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Haiti typically makes international headlines for stories about natural disasters, disease and poverty, but Haitian-born writer Edwidge Danticat continually challenges her audience to take a closer look. In her latest novel, “Claire of the Sea Light,” she leads readers through several interconnected stories of individuals in one Haitian community. The book explores the strength of familial bonds, the challenges of raising a child and the weight of death through their tales. Danticat joins Kojo to talk about her first work of fiction since the 2010 earthquake.
- Edwidge Danticat Author of “Claire of the Sea Light”
Read An Excerpt
The morning Claire Limyè Lanmè Faustin turned seven, a freak wave, measuring between ten and twelve feet high, was seen in the ocean outside of Ville Rose. Claire’s father, Nozias, a fisherman, was one of many who saw it in the distance as he walked toward his sloop. He first heard a low rumbling, like that of distant thunder, then saw a wall of water rise from the depths of the ocean, a giant blue-green tongue, trying, it seemed, to lick a pink sky.
Just as quickly as it had swelled, the wave cracked. Its barrel collapsed, pummeling a cutter called Fifine, sinking it and Caleb, the sole fisherman onboard.
Nozias ran to the edge of the water, wading in to where the tide reached his knees. Lost now was a good friend, whom Nozias had greeted for years as they walked past each other, before dawn, on their way out to sea.
A dozen or so other fishermen were already standing next to Nozias. He looked down the beach at Caleb’s shack, where Caleb’s wife, Fifine—Josephine—had probably returned to bed after seeing him off. Nozias knew from his experience, and could sense it in his bones, that both Caleb and the boat were gone. They might wash up in a day or two, or more likely they never would.
It was a sweltering Saturday morning in the first week of May. Nozias had slept in longer than usual, contemplating the impossible decision he’d always known that he would one day have to make: to whom, finally, to give his daughter.
“Woke up earlier and I would have been there,” he ran back home and tearfully told his little girl.
Claire was still lying on a cot in their single-room shack. The back of her thin nightdress was soaked with sweat. She wrapped her long, molasses-colored arms around Nozias’s neck, just as she had when she was even littler, pressing her nose against his cheek. Some years before, Nozias had told her what had happened on her first day on earth, that giving birth to her, her mother had died. So her birthday was also a day of death, and the freak wave and the dead fisherman proved that it had never ceased to be.
The day Claire Limyè Lanmè turned six was also the day Ville Rose’s undertaker, Albert Vincent, was inaugurated as the new mayor. He kept both positions, leading to all kinds of jokes about the town eventually becoming a cemetery so he could get more clients. Albert was a man of unmatched elegance, even though he had shaky hands. He wore a beige two-piece suit every day, just as he did on the day of his inauguration. His eyes, people said, had not always been the lavender color that they were now. Their clouding, sad but gorgeous, was owing to the sun and early-onset cataracts. On the day of his swearing-in, Albert, shaking hands and all, recited from memory a speech about the town’s history. He did this from the top step of the town hall, a white nineteenth century gingerbread that overlooked a flamboyant-filled piazza, where hundreds of residents stood elbow to elbow in the afternoon sun.
Ville Rose was home to about eleven thousand people, five percent of them wealthy or comfortable. The rest were poor, some dirt-poor. Many were out of work, but some were farmers or fishermen (some both) or seasonal sugarcane workers. Twenty miles south of the capital and crammed between a stretch of the most unpredictable waters of the Caribbean Sea and an eroded Haitian mountain range, the town had a flower-shaped perimeter that, from the mountains, looked like the unfurling petals of a massive tropical rose, so the major road connecting the town to the sea became the stem and was called Avenue Pied Rose or Stem Rose Avenue, with its many alleys and capillaries being called épines, or thorns.
Albert Vincent’s victory rally was held at the town’s center—the ovule of the rose—across from Sainte Rose de Lima Cathedral, which had been repainted a deeper lilac for the inauguration. Albert offered his inaugural address while covering his hands with a black fedora that few had ever seen on his head. On the edge of the crowd, perched on Nozias’s shoulder, Claire Limyè Lanmè was wearing her pink muslin birthday dress, her plaited hair covered with tiny bow shaped barrettes. At some point, Claire noticed that she and her father were standing next to a plump woman with a cherubic face framed with a long, straight hairpiece. The woman was wearing black pants and a black blouse and had a white hibiscus pinned behind her ear. She owned Ville Rose’s only fabric shop.
“Thank you for putting your trust in me,” Albert Vincent now boomed into the crowd. The speech was at last winding down nearly a half hour after he’d begun speaking.
Nozias cupped his hands over his mouth as he whispered something in the fabric vendor’s ear. It was obvious to Claire that her father had not really come to hear the mayor, but to see the fabric vendor.
Later that same evening, the fabric vendor appeared at the shack near the end of Pied Rose Avenue. Claire was expecting to be sent to a neighbor while the fabric vendor stayed alone with her father, but Nozias had insisted that Claire pat her hair down with an old bristle brush and that she straighten out the creases on the ruffled dress that she’d kept on all day despite the heat and sun.
