ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
My memories inform my writing a great deal, but since Haiti is a lively place,
a place that is changing all the time, I cant afford to just use my memories.
I do a lot of research. I go to Haiti a lot, since I still have family there.
Books by Edwidge Danticat
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A Conversation with
Author of The Dew Breaker
From the universally acclaimed author of Breath, Eyes, Memory and Krik? Krak! (both Oprah’s Club selections), a powerful new work of fiction that explores the trials and reconciliation in the life of a man known as a “dew breaker,” a torturer, whose past crimes in the country of his birth lie beneath his new American reality. In Haiti in the dictatorial 1960s, Manhattan in the 1970s, Brooklyn and Queens today, we meet the dew breaker’s family, neighbor’s and victims. An unforgettable, deeply resonant book–of love, remorse, history, and hope, of rebellions both personal and political
The Dew Breaker proves once more that in Edwidge Danticat we have a major American writer.
Q: Can you tell us about the title of your new book The Dew Breaker?
Danticat: The title is my English translation of a Creole expression shoukèt laroze, which during the twenty-nine year period (1957-1986) that Haiti was ruled by the father and son dictators, François Papa Doc and Jean Claude Baby Doc Duvalier, referred to a rural chief, a brutal regional leader and sometime torturer. I have always been fascinated by the poetic naming of such a despicable authority figure and when I started writing about a former torturer, I decided to translate the expression in the most serene sounding way I could. And so we have the dew breaker. I could have chosen several other ways to translate this, the dew shaker, the dew stomper, for example, but I like the way the words dew breaker echo the American expression ball breaker, which is a more fitting label for these kinds of people.
Q: Why did you decide to structure the telling of the book in the way that you do? Do you feel that this book represents a departure from your previous works? If so how?
Danticat: I wanted the book to open up, as you read it, that is, with each new character, each new situation, I wanted to add layers upon layers to the central figure, the dew breaker. I wanted the reader to be introduced to the dew breaker from different angles, and for those who love him, an even for him, to see himself from various perspectives. This book is a departure for me in that I am writing mostly about men. And Im writing about different time periods in a non-linear way.
Q. What kind of research, if any, went into the writing of the book?
Danticat: I read a lot about the twenty-nine year period of the dictatorship, even though I have merged certain years and have moved certain events to fit the period the book covers. I read a lot of personal narratives, academic texts, old news accounts, spoke to a lot of people and asked them to share their memories of growing up during the Duvaliers dictatorship. I was born in 1969, and spent the first twelve years of my life under the dictatorships so I also used my own memories.
For example, there is an incident in the book where a minister is arrested by Papa Docs henchmen. This really happened when I was growing up. The minister was severely beaten as he was leaving his church one night and was nearly killed, so I used my memories of that time. The real life minister also had a radio program on Radio Lumière, the religious station mentioned in the book, even though he never used the words my fictional minister uses in his radio and live sermons.
Q. Would you say that most of your characters attempt in some way to reinvent themselves or escape their past? How successful are they?
Danticat: Like all new immigrants, many of the characters have no choice but to reinvent themselves in some way or other. Otherwise they would not survive their new lives in America. They try to forget what haunts them and use what is useful to them from their past, but ultimately, most of them find balancing these two realities quite difficult. And like all immigrants, some of them succeed and some of them fail.
Q: To what extent are you trying to inform people about Haitian politics and people in your writing? What response do you expect to The Dew Breaker in the Haitian-American community?
Danticat: Its hard to say how anyone will react to a book. You never know until they read it, and if they choose to share their impressions with you, react to it. There is not one Haitian-American community, but several communities. I am really not sure how these communities will react. I hope, as I do for all my books, that it will cause some reflection and healthy debate, especially as Haiti celebrates two hundred years of independence in 2004, but still finds itself mired in poverty and political quagmires.
My greatest wish is that after reading my book, my readers will go out and find many more books to read about Haiti.
Q: You have spent your life in America. What is it like for you to write of a place which, though an integral part of your life, is no longer your home? And do your memories of Haiti inform your writing?
