Edwidge Danticat





Author

Born January 19, 1969, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti; immigrated to United States, 1981; daughter of André Miracin (a cab driver) and Rose Souvenance (a textile worker) Danticat. Education: Barnard College, B.A. 1990; Brown University, M.F.A., 1993.

Addresses: Office —c/o Author Mail, Soho Press, 853 Broadway, No. 1903, New York, NY 10003.

Career

Author, educator, and lecturer, 1994—. Professor, New York University, New York, NY, 1996-97; visiting professor of creative writing, University of Miami, Miami, FL, spring, 2000. Also production and research assistant at Clinica Estetico, 1993-94.

Member: Phi Beta Kappa, Alpha Kappa Alpha.

Awards: Named one of 20 Best of American Novelists by Granta, 1996; Pushcart Prize for short fiction; American Book Award, Before Columbus Foundation, for The Farming of Bones ; fiction awards from periodicals, including Caribbean Writer, Seventeen, and Essence ; Lannan Foundation Fellowship, 2004; Story Prize for outstanding collection of short fiction, for The Dew Breaker, 2005.

Sidelights

Fiction writer Edwidge Danticat (pronounced Ed-WEEDJ Dan-ti-KAH) conjures the history of her native Haiti in award-winning short stories and

Edwidge Danticat
novels. She is equally at home describing the immigrant experience—what she calls "dyaspora"—and the reality of life in Haiti today. Danticat's fiction "has been devoted to an unflinching examination of her native culture, both on its own terms and in terms of its intersections with American culture," wrote an essayist in Contemporary Novelists. "Danticat's work emphasizes in particular the heroism and endurance of Haitian women as they cope with a patriarchal culture that, in its unswerving devotion to tradition and family, both oppresses and enriches them." Readers will find "massacres, rapes, [and] horrible nightmares in Danticat's fiction," wrote an essayist in the St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers, "but above all these are the strength, hope, and joy of her poetic vision."

Danticat's first novel, the loosely autobiographical Breath, Eyes, Memory, was a 1998 selection of the Oprah Winfrey Book Club, thus assuring its bestseller status. Other Danticat works have won warm praise as well, with some critics expressing surprise that such assured prose has come from an author so young. Antioch Review correspondent Grace A. Epstein praised Danticat for "the real courage in excavating the romance of nationalism, identity, and home." Time reporter Christopher John Farley likewise concluded that Danticat's fiction "never turns purple, never spins wildly into the fantastic, always remains focused, with precise disciplined language, and in doing so, it uncovers moments of raw humanness."

Danticat was born in Haiti and lived there the first 12 years of her life. She came to the United States in 1981, joining her parents who had already begun to build a life for themselves in New York City. When she started attending junior high classes in Brooklyn, she had difficulty fitting in with her classmates because of her Haitian accent, clothing, and hairstyle. Danticat recalled for Garry Pierre-Pierre in the New York Times that she took refuge from the isolation she felt by writing about her native land. As an adolescent she began work on what would evolve into her first novel, the acclaimed Breath, Eyes, Memory. Danticat followed her debut with a 1995 collection of short stories, Krik? Krak! —a volume which became a finalist for that year's National Book Award. According to Pierre-Pierre, the young author has been heralded as "'the voice' of Haitian Americans," but Danticat told him, "I think I have been assigned that role, but I don't really see myself as the voice for the Haitian-American experience. There are many. I'm just one."

Danticat's parents wanted her to pursue a career in medicine, and with the goal of becoming a nurse, she attended a specialized high school in New York City. But she abandoned this aim to devote herself to her writing. An earlier version of Breath, Eyes, Memory served as her master of fine arts thesis at Brown University, and the finished version was published shortly thereafter. Like Danticat herself, Sophie Caco—the novel's protagonist—spent her first 12 years in Haiti, several in the care of an aunt, before coming wide-eyed to the United States. But there the similarities end. Sophie is the child of a single mother, conceived by rape. Though she rejoins her mother in the United States, it is too late to save the still-traumatized older woman from self-destruction. Yet women's ties to women are celebrated in the novel, and Sophie draws strength from her mother, her aunt, and herself in order to escape her mother's fate.

