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#532: Edwidge Danticat's prose floats in a realm of sadness and eloquence (fwd)


GRACEFUL AS A GHOST  Edwidge Danticat's prose floats in a realm of
sadness and eloquence
By CALVIN WILSON - The Kansas City Star Date: 09/18/99 22:15

Edwidge Danticat is well-acquainted with ghosts. Not the kind that
deliver sudden shocks in horror stories but the kind that emerge     
from fear and anxiety and linger on in our memories. Such ghosts haunt
Danticat's fiction, which has earned the Haitian-American writer the
respect of literary critics and a devoted following among discriminating
readers. Her short-story collection Krik? Krak! was nominated for the
prestigious National Book  Award in 1995. "The things that I have
written so far are things that almost give me nightmares," the
30-year-old writer said by phone recently from the  New York office of
her publisher, Penguin Books. Danticat, who will read from her work on
Tuesday evening at Rainy  Day Books in Fairway and whose name is
pronounced "Ed-weedj Dan-ti-cah," brings a gravity and grace to her
fiction, which is at once arrestingly vivid and surpassingly compelling.
Her latest novel, The Farming of Bones, is no exception. Recently     
released in paperback, the book garnered mostly favorable reviews last
year (The Star cited her "vivid poetic gifts and impressive sense     
of narrative") and offered more evidence of her incisive and original 
vision. "In her work she's had the ability, always, to be emotive and to
 place the reader within the story," said Max Rodriguez, publisher of  
the Quarterly Black Review of Books, a New York-based literary
journal.Rarely is one allowed to be an observer -- always a participant.
If it's a story about Haitian refugees in a boat, you're in that boat."
Danticat's beguiling gift announced itself upon the publication of her 
first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory in 1994. All her works have been
informed in some way by the history of Haiti -- a country she knows
intimately, having spent much of her childhood there. Although she's a
naturalized American citizen and a longtime New Yorker, her imagination
seldom wanders far from her roots.  "Her work has humor and magic and a
kind of passion," said Diane Wolkstein, editor of the book The Magic
Orange Tree and Other  Haitian Folktales, for which Danticat wrote the
foreword. "Her stories have a sadness, but they're not grim."         
Consider The Farming of Bones. Although the novel is set in 1937 in the
Dominican Republic -- which shares a Caribbean island with  Haiti -- its
focus is on Haitians who have ventured to the other side of the island
to work. In the course of Danticat's fictional but  fact-based story,
which is told from the viewpoint of a servant named Amabelle, many of
these immigrants will be massacred by the Dominican government. In
language of clarity and eloquence, Danticat evokes the chaos that
companies genocide, as in this description of a victim: From the back of
the cart fell a girl, seventeen or eighteen years old ... Her face
flapped open when she hit the ground, her right cheekbone glistening as
the flesh parted from it. She rolled onto her back and for a moment
faced the sky. Her body spiraled past the croton edge down the slope.
The mountain dirt clung to her dress, her arms, her face, her whole body
gathering a thick cover of dust. Inasmuch as it addresses genocide, The
Farming of Bones may  remind readers of recent atrocities in places like
Bosnia and Rwanda, and of the teeming refugees seen in television
newscasts.But for some people, such distant suffering can be hard to
connect with, Danticat said -- her soft, lilting voice betraying but a
hint of the Creole she spoke as a child. "People don't want to believe
that there is that kind of danger, if there is no precedent for it that
they know of. They don't want to believe that, all of a sudden,
thousands of people can be killed." But for the author, who was born in
Port-au-Prince, such uncertainty  was all too real. As a child she lived
under the brutal dictatorship of "Baby Doc" Duvalier, during which
writing was considered an act of insurrection. So it was with some
trepidation that Danticat picked up the pen, writing her first short
story when she was 9 years old. "At the time that I started thinking
about writing," she said, "a lot of   people who were in jail were
writers. They were journalists, they were novelists, and many of them
were killed or `disappeared.' It was a very scary thing to think about."
Still, for the young Danticat, writing was a balm. It helped her to  
cope with missing her parents, who left Haiti when she was a toddler to
seek a better life in the United States. She was 12 years old when she
left the care of an aunt and uncle to join her parents in  New York. It
was 1981, five years before "Baby Doc" would be  ousted by a popular
uprising.  At first Danticat had trouble fitting in with her classmates
because of  her Haitian accent and clothing. But after a period during
which she felt she was "floating between languages" -- Creole and
English -- she again turned to writing. Her first published work was an
essay for a youth-oriented New York newspaper, in which she described  
her immigrant experience.  After graduating from Barnard College with a
degree in French literature, she considered becoming a nurse but
ultimately remained  committed to the writing life. Short stories and
novels, Danticat said, not only beckon readers into the realm of the
imagination, but also  serve as windows into worlds of which they might
be wary. She is especially fond of writing short stories because "you
finish sooner, and it gives you a chance to see the beginning and end
much faster."  Through fiction she has translated her experiences into
tales of universal resonance. She was only 25 when Breath, Eyes,    
Memory, which began as her master of fine arts thesis at Brown   
University, was published, garnering accolades for the precision of   
its prose and the depth of its insights. The novel centers on Sophie,   
a young girl who goes to live with her mother in New York after     
being reared by an aunt in Haiti. Avoiding mere autobiography,    
Danticat hews to the emotional truth of her life while projecting her 
fictional counterpart into an alternate scenario.  Krik? Krak! (the
title refers to the oral tradition in Haitian storytelling) includes
stories about life in Haiti during the Duvalier years. Characters range
from a man attempting to leave the island in a faulty boat to a woman
who doesn't want her son to discover she's a prostitute. The
well-received collection competed for the National Book Award with works
by writers including Madison  Smartt Bell and Philip Roth (who won for
Sabbath's Theater).  There's little doubt that, at a time when some
writers gain attention simply by emphasizing the glib, the trendy and
the superficial, Danticat will continue to create works of enduring
weight. She may turn her attention toward what it's like to be Edwidge
Danticat today. "I do feel like, right now, I'm at a crossroads," she
said. "At a point when I feel I can give some thought to my life here.
And I think at some point I might write about that."