Danticat: My memories inform my writing a great deal, but since Haiti is a lively place, a place that is changing all the time, I cant afford to just use my memories. I do a lot of research. I go to Haiti a lot, since I still have family there. I observe. I listen. I blend the Haiti I see today with the Haiti I once lived in and try to create interesting and complex situations for my characters who are facing the current reality as well as the past. Though I dont live in Haiti, I feel very connected to it. Its as much a part of me as the United States, as much home for meif in a more spiritual wayas where I live now in Miami.
Q. At one point in the book, an aspiring journalist, Aline, thinks that she had never imagined that people like Beatrice (a bridal seamstress she is interviewing in Queens) existed, men and women whose tremendous agonies filled every blank space in their lives. Aline realizes that these are the people she wanted to write about. Is the way Aline thinks of these men and women in this passage similar to how you conjure the characters you write about?
Danticat: Yes and no. I am indeed very much drawn to people who live in between determined categories, people who are something between model immigrants and so called deviant ones like Claude, a young man who is deported from the United States for committing a horrible crime. I think all of us live nuanced and complicated lives. I am not interested in writing about people who can be defined too easily, who are either too good or too bad. I like to write about those gray places, those blank spaces, if you will, the stuff in-between.
Q: People here (in America) are more practical maybe, a first-generation American character states, but there, in Haiti or the Philippines, thats where people see everything, even things theyre not supposed to see. So I see a womans face in a rose, Id think somebody drew it there, but if you see it, Manmam, you think its a miracle. Do you think of this American practicality as a positive force? What would you say are some of its repercussions, if any? And on the other hand, do you think that poorer countries of the world may pay a price for holding on to tradition, or to their spiritual beliefs?
Danticat: In this scene, the dew breaker and his wife and daughter are on their way to church. The Filipino man who had seen the Madonnas face on a rose petal. Her daughter replies by trying to find a proper, an American explanation for this miraclefor instance maybe someone drew the Madonnas face on the rose petal. In any early draft, I had the mother reply that on American money it says In God We Trust to show that Americans have their traditions and firm beliefs too. The American dream in itself is a kind of miracle story, isnt it?
I think when you talk about people from poorer countries, you have to realize that not all people from poorer countries have the same beliefs. There are people from Haiti or the Philippines, for example, who would reply the same way as this first generation American woman. So the dichotomies are not always so clear cut. We all have our traditions, which have both positive and negative repercussions. It all depends on how we integrate them in our lives and whether they serve us or hold us back.
But I dont believe theres anything wrong with having faith, as long as it does not become a crutch. On some level the preacher in the book is being punished for preaching liberation theology, because hes basically saying that tradition and faith can be used to oppress a nation. In the most evil hands, traditions can be used like a weapon against a people. In some other instance its the very thing that liberates them.
Q: Some of the Haitian characters in your book are portrayed as trying to create a tiny version of their home country in America, never quite stepping wholly outside that world. How do you think this affects their experiences as immigrants?
Danticat: I think were all a little cautious when we move to a new place. We all retreat to familiar versions of our old lives and try to recreate that in a new place. Many of the characters eventually move into their new society, but for some of them it takes much longer than others. Having just left a dictatorship, most of the characters are fearful as they try to navigate a new situation they barely understand.
They seek comfort in each other. Sometimes one had to do that to survive. If you dont speak the language, naturally youre going to try to find other people like you, people who might be able to help you go to the doctor, get a job. So sometimes the first period of insularity is not a choice but a necessity.
Q: Anne, the wife of the Dew Breaker is able to remain married to a man she knows to have to have committed unspeakable acts, while a village embraces a man who has killed one of their own. What does this say about the nature of love and forgiveness?
Danticat: This is the part of the book I wrestled with the most. How do we love people who have done such horrible things? When I was younger, I was always confused that the dictators foot soldiers, who were so brutal with other people had wives and children, whom they loved. This is something I could never clearly explain to myself. I am not saying that everyone should be forgiven and loved after having done such terrible things. I think people like this should be punished as severely as justice allows.
But we have those cases where the mothers of murdered children befriend the killers. Where former victims in South Africa embrace their torturers. I cant explain that, but I think somehow people can and do reach inside themselves to make that happen, so that they can move on with their lives.