Breath, Eyes, Memory caused some controversy in the Haitian-American community. Some of Danticat's fellow Haitians felt that some of the practices she documented portrayed them as primitive and abusive. American critics, however, widely lauded Breath, Eyes, Memory. Joan Philpott in Ms. hailed the book as "intensely lyrical." Pierre-Pierre reported that reviewers "have praised Ms. Danticat's vivid sense of place and her images of fear and pain." Jim Gladstone concluded in the New York Times Book Review that the novel "achieves an emotional complexity that lifts it out of the realm of the potboiler and into that of poetry." And Bob Shacochis, in his Washington Post Book World review, called the work "a novel that rewards a reader again and again with small but exquisite and unforgettable epiphanies." Shacochis added, "You can actually see Danticat grow and mature, come into her own strength as a writer, throughout the course of this quiet, soul-penetrating story about four generations of women trying to hold on to one another in the Haitian diaspora."

Krik? Krak! takes its title from the practice of Haitian storytellers. Danticat told Deborah Gregory of Essence that storytelling is a favorite entertainment in Haiti, and a storyteller inquires of his or her audience, "Krik?" to ask if they are ready to listen. The group then replies with an enthusiastic, "Krak!" The tales in this collection include one about a man attempting to flee Haiti in a leaky boat, another about a prostitute who tells her son that the reason she dresses up every night is that she is expecting an angel to descend upon their house, and yet another explores the feelings of a childless housekeeper in a loveless marriage who finds an abandoned baby in the streets. The New York Times Book Review 's Robert Houston, citing the fact that some of the stories in Krik? Krak! were written while Danticat was still an undergraduate at Barnard College, felt that these pieces were "out of place in a collection presumed to represent polished, mature work." But Ms. 's Jordana Hart felt that the tales in Krik? Krak! "are textured and deeply personal, as if the 26-year-old Haitian-American author had spilled her own tears over each." Even Houston conceded that readers "weary of stories that deal only with the minutiae of 'relationships' will rejoice that they have found work that is about something, and something that matters."

Danticat's 1998 novel, The Farming of Bones, concerns a historical tragedy, the 1937 massacre of Haitian farm workers by soldiers from the Dominican Republic. In the course of less than a week, an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 Haitian workers in the Dominican Republic were slaughtered by the Dominican government or by private citizens in a classic case of "ethnic cleansing." The Farming of Bones is narrated by a young Haitian woman, Amabelle Desir, who has grown up in the Dominican Republic after being orphaned. As the nightmare unfolds around her, Amabelle must flee for her life, separated from her lover, Sebastien. In the ensuing decades as she nurses her physical and psychological wounds, Amabelle serves as witness to the suffering of her countrymen and the guilt of her former Dominican employers. The massacre, Danticat told Mallay Charters in Publishers Weekly, is "a part of our history, as Haitians, but it's also a part of the history of the world. Writing about it is an act of remembrance."

Dean Peerman wrote in Christian Century that " Breath, Eyes, Memory was an impressive debut, but The Farming of Bones is a richer work, haunting and heartwrenching." In Nation, Zia Jaffrey praised Danticat for "blending history and fiction, imparting information, in the manner of nineteenth-century novelists, without seeming to." Jaffrey added: "Danticat's brilliance as a novelist is that she is able to put this event into a credible, human context." Time 's Farley also felt that the author was able to endow a horrific episode with a breath of humanity. "Every chapter cuts deep, and you feel it," he stated, continuing on to say that Amabelle's "journey from servitude to slaughter is heartbreaking." In Americas, Barbara Mujica concluded that Danticat has written "a gripping novel that exposes an aspect of Dominican-Haitian history rarely represented in Latin American fiction. In spite of the desolation and wretchedness of the people Danticat depicts, The Farming of Bones is an inspiring book. It is a hymn to human resilience, faith, and hope in the face of overwhelming adversity." Jaffrey ended her review by concluding that the novel is "a beautifully conceived work, with monumental themes."