Standing between Nozias’s and Claire’s cots in the middle of the shack, the fabric vendor asked Claire to twirl by the light of the kerosene lamp, which was in its usual place on the small table where Claire and Nozias sometimes ate their meals. The walls of the shack were covered with flaking, yellowed copies of La Rosette, the town’s newspaper, which had been glued to the wood long ago with manioc paste by Claire’s mother. From where she was standing, Claire could see her own stretched-out shadow moving along with the others over the fading words. While twirling for the lady, Claire heard her father say, “I am for correcting children, but I am not for whipping.” He looked down at Claire and paused. His voice cracked, and he jabbed his thumb into the middle of his palm as he continued. “I am for keeping her clean, as you can see. She should of course continue with her schooling, be brought as soon as possible to a doctor when she is sick.” Still jabbing at his palm, after having now switched palms, he added, “In turn, she would help with some cleaning both at home and at the shop.” Only then did Claire realize who this “her” was that they were talking about, and that her father was trying to give her away.
Her legs suddenly felt like lead, and she stopped twirling, and as soon as she stopped, the fabric vendor turned to her father, her fake hair blocking half of her face. Nozias’s eyes dropped from the fabric vendor’s fancy hairpiece to her pricey open-toed sandals and red toenails.
“Not tonight,” the fabric vendor said, as she headed for the narrow doorway.
Nozias seemed stunned, drawing a long breath and letting it out slowly before following the fabric vendor to the door. They thought they were whispering, but Claire could hear them clearly from across the room.
“I’m going away,” Nozias said. “Pou chèche lavi, to look for a better life.”
“Ohmm.” The fabric vendor groaned a warning, like an impossible word, a word she had no idea how to say. “Why would you want your child to be my servant, a restavèk?”
“I know she would never be that with you,” Nozias said. “But this is what would happen anyway, with less kind people than you if I die. I don’t have any more family here in town.”
Nozias put an end to the fabric vendor’s questioning by making a joke about the undertaker’s mayoral victory and how many meaningless speeches he would be forced to endure if he remained in Ville Rose. This made the fabric vendor’s jingly laugh sound as though it were coming out of her nose. The good news, Claire thought, was that her father did not try to give her away every day. Most of the time, he acted as though he would always keep her. During the week, Claire went to the École Ardin, where she received a charity scholarship from the schoolmaster himself, Msye Ardin. And at night, Claire would sit by the kerosene lamp at the small table in the middle of the shack and recite the new words she was learning. Nozias enjoyed the singsong and her hard work and missed it during her holidays from school. The rest of the time, he went out to sea at the crack of dawn and always came back with some cornmeal or eggs, which he’d bartered part of his early-morning catch for. He talked about going to work in construction or the fishing trade in the neighboring Dominican Republic, but he would always make it sound as though it were something he and Claire could do together, not something he’d have to abandon her to do. But as soon as her birthday came, he would begin talking about it again— chèche lavi: going away to make a better life.
Lapèch, fishing, was no longer as profitable as it had once been, she would hear him tell anyone who would listen. It was no longer like in the old days, when he and his friends would put a net in the water for an hour or so, then pull it out full of big, mature fish. Now they had to leave nets in for half a day or longer, and they would pull fish out of the sea that were so small that in the old days they would have been thrown back. But now you had to do with what you got; even if you knew deep in your gut that it was wrong, for example, to keep baby conch shells or lobsters full of eggs, you had no choice but to do it. You could no longer afford to fish in season, to let the sea replenish itself. You had to go out nearly every day, even on Fridays, and even as the seabed was disappearing, and the sea grass that used to nourish the fish was buried under silt and trash.
But he was not talking to the fabric vendor about fishing that night. They were talking about Claire. His relatives and his dead wife’s relatives, who lived in the villages in the surrounding mountains where he was born, were even poorer than he was, he was saying. If he died, sure they would take Claire, but only because they had no choice, because that’s what families do, because no matter what, fòk nou voye je youn sou lòt. We must all look after one another. But he was being careful, he said. He didn’t want to leave something as crucial as his daughter’s future to chance.
After the fabric vendor left, colorful sparks rose up from the hills and filled the night sky over the homes near the lighthouse, in the Anthère (anther) section of town. Beyond the lighthouse, the hills turned into a mountain, wild and green, and mostly unexplored because the ferns there bore no fruit. The wood was too wet for charcoal and too unsteady for construction. People called this mountain Mòn Initil, or Useless Mountain, because there was little there that they wanted. It was also believed to be haunted.
The fireworks illuminated the mushroom-shaped tops of the ferns of Mòn Initil as well as the gated two-story mansions of Anthère Hill. They also illuminated the clapboard shacks by the sea and their thatched and tin roofs.
Once the fabric vendor was gone, Claire and her father rushed out to see the lights exploding in the sky. The alleys between the shacks were jam-packed with their neighbors. With cannonlike explosions, Albert Vincent, the undertaker turned mayor, was celebrating his victory. But as her neighbors clapped in celebration, Claire couldn’t help but feel like she was the one who’d won. The fabric vendor had said no and she would get to stay with her father another year.
Excerpted from “Claire of the Sea Light” by Edwidge Danticat Copyright © 2013 by Edwidge Danticat. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Edwidge Danticat's first work of fiction in nearly ten years begins in Ville Rose, a small coastal town in Haiti. There you'll meet a seven-year-old girl named Claire whose mother died at the very moment she was born and whose birthday seems to bring death each year.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIn a story revolving around Claire, Danticat explores the universal experience of raising a child and losing a loved one. Danticat has become one of the most prominent voices of the Haitian diaspora born in Haiti. Edwidge Danticat immigrated to the U.S. at age 12. Since then she's used her writing to connect the world to the gripping and often difficult stories of Haiti's past and present.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHere to discuss her latest exploration of Haiti and the human condition is Edwidge Danticat. She is the author of several books including "Brother, I'm Dying" and "The Dew Breaker." Her latest book is titled "Claire of the Sea Light." She joins us from studios in Miami, Fla. where she lives. Edwidge Danticat, thank you for joining us.
