Biography

Image by David Shankbone/CC Licensed

Image by David Shankbone/CC Licensed

Edwidge Danticat was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti in 1969. Her father immigrated to the United States just 2 years later looking for work. Her mother followed him in 1973. Danticat remained in Haiti eight more years, raised by her aunt. At age 12 she reunited with her parents in a predominantly Haitian-American neighborhood in Brooklyn, NYC. Two short years later, Danticat published her first writing in English, including a newspaper article about her immigration to the U.S. that inspired her first novel, Breath, Eyes Memory. She returns to Haiti often to visit relatives.

Edwidge Danticat received a degree in French Literature from Barnard College and an MFA from Brown University. Her short stories have appeared in 25 periodicals and been anthologized several times. She has also published a collection of short stories (Krik? Krak!), three novels (Breath, Eyes, MemoryThe Farming of the Bones, and The Dew Breaker), young adult novels, anthologies and a collection of essays (Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Writer at Work). Her work has been translated into Korean, Italian, German, French, Spanish and Swedish. She has taught Creative Writing at NYU and the University of Miami.

Themes

“A Silenced Haiti has once again found its literary voice.” -Paule Marshall (1)

Although Edwidge Danticat feels being the voice of Haiti ignores and silences the multiple Haitian voices speaking Haiti into being across the globe(2), her own experiences and concerns mirror those of the Haitian diaspora (See Globalism and Transnationalism). Among the many concerns in her novels, several salient themes appear: migration, sexuality, gender and history. These issues are integral to a post-colonial endeavor where nations are often invoked in the minds of exiles, migrants, and newly freed governments. Danticat’s emphasis on women not only embraces a “herstory” that seems particularly salient to the economic realities of the Caribbean but also subverts the engendering of the nation and the exile as male. Moreover, Danticat’s emphasis on women critically examines the possibility for a post-colonial feminism in each of her novels.

Avoiding the easy identification of certain languages, English, French and Spanish, with the colonizer, Danticat takes a nuanced look at how language operates as personal and political expression. Danticat herself spoke Creole as a child but learned French in school. When she arrived in New York, she began the process of learning and writing English. As a child, as opposed to an adult, she claims she was “completely between languages” able to express herself orally in Creole but unable to express herself in prose in any language. She tried to reflect this challenge to self-expression that is integrally linked to the migrant nature of globalization and post-colonial workforces in the structure of Breath, Eyes, Memory. “Part of the reason that Breath, Eyes, Memory is told in these four fragments is that Sophie, the narrator, is a recent speaker of English, and in telling a story in English she would definitely try to be economical with her words. . . .She would mostly get to the important events, right to the point.” (3)

The Farming of the Bones highlights the connection between language and personal and social meaning. On the one hand the characters in the novel actively create histories through the stories that they tell each other and themselves about the 1937 massacre using language to create, or express, a differing narrative of history that helps uphold their self-images. On the other, the names, religious references and other linguistic nuances mark the characters as either Haitian or Dominican long before they are identified as such in the narrative. Names of buildings and towns do the same, French being Haitian and Spanish being Dominican. The title of the book itself plays on the multiple meanings of language referring at once to the massacre and the gathering of cane. Thus the title of the book not only invokes the events of 1937 but also the economic situation that led to those events and the colonialism and slavery that created that economy.

In the same way that language cannot be severed from history, Danticat’s novels illustrate how gender and sexuality are forever entwined with history and colonialism. In both novels, Danticat’s main characters are women involved in complicated sexual relationships. Both Senora Valencia and Amabelle experience love through their relationship to the massacre. La Senora rewrites her husband’s role in the massacre in order to justify staying with him, while Amabelle leaves her lover behind in order to survive the massacre. Her advice to him on where to hide places him in the line of danger and he is presumed dead.

Breath, Eyes, Memory also invokes the body as a map of history. Sophie’s face reminds her mother of her own rape by the Tonton Makout on her way through the cane fields as a child. Sophie’s mother’s testing of her virginity and  Sophie’s own forceful rejection of the testing through the breaking of her hymen forever marks her own body as a place of physical trauma. Thus, even though Sophie did not experience a Haiti dominated by the Makout her own sexuality is marked by the trauma of not being free.