The 2002 novel Behind the Mountains takes the form of a diary of teenage Haitian Celiane Esperance. Celiane is happy in her home in the mountains of Haiti, but she has not seen her father since he left for the United States years before. She had intended to join him in New York, along with her mother and older brother, but visa applications are inexorably slow. After eight years, the visas are granted, and the family reunites in Brooklyn. After an initially joyful reunion, however, the family begins to slowly unravel. A child when her father left Haiti, Celiane is now a young woman with her own mind and will. Her brother, Moy, a 19-year-old artist, does not quietly slip back into the role of obedient child. Even more universal concerns, such as the freezing New York winters, difficulties at school, and the need to make a living, chip away at the family's unity. Good intentions go awry in a book showcasing "friction among family members" exacerbated by "the separation and adjustment to a new country," but especially by the inevitable maturation of younger family members and the unwillingness of parents to acknowledge it, wrote Diane S. Morton in School Library Journal. Hazel Rochman, writing in Booklist, praised the "simple, lyrical writing" Danticat demonstrates in the novel. According to Kliatt 's Claire Roser, "Danticat brings her formidable skill as a writer and her own firsthand knowledge of Haiti and immigrating to America to this heartfelt story told in the intimate diary format."

In addition to her own works, Danticat has also edited the fiction of others, including 2001's The Butterfly's Way: Voices from the Haitian Dyaspora in the United States. This work is a collection of stories, poems, and essays from Haitian writers living in America and Europe, many of whom are concerned about the feeling of displacement that is perhaps an inevitable consequence of emigration. Denolyn Carroll suggested in Black Issues Book Review that the pieces in The Butterfly's Way "help paint a vivid picture of what it is like to live in two worlds." Carroll also felt that the work added "new dimensions of understanding of Haitian emigrant's realities. This compilation is a source of enlightenment for us all." Booklist contributor Donna Seaman found the book "a potent and piercing collection" that will help all Americans understand "the frustrations of Haitians who are now outsiders both in Haiti and in their places of refuge."

After the Dance: A Walk through Carnival in Haiti is Danticat's 2002 nonfiction account of her first encounter with Carnival, the boisterous, sometimes debauched, sometimes dangerous celebrations that rock Haiti every year. As a child, she did not have the opportunity to attend Carnival. Her family inevitably packed up and left for a remote area in the Haitian mountains each year to escape the celebrations, perpetuating an almost superstitious distrust of the event. At times, though, staying clear has been a good idea. During the regime of Haitian dictator François "Papa Doc" Duvalier, carnival-goers were "subject to beatings and arrest by Duvalier's infamously unregulated militamen," wrote Judith Wynn in the Boston Herald. Danticat therefore approaches her first experience of Carnival uneasily. Her trip, however, beginning a week before the actual event, immerses her in the rich culture and history of Haiti, the cultural importance behind Carnival, and the background of the celebration itself. Danticat's "lively narrative" describes a country with a deep history, "influenced by Christianity, voodoo, Europeans, pirates, dictators, past slavery, and an uncertain economy," wrote Linda M. Kaufmann in Library Journal. Donna Seaman, writing in Booklist, observed that "as in her fiction, Danticat writes about her odyssey with an admirable delicacy and meticulousness," while a Publishers Weekly critic noted that the author "offers an enlightening look at the country—and Carnival—through the eyes of one of its finest writers."

In 2004, Danticat's book, The Dew Breaker, was published. The nine interrelated short stories move back and forth in time, telling the tale of a sanctioned torturer of dissidents under the regime of Duvalier; he is called the "Dew Breaker" because he arrives before dawn to carry out his task. The unnamed man moves to the United States and raises a family but still feels immense guilt for his deeds. In the book, Danticat brings up the "question of whether forgiveness and redemption are possible in the face of monstrous, unspeakable deeds, according to Christian Century. That year, The Dew Breaker was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle award; plus, Danticat was awarded the Lannan Foundation Fellowship. In 2005, the book was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award and won the Story Prize for outstanding collection of short fiction.

Danticat's 2005 novel, Anacaona, Golden Flower, was written for young people. It is the story of Haiti's Queen Anacaona, the wife of one of the island's rulers in the 15th century. When Spaniards began to settle on Haiti, the natives were treated cruelly; when the Haitians revolted, several native nobles were arrested and put to death. According to Booklist, the book "adds a vital perspective to the literature about Columbus and European expansion in the Americas."

