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Edwidge Danticat advocates for finding the beauty in difficult situations

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LYNNE SAVARESE
  • Lynne Savarese

In October of 2017, the locally founded Converge Lecture Series welcomed its first speaker, poet Marie Howe, to address the concept of "moral beauty." The goal, founder Samuel Stephenson said at the time, was to encourage nuanced discussion across topics such as politics, art, morality and expression, by bringing in prominent literary minds to dissect all those issues and more. Since Howe, the series has hosted author George Saunders and poet Richard Blanco. The next lecturer, Edwidge Danticat, will add a valuable perspective to Converge's ongoing discussion.

"I think those [writers] act as a kind of prophetic voice for our time," Stephenson said of the Converge lineup. "They speak against the system. ... They speak truth in, to, and around power. And I think that we all need to hear truth."

One of the most prominent voices in Haitian-American literature, Danticat has written multiple novels and memoirs, including Breath, Eyes, Memory; Brother, I'm Dying; The Dew Breaker and many more. She has also written children's books and essays, and contributes occasionally to The New Yorker and The New York Times on issues of immigration, womanhood, art and literature, and other timely topics.

As an immigrant, a woman of color, a mother, daughter, wife and writer, Danticat's perspective has been influenced by her experiences within Haiti, and as part of the Haitian diaspora in the U.S. We spoke with her in advance of her Nov. 4 lecture at The Pinery at the Hill.

Indy: The loose theme of these lectures has been "moral beauty." Is that what Samuel asked you to address in your lecture?

Edwidge Danticat: Yes, and I have to figure out what that means. [Laughs.] I do feel a kind of kinship to the subject matter because — at least as I'm interpreting it — I feel like I try in my work to find that, to find all kinds of beauty in very difficult circumstances. And "moral beauty" as I'm thinking about it is one element ... And that's the beauty of the topic too; it can be interpreted differently by different people.

In the context of the society and the times we're living in right now, how do you think "moral beauty" affects our culture?

We're all grasping for it right now. There's just so much ugliness, and the tone of our political environment, as you know is just — we're bombarded every day by a certain kind of news, and by bombast, by fear. ... I'm thinking of an essay by Toni Morrison that she wrote for The Nation a couple years ago. She said in times like these "this is [precisely the time] when artists go to work." That's part of that moment in which we look to art for relief. And I like that the topic in a way adds a layer to beauty, because saying that we want to make beauty out of these times might seem a little like an impossible task. But I think in essence that's what art does. Looking for nuance, documenting, bearing witness, and still finding some way to convey something beautiful during difficult times.

From your writing, it seems as though not only do you tackle that from a societal perspective with your commentary on current events, but also a personal perspective. You find a lot of the meaning in your own losses through your art.

Absolutely. And I always have. For me, part of it is sort of modeled on the way I've always had, for example, Haitian art in my life. Haiti has some beautiful visual art. It has some beautiful music. I have risen out of difficult times, and sometimes decades of difficulty. So I think part of that is modeled in the culture that I come from and people's ability to create art as a means of relief from difficulty, but also as a means of protest.

And do you think having the influence of both Haitian and American cultures has given you a unique perspective on some of the crises we're facing today?

I hope so, because I think part of what we're facing today does not feel as singular to people who, say, have lived through a dictatorship. This is a good time to turn to the experiences of our neighbors who have lived through the civil rights era, dictatorships in other countries, who have found ways to overcome.

I wrote an essay in January last year — seems so long now — about poetry in the time of protest, and especially the way that African-American poets, the ones that I've read, have brought that clarity for me. I read them for clarity in moments like this because poets like Langston Hughes or Gwendolyn Brooks have lived through difficult times — for them personally, for their community, for the country — and have still managed to find the clarity to see. For example, Gwendolyn says that we have to watch over each other. But in much more poetic terms, of course.

How do you think our culture in America would change if we were to, as you say, "turn to the experiences of our neighbors?"

We are sadly living in a moment in which the general culture is all about insularity and xenophobia, and children in cages. And we have a president who is denigrating other countries, so I think that's where individuals have to do that on their own. That's when people have to really try hard and step out of their comfort zone, to listen to other people. ... I believe very much in the power of storytelling, and that if we listen to other people's stories, we know them better and we get to know ourselves better. We have to be open to that possibility. We have to be open to listening and learning from others.

Do you believe it's the responsibility of people to share their stories?

To the extent that they are comfortable with it. If I didn't believe in that kind of sharing, I would certainly not be a writer. [Laughs.] I just hate to tell people what to do. That's not part of my personality, but I think it's very helpful. It's just as important for us to listen. So if people share and we're not listening, it doesn't quite work. ... And I think that's where art is a bridge, right? You can tell your story and not know where the story will end. The story makes its own journey. One thing that Toni Morrison says is that Tolstoy didn't know that he was writing for a little black girl in Lorain, Ohio. And Toni Morrison didn't know she was writing for a little black girl in Haiti. So art can travel on its own, and find us when and where we need it most.

