The Fictional Reality of Edwidge Danticat’s Haiti
By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
The first thing you should know about “The Dew Breaker” by Edwidge Danticat is that it’s not exactly a novel about Haiti. Nor is it just a batch of short stories. It’s something else.
And maybe this neither/nor, betwixt/between, hybridized fashion of fiction is the only way to write truly of such a complicated place.
“My publisher saw it as something between stories and a novel,” Danticat says on a recent visit to Washington. The Haitian-born writer believes in pushing the limits of fiction.
Reading the book can be quietly jarring — on two counts:
? Its disjointedness. Even reviewers are having a tough time agreeing on the book’s form. “Haiti’s bloody and bitter history of violence, corruption and vengeance stalks all the characters in Edwidge Danticat’s remarkable new novel,” writes one New York Times reviewer. Another review in the same newspaper describes it as “short stories by a Haitian-American writer who has pungently portrayed the distress and torment of the Haitian people both in this country and in their homeland.”
? Its generosity and gruesomeness. The central, somewhat sympathetic figure is/was a torturer for the government of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier. We first see the torturer, called a dew breaker because he comes for his victims in the early morning, living a low-key life as a barber and a father in Brooklyn. Later we see him as a monster. In a simple, elegant style, Danticat touches raw nerves.
“She writes in a direct, clear voice that’s like a bell,” says Robin Desser, her editor at Alfred A. Knopf, “and sometimes what she has to convey is so shattering. But there is a kind of calm beauty at the center of it.”
Danticat was in town to read from her new book, which one of the New York Times reviewers calls her “most persuasive, organic performance yet.”
At Ginger Cove, a Caribbean restaurant on E Street NW, she waits for a vegetable plate. She looks so young to write of matters so old.
Of the chapters in “The Dew Breaker,” she says, “I think of them as short stories.” Many were published as stand-alone tales in magazines and anthologies.
This is the fourth work of adult fiction for Danticat, who at 35 is emerging as a major American literary force. Her first novel, “Breath, Eyes, Memory,” was chosen for Oprah Winfrey’s influential book club in 1998 and another, “The Farming of Bones,” won an American Book Award in 1999. Danticat’s 1995 story collection, “Krik? Krak!,” was a National Book Award finalist. She’s also written a nonfiction book and a book for young adults, and she has edited two other volumes.
Her gift is her ability to render the complexity that is Haiti.
She was born in Haiti in 1969 and moved to America when she was 12. She now lives in the Little Haiti neighborhood of Miami because “it’s 90 minutes from home. I can get there faster than from New York.”
She goes back to Haiti a couple of times a year to see family and to remember. She was there in January, before all hell broke loose and President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was chased out of the country. There were demonstrations, she says. But neither she nor her relatives had any idea “something this big was going to happen.”
Today she’s wearing a long gray sundress, black jacket, bead necklace and tiny gold flower earrings. Her hair is braided and pulled back in a ponytail. She wears glasses and an easy smile.
In the beginning, writing was not easy for Danticat. Teachers in Haiti rapped on her knuckles with a ruler when her penmanship was less than perfect. “I had trouble with the A,” she says, wincing at the memory.
She is a storyteller. She speaks of her Haitian uncle who is a Baptist minister and talks through a post-laryngectomy device, a voice box that he holds up to his throat when he speaks. Of her aunt who ran a small grocery store in her house, serving rice in Creole measurements: ti mamit (small) and gwo mamit (large). Of musical Creole, the language created by slaves to communicate with one another. Of Haiti’s French-influenced and knuckle-rapping school system. “Everything was very rote,” she says. “It wasn’t meant to be fun.”
In her Creole-peppered accent, she speaks of summers in the countryside, the whole family packed into a tin-roofed cabin in the mountains. Of her father, who came to America in 1971 on a tourist visa — and stayed. He’s a cabdriver. Her mother worked in a factory. The whole family — Danticat has three younger brothers — eventually joined him, and now all live in America.
She tells of her husband, Faidherbe Yaboyer, 42, also Haitian, who is a translator. And of their desire to have children.
For now there are the books, for writing and for reading.
The first book she remembers reading was a folktale about the two brothers, Malis and Bouki, who are essential characters in Haitian folklore. Malis is smart; Bouki is not.
In English class, she got hooked on Classics Illustrated comics, especially the stories of Jane Austen — quiet domestic tales with subterranean rumblings. In a Thanksgiving-themed paper for an eighth-grade class, she wrote that the “turkey was golden.”
When she read it aloud, the other kids laughed. The teacher, however, told her that the descriptive language was good.
From that point on, she began to write regularly.
As she grew up, she was moved by other stories, other writers. Jacques Stephen Alexis, who wrote “In the Flicker of an Eyelid” and was killed in the 1960s during Papa Doc’s dictatorship. And Lyonel Trouillot, author of “The Streets of Lost Footsteps.”
Drawn to helping people, she went to a high school for future nurses. For a year she worked in the geriatrics ward of a Brooklyn hospital. “I decided nursing was not for me,” she says. There are other ways to dress wounds.
She went to Barnard College, then Brown University, where she studied under experimental fictionmeister Robert Coover. She began to write about what she knew. Haiti then and now. “Everybody knew someone who worked for Duvalier,” she says.
The writing has gotten easier. She has learned to start a new book as she finishes an old one. Her next one, “Anacaona, the Golden Flower,” a novel for young adults, is already written.
And of Haiti today? There is so much turmoil and change and disjointedness. She says, “It is not hopeless. I would love to see Haiti truly independent and self-sufficient.”
But she admits that there is no simple solution.
Just as there is no simple way to write about her country, known traditionally as a generous people ruled by heavy-handed, often ruthless leaders.
Flore Zephir, professor of African diaspora studies at the University of Missouri-Columbia and also a Haitian, says of Danticat: “When she writes, she uses intermittent voices. You get a story or part of a story. As the story continues, another protagonist comes on. I think that makes it very compelling. That technique that she uses is very successful.”
Danticat’s work is not only about Haiti, it is of Haiti, says Eloise Briere, professor of Francophone studies at the State University of New York at Albany. Her language, with French and Haitian Creole words sprinkled here and there, captures the sounds and the conversations. She makes frequent references to religion — voudou and others. Her characters reckon with the living memory of their ancestors and with generational tensions.
“She’s very feminine and feminist,” Briere says. In her writing, she tackles the “whole matter of a woman being a mother and of how difficult that is under conditions of poverty and oppression.”
Equally well she writes of generosity and gruesomeness.
“And her writing is socially conscious,” Briere says. “Conscious of the forces at work in Haiti, and her work is also very New American. She is conscious of the forces at work in the Haitian communities here.”
Most of all, Briere says, Danticat knows “what it feels like to be an outsider. She’s certainly been there.”