When Edwidge Danticat read "The Farming of Bones," her most recent book, aloud publicly for the first time, she started crying. Her listeners must have thought: Edwidge, we could have told you how painful it was to read about a river choked with bones and blood, about how the soldiers tried to suffocate people by shoving peppered parsley down their throats.
"I started sobbing and I was really embarrassed because it was a Village Voice reading, and a very hip crowd," says the writer, speaking in a slow, hushed tone. This was a personal awakening. She had to think about why phrases she had selected, passages she had shaped, words her eyes had tracked a hundred times, had had such an unexpected impact on her. "I was crying because I felt like I am so inadequate as opposed to what happened. No matter what you write, it is never going to equal the pain of one person. I was just overwhelmed by the actuality."
Danticat pauses and searches for the evidence of her own anguish. "Often I feel very sad writing about something and I write through that sadness, or because it makes me sad," she concludes. Yet, with three highly praised books behind her, stories about the history, the oppression and yet the full lives and vitality of her native Haiti, has she really worked through all the issues? Not quite.
Her novels explore personal, political and philosophical pain, the pain that spans physical brutality and irreplaceable loss. Her audience grapples with her starkness. Other writers accept her themes and say traversing the agonies is rewarded by the clarity of her prose. University professors find their students shunning the bleakness of the stories until they understand the context of life in one of the world's poorest countries. The disciples of Oprah Winfrey's Book Club tried "Breath, Eyes, Memory," her first novel, and made it a bestseller but did not embrace the Haitian nuances of her work as much as they favored the American familiarity of other Book Club books.
Perhaps it is because she both invites and defies the sorrow. As in "The Farming of Bones":
"I close the door and lock out the tame night breeze that barely reaches my bare body, naked because Sebastien has made me believe that it is like a prayer to lie unclothed alone the way one came out of the womb, but mostly because I am hoping to feel the sweat gather between the cement floor and the hollow in my back, so that when I rise up, there will be a flood of perspiration to roll down over my buttocks, down the front and back and between my thighs, down to my knees, shins, ankles, and toes, so that there will not be a drop of liquid left in me with which to cry."
What is perhaps more notable is that these strong reactions are being created by a quiet, poised woman who is just 30.
Hours after an evening reading at Politics & Prose, Danticat sits courtly in a dark-paneled hotel restaurant, her dark braided hair pulled back severely, emphasizing her smooth, brown wafer-shaped face. She looks straight ahead, her brown eyes narrowing in concentration, allowing temporary pleasant smiles and rare cautious laughs.
"The Farming of Bones," which was just released in paperback, won an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation earlier this year, landed as one of the New York Public Library's Best Books of 1999 and was listed as a notable book by seven different arbiters from the New York Times to Entertainment Weekly. In 1996 she was named by Granta, a publisher of contemporary fiction, one of 20 "Best Young American Novelists" and this year was included on the New Yorker's list as one of 20 writers representing American fiction of the future. Her Americanism covers only 18 years; but her duality has been embraced by the literary establishment, and she stands as one of the few recognized Haitian American authors writing in English.
"Bones" recounts the 1937 slaughter of 10,000 to 15,000 Haitians living in the Dominican Republic, through the lives of two lovers, Amabelle Desir and Sebastien Onius. Sebastien works in the sugar cane fields on the Dominican side of the Caribbean island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Amabelle, who works as a maid in the household of a Dominican army colonel, watched her parents drown when she was 8 and can't shake that sight or their shadows. Their love is doomed by rampant terror and the intrusion of history.
Though Danticat lived in Haiti until she was 12, the facts of this massacre were told to her only in bits and pieces. "There were people in my family who had gone over to work in the sugar cane in the 1970s and 1980s and when they were gone off and people didn't hear from them . . . people would talk about this thing that happened in 1937 and could it happen again," she explains. She became haunted by the story. As an adult, she looked in history books and found only a line or two. "On our side, it is a moment of shame, people don't linger on it. When this happened nothing was done about it. There was also the complicity of the Haitian government in this affair. There was money given by the Dominicans to compensate the families and the money was kept by the Haitian government."
Danticat knew she wanted to write early on, and knew she wanted to share the pain and wonder of Haiti with others. "I was always a reader, loved reading, loved stories, loved listening. It was a great thing to enter a story," she says. Her parents moved to New York to escape the oppression of the Duvalier regimes, "more for economics than politics," she explains. Her father, a tailor in Haiti, found work as a taxi driver. Her mother worked in a textile factory. Danticat remained in Port-au-Prince, living modestly with an aunt and uncle, and devoured everyone's stories. "Victor Hugo, everyone read him before you were 12 in Haiti," she says. Something was lacking, though, she says, adding, "We were reading dead French writers."
