I had the privilege of interviewing Danticat for this profile about a year ago but wasn’t quite prepared to share it yet. Now, in honor of Caribbean-American Heritage Month, I am sharing it with you all to highlight this prominent and inspiring Haitian woman.
Edwidge Danticat’s life began in 1969 amidst the latter portion of a double dictatorship—beginning with “Papa Doc” Duvalier and continuing with his son “Baby Doc”—that put Haiti through two generations of oppression.
To cope with all that was happening around her, Danticat took comfort in stories and was inspired to write by the ones she’d heard while growing up.
“I started writing in Haiti when I was 9. My brothers and cousin and I used to write homemade books for ourselves. . . I loved listening to stories and wanted to be a storyteller, but found the comfort of writing a lot more intimate.”
That intimacy of putting pen to paper also helped Danticat through the major transition of moving to the United States at age 12 to join her parents in New York.
The adjustment was difficult for Danticat—she did not speak the language, she endured constant bullying and harassment for her heritage, and she had been apart from her parents, who stayed in New York while she lived in Haiti with her aunt and uncle, since the age of two.
Being apart from her mother for so long was also a challenge because it made it difficult for the two to form a traditional mother-daughter relationship, a recurring theme in many of Danticat’s works.
“After spending eight years away from my mother, it was a bit tough but we eventually became very close, especially in the final months of her life as she was dying in 2014.”
During this time, Danticat also faced prejudice from her neighbors and schoolmates and she found solace in the sense of community offered by the church her family attended. Despite the constant ridicule, Danticat remained proud and “never claimed to not be Haitian,” contrary to what many tend to do.
As she grew, Danticat continued to pursue her love for writing and contributed to New Youth Connections (now called YCTeen), a citywide publication written for and by teens.
“Learning English was probably the biggest challenge I faced. Being able to write in English now feels like a big accomplishment,” said Danticat.
Danticat gained a rewarding experience as a result of her time with the publication and was encouraged to write her first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, because of it.
“I would definitely encourage young people to write for teen publications if they want to become writers,” she said.
But at the time Danticat did not intend to be a writer, rather she was pursuing a career in nursing. In the end, her love for writing overpowered her more practical career choice and the world was gifted with such remarkable works as Brother I’m Dying, The Farming of Bones, and Krik? Krak!.
After that decision, Danticat rose as an accomplished author and has received many accolades for her novels and short stories such as the National Book Award, the Pushcart Short Story Prize, the International Flaiano Prize for literature, and more. But she never entirely left behind the bullying she faced during childhood and has received plenty of criticism in her career that was by no means constructive.
“Often if you’re a black woman and have accomplished certain things, people think it’s because of affirmative action and not on your own merits. I’ve had people mention that even in bad reviews of my books. That happens a lot to black women who succeed.”
Both criticized and widely congratulated, all of Danticat’s works were written from the heart and her inspiration for such stories came from her experiences, the culmination of which have shaped Danticat and her writing.
“Everything I have ever gone through has gone into my writing in some way. Both good and bad experiences have influenced my work. I see every experience as possible inspiration,” said Danticat.
One positive collection of experiences for Danticat was starting a family. Though many women in the field are discouraged from doing so, getting married and having children positively impacted Danticat’s writing process by making her more efficient, and everyone in her life was supportive of the direction she was taking.
“I am lucky that people kept telling me the opposite. My editor, agent, and family members told me that I could do it all if I manage my time well. I also went to a women’s college—Barnard College—and we were told that we could do anything we put our minds to.”
Aside from her own two daughters, Danticat also fostered generations of young minds during her time as a professor at New York University and the University of Miami.
“Some of my students have become published authors but I don’t know if I can take credit for that,” said Danticat. “I try to nurture talent in my students and guide them as much as I can.”
In addition to education, Danticat also dipped a toe into the film industry, working on the projects Poto Mitan and Girl Rising. Danticat’s novels and short stories have not yet been adapted to film, but it is a prospect she is looking forward to.
“I’m happy to option my books for film,” she says. “Some have actually been optioned for film, but the films have not been made. I hope to see one of my books made into a film one day.”
On the whole, Danticat can be best likened to a phoenix. She flies in the flames of negativity, criticism, and prejudice unharmed; she has risen from the ashes of her rocky past and has emerged a talented and accomplished author, a loving wife and mother, and a source of pride for any Haitian, New Yorker, or Miamian.
Image source: Penguin Random House