Genius: a Talk With Edwidge Danticat

In conversation four with a woman rocking her field, reader, I bring you Edwidge Danticat. She's an author, mother and it's not a shock for those of us who have come across her work - "genius". Today, it was announced that she won a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, also known as the genius award.

Growing up, I remember that 'Haitian' was a dirty word. In 1990, I was very young but I remember, emotionally, more than anything else about the FDA imposed ban on Haitians regarding blood donations. You came to the U.S in the 1980s and bore witness to this. How has the view of Haiti and Haitians changed in America?

I think, if anything, the view of Haiti and Haitians has grown much more complex. At least I hope it has. When I arrived here in 1981, there were only one of a couple of narratives. Haitians were just coming in large numbers by boat to Florida and this was on the news a lot, so that was one narrative. We were still fighting to keep these people here and they were detained just as they are now, so that part of the narrative hasn't changed. In 1981, people were also talking about AIDS for the first time in the news. They called it something like GRID back then and Haitians were the only people identified by nationality on the high risk group. So that was another narrative. The dictatorship in Haiti at the time and the political violence was another one. In these past twenty plus years, I have seen some movement in the complexity of our narratives. Having Wyclef Jean sing popular music is part of that, but also having people exposed in their daily lives to a whole range of Haitians has helped a lot too. When Breath, Eyes, Memory was just published, people often walked up to me and told me that someone who worked at their house is Haitian. Now there are also a number of people telling me that their doctor is Haitian or their nurse. In Miami where I live, it's still very hard for newer arrivals from Haiti. There is a lot of struggle especially these days, so that still cannot be understated.

The Haitian community is glad to call you one of their own. What about should we know about Haiti that is not shown in the evening news?

How beautiful the country is. I was in Haiti for Easter with my family. I have a new baby so we hadn't been for a while. We were in Jacmel, in the mountains. It was just breathtaking. The mountains. The beach. Haiti has been battered so much by natural and political disasters, but it is still a beautiful place. We have wonderful art, wonderful music, great literature written by writers who are still living in Haiti. Haiti is not only the poorest country in the western hemisphere. That's another narrative that needs changing. When did you first discover you were a writer or wanted to be one?

When I was very little and would listen to my grandmother tell stories, I dreamed a being a storyteller.

Later when I would read books and think of those stories, I said to myself, this is one way of being a storyteller, even if you're shy person. I wasn't sure what it was called, but that's when I decided, at perhaps eight or nine years old that I wanted to become a writer.

Brother, I'm Dying is a very powerful book; many memoirs do not deal with such poignant issues. How difficult was it to write? Was writing this memoir therapeutic?

It was a book I felt I had to write, for my uncle who died in immigration custody as well as for my father who died at around the same time and for the future generation, including my daughter, who was born in the midst of all that. It was indeed very therapeutic to write. I've said this before I think of Brother, I'm Dying as not a me-moir, but a nou-moir, a we-moir; it's not just my story but all these stories intertwined.

With the war in Iraq, detention facilities have been receiving more attention. What do you want the American people to know and more importantly remember about these types of places?

I think if people knew what went on in these places they would be outraged. Many detention centers in the United States today are privately run. They're businesses and it's all about the bottom line for the private owners and shareholders that the government outsource to. You get a feel of this in a movie like The Visitor, for example. The bottom line with detention centers is making money like any other business. Meanwhile more and more people are being detained. Medical care in these centers is abysmal. People have died who could have been saved because someone is looking at a profit margin and the bottom line. When you write a book, what did you discover anew about yourself, you family and Haiti?

With every story, every book, I think I not only discover myself a new, but also recover lost fragments of myself.

I laugh and cry through my books. I also grieve and celebrate through them. Do you consider yourself a voice for Haitians?

I am one of many voices. No one can be the voice for ten million people. And if anyone could be, it would not be me.

I am a voice in a very large chorus. To say that I was the voice for anyone would be to take away their voice. Each individual is his or her own voice. Some of us might speak louder and help others be heard, but no one can claim to be the voice of so many. I like to direct my blogs to young women such as myself. What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

I would say read a lot and write as often as you can. I recently read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, where he says that you have to spend something like 10,000 hours doing something before you master it. I'd say aim for 10,000 hours writing. If you're trying to clock up those many hours, you also don't have time to give up. You have two daughters, what advice will you impart to them about growing up as a Haitian/Haitian-American, as women in America? What advice will you share with them that stems from the wisdom of those who raised you and helped shape who you are?

Advice to daughters tend to sound clichéd. I can already see my daughters rolling their eyes even before they're old enough to know what it is to roll their eyes, but what I plan to tell them is I guess what my mother told me, as corny as it sounds, know your worth. Follow your own path. Blaze your own trail. Don't let anyone define you. Define yourself. Follow your dreams; you never know where they'll lead you. See, I told you it was corny. What does it mean to you to win the MacArthur?

It's an exceptional honor for me. When I sit and think of my ancestors, some of my blood ancestors and some of my literary ancestors, I am moved and shaken that I have been given this opportunity. I am both elated and humbled.