my sense of the horrific. You do mention one instance of a Tonton Macoute having gasoline poured down his throat and then ignited.

ED: There were many cases like that after the dictatorship ended in 1989. There was a term that was created around that—dechoukaj—‘uprooting.’ Many of these Tonton Macoutes were killed. What interested me in the stories and in these people and in this era because it was the last era that I lived consistently in Haiti was to understand these people so at least try to get as close to understanding these people as possible. The country and other countries, too, where things are difficult, keeps repeating or keeps recreating this environment that creates these kind of people. Now we have a phenomena with young men who are deported, many from the United States and were returned to Haiti and became what is called chimé—

RB: Like Claude?

ED: Yeah, they are stranded there. And they have assembled together [in gangs] to survive and some of them, not all of them become involved in crime and are labeled this way in the country. The greatest of ironies is that you have some American soldiers from the country that deported them, some will be killing them. So you have this situation that keeps opening this opportunity to allow these types of people to be created or recreated. First you had the Macoutes under Duvalier, then in FRAPH and now the Chimé. There are people, I am sure, that have gone from group to group, because they don’t have work. Because they don’t have other things. So there is this culture and the lack of infrastructure that perpetuates this kind of system.

RB: What are you going to do next?

ED: I am taking it easy for a little while. I am doing a young adult book that I am almost done with [about] Anacaona, who was actually one of the few female indigenous leaders before Columbus came and she was a very powerful leader and known to be a poet and she was one of the last ones. She was hung by Columbus’s people a couple of decades after they landed on the island. She hung in there and fought and was a true warrior-queen. I don’t like to use the word ‘queen’ but a true warrior and leader in our history.

RB: And you chose to make this a young-adult story?

ED: Yeah, it’s my first attempt at dealing with this story. It will be in a series called ‘Royal Diaries’ that sort of positions it with other women who were leaders but it concentrates on a particular time, like their teens. Maybe I will do something later with her later but this was a way to approach it in a manageable way.

RB: Well, I hope we talk again.

ED: Likewise, thank you.