MS. EDWIDGE DANTICATOh, thank you so much for having me. It's always a pleasure to be with you.
NNAMDIAlways a pleasure to talk to you. And if you'd like to join the conversation, you can call us at 800-433-8850. If you have any questions or comments for Edwidge Danticat, have any of her books changed how you think about Haiti, 800-433-8850? Or you can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. It's been several years since your last work of fiction. And in that time Haiti has seen much hardship. Hurricanes have swept the country, a 2010 earthquake killed more than 100,000 and a cholera outbreak has since killed a thousand more. With all that has happened, what story did you want to tell about Haiti when you began this book?
DANTICATWell, Haiti is a place filled with stories. Like anyplace it has its joys, its tragedies. We often hear more about the tragedies and that's certainly warranted. I come from a family that's been touched by many of those tragedies. But I wanted to tell a multitude of stories. I wanted to tell a variation of stories as I've always tried to do. So this story is one I suppose of many that could possibly be told. It's the story of a young girl whose family, whose father particularly, is wrestling with this choice of having to give her away to another family. And that choice is brought on by those tragedies that you have mentioned, environmental, political, economic.
DANTICATAnd so this father stands at this moment on this young girl's seventh birthday deciding whether he should stay with her and suffer, you know, through poverty, through all of his difficulties in his life or try to turn her over to somebody else who is on the surface better off who might give her a better life.
NNAMDIWhat made you want to turn to this question of how best to raise a child, this decision the father has to make?
DANTICATWell, because it's one of the back stories, one of the things that is behind the scenes when we talk about the larger situations in Haiti, always suffering the most or the most vulnerable in that population. And often at the core of that are small children. After the earthquake, for example, you had -- one of the stories that you saw was the story of this missionary who decided that she was -- a group of them actually who decided that they were going to take this group of children across the borders.
DANTICATAnd one of the outcomes of the earthquake was that you had an increase in child trafficking for example. But I also wanted to turn inward to the situation that I and my family had found myself in, where families or neighbors do take in children. And for the most part they take them in with love. There are also the situations where the children are turned into domestic servants (unintelligible) situation. But there is a part of Haiti that I don't often see talked about outside the community, in which people do consider themselves accountable for children who found themselves displaced, and especially in smaller communities.
DANTICATSo I grew up with my aunt and uncle in a house full of children like me whose parents, whose mothers and fathers had no choice but to leave the country and go and work outside. So also I wanted to talk about this internal dynamic of what happens within a community, that idea of a village raising a child.
NNAMDIOur guest is author Edwidge Danticat. Her latest book is called "Claire of the Sea Light." She joins us from studios in Miami. You can join the conversation by calling us at 800-433-8850. Are you or your parents immigrants? Do you think the difficulty of parenting is well represented in literature? How would you like to see it portrayed, 800-433-8850? You can also send us a Tweet at kojoshow. A different parent in this book, a school headmaster in Ville Rose also grapples with how he raised his son. He explains some of the conflicted feelings parents can have when their children have grown out of their control, so to speak.
NNAMDICould you read that particular passage? You can find it on page 184. And you may want to set it up some more.
DANTICATYes. This father Max Audet (sp?), Sr., his son's Marx Audet, Jr., is better off than most of the other families in the town. And his son commits a crime in which he finds himself wrestling with the horrors of the crime. And that leads him to think about parenting and how -- I mean, in general, you know, we -- in the book and in some situations in the developing world, you have parents struggling with that essential question of whether to keep their children. But in general, their parents are also struggling with ways to be the best parents that they can be. And this is what Max, Sr. is thinking about as he reflects on raising his son.
DANTICATLet her try to raise a boy and help him become a man. Let her teach him how to tie his shoes, to shake hands properly. Let her show him how to swim, hot to fly a kite. Let her show him how to sharpen a blade to shave or otherwise, how to defend himself when attacked. Let her teach him how to read and write and tell him all kinds of stories, the true meaning of which he never seemed to understand. Let her feel proud, then ashamed of him then proud again.
DANTICATLet her long for him when he's gone and despise him when he's in her presence. Let her wish for him to be another kind of son and for her to be another kind of mother. Let her see what it's like to protect him from even his worst desires, to keep them from tainting his life forever. Let her try to show him the difference between right and wrong. Let her guide him to adulthood unscathed in a society where people are always looking for the next person to tear down.
DANTICATLet her school him on legacy, how one should honor and respect it and defend at all costs. Let her learn one day how to forgive him and eventually how to forgive herself.
NNAMDIEdwidge Danticat reading from her latest novel. It's titled "Claire of the Sea Light." You have two young daughters yourself. Did your own experiences as a parent lead you to raise some of these questions?
DANTICATWell, my daughters are still young so my experience with parenting, you know, is still unfolding. And it's a most humbling experience, as I think most parents would agree. In this passage Max, Sr. is thinking about the fact that he has to turn over his grandson to his mother who is going to raise this young man alone. So I think for -- you know, I watched my brothers first -- they had children first -- go down this road of trying to raise young children. And it's a challenge.
DANTICATAnd one of the biggest things is, you know, parents have to think about primarily providing, you know, basic things for our children. I think that's such a pressing issue for people in the developing world, people in Haiti and elsewhere, just trying to get your child fed, dressed, to school, keeping them alive from getting sick, so those things. And then as they grow up, you know, to -- you know, the saying is that we are guardians of our children. We're not keepers of them -- but trying to make sure that they're okay. I think that's the thing that haunts most parents.
