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#319 E. Danticat: In a 1937 Massacre, the Writer Found a Fable for Our Time (fwd)


Edwidge Danticat: Personal History
In a 1937 Massacre, the Writer Found a Fable for Our Time
By Jacqueline Trescott Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 11, 1999; Page C02 

When Edwidge Danticat read "The Farming of Bones," her most recent
book, aloud publicly for the first time, she started crying. Her
listeners must  have thought: Edwidge, we could have told you how
painful it was to read about a river choked with bones and blood, about
how the soldiers tried to  suffocate people by shoving peppered parsley
down their throats.   "I started sobbing and I was really embarrassed
because it was a Village Voice reading, and a very hip crowd," says the
writer, speaking in a slow, hushed tone. This was a personal awakening.
She had to think about why phrases she had selected, passages she had
shaped, words her eyes had tracked a hundred times, had had such an
unexpected impact on her. "I was crying because I felt like I am so
inadequate as opposed to what  happened. No matter what you write, it is
never going to equal the pain of  one person. I was just overwhelmed by
the actuality." Danticat pauses and searches for the evidence of her own
anguish. "Often I  feel very sad writing about something and I write
through that sadness, or  because it makes me sad," she concludes. Yet,
with three highly praised  books behind her, stories about the history,
the oppression and yet the full lives and vitality of her native Haiti,
has she really worked through all the issues? Not quite. Her novels
explore personal, political and philosophical pain, the pain that    
spans physical brutality and irreplaceable loss. Her audience grapples
with her starkness. Other writers accept her themes and say traversing
the agonies is rewarded by the clarity of her prose. University
professors find their students shunning the bleakness of the stories
until they understand the context of life in one of the world's poorest
countries. The disciples of  Oprah Winfrey's Book Club tried "Breath,
Eyes, Memory," her first novel, and made it a bestseller but did not
embrace the Haitian nuances of her  work as much as they favored the
American familiarity of other Book Club  books. Perhaps it is because
she both invites and defies the sorrow. As in "The Farming of Bones":

