The crowd in the Pritzker Auditorium of Harold Washington Library was made up of about equal parts college students and elderly ladies, the two pillars of the public library system. I found myself with a renewed gratitude for both of them by the end of the evening, after listening to Haitian-American author, MacArthur fellow and mother of two, Edwidge Danticat, read from her latest novel and reflect on her writing life thus far. Her conversation was part of the 19th annual StoryWeek, a festival of authors hosted and organized by the Columbia College Creative Writing Department. This week’s theme is “The Power of Words,” and I am happy to report that Danticat is using her extraordinary powers for good.
She called a hearty “bonsoir!” to the audience, many of whom answered back, to her delight. Fun fact for the reader, the founder of our city was Haitian and to this day Creole and French are spoken at mass and in communities across Chicago. Edwidge herself immigrated to the United States at the age of 12, and has woven memories of Haiti together with her experience in the diaspora into two decades of work in fiction, non-fiction, anthologies and children’s literature.
She began with an excerpt from her latest novel, Claire of the Sealight, remarking that she felt so much for the title character that moving onto the next book felt a bit like abandonment. In a strong, clear and even voice, her narration moved from character to character and then raced through a riveting monologue, before joining senior Booklist editor Donna Seaman at center stage. Like much of her work, Claire takes place in Haiti. I have not read the book, although I will certainly pick it up now, if only to get to know the character of Mme. Gaelle. In one monologue about the possibilities of immigration, she recalls friends doomed to dishwashing in their new life, returning home with telltale burns from the laundromat, and decides that, “she liked her ghosts nearby.
Danticat’s first literary creation was a joint effort with her brother, when the two would sneak peeks at soap opera stills and paste together comics of their own. At 25 she published Breath, Eyes, Memory to a cacophony of reactions in the Haitian community. Like many authors of color and minority groups, she was quickly assigned the role of ambassador and called to task for her less-than sunny depiction of her characters. For a community that rarely gets the chance to introduce itself on its own terms, the stakes are higher with every public impression. As a young author she recalled the pressure to keep all skeletons in the closet, but she was more interested in the pursuit of truth and the “singularity of story,” as she eloquently put it, that minority groups are not often allowed.
Remarking on the collage structure of her books, the author laughed and acknowledged that her own curiosity about the characters often dictated the scene changes. Writing about a character in prison, she will wonder, “What’s it like in the prison?” and then find herself deep within a chapter set behind bars. Her love of radio is another influence, and one of her most fun experiences as an author was writing and producing a radio drama.
The personal connection to her work was hit by lightning in 2004, when an uncle died while fleeing persecution, chained to a bed in the custody of U.S. immigration services. She spoke out and wrote with “righteous anger” during this time, and her voice grew onstage as she talks about it. On the subject of controversy and deciding what to write about, she affirmed, “the book you are reading is the book I wanted to write.”
In the questions and answer section the usual questions came up about process, and she described how in busy days of motherhood she works mostly in her head, and does not have time to waste when she does sit down to write. When a student asked what she liked or did not like about the current interview format, she turned the question around and he was almost taken aback by her genuine interest in his answer.
She was thoughtful and gracious throughout the conversation, two qualities that I imagine might wane after 20 years of interviews and author panels. It is always interesting to hear a good storyteller pause and reflect on her own story as it unfolds in real time. For those of us who are meeting Edwidge Danticat’s work for the first time, Monday night’s event was motivation to renew your library card and start from the beginning of this incredible body of work.