15 Minutes With Edwidge Danticat

Because you are a storyteller and I am a storyteller. That is what we do. It is still a mystery to me how stories get written, frankly. That’s why sometimes we have a lot of writers writing novels about writers.

FM: What brought you to the Doris Salcedo exhibition?

ED: Actually, I came across Doris Salcedo’s work at around the same time I began writing “The Art of Death”. My mom had passed away and I was trying to figure out what to do next, I was grieving, and it just so happened that there was a show on her work in the Perez Museum in Miami, which is a couple of miles from my house. Maybe it was just the state of mind I was in at the time, but it spoke to me very powerfully.

Coincidentally, I got a call from Mayra Rivera to speak about Salcedo’s work [at Harvard]. And I thought it was just too perfect for me to just ignore and walk away. So that is the backstory of that day, but of course, once I accepted the invitation, I began delving a lot deeper into the work, which is not just work about mourning, but also about political violence. She’s done work in Colombia where she has interviewed children who’ve lost their parents and in Los Angeles where she has interviewed parents who have lost their children, [which] I think is such a great act of commitment to her process. She says that her work starts with interviewing a victim of violence.

There’s so much in her work that also speaks to the current moment about borders and civility. We both come from countries [Haiti and Colombia] that people speak of in very specific ways and that are spaces where we have to fight hard to counter negative talk.

FM: From reading your work, I imagined that you might have considered writing an “Art of” structure or memory or time because all feature prominently in your work, but what you have done is original. Was death and mourning something you wanted to write about, or did you intend to write a sort of craft book?

ED: I was talking to a writer and poet Kima Jones, who now also works as a publicist. She was interviewing me, and we were talking about books that we love, specifically of “Sula” by Toni Morrison, which I talk about in “The Art of Death”. The title of the lecture is from the last line of Sula, which is: “It was a fine cry—loud and long—but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.” She said I had to read this book by Carl Phillips, the poet, and it is in the series, which I had never read before. And I was at this point where I couldn’t take on a bigger project until I addressed my grief at losing my mom. It was sort of perfect timing. I sought them out and I wrote a one-page pitch.

FM: It’s sub-headed “Writing the Final Story”. So it is at once moving on and a final story?

ED: There’s a quote in there from a book by Don Delillo, and one of the characters says “All plots tend to move deathward.” So whether it is a love plot, whatever the narrative is, that’s the end of the story, for that person, as we know it. There is work also in our traditions as people of African descent that takes us past that point in our belief systems, through memory and naming. But in a day-to-day way, that is the end of most people’s stories. It could have almost been “Writing the Final Story?”, because the book also does that kind of questioning. Is death the final story?

FM: You mentioned seeing Salcedo’s work first in Miami and then with “Moonlight”’s recent Oscar win. Have you thought more about Miami as a setting and cinematic space?

ED: When I came from Haiti when I was 12, we lived in New York. I have only been living in Miami since 2002, so for a native Miamian that is still recent. It was such a wonderful thing to watch the movie and recognize Liberty City. And the playwright, Tyrell, one of my friends was his teacher in high school! I’m really happy that it gives people the desire to see Miami. Miami has an extraordinary history, in terms of the African diaspora and the first people who settled there from the Bahamas. South Florida in general is not a story that is often told, but has made big strides.

It was also wonderful to see that focus. When Tyrell said representing the 305, everybody in Miami knew what that meant. There’s kids in that movie who go to the same schools. Liberty City can sometimes be, like a lot of poor neighborhoods in the country, underserved, but it is really wonderful to see it represented that way. There are fewer representations of, for example, black Cubans in mainstream cinema, even the scene with Kevin making rice at the diner. I mean, that’s so Miami! I’m excited to see these stories being told.

Miami is full of stories, because it is also where so many people from all over the world come together. It’s such a powerful mix. It’s a melting pot, but at the same time a place where a lot of people are afraid. We have a lot of new arrivals. Recently, the mayor of Miami-Dade has aligned himself with a movement trying to make our police into an immigration force. The struggle continues, but at least it’s sunny.

FM: You once quoted Audre Lorde as saying poetry forms “the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.” How do you relate self-care, language, and resistance? Self-care is thrown around a lot, but I guess the way Audre Lorde conceptualizes self-care is more related to resistance, in that it is really tied up in issues of struggle, so how do you see language and resistance relating?

ED: I think probably we are hearing a lot about self-care these days. I think it is in part especially black women have cared so much for others, sometimes at the detriment of ourselves. I think there’s a kind of awakening in that. Like in an airplane, if you are not getting any oxygen, you can’t help someone else put their mask on. We’ve had a little bit of readjustment in that direction. It was incredible for me. I’ve been re-reading Audre Lorde and The Cancer Journals, for this book on death. You learn a lot also about taking care of yourself from someone who is not well, because when we are well we are not thinking so much about our health. When you’re not well it is sort of all you think about. She does a lot of reflection. She’s a great example in the sense that even when she was sick self-care to her didn’t mean exclusion from the community. It was renewing and refueling for the inevitable struggle. It was never walking away.

Every time I read her I get something different out of it: the power and the brilliance of her thought, but also her notion that we take care, but we’re also part of the community, balancing those two things. Young women should read her! It’s such powerful work, and can be read in so many ways, too.

FM: Veering into craft, I read a couple of your most recent stories, “Ghosts” in The New Yorker and “Quality Control” in the Washington Post. Both protagonists are in the media. Pascal is a news writer and Jess is a journalist. What possibilities arise in writing characters who are also storytellers, by profession or otherwise? What drew you to that? What challenges or excitement do those stories present?

ED: Because you are a storyteller and I am a storyteller. That is what we do. It is still a mystery to me how stories get written, frankly. That’s why sometimes we have a lot of writers writing novels about writers. In the Jess story, it’s funny you asked because I am writing a longer version of it, where it is more nuanced. The story was much longer, but we chopped it to 2000 words. I am writing it as part of a much longer short story collection I am working on.

I’m finding Jess is still a writer, but not a war reporter, more of a freelance writer trying to make a name for herself, [and] she has another job on the side—she’s invited to this for a week by the First Lady. They have a deeper friendship but from childhood. I think those stories might be boring to outsiders, but I think writers are really intrigued by that. It gives us the opportunity to look at the process from another layer.

FM: With multiple levels of storytelling, creating realistic dialogue becomes more of a challenge, especially when your characters are probably speaking in a different language. So how do you manage that? Can you offer any advice?

ED: Some people have an excellent ear for it, different dialogue, dialect. I just want to try to get it across. Realistic dialogue is unintelligible. It is still a construction anyway, so you just want to convey the best of the character. I try to give each character a verbal tic, something they do so that even if you don’t have the tag you would realize that was the person speaking. A lot of people have those things, the “you know what I mean?”, the intonations. I had a teacher that made us do transcripts of actual conversations and edit [them] and that was really good training.