Edwidge Danticat | Interview by Edwidge Danticat with Renée H. Shea

This literature criticism consists of approximately 11 pages of analysis & critique of Edwidge Danticat.
This section contains 3,078 words
(approx. 11 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Interview by Edwidge Danticat with Renée H. Shea

Interview by Edwidge Danticat with Renée H. Shea

SOURCE: An interview in Belles Lettres: A Review of Books by Women, Vol. 10, No. 3, Summer, 1995, pp. 12-15.

In the following interview, Danticat discusses the stories included in Krik? Krak!

This epigraph sets the stage and tone for the nine stories of the heart by Haitian-born Edwidge Danticat in her recent collection entitled Krik? Krak! In these tales of the politics and people of Haiti, past and present, on their island home and in newly formed immigrant communities, she lures us not simply to read but to participate in the tradition of Krik? Krak! that she remembers from childhood:

"Krik? Krak! is call-response but also it's this feeling that you're not merely an observer—you're part of the story. Someone says, 'Krik?' and as loud as you can you say, 'Krak!' You urge the person to tell the story by your enthusiasm to hear it."

So compelling are these stories, filled with the myth and poetry of Haiti, that as one ends, it is hard not to call out a resounding, "Krak!" to keep the momentum of Danticat's storytelling going.

Taken individually, several stories are stunning in the power of both the tale and language. "Children of the Sea" is told as a dialogue between two young lovers—one on a boat bound for Miami, the other reporting from Haiti on the horrors wrought by the TonTon Macoutes. The young man reports the desperate life of himself and the "thirty-six other deserting souls on this little boat" and the story-within-the-story of Celianne. Pregnant after a gang rape by the TonTon Macoutes, Celianne fled her accusing family, and when she gives birth aboard the boat to a stillborn child, she refuses to give it up. Finally forced to throw the baby overboard, she follows by jumping into the sea. The young woman's story of her family's struggle in Haiti, the increasing violence, and the lengths her father finally goes to protect her are counterpoint. The nightmarish reality of the TonTon Macoutes is challenged by the fierce love of the two young people; the unnamed he wonders, "Maybe the sea is endless. Like my love for you," and she exclaims, "i love you until my hair shivers at the thought of anything happening to you." The vividness of their "letters" belies the reality that only we can hear both voices. Will he survive? Will she? Will their written records?

What will survive is memory, a collective spirit that the young man speculates may be "life eternal, among the children of the deep blue sea, those who have escaped the chains of slavery to form a world beneath the heavens and the blood-drenched earth where you live." Danticat changed the original title of this story, "From the Ocean Floor," to "Children of the Sea" to emphasize the link to the Middle Passage:

"It's a very powerful image—from the ocean floor. No one knows how many people were lost on The Middle Passage. There are no records or graves—and the ocean floor is where our fossils are. That journey from Haiti in the 1980s is like a new middle passage. Not to romanticize it, but the comforting thing about death is that somehow all these people will meet. I often think that if my ancestors are at the bottom of the sea, then I too am part of that. So we are all children of the sea. There are no museums, no graves, really no place to visit—there's a timelessness about it."

The passion of the two young people in "Children of the Sea" reappears, though in a horrific form, in "Between the Pool and the Gardenias," a sublimely written story of a maid in Port-au-Prince whose childlessness drives her finally to claim a dead baby she finds "on the dusty curb, wrapped in a small pink blanket, a few inches away from a sewer." Naming the baby Rose, the woman nurtures her, gives into "a sudden desire to explain to her my life," and keeps Rose in her room until the baby "began to smell like the intestines after they hadn't sold for a few days." Before the woman can bury her beloved Rose in order to free her spirit, her lover, assuming she has killed the child with some voodoo-related purpose, calls the authorities. This stark story combines a plot of almost Gothic horror and a lyrical simplicity that is chilling, perhaps never more so than during a public reading of this story when a baby in the audience cried and cried—"an eerie coincidence," muses Danticat, who describes the story's origin:

"The woman in this story is so many different women. It began as a story about someone who wants something so badly that she'll go to any length, but then I started thinking, 'what if?' and 'what if …'—taking it further and further. In some ways, it's the story of a woman who wants a child very badly and then finds one. That should be a happy ending, but then you ask, "What if it is a child that she doesn't have in mind?" It pushes reality further and forces you to realize the depths of the person's wanting to have a child. As long as it's possible to overlook the reality, she can have the child briefly. But then she ends up paying a very high price."

