Originally created 03/28/04

Edwidge Danticat searches for middle ground in her native Haiti



NEW YORK -- Edwidge Danticat's lunch of rice and salad sits untouched in its plastic container.

Despite worries about hunger-induced low blood sugar, the Haitian-born writer has spent the past hour or so talking about a subject that "drives all of my passions" - the violence and political unrest that has beset her native country following the ouster last month of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The rebellion has led to the deaths of more than 300 people.

"This is a very symbolic moment," Danticat says. "It's painful that, after 200 years, this is where we are. But I hope there's an opportunity in this current moment for change because we can't keep repeating this history."

Danticat, whose first novel, "Breath, Eyes, Memory," was a 1998 selection for Oprah's Book Club, left Haiti in 1981 and still has family there. And the 35-year-old writer is constantly asked to comment on unfolding issues she is still trying to figure out for herself.

"Some days it's just like, 'Oh, I just want to be home crying, you know?"' she says with a small, sad laugh. "And that's why I write fiction, as opposed to other things. It takes me a while to process these things."

Danticat's latest book, "The Dew Breaker," deals with another painful part of Haitian history. Using a series of loosely connected short stories, she probes the life and actions of a torturer during the Duvalier regime, a brutal dictatorship that began in 1957 under Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier and lasted until his son, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, fled the country in 1986.

Moving through multiple times, places and points of view, Danticat charts the ripples of pain and violence stemming from one man - "just one of hundreds who had done their jobs so well that their victims were never able to speak of them again," she writes.

She was intent on portraying the torturer, or "dew breaker," in nuanced terms, something often lacking in American coverage of Haiti, she says.

"We tend so much to caricature people like the dew breaker and I think we simplify them at our own peril, because we completely remove ourselves from the equation," Danticat says. "If we continue to think that these people are 'evil,' we won't be able to recognize that in everyone is the potential (for violence) and we'll always have these reoccurrences."

The book's genesis came in early 2000, while Danticat was following a groundbreaking Haitian trial seeking to bring justice to victims of torture. Many of the defendants were tried in absentia, having fled to the United States or the Dominican Republic, where they lived in exile among the people they had hurt.

"It seemed a very dramatic idea. Imagine escaping something only to face the very people you've escaped where you end up," Danticat says softly in a voice flavored with Creole and French. Two small shells, woven into the ends of her many braids, bob as she nods and shakes her head to emphasize a point.

Her own story is common to many Haitians of her generation.

When she was 2, her father escaped the Duvalier dictatorship for America. He settled in New York's borough of Brooklyn, where the former tailor became a taxi driver. He was followed two years later by his wife, a seamstress who went to work in a textile factory. It wasn't until 1981, when Danticat was 12, that she left her aunt in Haiti to be reunited in Brooklyn with her parents and her two brothers, whom she had met only once.

She arrived on a Friday, and started school the next Monday. She and other Haitian youngsters endured ethnic taunts and physical violence from their American classmates, who blamed them for spreading AIDS and who called them "boat people" - referring to the waves of Haitians trying to reach America by sea.

"They'd call us 'Frenchies' and say, 'Go back to your banana boat,"' Danticat recalls. "They'd also call us voodoo dolls and say we're smelly.

"It was really scary. Every time I'm on a plane from Haiti now and I see a little child, I want to go up to them and say, 'Courage,"' she says, the last word spoken in French.

A shy child, Danticat learned about courage through another Haitian, Raymond Dussek, who fled Haiti in the 1960s after a cousin was killed and one of his brothers arrested. Dussek taught Danticat when she first arrived at Jackie Robinson Intermediate School in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. She describes him now as her great guide.

"He gave us ways to survive with your honor and dignity intact in a society that really attacks who you are, that assaults you with images and stereotypes," Danticat says.

For his part, Dussek, now retired, describes the writer as one of the best students he ever had.

After struggling through her early years in the New York, Danticat went on to graduate from Barnard College and earn a masters of fine arts from Brown University. She began writing as a way to remember Haiti, and describes writing as "the cheapest and fastest way for me to go home."

In 1994, she was only 26 when she published "Breath, Eyes, Memory," about a young Haitian girl who is also reunited with her family in New York at age 12. The following year, she was a National Book Award finalist for "Krik? Krak!" - a collection of stories woven with Haitian lore and history.

Danticat is at her best when dealing in minutiae. She never shrinks from painful aspects of Haitian culture, often employing spare, even clinical writing that transcends its subject matter in moments of harsh poetry.

In "Nineteen Thirty-Seven" - a story from "Krik? Krak!" - she writes about a woman visiting her imprisoned mother, a survivor of the 1937 Massacre River slaughter of Haitians ordered by Dominican Republic dictator General Rafael Trujillo:

"A few of the other women prisoners walked out into the yard, their chins nearly touching their chests, their shaved heads sunk low on bowed necks. Some had large boils on their heads. One, drawn by the fresh smell of fried pork, came to sit near us and began pulling the scabs from the bruises on her scalp, a line of blood dripping down her back.

"All of these women were here for the same reason. They were said to have been seen at night rising from the ground like birds on fire."

Though Haiti's violent history is rarely far from the surface of Danticat's work, she also celebrates its vibrancy. This can be seen in the 2002 nonfiction book from Crown, "After the Dance: A Walk Through Carnival in Jacmel, Haiti."

She visits Haiti frequently but lives in Miami's Little Haiti with her husband, Faidherbe Boyer, who runs a translation and interpretation company called CreoleTrans.

While American readers and critics have embraced Danticat, many Haitian-Americans have been less welcoming. New York Daily News immigration reporter Leslie Casimir, whose parents also fled the Duvalier regime, recalls the many angry phone calls she received in 1994 from Haitian-Americans after a profile she wrote of Danticat ran in The Miami Herald.

"People expect Edwidge to write only about positive things, since the image of Haiti in the United States has always been tied to negative things," Casimir, 33, said. "As a Haitian, you should know not to spread more dirty laundry about the culture."

There's an intimacy to Danticat's writing that some Haitians might not enjoy, said Casimir, who feels just the opposite.

"When I read 'Breath, Eyes and Memory,' I thought I was reading something that a sister wrote," she said. "You hear your relatives in it. The voices are so exact. ... She really travels both cultures, Haitian and American."

Casimir later added her own voice to the mix in "The Butterfly's Way: Voices From the Haitian Dyaspora in the United States," a 2001 Soho Press anthology edited by Danticat.

Danticat is heartened by the growing profusion of voices within the Diaspora.

"We have so many people who are capable, who love their country," she says. "Maybe this is a chance for them to introduce something new to the situation."

She hopes that the Diaspora can have a greater role in shaping Haiti's future, to serve as a middle ground between large foreign powers such as the United States and the Haitian government.

"I would love to see people in the Diaspora somehow be a bridge between all of the different sides and extreme positions," she says. "The Diaspora sends something like $800 million back to Haiti each year, and for years they've been struggling on the same level to be a political force. I think if they go back with some humility and the ability to listen to people on the ground, maybe they can learn to be a middle ground, politically and socially."

Danticat has long been critical of U.S. policy toward Haiti, particularly with the repatriation or imprisonment of Haitian refugees.

"I would hate to see a U.S. puppet propped up now to please the purposes of the American government," she says. "I hope that, at some point, Haitians will be truly, truly allowed to choose their own destiny."

On the Net:

Alfred A. Knopf: www.aaknopf.com