Edwidge Danticat interviewed in Mother Jones
A Voice in Haiti's Chorus
Author Edwidge Danticat on the glory of nonfiction, the Kindle generation, and Haiti’s long road to recovery.
— By Elizabeth Gettelman
May/June 2010 Issue
The author of eight books, mostly fiction about her native Haiti, Edwidge Danticat has long been a powerful literary voice bridging her two countries. In her first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, readers learn of her childhood in Port-au-Prince before she moved to New York City when she was 12. And it was through her books like The Farming of Bones and Dew Breaker that she detailed the sights and smells of the atrocities that seem to constantly befall a country only 90 miles from American shores. Danticat, who lost a cousin in the January earthquake, visited survivors of the disaster soon after, and was heartened to find people giving voice to their own experience. "No one can speak for 10 million people," she says. The devastation she saw erased what little progress the country has managed since the reign of ruthless dictators Francois ("Papa Doc") and Jean-Claude ("Baby Doc") Duvalier, she says, but Haitians' resilience is not to be underestimated. Danticat, who won a MacArthur Fellowship (a.k.a. the "genius" award) last year, caught up with Mother Jones from her home in Miami, where she lives with her husband and two daughters.
Mother Jones: You said a few years ago that "whenever [places] are in the news, that's when they exist…I think Haiti is a place that suffers so much from neglect that people only want to hear about it when it's at its extreme. And that's what they end up knowing about it." Is that where Haiti is now—without such a disaster it wouldn't exist for people?
Edwidge Danticat: Absolutely. The way the media cycle works here, the way the news works, and the way people's attention span works, is that we only learn that people exist when there is crisis. That's why I think it is important to reach people through other means, like the arts and literature, because then you establish a connection that's not an instant crisis. It's not disaster porn, it's a mutual gaze: I'm giving you something and you're giving me something. That has always been a strength of Haiti: Beyond crisis, it has beautiful art; it has beautiful music. But people have not heard about those as much as they heard about the coups and so forth. I always hope that the people who read me will want to learn more about Haiti.