The Books Interview: A Brooklyn bridge-builder

Edwidge Danticat - once a poor immigrant, now a rising literary star - talks to Christina Patterson
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When Edwidge Danticat arrived in New York at the age of 12, she spoke in a whisper. She knew only a few words of English and had not seen her parents since she was four. Being Haitian was bad enough at her school, without the added burden of a heavy Creole accent. Yet, at the age of 26, she was shortlisted for the National Book Award, the American equivalent of the Booker, and now, just 30, she teaches two days a week at New York University. It is difficult to believe that this elegant, extraordinarily beautiful young woman, at ease among the brocade armchairs and polished mahogany of the Waldorf, spent her formative years in the slum district of Port-au-Prince.

As a small child, living with her aunt, uncle, grandmother and younger brother, Danticat wasn't sure what had happened to her parents or if they were coming back. She gradually learned that, like many Caribbeans, they were in the capital of the American Dream, working all the hours God sent in the hope of a better future. When the immigration authorities finally deemed her cab-driving father and factory-working mother able to support their two Haitian children, as well as the two sons they had produced in Brooklyn, Edwidge and her brother were catapulted out of their familiar childhood world into a cold, tough city full of strangers.

Their parents, too, were strangers. "The first year or so was difficult," says Danticat with characteristic understatement. "Even calling them 'mama' and 'papa' felt very unnatural. You develop a different kind of relationship, but I think the years that you lose you never get back."

Ingrained with "immigrant work-ethic pressures", combined with "eldest child pressure", Danticat braved the taunts of her classmates and knuckled down to serious study. She was intensely aware that her parents, who "worked from early morning to late at night" to keep the six of them in their two-bedroom flat, had high expectations. They hoped for a doctor daughter or perhaps an engineer, but Danticat settled for economics. The night before her finals, however, she would find herself overtaken by a story and compelled to write it down.

She ended up joining the Master of Fine Arts programme at Brown University, developing Breath, Eyes, Memory from a short story into a novel. Publication followed, with rave reviews. The Danticats' daughter's hobby was getting out of hand.

"I come from a place where breath, eyes and memory are one, a place from which you carry your past like the hair on your head," says Sophie, the book's narrator. Reflecting her creator's dual experience of a childhood with relatives in Haiti and a traumatic transition to life in New York, this poetic, pared-to-the-bone and moving narrative is shot through with the folklore, stories and painful history of Haiti.

Here, the significant characters are all women. Sophie lives with her aunt and grandmother and then joins her mother in Brooklyn. All have suffered heartbreak and disappointment, not least the traumatic "testing" of virginity that poor Haitian mothers inflicted on their daughters to ensure the continuation of their one saleable commodity.

These scenes provoked hostility among middle-class Haitian-Americans, who claimed never to have heard of the practice, and thought that the first Haitian-American writer to publish in English should have presented a more positive image of the homeland. "I didn't realise until writing this book how much difference there was between poor women and rich women in Haitian society," says Danticat. "But the people who might understand everything I'm saying can't read. For me, that's heartbreaking."

Illiteracy rates in Haiti are among the highest in the world, and significantly higher for women than men. Even in spoken language, social differences are perpetuated. There is, says Danticat, a strong matriarchal sense in Haitian life, "a very strong sense of women holding things together", but "these women who were like giants in my life, when they went to the bank they were made to feel small, because they didn't speak French well enough."

Creole, the language spoken by the poor, was rarely written down, while French was the language of the authorities and of dead white males such as Victor Hugo and Emile Zola. It is perhaps not surprising that, for Danticat, the writing "just started to come in English," a language which offered "a neutrality" and "a kind of distance, one more layer between the story and yourself."

Storytelling was a central feature of her childhood, sowing the seed of all that developed. Danticat learnt her first lessons in narrative during the blackouts that were a part of daily life in Port-au-Prince. She loved "the interaction of generations, the one time when the eldest people in the family could sit with the youngest ones and it was a completely equal exchange." As a child, she devoured Ludwig Bemelmans's Madeleine books and dreamed of writing her own little-girl adventures.

However, as someone born during the dictatorship of "Papa Doc" Duvalier, she was intensely aware that "words can be deadly" and that writers in Haiti often ended up in prison, in exile or dead. On arrival in the US, the first book she read was Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. She was amazed not just by its unflinching honesty, but by the fact that its author was happy and alive.

Danticat was hesitant about making the transition from oral to written language, not just because of the dangers associated with writing, but because she "knew it was a pale shadow of actually being in the presence of someone telling you a story."

But she was also aware that "once the storyteller dies, the story is gone." "Once you migrate," she muses, "you put a big ocean between you and the story and memory fails you. When you write a story, at least it's there. It exists."

The title of her short-story collection, Krik? Krak! - the traditional storytelling call and response - could not have been a clearer indication that she had decided to take on the challenge. These stories, written over a seven-year period, offer haunting, heartbreaking vignettes of Haitians trying to forge a daily life against a background of poverty, violence and oppression, people whose "names don't matter to anyone but themselves". The first, "Children of the Sea", has particular resonance in a week when another 40 Haitians fleeing from their homeland have drowned off the coast of Miami.

"Thomas Wolfe, shake hands with Edwidge Danticat, your spiritual heir," thundered Newsweek as the American heavyweights vied with each other to pile on the praise. Danticat found herself in the company of Philip Roth and Madison Smartt Bell on the shortlist for the National Book Award and cast into the unexpected role of an unofficial ambassador for her home country.

It was a responsibility she found increasingly weighty as she set about researching her third book, The Farming of Bones (Abacus, pounds 9.99), published this week. Spanning 60 years, it is a devastating account, written from the point of view of a young Haitian servant-girl, of the events and aftermath of a massacre in 1937 on the border with the neighbouring Dominican Republic, after its regime had rounded up the Haitians who came to work there.

This is, says Danticat, the story she has always wanted to write, though at times she was overwhelmed by the sadness of the tales she was told. "I was only able to work on this when I told myself that I was telling one of many stories," she reveals. The novel is, if anything, even more understatedly moving than the previous two, a searing lament for Haiti's troubled, tragic history.

It is not surprising that she feels a little drained after this, the culmination of six years' work. Eventually, she plans to explore more of Haiti's colonial history, but at the moment she is content to work on a TV documentary with a friend. For now, this quietly spoken, self- assured young woman is happy to live with her family, who remain unmoved by all the literary fuss.

"I missed so many years with my parents and I like their company," she states. She has a "little office", a safeguard against the neighbours' assumption of babysitting on tap, but her own trousseau, embroidered as a child, remains, crisp and starched, in her bottom drawer.

Edwidge Danticat, A Biography

Edwidge Danticat was born in rural Haiti in 1969, under the Duvalier dictatorship. When she was four her parents emigrated to the US, leaving her and her younger brother in the care of relatives in Port-au-Prince. Aged 12, she joined her parents in Brooklyn and published her first writing two years later. She graduated from Barnard College in 1990 and went on to join the Writing Program at Brown University. Breath, Eyes, Memory was published in 1994, followed by Krik? Krak! in 1995, which was shortlisted for the National Book Award, and The Farming of Bones in 1998. In 1994 she was included in a New York Times article on "30 artists, 30 and under... likely to change the culture for the next 30 years" and was named by Granta as one of the 20 "Best of Young American Novelists". She lives in Brooklyn.

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