Literature and Life
This series about authors and their favorite books began by my reading a quote about if someone really wanted to be a good writer, they first had to be a good reader. John Cheever, a celebrated writer of novels and short stories from New England once remarked “I can’t write without a reader. It’s precisely like a kiss—you can’t do it alone.” One can, of course, write, but without it being read, it often seems like wasted energy. There is the old adage that the difference between a good writer and a bad writer is that the good writer perseveres and the bad writer simply quits but one still does hope, at some point, to have their work read.
Cheever also defined art as the triumph over chaos. I think perhaps this is one of the reasons our featured author today began to write although she described it this way: “Whole interaction between the storyteller and the listeners had a very powerful influence on me.” Born on the island of Haiti, Edwidge had a life that was a bit chaotic. Haiti gained its independence from France in 1804 only to see itself sold to Americans. It has a history of tyranny and neglect and many seem to have forgotten it most of the time. Edwidge moved to New York at the start of her teen years after being raised for ten years by an aunt and uncle. French is the national language of Haiti but at home she spoke Haitian Creole, a conglomeration of words from 18th century French with influences from Portuguese, Spanish, English, Taíno, and West African languages. Moving to be with her parent in New York was nice but also very isolating. Literature became her escape and comfort.
Edwidge Danticat wrote a story about her immigration experience for New Youth Connections, a citywide magazine written by teenagers entitled “A New World Full of Strangers”. In the introduction to “Starting With I”, an anthology of stories from the magazine, Danticat wrote, “When I was done with the [immigration] piece, I felt that my story was unfinished, so I wrote a short story, which later became a book, my first novel: Breath, Eyes, Memory…Writing for New Youth Connections had given me a voice. My silence was destroyed completely, indefinitely.” Danticat went on to graduate from Bernard College in NYC and then receive masters’ degree in creative writing from Brown University.
It is therefore not surprising that she lists Marie Vieus-Chauvet’s book “Love, Anger, Madness” as a favored and influential book on her writing. Written by an exiled Haitian writer one year before Danticat was born, the book is actually a trilogy – three stories that reflect the American invasion and economic control of Haiti, Haiti’s troubles from the occupation, and its own internal struggles. Each story has a character that finds refuge in art, struggles to overthrow dominant forces, and battles for integrity against the devastation of war in a corrupt state. Oppression cuts across class and race lines. The dramas are large and small, and the villains are not always who you think they are. It is easy to understand the book’s appeal to Edwidge Danticat who once remarked “The past is like the hair on our head …You always have this feeling that wherever you come from, you physically leave it, but it doesn’t leave you.”
Three themes are prominent in the writing of Edwidge Danticat: national identity, mother-daughter relationships, and diasporic politics. It might seem like this are applicable to only her native land but diasporic politics affected the African slave trade as well as that of the Sephardic Jewish people after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 ACE. Great literature crosses time and space, uniting us all and both Danticat and her influencing Marie Vieus-Chauvet write such literature.
Edwidge Danticat has given us a picture book, a young adult novel, and five other books in addition to her short stories, essays, and work as an anthology editor and guest contributor for such publications as “The New Yorker” and “The Washington Post”. The busy mother of two daughters has been known to say the greatest gift one can give a writer is time and she eagerly seeks to connect literature and life. “We need literature because we wouldn’t fully know ourselves without it. We need good literature to be fully human.”