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Haitian soul
In her new book The Dew Breaker, author Edwidge Danticat continues to explore Haitian culture, which has remained vibrant under unimaginable conditions

THE HAITI WE see on the news, the one seemingly damned to an eternity of violence, poverty, and unrest ó thatís not the Haiti that Edwidge Danticat wants us to know. The acclaimed author of Krik? Krak! (1995), Breath, Eyes, Memory (1998), and The Farming of Bones (1998), who emigrated to the United States in 1981 at the age of 12, would prefer that people learn about her native Haitiís vibrant culture of art, music, and literature ó the culture all too often overshadowed by the countryís painful history of dictators, rebellions, and massacres.

In her latest work of fiction, The Dew Breaker (Knopf), Danticat writes of a brutal Haitian-torturer-turned-American-family-man and the lives of those heís affected, past and present.

Q: Whyíd you decide to write this book, and whereíd the idea come from?

A: Iíd been playing around a lot with the idea of writing about the period that I grew up in in Haiti, which is sort of my most recent and direct contact with the country, and this was from 1969 to 1986, which was part of the latter end of the Duvalier dictatorship. So I wanted to write about the dictatorship, and how it connects to migration, and to people whoíve come here since. And so thatís where the idea came from, and it started off with that first story, "The Book of the Dead," which puts two generations, one the daughter who doesnít know anything about that time, and her father, who she believes is a survivor of that time, and their conversation and so forth, and when I was done with that story, I was very curious about the father, so I wrote the last piece, which is the fatherís past, and thatís how it really started.

Q: For people who havenít read the book, explain what a dew breaker is.

A: It comes from a Creole term which refers to a rural leader, a regional leader, who was the closest representative of the government during that period, and he was someone who everybody feared. Now, this particular person, the main character in this book, is not in a rural area, but the term would be used to talk about him because he was especially cruel, as were the rural leaders, and felt like he was kind of the head of his own little section of the barracks where he worked and tortured people.

Q: What reaction do you hope or expect readers to have to the book, and do you expect Haitian-American readers to have a very different reaction to it than non-Haitian readers?

A: I can never really predict what reaction people will have, because theyíve often had surprising reactions other than what I expect. But I hope people will read the book and then be a little more curious about that period. That period in the world in general was an interesting period, you know, í67, í68, when there were so many things happening, when there were so many young people trying to reform the world. But this was also happening in our country. I hope people will be curious and find out more about Haiti, find out more about this time. But also, you know, what I try to do primarily when I write a book is just, I try to tell a good story, and whatever other things come out of it is extra.

Q: How often do you return to Haiti?

A: I go back quite often. I was just most recently there in January, before things started getting, you know, hot, really turbulent. I go back a couple of times a year. It depends. I still have quite a bit of family there.

Q: Talk to me about whatís happening in Haiti right now. Are you surprised by whatís going on?

A: Iím saddened by whatís going on, because thereís been a lot of destruction, thereís been a lot of loss. Loss of life, for one thing. And all the destruction, like the physical destruction of the country, has set it back at least 10 years. And Iím sad that itís the year of the bicentennial of our independence, 200 years, and all of this turmoil has sort of overshadowed the positive things that we have done, the celebration. I hope that given whatís happening now, for one thing, I hope the killing will stop. Since we have to move forward, I hope that weíll move forward in a way that includes all the people, especially the poorest of the people, who suffer in ordinary times, but when times are difficult like this, their lives become extremely impossible. People will talk about the casualties when they see, you know, 100 people have died and so forth; they donít add the people who died going to the hospital, and they come across a barricade and they canít go through. So the casualties are much higher for people who already live in unimaginable conditions.

Q: How do you feel about the United Statesí involvement in whatís happening in Haiti now?

A: Well, you know, I donít think most Americans know this, but the United States has been involved in Haiti for a very long time. Theyíve been involved in the region for an extremely long time. So this is the third intervention of the United States in Haiti in the past hundred years or so. The first time, the longest occupation, the 19-year occupation from 1915 to 1934, they created the army, this army that was the bane of everybodyís existence. A lot of these generals that inspired their last intervention were trained in the United States. And this time, we have an intervention that may bring back the army, and also brought back these people, these so-called rebels, who, many of them were trained by the CIA. So we have these interventions where the United States swoops down and appears to rescue us, but nothing long-term seems to be done. I think the United States, they have their interests, which sometimes appear to have nothing to do with the interests of the people of Haiti. Or anywhere else where theyíre liberating people.