DANTICATWhen my father was dying, one of the things that, you know, he -- we were older. We had children. We were on our way to life, but that was one of the things that was lingering in his mind, that after he's gone would we be okay?
NNAMDII'm looking at the book jacket and I'm seeing a picture of a young girl running along a seashore and I am informed that this is one of your daughters. I have to question how reliable my informer is. So can you please tell me whether or not it's correct.
DANTICATWell, you have probably great informers. That is indeed a picture of my oldest. It's a silhouette. You can't really see her face but I'm told that people who know us will say you could -- that they could tell by my -- it's my child because we have the same five head, not even a forehead.
NNAMDIWhat a five head?
DANTICATA five head is an extraordinarily big forehead.
NNAMDIOh yeah, then I have one. I'm a fiver.
DANTICATIt means that we're very smart. So it is indeed my Mira (sp?) . A friend of mine took that picture one day of her running along the beach. And when we were looking at covers someone though, oh this would make a great cover, especially since Mira was about the same age as the character was. And you asked before about the way that being a parent informs. It's just that it's -- when you're writing about a little girl in crisis and you have two little girls in the room next door sleeping, it certainly informs, you know. And it becomes in a way that every child becomes your child because you're wishing for every other child the same that you would wish for your own child.
NNAMDINature plays an active role in this plot. On the very first page it creates a 10' wave that swallows up one of the town's fishermen. What made you decide to make nature essentially a character in this book?
DANTICATBecause I think when you live in an island and when you live so close to the sea, as the characters do in this town -- and it's an invented town, it's a fictional town. But when you live that close to nature -- and I've been in places like his -- you are in many ways at the mercy of nature. And the main character, the father is a fisherman who lives by the sea. And his community of fishermen, they live and die by the sea. So if the sea's not producing, if it's overfished, if it's run -- if it's covered in silt, if erosion has brought land into the sea, then they have -- you know, they have nothing to live from.
DANTICATSo the sea is -- it gives and it takes and it's a big temperamental. It's -- the town, as it's structured, is sort of between this mountain range and a very volatile stretch of the sea. So the whole -- everyone in this community lives at the mercy of -- at the sea at the mercy of nature. And it's something that more and more -- as I've returned more and more to Haiti, especially to places where I knew as a child and I've sort of gradually seen as an adult, you see the environmental effects of, you know, many things. So nature is more active. Nature is sort of more vocal.
DANTICATAnd even in this part of the world we see that things that people would say were 100-year occurrences are happening more and more. And that's even more so for people who have very little cover, very little protection because they live so close to nature. They live from nature.
NNAMDIIndeed you created this town and I'm assuming you had parts of Haiti in mind as you put together this, what might be a collage of a town that you created for this. But what I guess is important is that it's an almost idyllic town. The reader doesn't see a Haiti that's been devastated by disaster. Was that deliberate on your part?
DANTICATWell, the story -- I started writing this book in 2005. And a big chunk of it was written before the earthquake. And this town was first introduced to my world and to people who read me in my second book "Krik? Krak!." And I decided to create a town -- and my mother's name is Rose so it's called the Rose. And the town is based on several different coastal towns but primarily on the town of Leogane, which is where my mother was born and grew up and where I spent some of my summers when I was little.
DANTICATAnd so I borrowed different elements of different towns but I also didn't feel like I was ready to write a book, even fiction, about post earthquake Haiti. And I was already deep into this book so I wanted to preserve that -- you know, what I had already done. And -- but it also became a kind of tribute to this town. It's -- you say idyllic. It's not -- you know, it still has its lurking problems. But I also wanted to create a town that is a collage, as you say -- as one of the characters in the book also says, of all these different places where people live a certain way, where they try to form a community in spite of their differences, in spite of their problems.
DANTICATBut it is definitely pre earthquake. If I could pin down to a specific time I would say it would be around 2009, the year before the earthquake.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation with Edwidge Danticat about her latest novel. It's titled "Claire of the Sea Light." We're inviting you to join the conversation. Are you or your parents immigrants? If so, how did that affect major decisions you have made in life like the career that you chose, 800-433-8850? Send email to email@example.com. Send us a Tweet at kojoshow or simply go to our website kojoshow.org. Ask a question or make a comment there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Edwidge Danticat. She joins us from studios in Miami where she lives to discuss her latest novel. It's titled "Claire of the Sea Light." Edwidge Danticat is the author of several books including "Brother, I'm Dying" and "The Dew Breaker." We're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. Are you an immigrant who was parented by someone else before you joined your parents here in the United States if they left your native country before you did and left you with someone else? Tell us about that experience, 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIEdwidge Danticat, we mentioned earlier the 10' wave that's right at the beginning of this novel. Like that 10' wave, some tragic events seem to happen in Ville Rose without any clear reason. What are we to make of these apparently inexplicable illnesses, deaths and coincidences?
DANTICATWell, one of the events that you might be thinking about is it sounds like magic realism but it's not. There's a summer that suddenly all the frogs in Ville Rose die. And I know it sounds marquesian, but there's -- there have been incidents like this, you know, we talk about here in the United States. We talk about the disappearances of the bees and other sort of bellwether species. And the frogs thing fascinated me to a great extent because every once in a while they will be found in some -- and what little dense forest -- there's a place called Peak Macaya (sp?) where they will find rare species of frogs that don't exist anywhere else in the world that are perhaps extent (sic) in other places.