But for people whose fathers and mothers committed these crimes, I will often hear the say, That is not the same person I knew. That is not my mother, my father, my brother, sister. Perhaps there is a part of that person that the loved one will always hate, but there is also a part of them that theyre somehow able to love, the part who tucked them in at night and walked them to school in the morning. I think its an incredible act of love, to love someone whom you know, on some level, is not at all worthy of anyones love.
Q: Whats next for you?
Danticat: I hope to start another novel soon. I just finish a young adult book called Anacaona, Golden Flower. Its about a Taino woman named Anacaona. She ruled over a part of Haiti, Léogâne, where my family is from. She was a warrior, a dancer, a storyteller, and a fantastic potter and has been my (s)hero since I was a little girl.
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Praise for Breath, Eyes, Memory and Krik? Krak!
Pure beguiling transformation.–Los Angeles Time
Prose as clear as a bell, magical as a butterfly, and resonant as a drum.—Julia Alvarez
Danticat’s calm clarity of vision takes on the resonance of folk art . . . Extraordinarily successful.–New York times Book Review
Demonstrates the healing power of storytelling.–San Francisco Chronicle
Thomas Wolfe, shake hands with Edwidge Danticat, your spiritual heir.–Newsweek
Virtually flawless.–Washington Post Book World
Edwidge Danticatborn 1969 in Jacmel, Haitimoved to the United States when she was twelve. Her first languages were Creole and then French. She attended high school in Brooklyn and graduated from Barnard College and earned her MFA at Brown University. Her much-praised first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memorya lyrical and austere portrait of the Haitian diaspora in their Brooklyn exilewas published in 1994, at aged 25. A year later Krik? Krak! her first collection of short stories, was nominated for the US National Book Award. Her second novel The Farming of Bones recreates the events surrounding the Haitian Massacre of 1937 (15,000 slaughtered by Trujillio’s regime in the Dominican Republic), examining the struggle “of two different people trying to share one tiny piece of land.” The Farming of Bones was an American Book Award winner. She is also the editor of The Butterfly’s Way: Voices from the Haitian Dyaspora in the United States and Beacon Best of 2000: Creative Writing by Women and Men of All Colors.
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A Novel by Jesmyn Ward
On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family thats about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrinas inexorable winds is the voice of Wards narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her familys raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brothers blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt. Her fathers hands are like gravel, while her own hand slides through his grip like a wet fish, and a handsome boys muscles jabbered like chickens. Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isnt usually just metaphor for metaphors sake. She conveys something fundamental about Eschs fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect. She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. . . . What remains, whats salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.
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By Edwidge Danticat
Create Dangerously is an eloquent and moving expression of Danticat’s belief that immigrant artists are obliged to bear witness when their countries of origin are suffering from violence, oppression, poverty, and tragedy. In this deeply personal book, the celebrated Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat reflects on art and exile, examining what it means to be an immigrant artist from a country in crisis. Inspired by Albert Camus’ lecture, “Create Dangerously,” and combining memoir and essay, Danticat tells the stories of artists, including herself, who create despite, or because of, the horrors that drove them from their homelands and that continue to haunt them. Danticat eulogizes an aunt who guarded her family’s homestead in the Haitian countryside, a cousin who died of AIDS while living in Miami as an undocumented alien, and a renowned Haitian radio journalist whose political assassination shocked the world. Danticat writes about the Haitian novelists she first read as a girl at the Brooklyn Public Library, a woman mutilated in a machete attack who became a public witness against torture, and the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat and other artists of Haitian descent. Danticat also suggests that the aftermaths of natural disasters in Haiti and the United States reveal that the countries are not as different as many Americans might like to believe..CaribbeanLiterarySalon / Review and Interview by Kam Williams
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From The World and Africa, 1965
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update 1 February 2012
Related files: Out of the Shadows The Dew Breaker How the U.S. Impoverished Haiti No, Mister! You Cannot Share My Pain! The hate and the quake The Revolutionary Potential of Haiti Nobody ever chose to be a slave