Krik? Krak! is populated with stories of mothers and daughters, several of them about searches for connections between generations that grew up in different countries. In "New York Day Women," a daughter watches in surprise as her mother makes her way from her home in Brooklyn to Madison Avenue, where in Central Park she cares for a young child while his Yuppie mother does her hour-long jog. The imagined dialogue between mother and daughter underscores the different worlds they inhabit, though the tone is playful: The mother sews lace collars on her daughter's company softball T-shirts because she wants her to "look like a lady playing softball." In "Caroline's Wedding," the twin occasion of one daughter's new American citizenship and her older sister's wedding prompt the sisters and their mother to forge new relationships while preserving ways and means of the old. In "The Missing Peace," Lamort, so named because her mother died giving birth to her, helps an American who has come to Haiti in search of her journalist mother, an "old regime journalist. For a newspaper called Liberté in Port-au-Prince." The connection between the two grows as the older recognizes the futility of her search, and the younger claims her mother's legacy by taking her name, Mary Magdalene.

Mothers and daughters are familiar terrain to Danticat, whose first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, centered on Martine and her daughter, Sophie. That novel, however, extended the central ties to a sustaining web of women that includes grandmothers, aunts, cousins, and other members of the female community. Danticat dedicates Krik? Krak! to her aunts Josephine and Marie Rose—"And to Paule Marshall, the greatest kitchen poet of all."

"It's so important for people to read things that somehow mirror their own experience. I remember when I was in junior high school and read Paule Marshall. Brown Girl, Brownstones was the first book that was similar to what we were going through. My father always had a desire to own property. He wanted to buy a house. We had to have something concrete, a piece of the country, a piece of the land—like the people in this novel: they wanted to have a brownstone. I had three brothers, and I'm the only girl. In most of my adolescence, that was okay, but I had to be in the kitchen with my mother, learning how to cook. Marshall's essay on 'kitchen poets' describes something very similar to when my mother's sisters would come over—their talking, the way they said things, their faces. It was so beautiful! I used to resent being in the kitchen with them because I wanted to be with the boys, but then I read Marshall's essay. She talks about doing her homework on the kitchen table while the women were talking about home, what was happening there, what they're doing—and just sort of soaking it in. She called it 'kitchen poetry.' After reading that, I didn't resent so much being in the kitchen. I felt like part of a sisterhood, and I remember feeling then that I didn't necessarily have to rebel."

To read Danticat is to learn about Haiti—the folklore and myth, the traditions, and the history. Two of the stories in Krik? Krak! involve actual historical events, one of these, "Wall of Fire Rising," indirectly. Two very poor parents proudly listen to their young son recite his part in the school play of Boukman, the legendary runaway slave who in 1791 organized a revolt in Haiti. Guy, the father, trapped in a janitor's job at the sugar mill, dreams of piloting the hot air balloon owned by the mill's owner. Lili, the mother, dreams of her son. The tension between the parents' views of their child's future is symbolized in their view of the balloon: When Lili points out, "If God wanted people to fly, he would have given us wings on our backs," Guy replies, "But look what he gave us instead. He gave us reasons to fly. He gave us the air, the birds, our son."

In this story, which Danticat began as an undergraduate, language both reflects and defies the history of imperialism. As the young boy's speech opens, "A wall of fire is rising and in the ashes, I see the bones of my people," and the parents "felt as though for a moment they had been given the rare pleasure of hearing the voice of one of the forefathers of Haitian independence in the forced baritone of their only child." The narrator comments, however, that "It was obvious that this was a speech written by a European man, who gave to the slave revolutionary Boukman the kind of European phrasing that might have sent the real Boukman turning in his grave." Such subtle evidence of the profound impact of Haiti's colonial past is characteristic of Danticat, who explains:

"You can see the Creole texts of what Boukman was saying, but I've read it in books where it sounds like Shakespeare. In plays, it's 'frenchized'—kind of washed of the anger. [The young character] and his family are living it. They're bringing the revolutionary sense back."

The revolutionary spirit returns, too, in "1937," a story centering on the Dominican Republic's dictator Rafael Leonard Trujillo Molina's massacre of Haitians at the river separating Haiti from the Dominican Republic. Written as a kind of history told through magical realism, "1937" opens: "My Madonna cried. A miniature teardrop traveled down her white porcelain face, like dew on the tip of early morning grass. When I saw the tear, I thought, surely that my mother had died." The narrator of this story visits her mother, imprisoned like many others on suspicion of being a "lougarou" or witch: "They were said to have been seen at night rising from the ground like birds on fire." Learning of her mother's death from a prescient old woman, the daughter returns to the prison where she asks, "What would be the use" of watching when the body is burned. The old woman replies that the prison officials "will make these women watch, and we can keep them company." As the narrator agrees, she "remembers" the story of 1937 and her mother flying: "Weighted down by my body inside hers, she leaped from Dominican soil into the water, and out again on the Haitian side of the river. She glowed red when she came out, blood clinging to her skin, which at that moment looked as though it were in flames." She understands her connections and her place in time and history, both through the bonds of women.

