Writer Edwidge Danticat speaks at Aspen Summer Words
June 20, 2012
ASPEN – Edwidge Danticat’s parents never wanted her to be a writer. Never. Even when her father was about to die and Danticat was in her 30s, with several books and a bunch of significant awards already to her credit, her father reminded her that it wasn’t too late to go to medical school.
“Because writing was a dangerous job. Journalists got killed,” Danticat, a 43-year-old native of Haiti who lives in Miami, said earlier this week on a serene patio at the Aspen Meadows. “And how could you make a living? It was not even a job; it was a dangerous passion. They wanted something more certain.”
But Danticat had writing and stories in her from a young age. Growing up in Port-au-Prince, Danticat got ahold of “Madeline,” Ludwig Bemelmans’ enduring books about the spunky but proper Parisian girl. Danticat moved on to the comic books – Tintin, old Westerns – that her younger brother collected, and they would try to make their own comics. Danticat basically had no choice in the matter of becoming a writer. By age 14, living in the East Flatbush section of Brooklyn, N.Y., she’d begun writing for the magazine New Youth Connections, contributing stories about her first day in the U.S. and how her immigrant family celebrated Christmas.
Danticat, though, says she has a choice about what kind of writer she is. In her latest book, “Create Dangerously,” a 2011 collection of essays, Danticat defines herself as an immigrant writer. The book is subtitled “The Immigrant Artist at Work,” and the pieces address what it is to go back and forth between two countries, to care intensely about a place you have left, to look from afar and with horror at your native land. But she quickly brushes away the idea that she is defined solely by being a immigrant. “Create Dangerously” is just one book, one aspect of her voice. Even while speaking for this story, Danticat was juggling duties – acting as mother to her two young daughters while trying to conduct an interview – an apt reminder that she wasn’t confined to a single role.
“The most important thing for any writer, any artist, is having freedom,” she said. “These particular essays, that’s about writing from that perspective. As you grow and have more experiences, you have more perspectives. It’s the freedom of imagination, the freedom to be able to say what you want to say without limitations. A lot of writers sacrifice so much for that. So you don’t want to be the kind of writer where people say, ‘You wouldn’t write this.’ If I want to write a Russian historical novel, I can try that.”
Even in Haiti, a place that has been torn by violence, occupation and natural catastrophes, a writer can choose not to create dangerously, Danticat noted.
Recommended Stories For You
“There are writers there who write about cricket,” she said.
And simply because a writer, even one in a country where life tends to be difficult, doesn’t address poverty and political oppression, that doesn’t mean she isn’t doing important work.
“The best writer can take a very simple incident and make us weep,” Danticat said. “It’s your treatment of it.”
Danticat has tended to take on the heaviness of life. “Create Dangerously” begins with an essay about a political execution, one that affected life in Haiti for decades. The 1996 short-story collection “Krik? Krak!” begins with a heartbreaking tale of a girl on a sinking boat, surrounded by strangers, headed to America; another story, “A Wall of Fire Rising,” is equally tragic in its story of trying to find hope amid hopelessness.
Danticat, along with Jamaican-born writer and sociologist Orlando Patterson, appear Wednesday in a discussion titled “Hurricane” at the Aspen Writers’ Foundation’s Aspen Summer Words Literary Festival. Danticat says that the idea of a hurricane is a good place to begin a talk about Latin America and the Caribbean, the focus of this year’s Literary Festival.
“It’s a destructive force in nature, a force beyond their control, that forces you to rebuild over and over,” she said. “It’s a symbol for so much in society where people have had so much destruction. We’ll probably talk about all of that – nature, geography, history, how societies are reconstructed after disasters.”
But for the deepest understanding of such matters, Danticat believes that a discussion can’t compare to writing and reading.
“Literature can touch people so deeply. An article, making a speech, a movie – that can’t do the same thing. I feel when I’m reading a book, I know the characters better than I know family members,” she said.
Danticat points to Luis Urrea, a Mexican-born writer who appeared with her on a panel talk earlier this week. “Luis said he had empathy for border control guards,” she said. “Literature can make you see deeper sides to people, way beyond the surface. You can see a side that in real-life interactions we don’t allow people to see. You can go deep inside a person’s life, inside their culture.”
The Aspen Summer Words Literary Festival runs through Friday. Wednesday’s events include Publishing 20:20, at 2:30 p.m., and the discussion Hurricane, at 4 p.m. Thursday’s events include Super Short, with Benjamin Percy, Derek Green and Andrew Sean Greer, at 2:30 p.m.; The Three Louies, with writers Luis Rodriguez and Luis Torres and musician Louie Perez, at 4 p.m.; and a performance by the Brazilian duo Claudia Villela and Romero Lubambo, at 8 p.m.
For a full schedule, go to http://www.aspenwriters.org.