Edwidge Danticat Biography
Edwidge Danticat comments:
Nationality: American. Born: Port-au-Prince, Haiti, 19 January1969. Education: Barnard College, 1990; Brown University, M.F.A. 1993. Career: Freelance writer, 1994—.
Breath, Eyes, Memory. New York, Soho Press, 1994.
The Farming of Bones. New York, Soho Press, 1998.
Krik? Krak! New York, Soho Press, 1995.
Foreword, The Magic Orange Tree, and Other Haitian Folktales, edited by Diane Wolkstein. New York, Schocken Books, 1997.
Foreword, A Community of Equals: The Constitutional Protection of New Americans by Owen Fiss, edited by Joshua Cohen and Joel Rogers. Boston, Beacon Press, 1999.
Contributor, Island on Fire: Passionate Visions of Haiti from the Collection of Jonathan Demme, edited by Jonathan Demme. Nyack, New York: Kaliko Press, 1997.
(2000) At the end of most readings and lectures, a writer is often asked, "How much of your work is autobiographical?" The writer's reaction to that question varies, depending on the subject of the work. I once heard a young, shy, soft-spoken, female novelist who had just published a thriller about a serial killer quickly answer, "Not much." However, for most of us, the answer is not always so simple.
As novelist and short story writer Katherine Anne Porter once said, "A story is something you wind out of yourself. Like a spider, it is a web you weave, and you love your story like a child." In an interview with Donna Perry for her book Backtalk: Women Writers Speak Out, British novelist and Booker Prize winner Pat Barker adds that the starting point of any work is "inevitably always something in your life, just as the source of every single character you create has to be yourself."
Is most writing on some level—large or small—autobiographical, whether it be emotional autobiography or straight out borrowing from our lives?
In order to create full-fledged, three dimensional characters, writers often draw on their encounters, observations, collages of images from the everyday world, both theirs and others'. We are like actors, filtering through our emotions what life must be like, or must have been like, for those we write about. Truly we imagine these lives, aggrandize, reduce, or embellish, however we often begin our journey with an emotion close to our gut, whether it be anger, curiosity, joy, or fear.
I always have trouble answering the "How much of your work is autobiographical?" question. Not so much because it feels like a curiosity probe or a violation of privacy, but simply because the question at times rings to me like an oxymoron. To ask a fiction writer how much truth is in her work seems like asking a jockey if his/her black horse is green. (Or maybe it's if his/her black horse is black?) I once heard a writer angrily answer that autobiographical question with "If I wanted to write an autobiography, I would have written one." However, the question can be a valid one, for what about the little mannerisms of ourselves that show up in the main or minor characters in our stories? What of the characters that we plop fully formed on the page mimicking our friends and relatives? And what of the incidents from childhood that reappear over and over in different forms in our tales?
Still what do we answer? Is the work ten percent autobiographical, twenty percent? Fifty percent?
I was born in Haiti in 1969 and moved to the United States when I was twelve to be reunited with my mother and father who had left Haiti eight years before I did. My first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, is about a girl, Sophie Caco, who is born in Haiti as a result of a rape and comes to the United States to be reunited with her mother when she is twelve. Because of the obvious similarities between the character's and my childhood, many of my readers assume that I too was born as a result of a rape. I was not. However there are many other things that the main character in that novel, Sophie Caco, and I share.
In writing Breath, Eyes, Memory, I used the sadness and desolation I experienced as a child separated from my parents. When I invented Sophie Caco, I relived my wonder at seeing a new country for the first time and infused those moments into her first day in New York. Perhaps what I did was write an emotional autobiography, but not a factual one.
I have always split my memories into two realms: one of real memory and one of fictional memory. Fictional memory has a series of plot devices, ordered scenes, convenient settings, clever dialogue and revisions aimed at the ending of your choice. My fictional memories are what come up when I consider my real memories and ask myself "What if?" What if when Sophie Caco/Edwidge Danticat arrives in New York City for the first time she discovers a dark secret in her past, her mother's rape.
Real memory is fragmented, messy, disorganized, has no clever dialogue and you don't always get the ending of your choice. That's why I prefer to write fiction, though it is fiction that draws heavily from certain moments in my life. With my fictional memories, I can use lies to tell a greater truth, winding a different kind of tale out of myself, one in which the possibilities for tangents and digressions are boundless; I can also weave a more elaborate web, where everyone's life can serve as a thread, including my own.
* * *
American literature has produced more than its share of prodigies. From Stephen Crane to F. Scott Fitzgerald to Carson McCullers to Truman Capote, many American writers have achieved significant acclaim, and produced some of their most famous works, while still in their twenties. To this list may be added the name of Edwidge Dandicat. Her first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, appeared when the author was twenty-five and was guaranteed significant popular success as a selection of Oprah Winfrey's Book Club. Her next book, the short story collection Krik? Krak! was a finalist for the National Book award. Her second novel, The Farming of Bones, appeared in 1998.
Born in Haiti, Dandicat moved to the United States at the age of twelve, and all of her fiction to date has been devoted to an unflinching examination of her native culture, both on its own terms and in terms of its intersections with American culture. Dandicat's work emphasizes in particular the heroism and endurance of Haitian women as they cope with a patriarchal culture that, in its unswerving devotion to tradition and family, both oppresses and enriches them. When Sophie, the narrator of Breath, Eyes, Memory, is taken from Haiti to live with her mother in New York City, she adapts to American culture on the surface but is damaged by her mother's obsession with female "purity" and constant, degrading "testing" of Sophie's virginity—a procedure that was also done to Sophie's mother, and her mother before her. Sophie leaves her mother, marries an American, and has a daughter of her own, but she must make a return pilgrimage to Haiti before she can begin, if not to condone, then to come to terms with her mother's actions and begin to understand the history she and her mother share with all the other "daughters of this land."
While Dandicat's first novel and most of her short stories focus on the plight and legacy of "those nine hundred and ninety-nine women who were boiling in your blood" (to quote the author's "Epilogue" to Krik? Krak!), The Farming of Bones paints on an even broader canvas as we witness the horrors of dictator Rafael Trujillo's 1937 massacre of Haitians resident in the Dominican Republic. The narrator, Amabelle, Haitian servant to a prosperous Dominican family, at first is reluctant to believe the rumors of massacre but eventually has no choice as she and her lover Sebastien witness unspeakable brutalities during their attempt to flee to Haiti. The few who survive carry with them wounds beyond the physical; by the time Trujillo is finally assassinated almost a quarter-century later, Amabelle and the other survivors must cope not only with the enormity of their catastrophe but with "the most unforgivable weaknesses of the dead: their absence and their silence."
Dandicat's novels and stories are written with a passionate lyricism but also with a control of craft and seriousness of purpose that would be impressive in any writer and are astonishing in one so young. She is determined to bear imaginative witness to the history of her culture. In so doing, she offers no easy outs—The Farming of Bones in particular is a narrative of almost unrelieved suffering—but also never lets us forget that the people of her stories, no matter how wounded, are individuals of intelligence and dignity and irreducible worth. That is, of course, a message for all cultures, and we are fortunate that a writer as talented as Dandicat has made proclaiming it her life's work.
—F. Brett Cox
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