Writers & Company

Edwidge Danticat on memory, migration and her attachment to Haiti

Novelist Edwidge Danticat looks beyond Haiti's stigmas and turns the resilience of its people into the story of Claire of the Sea Light.
The story of a fisherman and his daughter reveals Haiti's larger social turmoil and resilience in Claire of the Sea Light, a finalist for the 2014 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. (Lynn Savarese/Knopf)
Listen to the full episode52:12

Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat is the winner of the 2018 Neustadt International Prize for Literature — a biennial $50,000 USD award that's known as the 'American Nobel.' The committee described Danticat as "a masterful storyteller" who "paints scenes of immigrant life in New York and Miami with fresh details and palpable familiarity." 

Danticat was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti in 1969. Her parents left the country when she was a young child, leaving her to live with her aunt and uncle. When she was 12 years old, Edwidge joined her parents in Brooklyn, New York, where she had to learn English. Her first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory — published when she was just 25 — sold more than 600,000 copies and was chosen for Oprah's Book Club. Her next book, Krik? Krak!, was nominated for a National Book Award. 

Edwidge Danticat spoke to Eleanor Wachtel in 2013 about her novel Claire of the Sea Light, a moving story set in a Haitian fishing village before the 2010 earthquake.

Storytelling grandmothers

"In my family, the men told the jokes and the women told the stories. When people ask me who were my best writing teachers, I always think of those women. The way they told those stories was so audience-oriented. You could hear the same story every time, but it was told differently: there were songs in the stories, they would make it suspenseful if it was late at night, they followed cues in your body language if you were listening or falling asleep. I was always too shy to tell stories the way they told them. But when I started reading, I immediately made the connection that writing is another kind of storytelling. It was suited to me because it was intimate and you could do it by yourself. I am less shy in my work than I am in person." 

Optimism as a way of life 

"One of the characters in Claire of the Sea Light says precarity is like making butter out of water. Even the very poor in Haiti are not sure how they get by. Sometimes people wake up and they have no idea what they're going to feed their children that day. Somehow they will go out with some optimism and try to find something. It's a kind of extraordinary act of ingenuity and faith. A mother who wakes up and has nothing to feed her child will dress that child very nicely, put a beautiful bow in her hair and send her off to school hoping that by the time she comes home from school there will be something to feed that child. People get by on very hard work, on faith, on relying on one another. It's an extraordinary feat of survival." 

Disaster is not the story of Haiti

"I don't think I'm ready to write about the 2010 earthquake or the events that followed as they relate to Haiti. I need a little more time to process it so that the fiction is not competing with the facts. My visits to Haiti have been short and intense. They're often moments of soaking it up and seeing how some things have changed, a continued search for what is different. As I've gotten older, what I've started to notice is the environment — the sea, the trees, the physical landscape and how people adjust to it. If I had written and placed the Claire of the Sea Light story in a time after the earthquake, it would have to be, in some ways, about the earthquake. I didn't feel ready to write a book like that."

Edwidge Danticat's comments have been edited and condensed. 

Music to close the broadcast program: "Mayi a gaye" performed by ​Jorane, from the album Haiti mon coeur.