The figure of the Haitian living abroad is one that evokes bitter comedy and, often, envy among Haitians living in Haiti. Haitian Haitians can quickly spot someone from what is called the diaspora visiting Port-au-Prince. A Haitian friend once told me that the big difference, aside from a visible discrepancy in wealth, is that someone from lòt bò dlo (or the other side of the water, which means “abroad” in Haitian Creole) walks with purpose and studied intent, as if he or she has a destination in mind at every moment. Island Haitians can find such goal-oriented behavior strange, unreal, even ridiculous, since the poverty of life in Haiti means that goals are often unachievable.
The Immigrant Artist at Work
By Edwidge Danticat
189 pp. Princeton University Press. $19.95
Edwidge Danticat, who was born in Haiti and has lived in the United States since the age of 12, has been trying to bridge this divide. More than a million Haitians live in the diaspora — in New York, Florida, the Dominican Republic, the Bahamas, Montreal, France and other places — and the remittances they send home help keep the Haitian economy afloat. It’s estimated that about 80 percent of Haiti’s professionals live outside Haiti. In 2008 alone, diaspora Haitians sent as much as $2 billion back to Haiti to support family and friends. Yet although they are essential to their relatives’ well-being, diaspora Haitians often feel un-Haitian, unacknowledged and distant. Best known for her story collections, like “Krik? Krak!,” and for novels like “Breath, Eyes, Memory,” Danticat confronts this problem head-on in “Create Dangerously,” her new collection of essays, adapted and updated from the Toni Morrison Lecture she gave in 2008 at Princeton University, and expanded with her writing for The New Yorker, The Progressive and other publications.
The diaspora conflict is particularly painful in the case of writers and artists who live elsewhere but use Haitian material in their work. In “Walk Straight,” the new book’s second essay, Danticat recalls overhearing a Haitian say, about her work, “The things she writes, they are not us.” She points out, too, that she has often been called a “parasite” who exploits her culture “for money and what passes for fame.” In response to such criticisms, Danticat writes that the only alternative for an emigrant writer is self-censorship or, worse, silence. Nonetheless, she describes herself as “anguished by my own sense of guilt.” For Danticat, the burden of responsibility and indebtedness is dreadful, her escape from the world she writes about fraught with emotion and self-loathing. Her guilt is the worst kind: survivor guilt.
The book begins with a matter-of-fact retelling of the executions of Marcel Numa and Louis Drouin, which Danticat recounts from a documentary film she watched. Both men had left their hometown, Jérémie, on Haiti’s southern peninsula, to study and work in the United States in the 1950s. In New York, Numa and Drouin became part of Jeune Haiti, a C.I.A.-supported group of 13 men plotting to overthrow Papa Doc Duvalier. They landed in Haiti and fought sporadically for three months before 11 of them were hunted down. The grand finale of Jeune Haiti was the execution of Numa and Drouin, which took place at the national cemetery in Port-au-Prince in 1964. Numa was in his early 20s and Drouin in his early 30s when they were put before the firing squad.
This dark story is the creation myth of Danticat’s Haiti, although it took place five years before she was born. The story of the two martyrs is woven through the book; people speak of them, remember them, mention them in section after section. Danticat herself goes looking for the site of their execution and reimagines it. One of the pleasures of reading this book is the way that Danticat self-consciously shows the intertwining of experience; this enduring connection is especially important to her as a writer exploring an opposing diaspora theme of distance and disconnection.
With characteristic creativity and charmingly knotty logic, Danticat compares Drouin and Numa’s mini-rebellion against Duvalier to the refusal of Adam and Eve to obey the command of another dictator who, we must hope, is more benign. From this, she goes into a short discussion of Camus’s “Caligula.” The logic continues to bounce as we follow her reasoning. Camus’s emperor, Danticat writes, believes it doesn’t matter if one is executed or exiled, but only that one have what she calls “the power to choose.” Drouin and Numa had already lived in a comfortable exile from which they nonetheless chose to return, Danticat writes. She then seems to compare them to Jesus Christ, saying they “were patriots who died so that other Haitians could live.” So Drouin and Numa are like Adam and Eve, but also like Jesus. Finally, Numa and Drouin remind Danticat of one other person. “They were also immigrants, like me,” she writes. As such, they were vilified and dehumanized by Duvalier. “He labeled them not Haitian, but foreign.”
By the end of this section we are not sure what field we are in: Haitian history, personal memoir, anthropology, comp lit or religious studies. But that is as it should be. What is worthy is Danticat’s passion for her subject. What is revealing is the way she sees her themes of exile, banishment, emigration and — most important — return, everywhere, along with their implications and consequences. A writer truly and meaningfully immersed in her work is like a paranoid person: every piece of experience seems to echo back to her the subject of her work. So it is with Danticat.
She expresses feelings of shame throughout, because she writes from the diaspora and is therefore not sharing the pain and misery (and now disaster) that the people she fictionalizes have suffered. Danticat has lost many relatives and friends to the harshness of being Haitian, one or two to unacknowledged or unrecognized AIDS, another in detention as a hopeful refugee, one to assassination, two more to the recent earthquake. As a true humanist and dedicated fiction writer, she suffers with these victims, always empathizing, always wondering: What if that had been me?
Danticat is at her best when writing from inside Haiti. It’s a miracle, the way she captures the textures of a reality she was a part of for only the first 12 years of her life. The section in which she and her cousin and uncle climb a mountain and visit an aunt in a remote village is filled with small wonders. There is, for example, a description, poetic and plain, of how upon arrival at her aunt’s tiny, tidy house, Danticat and the others collapse onto a sisal mat and drink water while her cousins grind corn and the hens and roosters squawk.
She lovingly reproduces the back-and-forth of conversation among relatives who have not seen one another in more than 20 years, and who live in different worlds and different eras. She notes the spatter of gunfire nearby — the village chief’s way of announcing he has returned to the village and is ready to see anyone who might need him. She describes the slow process of making coffee in the cooking shed near the stream, a cousin’s three-tiered turquoise mausoleum in the garden, the night sounds of the profound countryside. Most vividly, she captures the unremarked quality of the lives lived in these unheard-of places, so close to Miami. “I remember collecting dandelions as we passed the gardens of people who had known our fathers and grandfathers when they were our age,” Danticat writes of a childhood visit to this same place, “people who called us by the names of our aunts and uncles, people of whom there is no longer any trace. . . . I don’t remember my Aunt Ilyana’s house looking so isolated.”
Although she knows she need not, Danticat, for all her success as a writer, still feels bad about making up narratives about people whose real-life stories are already so gripping. She admires exiles like the photographer Daniel Morel, who at great personal risk has documented the brutal political struggle in Haiti for decades. She looks up to Jean Dominique, the éminence grise of Haitian journalism, who lived in New York for a time and who later returned to work for a better Haiti. (He was assassinated in Port-au-Prince in 2000.) Yet as Danticat’s recollections show, her singular achievement is not to have remade the actual Haiti, but to have recreated it. She has wound the fabric of Haitian life into her work and made it accessible to a wide audience of Americans and other outsiders. Through her “made up” stories, she has brought Haiti to life for countless readers who otherwise would have understood nothing. Danticat’s tender new book about loss and the unquenchable passion for homeland makes us remember the powerful material from which most fiction is wrought: it comes from childhood, and place. No matter her geographic and temporal distance from these, Danticat writes about them with the immediacy of love.
Amy Wilentz is a professor in the literary journalism program at the University of California, Irvine, and the author of “The Rainy Season: Haiti — Then and Now,” reissued in April.