By Sita Bridgemohan
Editor, Sunday Guardian
For Haiti, the US is a double-edged sword. Haitian writer Edwidge Danticat is explaining why America—a country which can help, if anybody can Nobel laureate Derek Walcott said on Sunday—has never offered positive help to Haiti.
“The US does have the ability to help, to build institutions,” Danticat agrees, “it is a matter of will.”
That “will” on the part of the US has never been made apparent. Not 200 years ago when Haiti successfully fought off the French and declared itself independent nor with its current intervention.
“Two hundred years ago, the US, they didn’t want to acknowledge Haiti’s independence. Now, their intervention is to stop the flow of people coming to Miami/Florida,” Danticat says.
“The Duvaliers were openly funded by the US on the basis that they were not communist. America helps when it serves its interest to do so.”
Danticat is in Trinidad for the Haitian Bicentenary Conference—Reinterpreting the Haitian Revolution and its Cultural Aftershocks—at UWI, St Augustine that kicked off at the Learning Resource Centre (LRC) yesterday. Tonight she will read from her works at the LRC.
The Americans weren’t the only ones who didn’t want to acknowledge that the Haitians (as Walcott, put it in an interview in Sunday Guardian) “beat the s... out of the French”.
“Nobody wanted to acknowledge that,” says Danticat in an interview on Monday in which she contends that Haiti’s problems began with the Revolution.
“It is not to make excuses but we started out with a lot of things stacked against us. Two hundred years is a small time in the life of a nation.”
There’s too perhaps, a sense of a quiet acceptance of this non-involvement by Haiti’s Caribbean neighbours, captured in the comment of an immigration officer who admitted Danticat into T&T Monday. “Your country is in a mess” was his comment. Yes, Haiti is in a mess.
“There’s a fear to engage it (Haiti), even if, at the same time there is a fascination with it, because of the Revolution. Mention that you are from Haiti and the comment is ‘ah Toussaint L’Ouverture.
“But people are also terrified of the consequences. They see Haiti as always suffering. But there is another side to Haiti.”
That other side of Haiti is captured in Danticat’s novels where her characters suffer the difficult consequences, political or economic, of being Haitian but remain deeply attached to their land.
“To be Haitian is to be politically educated,” Danticat comments. To be Haitian is to also remember a Haiti that is a land of wondrous beauty much loved by its people even as they struggle with poverty and dictators, which force them to migrate, as in the case of Danticat and her parents.
Danticat’s characters never forget Haiti, they remember the land in language, in memories, in food, in values, in old proverbs and customs. They remember the good with the bad, the love remains; they long to remain.
“You see Haiti as a place in distress, a people in distress, you want to embrace it more.
“When you leave, you never completely leave. People were forced to leave, they always knew they were going back to Haiti,” says Danticat, who since she was 12 has lived in New York, joining her parents who had left during the Duvalier dictatorship.
“There’s a lot of myself in my books. In my teens, I had a fear of forgetting things so I wrote. I wanted to tell stories the way my grandmother told stories but I didn’t have that kind of confidence. I discovered reading and that books were another way to tell a story.”
Her trademark lyrical style found its first life in her teachers’ encouragement when she first went school in New York and where English became her third language.
“I wrote in the language of the place,” she says simply of her, a native Creole speaker and for whom French was a second language, writing in English.
Her teachers were fascinated by the translations and turn of phrases coming about from speaking Creole and learning English. The graceful lyricism of a Creole-influenced English is perhaps the most powerful element of Danticat’s novels, giving her characters life in a Haiti that is best remember by people of her parents generation rather than hers.
“There is longing to come back, made greater by the distance and by a Haiti described to us by parents, a paradisical place. The news channels don’t reflect that Haiti, we see sadness and violence, hunger poverty.
“But when you do go back, you see both. The beautiful places described by our parents, they are difficult to get to because the roads are so bad, but when we get there, we see our parents’ paradise.
“But we also see the environmental degradation, the fighting, the poverty. This is not to idealised Haiti, but it makes our love more powerful.
“People in Haiti live with difficult consequences. Yet, despite all that is happening inside the country, there is a remarkable literary production happening under difficult conditions.”
Seeing Walcott’s trilogy as a means of making that other side of Haiti better known, Danticat sees this Bicentenary Conference as “an extraordinary opportunity” to discover the realities of Haiti.
“This is the year when people would discover Haiti. This is the chance to begin.”
Born in Port-au-Prince in 1969, at the height of the Duvalierist dictatorship in Haiti, Edwidge Danticat emigrated to the United States at the age of 12.
At 14, two years after she learned her first words of English, she began to publish her first work in English, in New Youth Connections, New York City. Her first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, was published in 1994 when she was 25.
In 1996, she was selected as one of “The Best of Young American Novelists” for a special issue of Granta Magazine; and in 1999 she was featured by the New Yorker in a special issue called “The Future of American Fiction.”
Breath, Eyes Memory
Krik? Krak! (A finalist for the National Book Award in 1995)
The Farming of Bones (won the American Book Award in 1999)
Behind the Mountains
After the Dance (a nonfiction account of the annual Carnival in Jacmel)
The Butterfly’s Way: Voices from the Haitian Dyaspora in the United States
The Beacon Best of 2000: Great Writing by Women and Men of all Colours and Cultures
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