DANTICATAnd so I wanted to use that, the disappearance of the frogs also as a way of talking about environmental degradation, which is something that you also see if you're used to going to certain places. And suddenly you see the place gradually change. And so in Ville Rose they have this incident with the frogs which slip into folklore, but also is -- as the people in the town discuss it -- is a sign to them, even those who are not scientists, that something very serious might be about to happen. Just as the freak wave is a sign of, you know, the plates shifting under the ocean.
DANTICATOne of the things after the earthquake that when I would speak to elders, people I know, they would say, you know in retrospect we -- there were certain signs. Like they would feel like they were mild tremors that they had felt at times before the earthquakes. So the disappearance of the frogs as it is used in this book and the waves and other things are signs or sort of premonition via nature that something big is about to happen.
NNAMDIEach of your characters deals with the death of someone he or she loves. And why does death show up, well, pretty often in your writing? What do you think you learn about it by writing about it?
DANTICATWell, I mean, maybe it's a kind of macabre thing that follows me from my childhood. My uncle who raised me while my parents were here in the U.S., he and his wife, my uncle was a minister. And as part of the minister's family we had almost -- we lived the cycle of life and death almost every weekend. So my uncle might have a, you know, baptism on Sunday, a funeral on Saturday, a birth on Friday, a last rights to someone at some point in the middle of the week. And we were often present, you know, for a lot of this as the minister's family.
DANTICATSo that cycle, I think, of life and death coexisting was something that was always present for me. But also when you live or you grew up or you spend your, you know, years of formation in a community that -- where those things really coexist. They're not so separated, so compartmentalized, that you do realize that it is part of it, that death in a way, that you learn both through traditional religion and other ways walks besides us.
DANTICATYou know, my uncle used to have this saying as, you know, we (speaks foreign language) we're all walking with our coffins under our arms. And what we do with the time that we are here is what is most important. So I think that's something that is perhaps a primary obsession that keeps emerging in my work.
NNAMDIOnto the telephones. Here is Veda in Reston, Va. Veda, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
VEDAHi, Kojo. I just love your show. I just love your show for the diversity of topics, et cetera. And I want to thank you for brining Edwidge to us once again. I haven't read any of her books but I'll definitely find this one and read it because I have a daughter named Claire who's seven years old.
NNAMDIWhat a coincidence.
VEDAYeah, and I'm...
DANTICATWell, in Creole we would say your daughter is the tokai (sp?) , like the namesake of -- their namesakes, tokais.
NNAMDIExactly right. Veda, you were saying?
VEDAYes, and I'm an immigrant and definitely the experiences that you describe in your book we have lived for three generations. Because I'm originally from Liberia, but my mother lived with her aunt for a number of years before moving to live with her dad in Liberia. And when she came away to school, I lived with a couple of aunts actually in terms of this village of a family. And my daughter too was in Liberia for about a year. She's not back, getting back used to the States. So it's with three generations.
VEDAAnd it's something that's within the African culture that looks like in the Caribbean also. And I wanted to talk about the positive sides of it because it really is a village. And it leads to stronger family ties. And it shows that the family is there as the net. When there's no social services, the family steps in and that's what keeps us private and closer together. So I can't wait to read your book, Edwidge.
NNAMDIWell, I'm glad you brought that up because one of the things that Edwidge is discussing -- even you heard it in the passage that she read -- is that there are some people who think that this is a casual giving away of a child by a parent who does not necessarily agonize over it. Because it does seem to be so common in certain immigrant communities, particularly in immigrant communities of color. But, Edwidge, I guess you wanted to make the point that there is a very, very important responsibility here that parents take very seriously.
DANTICATOh, absolutely. And I think it's so important to what Veda said about the fact that it's the idea that family is not just your mother, your father, your brother, your sister. In that this idea that you belong to this large family is so important. And it's something that I, as a parent, would love to -- in whatever way possible to pass on to my girls. But I've also seen people so casually talk about the idea. It's not abandonment. It's an agonizing choice. And often it's -- and sometimes it's a choice between life and death where a parent feels it that strongly.
DANTICATAnd it's an extraordinary sacrifice. And I wanted -- and that's a thing I wanted to explore in this book too from the point of view of all three of these essential characters in this exchange, if you will, both the child, the father and the potential parent. It's not something that's done casually. It's something that I think haunts even the parents who have to make that choice.
NNAMDIVeda, thank you very much for your call and good luck with your seven-year-old. Haiti's struggle with gang violence makes its way into Claire's story. While her community Ville Rose is spared from crime and violence, it's neighbor Sidepondu (sp?) is the home to gang lords and frequent homicides. To what extent do you think that's a reflection of the reality of Haitian communities?
DANTICATWell, I think it's -- in a way it shows what is happening in many urban communities where young men are left without choices. They're used then abandoned, and they're armed when needed and discarded when not. My uncle Joseph, we lived -- where we lived in Bel Air where I grew up was a community that gradually saw an increase in gang violence. And there's -- the dichotomy in that, you would know these young men. My uncle knew them and I knew some of them when I would go and visit.
DANTICATAnd you would see that what happened -- you know, the rise in gang violence and so forth was really a result of their being left out of any choices. It's not a way of excusing it but -- as a human being, first of all, but as a novelist you also have to put yourself in somebody else's shoes and try to see what drives those choices. And eventually some of the gangs were confronted by the United Nations which shot at them from my uncle's rooftop. And my uncle was forced to leave the community. And then he came here to the U.S. and died in immigration custody when they took his medication.