Trauma, love, sexuality and history also work in Danticat’s novels to critique a global feminist agenda. In Breath, Eyes, Memory Sophie frees herself through a multi-cultural, multi-national, women’s support group. Sophie engages in this group ritual not only to free herself, and support the other women, but also to create a brighter future for her daughter. Although The Farming of the Bones does not invoke the same shared, yet multi-vocal, sisterhood it does interrogate the bonds between women in power and women on the receiving end of that power. There is no easy answer in the conversation between Senora Valencia and Amabelle at the end of the book, only the recognition that in Senora’s eyes she had been as much of an activist as she could be and in Amabelle’s the loss was too great to justify clinging to a corrupt system of power.

Danticat  has explored mother-daughter relationships and migration in her novels and is now ready to address something else (4). Yet, if her work so far is any indication, the consequences of post-colonial migration,  i.e. the intersection of race, class, language and gender in transnational and post-colonial Haitians lives, will continue to be an integral part of her invocation of Haiti. (See also Nationalism)

Awards

1994 Fiction Award The Caribbean Writer
1995 Woman of Achievement Award Pushcart Short Story
1995 Prize National Book Award nomination for Krik? Krak!
1996 Best Young American Novelists for Breath, Eyes, Memory by GRANTA Lila-Wallace-Reader’s Digest Grant
1999 American Book Award for The Farming of the Bones
1999 The International Flaiano Prize for literature
1999 The Super Flaiano Prize for The Farming of the Bones
2005 The Story Prize for The Dew Breaker
2007 National Book Award nomination for Brother, I’m Dying
2007 The National Book Critics Circle Award for Brother, I’m Dying
2008 Dayton Literary Peace Prize for Brother, I’m Dying
2009 MacArthur Fellows Program Genius grant
2011 Langston Hughes Medal, City College of New York
2011 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature for Create Dangerously
Other Awards/recognition: fiction awards Essence and Seventeen Magazine; 1 of 20 people in their twenties who will make a difference in Harpers Bazaar; featured in “30 under 30″ people to watch New York Times Magazine; one of the “15 Gutsiest Women of the Year” Jane Magazine; Oprah Winfrey’s Book of the Month Club for Breath, Eyes, Memory.

Selected Works

  • Danticat, Edwidge. Krik? Krak? New York: Vintage Books, 1991.
  • —. Breath, Eyes, Memory. New York: Vintage Books, 1994.
  • —. The Farming of the Bones. New York: Penguin Books, 1998.
  • —. Behind the Mountains. New York: Penguin Books, 2002.
  • —. The Dew Breaker. New York: Knopf, 2004.
  • —.Brother, I’m Dying. New York: Knopf, 2007.

Works Cited

  • Battista, Anna. “She Came a Long Way: Spotlight on Edwidge Danticat.” Pop Culture Detox. August 1999. Bluetonic.org. Web. 3 April 2000.
  • “A Conversation with Edwidge Danticat” Behind the Books. Randomhouse.com. Web. 3 April 2000.
  • Marshall, Paule. “Back Cover Quote” Danticat, Edwidge. Krik? Krak! NY: Vintage Books, 1995.

Selected Bibliography

  • Casey, Ethan. “Remembering Haiti” Callaloo 18.2 (Spring 1995): 524-526. Web. <http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/callaloo/v018/18.2br_danticat.html>
  • Charters, Mallay. “Edwidge Danticat: A Bitter Legacy Revisited.” Publishers Weekly. (Aug 17. 1998): 42-43.
  • N’Zengo-Tayo, Marie-Jose. “Children in Haitian Popular Migration as Seen by Maryse Conde and Edwidge Danticat.” Winds of Change: The Transforming Voices of Caribbean Women Writers and Scholars. Newson, Adele S. and Strong-Leek, Linda (ed. and introd.). New York: Peter Lang, 1998. 93-100.
  • Shea, Renee H.. “The Dangerous Job of Edwidge Danticat: An Interview.” Callaloo. 19.2 (Spring 1996): 382-89.
  • Yari Yari : Black Women Writers & The Future : An International Conference on Literature by Women of African Descent. Dir. Jayne Cortez. New York: Third World Newsreel, 1999.

Related Sites

Brief history of Haiti
http://www.webster.edu/~corbetre/haiti/history/course/unitone/short.htm
Antihaitianismo in the Domincan Republic
http://www.webster.edu/~corbetre/haiti/misctopic/dominican/antihaiti.htm
Danticat’s Memories of Haiti
http://www.webster.edu/~corbetre/haiti/literature/danticat-ugly.htm
Danticat interview on Democracynow.org
http://www.democracynow.org/2011/1/12/novelist_edwidge_danticat_haitians_are_very

Author: Ime Kerlee, Spring 2000
Last edited: May 2012

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