As you've written children's stories, I'd love your perspective on how we're educating this next generation, the stories we're telling them.

I think it's a really tricky time to — I find even with my own children — when you're trying to teach them very basic rules of civility, and all around you in the news that's not happening. So I think it's that much more important for us to make clear for young people what our values are without being didactic, but also to model, right? To model for our children what kind of community we would like. And that means bringing them into spaces that are not our own, exposing them to service projects and what people can and should be like.

There are pockets of what Martin Luther King called "beloved community." And especially when you're an immigrant, when you're someone who's coming to a new place, what you're looking for most, what you're looking for first, is community — a kind of beloved community. It's so important to model that. And a book is one way that that's possible, but it's also, especially in young people, important to go out and be part of that kind of community, to help others, to acknowledge where you can talk about and experience common things.

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How would you say your own "beloved communities" have affected your values?

One example for me, when I arrived in New York City at age 12 — I was raised by my aunt and uncle in Haiti and then I joined my parents when I was 12, and they were already living here — my parents lived in a building of mostly Haitians, but also other people from the Caribbean. And even though it was a building with floors, with different apartments, I was really struck by how much they had tried to model a sense of safety and community for themselves. For example, on Sundays people shared food, they went to each other's houses, they attended church together, and that was actually a wonderful — what they would call now, I guess — a "safe place" for them and their fellow Haitians.

At that time the CDC had announced that they [Haitians] had a high risk for AIDS, and Haitians were the only ones that were placed on that list by nationality. Something which the president [Trump] brought up, saying all Haitians have AIDS, which he did last year, bringing back a very painful moment for Haitians in the United States in the 1980s. So the way that my parents and their friends, poor and working-class people, often with children, working in factories like my mom did, working as taxi drivers like my dad did, then still finding this sense of community ... it was very striking to me, and definitely affected the way I see people's adjustment to migrations and immigration. It certainly made it easier to balance the hostility that came at that time, and hostility that still follows.

Do you think America right now is making it harder for immigrants to find that sense of community?

Oh my goodness, yes. You know, I live in an area in Miami called "Little Haiti," and it's a slowly disappearing area due to gentrification. But what's also happening is that a lot of my neighbors are afraid. There's been immigration raids, and, for example — there's something called Temporary Protected Status that was given to people from different countries that were difficult to go back to. And Haiti had that protection until it expired recently. Nicaragua, El Salvador and other countries had it, and now it's gone. So for a lot of people in the Haitian community, in July [2019, depending on current court cases] they're going to be out of status and deportable. ... So it's a very tough time to be an "outsider" or foreigner or immigrant in this country.

The administration will soon be going after even documented immigrants, and even citizenship. They're going to be reviewing crowds of people who are citizens who deserve to stay citizens. ... I have a book called Mama's Nightingale. It's about a mom being in a detention center. It's a picture book. And I often go to schools to talk to children about it, and you hear U.S.-born children worried about their parents because there are a lot of mixed-status families in this community.

You mentioned sharing stories. Is there anything else individual citizens can do to help?

Like Gwendolyn Brooks says, we must be each other's harbor, right? The other night I was at an event at a church, and the church declared itself to be a sanctuary church, and it was striking because you imagine that some family may actually need that physical sanctuary. There might be cases where people provide that physical sanctuary. We certainly have to participate in what we do have in terms of a political system, if it still works for us, a people who are considered the outsiders. ... Address the politicians and write the letters, certainly. But on an individual basis I think neighbors are called on now to actually be real neighbors. ...

In the news recently a father was arrested while he was accompanying his wife to give birth. And people are detained while their children are home alone. In that way, people are going to be called on to be very active in terms of what they might have to do to help.

All of this does kind of return to "moral beauty" doesn't it? In order to be morally beautiful we have to reach out to help people who need help, so that's an interesting way to conceptualize it.

Yeah, and I think for me, in part, moral beauty is a search for truth. But also, I think of it as a search for community at the same time. The creation of community.

Little Haiti is one of many immigrant communities established in cities throughout the U.S.
  • Little Haiti is one of many immigrant communities established in cities throughout the U.S.

I like that you specify both the search for and the creation of community. That's an important distinction. One is established; the other takes more work.

Yes, and also I always remember often when people are talking about "home" or this notion of community, that there's so many people who don't have a choice in that ... There are a lot of people in the world who just want a place to land. And then still in those difficult moments to find windows of spaces to breathe, but also to fall in love, to raise their children, to attend a service or to be together in some way. And I think that's all a part of that quest for community and for beauty.

Sometimes when you're reading a piece of writing about some terrible moment, there is often a glimpse in that kind of writing, where the writer stops to give you a break to pause at something. And sometimes it's something small. It could be like a sunset in a war zone, for example. But then we all appreciate that kind of beauty. We all pause for it. And we all take a deep breath when we come face-to-face with that kind of beauty. ... I think a beautiful work of art is like a deep breath, and I just hope that this idea of the exploration of moral beauty, not just by me, but everybody else who will come to speak and address it in their own way, will be like a deep breath.

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