DANTICATBut the idea here is not to villainize or to sort of say this is the scourge of the society. These are (word?) or these are ghosts. But to try to understand why that young man who could be someone's son, and some of them, their parents were in my uncle's church, what leads them down this path? And why there's no society that can rescue them.
DANTICATSo in the book that fiction sometimes gives you a way to go deeper into that. That's something that I wanted very much to try to explore, why a regular young man would be forced to make some really -- these types of choices. And what responsibility does the society have in letting that happen, not just to one, not just to two but to dozens or hundreds.
NNAMDIYou mentioned your uncle dying so I thought I would read this Tweet we got from Christopher who Tweets, "Just read "Brother, I'm Dying." You did an amazing job of using your family history as a lens to explore U.S.-Haiti relations." And we should mention that that book is about the death of your father and your uncle.
DANTICATUm-hum. Yeah, thank you for that, Christopher. I mean, when that happened, you know, it was in a way a layer of injustices. When my uncle was 81 years old and he requested asylum. He was detained in immigration custody. And, as I mentioned, his medication was taken away and he died. And the sort of -- it - and my family wasn't the only family that had had that experience of people seeking shelter and dying in custody.
DANTICATSo that opportunity -- it wasn't a book that I was planning to write but the opportunity to try also to tell that story and as a representative of the immigration system then, and even now, you know, how people who are seeking asylum are treated so deplorably. So that -- in a way that's a privilege when you get to do that as a writer to try to tell a much larger story through the singularity of one story.
NNAMDIHere is Eileen in Washington, D.C. Eileen, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
EILEENHello. Thank you very much Edwidge Danticat. I am so honored to talk with you. I was a teacher in the District of Columbia. I'm retired now but I taught through the, you know, '80s, '90s and early 2000s. And I taught literature English at -- may I say the name of the school?
DANTICATBanneker High School, a wonderful school...
NNAMDIBanneker Academic High School, yes.
EILEENLovely students. You know, students who really were superior and wonderful and interested in literature. And I taught "Breath, Eyes, Memory" and "The Farming of Bones," or had them read those two books. And their response was extraordinary. They love your writing. They loved your writing. And let me tell you why. Because you tell a great story.
EILEENTheir appreciation for you was similar to their appreciation of Shakespeare, I have to say.
EILEENYou know, any great literary writer who tells a great story captures the imagination of students. And they adore your books, those two in particular. Partly is too because you are not so dependent on an egotistical perspective as many modern writers are.
NNAMDIYou're building up her ego pretty well right now.
DANTICATI know. How am I going to leave the studio?
EILEENI wanted to know (unintelligible) ...
DANTICATThank you. Thank you.
EILEEN...to you and to other writers as well, I guess. You take that personal history that you and your family have been through, but you translate it in your books into some sort of a universal narrative. A narrative that speaks to everyone and, you know, a great history. And you just tell a great story.
NNAMDIIt's what she does.
EILEENAnd that's what makes your books wonderful, in my opinion.
NNAMDIEileen, thank you very much for your call.
DANTICATOh, thank you. Thank you. I should travel with you.
NNAMDIEileen could be your public relations bosom.
DANTICATYes. Thank you so much. It's very -- that's very kind of her. But it is something that I do try to work at too. I think the -- what I most want to do is tell an engaging story. I love to preach and teach. That's -- I think that's sort of the preacher's niece in me. But I also want to feel like I'm telling an engaging story. A story that you don't want to put down. So that's an extraordinary compliment. Thank you.
NNAMDIEileen, thank you very much for your call. Even a small town like Ville Rose, economic inequality is clearly evident there. There's a line between the haves and the have nots. One of your characters from the slums dreams of jumping that line and becoming a radio producer. Are there particular difficulties that Haitians face in trying to move beyond their social class?
DANTICATWell, I think Haiti, like a lot of places in the developing world, it's a stratified society. I think in any place where you have limited resources, you're going to have walls. You know, there are obstacles. There's a very small middle class in Haiti and it's sometimes very hard without migration to transcend your class status. Now people who then are a diaspora or people like me who were poor there, you can go back and have a different status.
DANTICATBut it is very hard to transcend your status unless you -- something happens and you jump into the super rich. I don't know how you would come into millions, you know, without bad means but it's -- but that's why so many parents still -- I mean, it's very interesting. With still the way the society is stratified, you see parents wrestling, struggling, giving everything they have so that their child can go to school because there's always that aspiration that, you know, your child will transcend, that your child will do better, as it is in any other society. But the difficulty then -- and then, you know, and we see that all the time. When you go back you have young people whose parents have spent so much of their resources to try to get them to like the furthest they can go in school and then there's, you know, then the door shuts.
DANTICATAnd then those young people dream of migrating, of going elsewhere. But it is a continuous struggle that's still -- I mean, it's always powerful to me. We work with many different schools in different areas as a family, and you see these parents who are so devoted. Like they think, my child is going to do better than me. My child is going to do better than me. And they bet everything on that.
NNAMDIOne of the ironies of that migration is that if you happen to be poor in Haiti -- and I know this is also true in some other countries -- and then you migrate and you do better and you return expecting to be able to integrate into the society, much the same way you were before you left, it's a little different because for some reason everybody can immediately tell by taking one look at you, by the way you walk, that you haven't been living here for a long time. When you go to Haiti, you aren't like everyone else. And here in the U.S. where you live, you aren't really like everyone else either. Could you talk a little bit about that?