This story previews Danticat's next novel, which centers on the massacre of 1937:

"Right now, I'm talking about it more than working on it. It's going to stay in the 1930s, and it's one woman's survival story. I've been researching this for a very long time, but the narrative way of telling the story didn't present itself until very recently. I was thinking about the ending: I write first and last chapters to give myself perimeters. At the end, there is an old woman telling the story, like a woman who is still alive today looking back at the '30s on the massacre and how she survived. I'll do more research by going to that place in Haiti, but first, I wanted to have the character.

"When I mentioned in one reading that I was working on a novel about the 1937 massacre, people called me with information, books, articles. I often think I'm in a communal endeavor. People are investing in what I'm doing. I've gotten tons of books about the massacre. Writers often feel as though they're writing alone, but I feel a sense of solidarity. I have a lot of collaborators! This is a part of history that's not in the history books; it's not something we talk about. But it's about survivors, and we're children of survivors."

Taken together, the stories in Krik? Krak! have a continuity derived from recurrent themes and motifs, yet they are more profoundly bound by a spiritual vision where "the warm sea air" and "the laughter of children" coexist with the painful history of slavery and more recent violence:

"My idea was to have a progression. The first story would be '1937' and the last, historically, 'Caroline's Wedding.' We also go from Haiti to the New York stories. My editor and I chose them with that idea in mind. Just naturally from writing the stories over several years, some of the characters recurred, so that came together too. But we ended up with a different order because my editor thought that 'Children of the Sea' is a story that's easy to get into; also, it has 'krik? krak!' in it, which introduces the idea of why to write the stories. The book was put together with the idea of the stories flowing together and complementing one another."

Such interconnections, resonances, echoes, and blending are best described by Danticat's own image of braids in the final selection, "Epilogue: Women Like Us," a poetic coda to the nine stories:

"When you write, it's like braiding your hair. Taking a handful of coarse unruly strands and attempting to bring them unity. Your fingers have still not perfected the task. Some of the braids are long, others are short. Some are thick, others are thin. Some are heavy. Others are light. Like the diverse women in your family. Those whose fables and metaphors, whose similes and soliloquies, whose diction and je ne sais quoi daily slip into your survival soup, by way of their fingers."

Recurring characters are one connection: the main character of "Between the Pool and the Gardenias" is the god-daughter of Lili from "A Wall of Fire Rising" and the granddaughter of Defile, the alleged lougarou in "1937." When asked if not knowing Haitian myths and folklore makes it difficult to appreciate her work, Danticat calls on yet another connection in response:

"I think more of the depths of emotion. The stories deal with humanity and what we all go through. Different people will walk away learning different things; there'll be differences even among people from Haiti."

Generations of women strengthen these connections. Even death cannot break the line, as she writes in the Epilogue: "The women in your family have never lost touch with one another. Death is a path we all take to meet on the other side. What goddesses have joined, let no one cast asunder. With every step you take, there is an army of women watching over you. We are never any farther than the sweat on your brows or the dust on your toes."

An image that recurs throughout Danticat's work is the butterfly as symbol of both continuing life and transformation. In "Dream of the Butterflies," a poetic vignette published in The Caribbean Writer in 1991, violence is juxtaposed with tenderness, danger with safety, and, finally, sheer hatred with pure love. She sees the redemptive butterfly as suggesting that hope triumphs even in the face of terrible loss:

"There aren't that many legends in Haiti about butterflies, but I'm fascinated by the idea of transformation. I think in some ways we all think we could go from a caterpillar to a butterfly—that whole metamorphosis is a metaphor for life, especially a life of poverty or struggle because you hope that this is temporary and that one way or another, you'll get wings. It's the Christian ideal we grew up with that people are willing to suffer very much if that means one day they'll get their wings and fly. Haiti has such beautiful butterflies in all different colors."

The most uncanny connections seem to assert themselves in the life of this author who bears witness:

"The year I wrote 'Children of the Sea' there were so many boating accidents; whole families would be wiped out. One woman I had read about was Marie Micheline, whose mother and daughter were on the boat with her. They all died."

Danticat dedicated the original publication of this story as follows: "In ancestral kinship, I offer this piece to Marie Micheline Marole, her daughters, and her granddaughters—three generations of women lost at sea." Coincidentally—or maybe not—another "Marie Micheline" played a key role in Danticat's life:

"My cousin Marie Micheline taught me to read. I started school when I was three, and she would read to me when I came home. In 1987, when I was in France, there was a shooting outside her house—where her children were. She had a seizure and died. Since I was away from her, my parents didn't tell me right away. They were afraid I might have a reaction. But around that same time, I was having nightmares; somehow I knew.

"Marie Micheline was very dear to me. When I read about this woman who drowned, I was so struck that they had the same name."

In Krik? Krak!, Danticat serves a "survival soup" of characters struggling to find a place of peace, a sliver of happiness, a glimmer of a brighter future amid terrorism and political chaos. Ultimately, it is in these stories that they find a moment of grace, stories that Danticat believes give people "a sense of the things that I have inherited." It's a rich inheritance—and one, we can be thankful, she generously shares.

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