Her family understood that all Haitian artists eventually return to the political themes that have dominated the Haitian struggle since 1804 when it became the first independent black republic in the world. Those writers, they knew, are often persecuted for their views. "They encouraged me to be a neurosurgeon and write on the weekends," says Danticat slyly. She began keeping journals, and listened carefully to the stories the elders told during the frequent power blackouts. "I was called fe Joudah [Creole for gossipy] and people were afraid to talk around me, and now they are really afraid. But a lot of stories are lost in migration and the children only hear what life is like in the new place."
Her parents survived two Duvalier regimes, beginning with the cruel and bloody dictatorship of Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier in 1957. His son Jean-Claude succeeded him and continued a brutal reign until he left Haiti in 1986. As a child Danticat watched Baby Doc and his wife ride through town in their Mercedes and throw money out the window. She remembers almost getting trampled at the palace one Christmas during a toy giveaway.
Eventually she joined her parents in New York, graduated from Barnard College with a degree in French literature in 1990 and earned an advanced degree in writing from Brown University in 1993. Now she lives with her parents in the East Flatbush section of Brooklyn, deep in a migrant community.
These dark stories told in the darkness became "Krik? Krak!" That 1995 collection was nominated for the National Book Award. She also has a strong interest in film and teaching. For two years Danticat taught as an adjunct professor at New York University and worked for director Jonathan Demme's production company, an office job that led to screen time. "I was in 'Beloved' for five seconds," she says.
Writing remained her passion no matter what the risks. She admired Marie Chauvet, a successful Haitian novelist and poet who wrote about love, anger, madness. "I thought she was one of the bravest of all our writers. I was drawn to her because she was a woman and wrote under difficult circumstances and was writing in a brave way," says Danticat. Chauvet left Haiti and went into exile in New York, where she died. Recently Danticat found one of her books in English, "Dance Under the Volcanos," for sale on the Internet. The image of this style of commerce, instead of finding a treasure in some lower Manhattan book stall, brings a smile to her face.
She first tested the 1937 massacre in a short story, and her interest opened the doors, not only to the novel's treatment, but to documents people were glad to share with her. "The more I read the testimonies, the more I heard the voices from the past, the more drama I saw in it. The idea of flight, which is still active today, people leaving Haiti to come to the United States by boat. It is very dramatic. It strikes me as very dramatic that you do have this island, the first place Columbus saw in what he called the New World, and it is one island, and the French and the Hispanics fought over this land, and split it. So you have this history back and forth and this drama in itself."
In Danticat's hands, the retelling would be spare, but never dry. The lovers spend the night together and when Sebastien leaves they can only manage a slight smile, "because there was the cane to curse, the harvest to dread, the future to fear." As the massacre escalates, Amabelle is kicked and beaten by the soldiers, her mouth stuffed with tainted parsley. She makes it to the river. "An empty black dress buoyed past us, inflated by air, floating upon the water. It was followed by a clump of tree branches and three empty sisal knapsacks. A man floated past us, face down. I swam towards him and moved his head to the side. Sebastien? No."
She doesn't flinch at the cruelty, and her unrelenting approach makes the story achingly sad.
"People say that a lot about my work in general. 'Is it because everything is sad or are you basically sad?' Maybe there is something melancholy about me that I am drawn to these kinds of events," she says. It's an ingrained sorrow that comes from attending all the funerals her uncle, a Baptist minister, preached, and the fact that she was the child who closed the eyelids of her 100-year-old grandmother when she died. "Ultimately it is a sad story, and what was important for me is to try to find out what happened beneath the sadness and how people lived through the sadness."
Twice a year since 1994, Danticat has been going home, one trip just to check in on her relatives, the other to accompany a group of college students on a summer seminar. She has seen life under once-exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his successor, Rene Preval. During her recent visit people were worried, as they have been in her three decades, about the basics. They are skeptical about any government helping them out, and wonder if the past five years of American and U.N. intervention did any good. Another round of elections is scheduled to start this winter.
"I don't think people are convinced anymore that these elections will solve their problems. It is a kind of disillusionment with the whole political process," she says, and only holds out her own hope, the conviction that comes out of Haiti's long history of survival. "Hopefully we will have safe elections and get political leaders who really work in the interest of the people," she says quietly.
Danticat is also very much like Haiti, under scrutiny. On her last book tour she began to get questions about what she was working on next, the first development of celebrity status. In Washington she is asked about her inspirations, if her thought process is dominated by Creole or English, the duality of Amabelle's voice. "I was writing in her testimonial voice, telling what happened, and her internal voice, telling how she loved this man," she answers.
She lets these 100 fans know she is far from finished. She reads, "The dead who have no use for words leave them as inheritance for children." And she looks up, promising more words of her own. "I've gone back to writing short stories because I feel so exhausted from this book. Plus I'm learning the craft all the time and the short stories are a way to warm up again."