DANTICATWell, I think that's the dilemma of migration. And in Haiti when you go back you are diaspora. And it's not necessarily that antagonistic. I think sometimes it's portrayed as an over-antagonistic situation. But you are diaspora, you are something other. And I'm sure in many other cultures there's a way of saying it, that, you know, you haven't been here. But most people have someone in their family who are in the diaspora. You know a lot of people do. And most of Haiti's economy is really maintained by remittances, by people in the diaspora who send money back.
DANTICATAnd a lot of people who go back and start projects and so forth, which is something that's not often mentioned about sort of the way Haiti's helped, that there's a lot of also neighborhood associations, people who support organizations on the ground where they come from. So I think there is that otherness. And in the book the characters made fun of the diaspora, but there's one woman also who will say I will never leave, I will never be diaspora, which is how my uncle was, the one who died here.
DANTICATBut I think any place where you have people who stay, you know, the Cubans have had it and others have had it, you have a -- there's a conversation about it. People do recognize your otherness when you go back, but there's no war. I always think it's sort of a family situation. There are families who, you know, people who stay in the family homestead and others who go elsewhere.
NNAMDISomething that I've certainly experienced when I've returned to my native Guiana. So I know the situation and it's not, as you say, necessarily antagonistic. We have to take a short break. When we come back we'll return to our conversation with Edwidge Danticat. Her latest novel is called, "Clair Of The Sea Light." If you have called, stay on the line. We'll try to get to your calls. The number's 800-433-8850. Or you can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with author Edwidge Danticat. She joins us from studios in Miami, Fla. where she lives. We're talking about her latest novel. It's called "Claire Of The Sea Light." Edwidge Danticat is the author of several books, including "Brother, I'm Dying," and the "Dew Breaker." Your publishing agent noted in an interview that Wikipedia editors have moved your name from a list called American Novelists to a list called Haitian Female Novelists. Do you think you belong in any one category more than you belong in another? What's this all about anyway?
DANTICATWell, I don't worry so much about my categorization. I don't know. I don't -- I let others decide with the sort of where to put me. But I think what was sort of disturbing about that particular incident with Wikipedia is that they were moving all the women novelists out of the American Novelists category and then putting them in sort of their own -- these other different boxes. Obviously, I am Haitian. You know, somebody called me…
NNAMDIYou're also American.
DANTICAT…Haitian American. And so I don't, you know, I let others worry about that, but I wonder sometimes sort of why they're doing it.
NNAMDIWhy the gender emphasis of it?
DANTICATYeah, and why, you know, and obviously I’m a woman, too, so I just try not to worry too much about it. But I think we have to question it because if they're moving women to, you know, they're sort of moving all the women from a certain category of novelists, why not just, you know, have Novelists or Haitian Novelists?
NNAMDIYeah, because in my view it serves to undermine the universality of the themes that you're exploring and the universality of the appeal of your writing, that it's categorized in such a way as to suggest that a particular type of reader only might be interested in this.
DANTICATWell, not that American is universal either.
DANTICATBut I think, you know, my friend Danny Lafayeir (sp?) puts it in this extraordinary way, and I always quote him. And he says, you know, when they ask him -- he's from Haiti. He lives in Canada. And they ask him, well, what kind of novelist are you? He said I'm a Japanese writer. And people say, say what? And he says, well, the writer belongs to the country of his or her readers. So I'll just go wherever they claim me. I think that's sort of the core immigrant in me.
NNAMDIBut you've written that people in your Haitian audience are not always happy with the stories you choose to tell about their culture. How do you handle those negative reactions?
DANTICATWell, I think, you know, I react negatively, sometimes, to things that are written about Haiti, because sometimes I think they emphasize a certain -- they sort of generalize a certain personal view. So I understand that, that sensitivity, certainly. And sometimes I participate in it. And it's good to have people watching out, sort of keeping you on track. But what I do, and I think it happens to all writers of color, you know. Alice Walker certainly and others have come against that. You know, we can't tell everybody's story.
DANTICATAnd we're not a monolithic group of people. So I always try to stress the singularity of the story that I am telling. And certainly Claire, in this book, could represent a lot of little kids, but ultimately she is one child. And so we're telling, you know, a singular story. And then certainly in fiction you can't always write very feel-good kind of things because a work of fiction is about extraordinary circumstance. People are facing extraordinary obstacles. So I love Haiti, I think as much as anybody could love Haiti, but -- and I celebrate it in many ways.
DANTICATBut this is, I think, and you know, this requires another kind of love, a harsher kind of love, when you write about difficult situations.
NNAMDIHere is Gene, in New Carrollton, Md. Gene, your turn.
GENEHey, Claire, my name is Gene. I'm from Haiti. I'm from Jeremie. I would like to know where I can get the book from you.
NNAMDIYou can get it just about any place. You can certainly get it at Amazon.com, if you'd like to go there for it, but I don't know if Edwidge might have any particular place she might want you to purchase the book.
DANTICATWell, Gene, you can come by in about a week. I'll be at Politics and Prose on September 17th, at 7:00 p.m. And I just also want to say that Gene is from a beautiful place in Haiti, called Jeremie. And Jeremie also is known as the City of Poets. So he's from the City of Poets.
NNAMDIGene, thank you very much for your call and good luck with finding the book.
DANTICATThank you, Gene.
