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Edwidge Danticat, Haitian-born American writer, to speak of ‘creating dangerously’

On the phone, Edwidge Danticat doesn’t sound like a dangerous person.

Talking from a family vacation in Georgia, her voice is soft, her words carefully thought out and falling in beautifully cadenced phrases.

But the writings of the Haitian-born American author — who at 25 was pronounced a culture-changer by The New York Times and now at 46 has a string of award-winning books — speak differently.

That’s because Danticat writes about the turmoil and suffering in her own and her family’s lives and the political causes of that suffering.

She’ll talk about that writing Tuesday in her lecture, Create Dangerously, at the University of Puget Sound.

Born in Port-au-Prince, Danticat was raised by an aunt and uncle after her parents left to find work in the United States. Haiti then was ruled by the notorious dictator “Papa Doc” Duvalier and then his son, Jean-Claude.

At the age of 12 and speaking little English, Danticat moved with her brother to join their parents, and her experiences in both countries fueled her writing.

“Breath, Eyes, Memory” (1994, and an Oprah Book Club selection) told of a young girl sent to the United States from her family in Haiti. The protagonist of “The Dew Breaker” (2004) was a quiet New York man with a brutal background of torture.

“Brother, I’m Dying” (2007) recounted the true story of Danticat’s beloved uncle, who died in U.S. custody while waiting to be granted asylum.

More recently, she has written nonfiction, including an essay for a photojournalism book on Haiti, and her 2010 “Create Dangerously” about the obligation of immigrant writers to speak out on injustice.

With degrees in French literature and writing, and honors including a MacArthur Fellowship and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, Edwidge Danticat (pronounced Ed-weej-ah Don-tee-cah) straddles cultures and worlds, happiness and suffering.

She spoke to The News Tribune on how that position fuels her writing, and why she strives to write dangerously.

Q. Why create dangerously?

A. I wrote “Create Dangerously” in part because I was trying to understand how artists came to their art.

I was reading a lecture by the French writer Albert Camus, and came across his notion of “create dangerously, for people who read dangerously.” And I thought about my own life, and my parents’ lifes, how their notion of writing was tied always to danger.

I thought about how people sustain their art, and the very real and tangible risks they take to create it — writing from prison or under dictatorship. And the risk of failure, of being afraid to put yourself out there. Toni Morrison talks about just that, about creating with neither fear nor pity.

When as a writer you feel most denial and sadness, that’s when you need to start writing. So “create dangerously” is not so much a mandate as an ongoing exploration of how I can be braver.

Q. Should everyone who creates be doing this? Is it a political thing?

A. I’m not the kind of person who wants to tell anybody what to do. But it is bold and political. Anyone who creates, whether it’s the Sistine Chapel or the shortest of stories, you want to have your all in it.

If you’re living with a target on your back, this means something different from someone who can say anything they like all day long.

Q. You put a lot of death and suffering into your novels, especially for the young characters — children who disappear or are abandoned, teenagers who get shot, families separated, losing loved ones. And you have suffered a lot. Is it personally difficult to write these things?

A. I always try to write what I wish I could have read at different moments of my life. I try to write the reality I’ve encountered. I’m not writing suffering for suffering’s sake. I write with those people in mind who suffer and also those who create it.

The blessing of art is that it allows us to walk in other people’s shoes and experience empathy. I write about suffering so I can fully understand it, and to explain it so others can understand. That is the full power of literature.

Q. You’ve been quoted as saying that immigrants from suffering countries have an obligation to speak out about that. But do you feel that straddling two cultures makes writing more difficult?

A. As an immigrant you do have some insight (into your old home) but not total insight, because you’re not in the place of your birth every day. You have to take a step back, be a bit of an outsider to both cultures, an observer.

I never take for granted that I fully know either Haiti or the United States. I’m constantly learning from both places. It makes me pause a little longer to evaluate my perspective.

But it’s a perspective I share with a lot of people who straddle two cultures, who have their body in one place and their heart in another and are always looking to understand that gap. I’m trying to understand that place, to fully immerse myself.

Q. Do you still go to Haiti often?

A. Yes, I go there a couple of times a year. I still have family there.

Q. What do you think Haiti needs to move forward from all the suffering of the past few decades — the political turmoil, the dictatorships, the earthquake?

A. Well, there hasn’t been an election in Haiti since right after the earthquake (in 2010.) So that needs to happen.

But on a mental level, it needs to have its children educated, to have full participation of all Haitians to be a part of society. We need to stop having autocratic rule.

Q. Writers can often work through their personal suffering through writing. What would your advice be to someone who has had to endure terrible things but is not a writer?

A. I’ve had friends and people in my family who have suffered a great deal, and they’re not artists or writers.

The way I have seen them heal best is through helping someone else. Not only official service work, but just helping others, starting projects in schools, anything. It sounds cliched, but that’s how I’ve mostly seen people recover.

The art of creating gives you a chance to rebirth yourself, to start over. But serving others is the best way to honor your survival.

Q. What books are in the pipeline for you this year?

A. I’ve been going to a place in Miami called Boys Town, for (at-risk youth), and I’m writing a picture book called “Mama’s Nightingale” about that, about a girl whose mother is detained as an immigrant. It’s coming out in September.

Then in October I have a book for young people coming out. This is the year when a lot of young people in my life — my children, my brother’s children — are coming of age. So I’m writing for that group.

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