Edwidge Danticat, is among the best fiction and non-fiction writers of English these days. Her novels about life in Haiti (Krik Krak, Breath, Eyes, Memory, and The Farming of Bones) create vivid stories of sympathetic characters undergoing remarkable sufferings. Her talent as a storyteller is wide and rich. More recently, she’s been writing non-fiction. Her 2010 book, Create Dangerously, which I was just given by a friend, invites other writers, indeed all artists, to bold, courageous work that bears witness to the inequalities and the suffering of so many across the globe. Danticat’s prose is fluid and story-like, even when describing historical or current events. Her tone contains a humility and gentleness that keeps her writing from sounding preachy or shrill. She urges us, as a sensitive and thoughtful writer.
Create Dangerously opens with a heartbreaking description of the 1964 execution, by the “Papa Doc” Duvalier regime, of Marcel Numa and Louis Drouin, both activists against Duvalier’s brutality. She recounts their execution as a kind of “creation story” for her, as a Haitian who was largely raised, and now lives, in the United States. She recalls a video and photographs of their execution that serve as a seed event in her writing life, prompting her to write as an offering of witness.
She spends some time describing the difficulties of the “immigrant artist.” Clearly, she sees herself as a writer in-between countries. She is certainly Haitian in that many of her relatives are still there, the formation of her heart was there, even though she came to the United States as a 12 year-old child. It’s equally true that she is American, since she has been here all her adult life. Many people know the tensions, the pushes and pulls, loyalties moving two ways at once, which immigrants often experience. She writes vividly of this experience.
She also writes of returning to Haiti on many occasions. She tells stirring stories of relatives there whose lives are dramatically different from her own. Yet she writes respectfully of them, expressing a clear love, no pity. She describes much of Haiti’s modern history as the creation of a constant underclass, where a few people have absurd amounts of wealth and thus power, while the masses have nearly nothing.
She writes an especially compelling section about the death of her friend, Jean Dominique, one of Haiti’s most famous journalists and radio commentators. In this story, she lays out the landscape of power and the brutal lengths some will go to keep it. This section of her book, indeed the life of Haiti’s Jean Dominique, should be standard reading in journalism classes.
Her 5th chapter, “I Speak Out” relates the amazing story of Alerte Balance, a young Haitian woman who was brutally tortured and left for dead, but who survived. Danticat visits Balance and her husband and children in New Jersey, with a small film team, to interview her and share her story. Danticat handles this truly sad scene with respect and restraint.
A very personal part of this book is her description of visiting an aunt, Tante Ilyana, who lives in the mountains above Port-au-Prince. In this section, she moves from the national story of Haiti to the personal story of her own family as part of the larger Haitian story.
She also takes a small part of her book to discuss the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose father was Haitian but who never visited Haiti himself. An interesting part of this section is the discussion of the genetic memory, the cultural infusion that can affect an artist’s work even when he or she has never been physically present to a particular country.
One undercurrent through all the stories she recounts here is the January 12, 2010 earthquake in Port-au-Prince. She describes how various relatives and friends died or were injured, how in the United States’ media world, some wanted her to become the voice of Haiti after the earthquake. She thoughtfully describes the tensions in this. She wants to speak for her country but she knows no one really can. She navigates that narrow path generously.
Through all of these, and other, interesting accounts of her own life, she weaves a kind of gentle manifesto for artists. She quietly and respectfully urges artists to tell the stories the larger cultural narratives will leave out. She urges writers especially, to bear witness to the untold stories of suffering, experienced in parts of the world which rarely get attention.
A book like this risks an overwhelming sadness. Edwidge Danticat avoids this by highlighting the essential humanity of those whose suffering she describes. A kind of soft light shines up through the accounts of torture and executions, the experiences of scarcity. This is a book worth reading, and not just for artists and writers. Anyone who wants to see more deeply into the ways art can uplift and dignify our world will find a quiet light in this book.