"I close the door and lock out the tame night breeze that barely reaches
my bare body, naked because Sebastien has made me believe that it is
like a  prayer to lie unclothed alone the way one came out of the womb,
but mostly because I am hoping to feel the sweat gather between the
cement floor and the hollow in my back, so that when I rise up, there
will be a flood of perspiration to roll down over my buttocks, down the
front and back and between my thighs, down to my knees, shins, ankles,
and toes, so that there will not be a drop of liquid left in me with
which to cry."
What is perhaps more notable is that these strong reactions are being
created by a quiet, poised woman who is just 30. Hours after an evening
reading at Politics & Prose, Danticat sits courtly in a dark-paneled
hotel restaurant, her dark braided hair pulled back severely,
emphasizing her smooth, brown wafer-shaped face. She looks straight
ahead, her brown eyes narrowing in concentration, allowing temporary
pleasant smiles and rare cautious laughs."The Farming of Bones," which
was just released in paperback, won an American Book Award from the
Before Columbus Foundation earlier this  year, landed as one of the New
York Public Library's Best Books of 1999 and was listed as a notable
book by seven different arbiters from the New York Times to
Entertainment Weekly. In 1996 she was named by Granta,a publisher of
contemporary fiction, one of 20 "Best Young American Novelists" and this
year was included on the New Yorker's list as one of 20 writers
representing American fiction of the future. Her Americanism covers only
18 years; but her duality has been embraced by the literary
establishment, and she stands as one of the few recognized Haitian  
American authors writing in English.
 "Bones" recounts the 1937 slaughter of 10,000 to 15,000 Haitians living
in  the Dominican Republic, through the lives of two lovers, Amabelle
Desir and Sebastien Onius. Sebastien works in the sugar cane fields on
the Dominican side of the Caribbean island shared by Haiti and the
Dominican Republic. Amabelle, who works as a maid in the household of a
Dominican army colonel, watched her parents drown when she was 8
and       can't shake that sight or their shadows. Their love is doomed
by rampant terror and the intrusion of history.Though Danticat lived in
Haiti until she was 12, the facts of this massacre were told to her only
in bits and pieces. "There were people in my family who had gone over to
work in the sugar cane in the 1970s and 1980s and when they were gone
off and people didn't hear from them . . . people would talk about this
thing that happened in 1937 and could it happen again," she explains.
She became haunted by the story. As an adult, she looked in history
books and found only a line or two. "On our side, it is a  moment of
shame, people don't linger on it. When this happened nothing  was done
about it. There was also the complicity of the Haitian government in
this affair. There was money given by the Dominicans to compensate the
families and the money was kept by the Haitian government." Danticat
knew she wanted to write early on, and knew she wanted to share the pain
and wonder of Haiti with others. "I was always a reader,loved reading,
loved stories, loved listening. It was a great thing to enter a       
story," she says. Her parents moved to New York to escape the   
oppression of the Duvalier regimes, "more for economics than politics,"
she explains. Her father, a tailor in Haiti, found work as a taxi
driver. Her   mother worked in a textile factory. Danticat remained in
Port-au-Prince,  living modestly with an aunt and uncle, and devoured
everyone's stories. "Victor Hugo, everyone read him before you were 12
in Haiti," she says. Something was lacking, though, she says, adding,
"We were reading dead  French writers."  Her family understood that all
Haitian artists eventually return to the political themes that have
dominated the Haitian struggle since 1804 when it became the first
independent black republic in the world. Those writers, they knew, are
often persecuted for their views. "They encouraged me to  be a
neurosurgeon and write on the weekends," says Danticat slyly. She      
began keeping journals, and listened carefully to the stories the elders
told during the frequent power blackouts. "I was called fe Joudah
[Creole for gossipy] and people were afraid to talk around me, and now
they are really afraid. But a lot of stories are lost in migration and
the children only  hear what life is like in the new place."  Her
parents survived two Duvalier regimes, beginning with the cruel and   
bloody dictatorship of Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier in 1957. His son
 Jean-Claude succeeded him and continued a brutal reign until he left
Haiti  in 1986. As a child Danticat watched Baby Doc and his wife ride
through town in their Mercedes and throw money out the window. She
remembers  almost getting trampled at the palace one Christmas during a
toy giveaway.Eventually she joined her parents in New York, graduated
from Barnard College with a degree in French literature in 1990 and
earned an advanced  degree in writing from Brown University in 1993. Now
she lives with her parents in the East Flatbush section of Brooklyn,
deep in a migrant community.  These dark stories told in the darkness
became "Krik? Krak!" That 1995  collection was nominated for the
National Book Award. She also has a  strong interest in film and
teaching. For two years Danticat taught as an adjunct professor at New
York University and worked for director  Jonathan Demme's production
company, an office job that led to screen  time. "I was in 'Beloved' for
five seconds," she says.   Writing remained her passion no matter what
the risks. She admired Marie Chauvet, a successful Haitian novelist and
poet who wrote about love, anger, madness. "I thought she was one of the
bravest of all our writers. I  was drawn to her because she was a woman
and wrote under difficult circumstances and was writing in a brave way,"
says Danticat. Chauvet left  Haiti and went into exile in New York,
where she died. Recently Danticat  found one of her books in English,
"Dance Under the Volcanos," for sale on the Internet. The image of this
style of commerce, instead of finding a  treasure in some lower
Manhattan book stall, brings a smile to her face.  She first tested the
1937 massacre in a short story, and her interest openedthe doors, not
only to the novel's treatment, but to documents people were  glad to
share with her. "The more I read the testimonies, the more I heard      
the voices from the past, the more drama I saw in it. The idea of
flight, which is still active today, people leaving Haiti to come to the
United States  by boat. It is very dramatic. It strikes me as very
dramatic that you do have this island, the first place Columbus saw in
what he called the New  World, and it is one island, and the French and
the Hispanics fought over  this land, and split it. So you have this
history back and forth and this   drama in itself."  In Danticat's
hands, the retelling would be spare, but never dry. The lovers       
spend the night together and when Sebastien leaves they can only manage
 a slight smile, "because there was the cane to curse, the harvest to
dread, the future to fear." As the massacre escalates, Amabelle is
kicked and beaten by the soldiers, her mouth stuffed with tainted
parsley. She makes it  to the river. "An empty black dress buoyed past
us, inflated by air, floating  upon the water. It was followed by a
clump of tree branches and three  empty sisal knapsacks. A man floated
past us, face down. I swam towards  him and moved his head to the side.
Sebastien? No." She doesn't flinch at the cruelty, and her unrelenting
approach makes the  story achingly sad. "People say that a lot about my
work in general. 'Is it because everything is  sad or are you basically
sad?' Maybe there is something melancholy about  me that I am drawn to
these kinds of events," she says. It's an ingrained  sorrow that comes
from attending all the funerals her uncle, a Baptist   minister,
preached, and the fact that she was the child who closed the     
eyelids of her 100-year-old grandmother when she died. "Ultimately it is
a sad story, and what was important for me is to try to find out what
 happened beneath the sadness and how people lived through the sadness."
Twice a year since 1994, Danticat has been going home, one trip just to
check in on her relatives, the other to accompany a group of college
students on a summer seminar. She has seen life under once-exiled
 President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his successor, Rene Preval. During
her recent visit people were worried, as they have been in her three
decades, about the basics. They are skeptical about any government
helping them out, and wonder if the past five years of American and U.N.
intervention did any good. Another round of elections is scheduled to
start this winter."I don't think people are convinced anymore that these
elections will solve their problems. It is a kind of disillusionment
with the whole political process," she says, and only holds out her own
hope, the conviction that  comes out of Haiti's long history of
survival. "Hopefully we will have safe elections and get political
leaders who really work in the interest of the people," she says
quietly. Danticat is also very much like Haiti, under scrutiny. On her
last book tour  she began to get questions about what she was working on
next, the first  development of celebrity status. In Washington she is
asked about her   inspirations, if her thought process is dominated by
Creole or English, the   duality of Amabelle's voice. "I was writing in
her testimonial voice, telling  what happened, and her internal voice,
telling how she loved this man," she answers.  She lets these 100 fans
know she is far from finished. She reads, "The dead who have no use for
words leave them as inheritance for children." And she looks up,
promising more words of her own. "I've gone back to writing short
stories because I feel so exhausted from this book. Plus I'm learning
the craft all the time and the short stories are a way to warm up