Q: Do you think that Haiti is misunderstood?

A: I think the complexity of Haiti is misunderstood. Because we often see Haiti in these times of extreme crisis. Thatís what gets us on the front page of the newspaper ó itís what gets anybody on the front page of the newspaper. So people often have this notion that we appear to be an extremely violent people, because thatís what you see. So thatís why I feel sad that the bicentennial this year has turned out this way, because I think it was an important and wonderful opportunity for people to understand Haiti a little better. To understand where we come from, how we were created, but also of the obstacles that weíve been through. Because in 1804, right after the revolution, Haiti was embargoed by every country in the world, and had to pay France a large sum of money, until the 1940s, for its independence. Something like half the budget of the country went to France. So all these things I think are things, you know, in this year couldíve added another aspect. You know, the wonderful Haitian art, Haitian music, Haitian literature, and all these things that wouldíve given us an opportunity to elaborate on or share with other people, this opportunity is now lost, and we have more of the same.

Q: When did you first know youíd be a writer?

A: I guess when I was really young I heard people tell stories; that was a great part of my childhood, being told stories and listening to stories. And then I started reading, and realized, maybe when I was about nine, that oh, those stories you hear, you can also write them. Because they were very separate for me: like, you could read stories or you could hear stories. And at some point I realized that you could write the stories that you were hearing, that they could be written down. But it must have been when I was about 14, and I started writing for a newspaper that was distributed in New York City high schools, and people were reacting to it, and they were talking to me like they knew me, and that mustíve been about the same time that I thought, oh, this would be a nice way to make a living.

Q: Did you ever imagine that youíd find the success that you have?

A: No, never. I thought I would ó and this is still possible, because these things are moments in your life, and I think thatís the best way to deal with them, like, this is a moment, and then you have another moment ó but I always thought I would, I knew at some point, I sort of was certain that I would always write no matter what else I was doing; I had resigned myself to, "I will get a job and then I will write." And on some level thatís how it turns out for most writers.

Q: Who are your influences as a writer?

A: I have many, many influences. One is, thereís a Haitian writer whose book I recently helped translate, Jacques Stephen Alexis. He died in the í60s; he was one of the people who protested the dictatorship. He organized a kind of invasion and he was killed by their henchmen. Heís one of my strongest influences in terms of someone who makes their art with their convictions, and who uses that to express them. Here on this side, Toni Morrison and James Baldwin. Especially the early works of James Baldwin I just absolutely love.

Q: What do you think youíd be doing now if you hadnít become a writer?

A: Iíd probably be ó and I probably will still be, at a later moment in my life ó an art therapist. Thatís what I wanted to do. The only thing actually that stopped me ó I was going to an art-therapy program, but then I realized you have to have visual art, you have to know how to draw and stuff, and I didnít. But I probably wouldíve found a way to do that; thatís what I wanted to do and might still do. I wanted to work with abused children through art therapy.

Q: After this book tour, whatís next for you?

A: I have an idea for another book, so Iím going to try and start that. And I just finished a little book that Iím doing for young adults on Anacaona, who was a tiny-known leader. She was one of the indigenous people who were on the island, on Hispaniola, which is both Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Anacaona was the leader of one region called Léogâne, which is where my familyís from in Haiti. So I finished that. Someone had given me this advice a long time ago, my first editor ó he said, the best thing to do is before you [get] any reaction to your book, is to just start another one. Because whether [the reaction] is good or bad, you donít want it to affect what you do next. So I started that before. And I always try to do something different, so you donít get into this trap of unconsciously repeating yourself.

Q: Since youíve achieved this level of success as a Haitian-American author writing about Haiti, do you feel pressure to be a kind of spokesperson for Haitian-Americans in general?

A: No, I donít feel pressure, especially because being in the community, I know so many people who speak for Haiti. We have so many scholars, we have editors, we have other people who can speak on the political, so I donít feel pressure necessarily to be a spokesperson. There are so many of us. Like Iíve always said, there are many voices, and Iím one of many voices.

Edwidge Danticat reads from The Dew Breaker at the Charles Hotel, in Cambridge, on March 23, at 7 p.m. Call (617) 354-5201. Tamara Wieder can be reached at twieder@phx.com

Issue Date: March 19 - 25, 2004
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