NNAMDIOn now to -- Gene, indeed. On now to George, in Washington, D.C. George, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
GEORGEThank you. I am a former Peace Corps volunteer in Liberia from '62 to '64. And my second year I lived up country in a small village. And I had heard the mention of Liberia earlier. I caught the tail end of the interview. But one of the things that was mentioned was a child being reared by others. And my principal, who lived next door to me, who I worked for, had a young boy who was…
NNAMDIUh-oh. Your phone is breaking up very badly on us and you just fell off all together. But, Edwidge, I think what he was calling about was a comparison of the kind of parenting model that you were talking about, that immigrant parents have in Haiti and in other places, to what he experienced when he was with the Peace Corps in Liberia.
DANTICATYeah, I think, you know, we could try to finish the thought for him. It was probably that, you know, what I think he was about to say was that maybe it wasn't that unusual as Frieda, the first caller, said. This idea of a child being raised by others. And I agree. And sometimes it doesn't turn out well, sometimes, you know, you have people who will be abusive, but a lot of the time people who take in the children do it because they want to, out of a kind of love or duty.
NNAMDIIndeed. We got an email from Ann who said, "I am not of Haitian descent and I'm fortunate not to have to deal with the issues of the characters in your book, but I found that as a parent of three young children I was immediately drawn to the passage Ms. Danticat read at the beginning of the show. The passage was something that I believe all parents can relate to, as it depicts the complicated relationships between parents and children from any background in any place in the world.
NNAMDI"It was a realistic view of parenthood, without only glorifying it or solely focusing on its tribulations. I can't wait to read this book," she says by email.
DANTICATThat is so kind. I mean, I think one of the things when I was writing that passage that I kept thinking about was just what this writer mentioned about the complicated nature of parenthood. And often we don't have -- you know, you have these discussions in a society about good mommies, bad mommies, mommies who work, mommies who stay home, but we never really, you know, every time there's a woman who steps out of line and says, you know, this is really difficult, you know, without over idealizing it or -- they get knocked down.
DANTICATSo I think it's a very complicated thing, parenting. And it is this thing that you realize when you become a parent you join a kind of society that -- and nobody could have told you what it would have been like until you joined this club.
NNAMDIHere's one of the complicated things about it. You have admitted that many immigrant parents hope their children will seek stable careers, lawyers, doctors. What resistance did you face from your own parents when you chose the path of a writer? And what are your hopes for your own children?
DANTICATWell, my parents were very nervous for me when I said that I wanted to be a writer. I think part of it was also, you know, when they were growing -- my parents came of age in a dictatorship. And a lot of our writers were imprisoned and some were killed. But also they were really worried about the success, this idea of success for them…
NNAMDIThe potential for earning a living, yes.
DANTICATYes, exactly. And being a writer, no matter what anybody says, it's ebbs and flows and -- unless you're, you know, way up there. But they were nervous about this idea of stability. And as a parent now I understand it. Because their migration, my parents' migration was a family project. It was done for them. They didn't do it because they were unhappy where they were. I mean, they were unhappy because they had difficulties, but they really were doing it for us. So this whole great enterprise had been undertaken so one could have a better future. So they wanted that to be assured.
DANTICATAs for my girls, I mean I, you know, I’m -- that's sort of the second generation answer, I guess. I want them to be happy. I hope they find their way. And maybe one day I'll be reciting that passage over them in sort of a kind of prayer or mantra hoping they are well. But, you know, when they're young -- and I've seen people struggle with just keeping their child alive. So you just hope that they're healthy, that they're well and that they find their paths in life, they find their passions, just as I feel like I found mine.
DANTICATMy parents would have loved for me to find it as a neurosurgeon, but this is how it turned out.
NNAMDIHere is Nadine, in Washington, D.C. Hi, Nadine.
NADINEHi, Kojo and Edwidge.
NADINEHello. How are you?
NNAMDIYou only have about a minute left, Nadine.
NADINEOkay. Good. I just wanted to say I'm quite possibly one of her biggest fans. I've been to every one of her book readings from Boston, when I was student there to now Washington, D.C. And I will be at Politics and Prose. I started collecting her books, thinking that I would pass them on to my daughters. I ended up having two sons, but I look forward to sharing them with my sons, who are Haitian American, when they come of age.
DANTICATThank you, Nadine. Thank you.
NNAMDINadine, thank you very much for your call. Edwidge, like your 2004 novel "Dew Breaker," your latest work is a novel that also functions as a collection of individual stories. What about that format appeals to you?
DANTICATI think the collectivity of it. I joke that every time I start to write a story, a village shows up. And I'm going to stop it. The next one won't be that way. But I like the collectivity, just the way, as in, you know, the radio hostess in the book says that she wants to write a collage.
NNAMDIYeah, we forgot to talk about the big role that radio plays in this book.
DANTICATI know. And you, the radio host. It's a medium that is loved in Haiti and it's a medium that I love. But I like the collectivity, the way of bringing all the different voices together. I think that is something that keeps jumping in the structuring of my books.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Edwidge Danticat is the author of several books, including "Brother, I'm Dying," and "The Dew Breaker." Her latest book is titled, "Claire Of The Sea Light." Thank you so much for joining us.
DANTICATThank you, Kojo. Thank you for having me.
NNAMDI"The Kojo Nnamdi Show" is produced by Michael Martinez, Ingalisa Schrobsdorff, Tayla Burney, Kathy Goldgeier, and Elizabeth Weinstein, with help from Stephanie Stokes. Brendan Sweeney is the managing producer. The engineer, Tobey Schreiner. Natalie Yuravlivker is on the phones. Podcasts of all shows, audio archives and free transcripts are available at our website, kojoshow.org. If you'd like to share comments or questions with us, you can send us email to Kojo@wamu.org. Join us on Facebook or send a tweet, @kojoshow. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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