behind the books

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A Conversation with Edwidge Danticat

...author of Breath, Eyes, Memory

Q: Why did you decide to write BREATH, EYES, MEMORY?

A: I started Breath, Eyes, Memory when I was still in high school after writing an article for a New York City teen newspaper about my leaving Haiti and coming to the United States as a child. After the article was done I felt there was more to the story, so I decided to write a short story about a young girl who leaves Haiti to come to the United States to be reunited with her mother, who she doesn't really know. The story just grew and grew and as it grew I began to weave more and more fictional elements into it and added some themes that concerned me.

Q: What would you say those themes are?

A: One of the most important themes is migration, the separation of families, and how much that affects the parents and children who live through that experience. My father left Haiti to come to New York seeking a better life--economically and politically-- when I was only two years old, and my mother when I was four years old. I was raised by my aunt and uncle, and even though I understood, I think, early on the great sacrifices that my parents were making, I still missed them very much. But having formed parental-type relationships with my aunt and uncle, I was really torn and heartbroken when I had to leave them to be reunited with my parents in New York. So I wanted to deal with that from the point of view of a child who's faced with this situation. I wanted to include some of the political realities of Haiti--as a young girl felt and interpreted them--and how that affected ordinary people, the way that people tried to carry on their daily lives even under a dictatorship or post-dictatorship. Finally, I wanted to deal with mother-daughter relationships and the way that mothers sometimes attempt to make themselves the guardians of their daughter's sexuality.

Q: Do you think that the mothers' concern with their daughters' sexuality, the concern for virginity as expressed in the book, is something that is particularly and singularly Haitian?

A: Oh no. Not at all. The "testing" in the book for example, goes back to the Virgin Mary. If you look at the apocryphal gospels, after the Virgin Mary gives birth to the Christ child, a midwife comes and tries to test her virginity by insertion, if you can imagine. The family in the book was never meant to be a "typical" Haitian family, if there is ever a typical family in any culture. The family is very much Haitian, but they live their own internal and individual matriarchal reality and they worship the Virgin Mary and the Haitian goddess Erzulie in many interesting forms. The essential thing to all the mothers in the book is to try, in their own way, to be the best mothers they can be, given their circumstances, because they want their daughters to go further in life than they did themselves.

Q: What was it like for you to come to the United States as a child?

A: It was all so very different. I didn't speak the language. I felt very lost and I withdrew into myself, became much more shy than I already was. I sought solace in books, read a lot, and kept journals written in fragmented Creole, French, and English. I think it's very difficult for every child who comes here from another culture. I tried to deal with some of these adjustment issues in the book: the whole idea of learning another language and getting used to a completely new environment. Part of the reason that Breath, Eyes, Memory is told in these four fragments is that Sophie, the narrator, is a recent speaker of English, and in telling a story in English she would definitely try to be economical with her words. Her voice would have less novelistic artifice, for example. She would mostly get to the important events, right to the point. She would also get some things wrong, sometimes, but it would all come back to the story, what she wants to tell you.

Q: How much of your book is autobiographical?

A: The book is more emotionally autobiographical than anything else. It's a collage of fictional and real-life events and people. To quote a wonderful Haitian-American writer who came before me, a man named Assotto Saint, "I wanted to write a carefree poem / for my childhood / lost too fast... / somewhere in the air / between port-au-prince & new york city." But I also wanted to tell a story in the very basic sense of the word, create a narrative that would keep you interested in the lives of the characters.

Q: Why do you write in English and not in French or Creole?

A: I came to the United States at an interesting time in my life, at twelve years old, on the cusp of adolescence. I think if we had moved to Spain, I probably would have written in Spanish. My primary language was Haitian Creole, which at the time that I was in school in Haiti was not taught in a consistent written form. My instruction was done in French, which I only spoke in school and not at home. When I came here I was completely between languages. It's not unusual for me to run into young people, for example, who have been here for a year and stutter through both their primary language and English because the new language is settling into them in a very obvious way. I came to English at a time when I was not adept enough at French to write creatively in French and did not know how to write in Creole because it had not been taught to me in school, so my writing in English was as much an act of personal translation as it was an act of creative collaboration with the new place I was in. My writing in English is a consequence of my migration, in the same way that immigrant children speaking to each other in English is a consequence of their migration.

Q: How often do you go back to Haiti?

A: I go back as often as I can. For family visits and other things. I still have a lot of family in Haiti and going back is often linked to family affairs.

Q: Do you think about being a role model, a representative for your culture?

A: I come from a very rich, strong, proud, and varied culture. There are so many aspects to Haitian culture that one person could not ever ever represent them all, and humbly and respectfully I don't believe that this task is mine. I'm a weaver a tales. I tell stories. Speaking on national culture, Frantz Fanon says that "Each generation must out of relative obscurity discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it." I'm simply trying to fulfill mine. What I do is neither sociology, nor anthropology, nor history. I think artists have to be allowed to be just that: people who create, who make things up. However, as Ralph Ellison writes at the end of Invisible Man, "Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?" I hope to speak for the individuals who might identify with the stories I tell. However, I think it would be disrespectful of me to reduce the expression of an entire culture to one voice, whether that voice be mine or any other individual's. There are many great and powerful role models and representatives in Haitian life. There are millions and millions of Haitian voices. Mine is only one. My greatest hope is that mine becomes one voice in a giant chorus that is trying to understand and express artistically what it's like to be a Haitian immigrant in the United States.


About the Author

Since the publication of her debut work Breath, Eyes, Memory in 1994, Edwidge Danticat has won praise as one of America's brightest, most graceful and vibrant young writers. In this novel, and in her National Book Award-nominated collection of stories, Krik? Krak!, Danticat evokes the powerful imagination and rich narrative tradition of her native Haiti, and in the process records the suffering, triumphs, and wisdom of its people. Author Paule Marshall has said of Danticat, "A silenced Haiti has once again found its literary voice."

Born in Haiti in 1969, Danticat, like the protagonist of her novel Breath, Eyes, Memory, at the age of twelve left her birthplace for New York to reunite with her parents. She earned a degree in French Literature from Barnard College, where she won the 1995 Woman of Achievement Award, and later an MFA from Brown University. More recently, she has received an ongoing grant from the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Foundation.

Critical acclaim and awards for her first novel included a Granta Regional Award for the Best Young American Novelists, a Pushcart Prize and fiction awards from Essence and Seventeen magazines. She was chosen by Harper's Bazaar as one of 20 people in their twenties who will make a difference, and was featured in a New York Times Magazine article that named "30 Under 30" creative people to watch. This winter, Jane magazine named her one of the "15 Gutsiest Women of the Year."

Danticat's second novel, The Farming of Bones, based upon the 1937 massacre of Haitians at the border of the Dominican Republic, will be published in September 1998 by Soho Press.

Photo © Arturo Patten