It took minutes for Haitian-American author Edwidge Danticat and the evening’s moderator Carla Hill to turn the final session in the YoungArts Salon Series Tuesday into a living room conversation. As she thanked Hill, “my friend and talk show hostess-in-training,” Danticat began to reminisce about a party at Hill’s house shortly after moving to Miami — only to have Hill break in to tell the story of how someone offered to introduce her to the writer and her surprise when she realized that the unassuming Danticat was just hanging out in her kitchen. “She’s standing by my dishwasher!” playacted Hill recalling the scene.
The easy tone contributed to a wide-ranging discussion that included warm and funny family recollections but also a sobering discussion of the history of incidents involving black men and police; an anecdote of Danticat being a fan of Toni Morrison, advice for young writers, and her thoughts on powerful women, multidisciplinary work, language and the impact of motherhood in her writing.
The conversation took place at Ted’s, a performance lounge on the seventh floor of the National YoungArts Foundation headquarters in Miami in front of a diverse audience that, considering the post-talk Q&A, included a number of budding writers. The YoungArts Salon series is sponsored by Knight Foundation.
The soft-spoken Danticat (pronounced Dan-ti-KAH) set up the evening reading “Epilogue: Women Like Us” from her 1995 collection of short stories, “Krik? Krak!” Her selection, she explained before reading, had to do with her choice of being a writer.
“I started to write ‘Krik? Krak!’ when I was your age,” she said addressing the YoungArts students in attendance. “Some of [the short stories] I wrote in college, and post-college I had a job where I worked 9 to 5 and I would stay in the office and write. … When I put these stories together I started thinking about what it meant for me to be a writer, to come out of an immigrant family and be a writer in a family where I was told that it was wrong in so many ways. First of all, because we grew up during a dictatorship — and you don’t want people to know your political business or your personal business. And even though we lived in New York you still had to be careful about what you said. The ‘Epilogue’ was really about putting together this idea of giving yourself permission to write.”
She credited her interest in writing and storytelling to growing up in a house “where they were a lot of storytellers.”
“My aunts were great storytellers; my grandmother was a great storyteller and I remember … the lively way people told stories in my family, the interaction, I loved that. But I was very shy and could never do that,” she said. “And I remember that when I was 4 I was given a book … and I thought: ‘This is really cool because this is the story but you don’t have to be in front of people!’ And it was perfect for me. Whatever this is, this is what I want to do … even though I didn’t realize what a writer was.”
“And I remember thinking solidly, when I was 9, ‘Oh, this is what I want to do. I don’t know how you do it; I don’t know if you have to be French or dead, but I’m going to find a way.”
That didn’t mean that her family enthusiastically encouraged her — or even approved — of her writing. She spoke of watching Oprah Winfrey’s show with her father when “Breath, Eyes, Memory” was a selection for Oprah’s Book Club.
“My dad is sick in bed at the time and he’s saying, ‘I’m not going to have a doctor [in the family],’” deadpanned Danticat, a 2009 MacArthur Fellow, with the slightest melodramatic sigh. “And 10 minutes later he would bring up Albert Schweitzer or one of those people who went to medical school really late in life … and he would say ‘Well, you can always write on the weekends after brain surgery’.”
But responding to a question by Hill, a former director of national programs at YoungArts National Foundation and a YoungArts alumna, Danticat also addressed recent incidents involving black men and police brutality, drawing a line between the shooting of teenager Michael Brown and cases such as those of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima “ a family friend,” brutalized in a precinct in Brooklyn in 1997, and the killing of an unarmed African immigrant Amadou Diallo in the Bronx in 1999. Before cameras and social media, “we saw these incidents as separate,” said Danticat, who wrote about her uncle Joseph, who escaped the violence in Haiti to die in the custody of the Department of Homeland Security while seeking asylum, in her “Brother, I’m Dying,” (2007) which won the National Book Critics Circle Award.
She spoke of writing about women “not just for the sake of writing about strong women but reflecting all these women I knew in my own life growing up, in my own family. [These are] women of modest means but who are very entrepreneurial, who would find a way. It’s why they call them in Haiti ‘the middle pillar’ in the society.”
And there was, especially appropriate in this setting, plenty of smart advice for young writers, including having a “Plan B” (“About the starving artist thing … You can’t be really starving and produce your art. You have to eat. … Have a backup plan … because most writers I know have another job.”); finding inspiration (“There’s inspiration everywhere. If you are a young artist jot things down, take notes, observe, and eavesdrop. You become a big eavesdropper when you become a writer.”); and especially, passion.
“If you feel passionate about something in the moment you shouldn’t be afraid of expressing because you are afraid you’ll later regret it — because probably you will, “ she said. “But it’s important to trust that instinct.”