"In order to create full-fledged, three-dimensional characters, writers often draw on their encounters, observations, collages of images from the everyday world, both theirs and others," Danticat remarked in a biographical essay in Contemporary Novelists. "We are like actors, filtering through our emotions what life must be like, or must have been like, for those we write about. Truly we imagine these lives, aggrandize, reduce, or embellish, however we often begin our journey with an emotion close to our gut, whether it be anger, curiosity, joy, or fear."

Selected writings

The Creation of Adam (play), produced in Providence, RI, 1992.

Dreams Like Me (play), produced at Brown University New Plays Festival, 1993.

Breath, Eyes, Memory (novel), Soho Press (New York, NY), 1994.

Krik? Krak! (short stories), Soho Press (New York, NY), 1995.

Children of the Sea (play), produced at Roxbury Community College, 1997.

The Farming of Bones (novel), Soho Press (New York, NY), 1998.

(With Jonathan Demme) Odillon Pierre, Artist of Haiti, Kaliko Press (Nyack, NY), 1999.

(Editor) The Beacon Best of 2000: Great Writing by Women and Men of All Colors and Cultures, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 2000.

(Editor) The Butterfly's Way: Voices from the Haitian Dyaspora in the United States, Soho Press (New York, NY), 2001.

(Translator and author of afterword, with Carrol F. Coates) Jackes Stephen Alexis, In the Flicker of an Eyelid, University of Virginia Press (Charlottesville, VA), 2002.

After the Dance: A Walk through Carnival in Haiti, Crown Publishers (New York, NY), 2002.

Behind the Mountains (novel), Orchard Books (New York, NY), 2002.

The Dew Breaker (short stories), Knopf (New York, NY), 2004.

Anacaona, Golden Flower, Scholastic (New York, NY), 2005.

Sources

Books

Authors and Artists for Young Adults, vol. 29, Gale, 1999.

Contemporary Literary Criticism, vol. 94, Gale, 1996.

Contemporary Novelists, 7th ed., St. James Press, 2001.

St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers, Gale, 1999.

Short Stories for Students, vol. 1, Gale, 1997.

Periodicals

America, November 6, 1999, p. 10.

Americas, January 2000, p. 62; May 2000, p. 40.

Antioch Review, winter 1999, p. 106.

Atlanta Journal-Constitution, October 29, 2000, p. D3.

Belles Lettres, fall 1994, p. 36, p. 38; summer 1995, pp. 12-15.

Black Issues Book Review, January 1999, p. 20; May 2001, p. 60; July/August 2004, p. 43.

Bloomsbury Review, September-October 1994, p. 12.

Booklist, January 1, 1999, p. 778; March 15, 1999, p. 1295; June 1, 1999, p. 1796; February 15, 2000, p. 1096; October 15, 2000, p. 416; February 15, 2001, p. 1096; January 1, 2002, p. 763; August 2002, pp. 1895-96; October 1, 2002, p. 312; July 2005.

Boston Herald, November 17, 2000, p. 43; September 1, 2002, p. 61.

Callaloo, spring 1996, pp. 382-89.

Christian Century, September 22, 1999, p. 885; December 14, 2004, p. 22.

Emerge, April 1995, p. 58.

Entertainment Weekly, September 3, 1999, p. 63; March 19, 2004, p. 69.

Essence, November 1993, p. 48; April 1995, p. 56; May 1996.

Globe and Mail, June 12, 1999, p. D4.

Kirkus Reviews, June 1, 2002, p. 782; September 15, 2002, p. 1387.

Kliatt, November 1999, p. 16; November 2002, p. 8.

Library Journal, November 1, 2000, p. 80, p. 103; June 15, 2002, p. 83.

Ms., March/April 1994, pp. 77-78; March/April, 1995, p. 75.

Nation, November 16, 1998, p. 62.

Newsday, March 30, 1995, p. B2, p. B25; May 21, 1995, p. A52.

New York, November 20, 1995, p. 50.

New York Times, January 26, 1995, p. C1, p. C8; October 23, 1995, p. B3.

New York Times Book Review, July 10, 1994, p. 24; April 23, 1995, p. 22; September 27, 1998, p. 18; December 5, 1999, p. 104; December 10, 1999, p. 36.

New York Times Magazine, June 21, 1998.

O, February 2002, pp. 141-45.

Off Our Backs, March 1999, p. 13.

Organic Style, April 2004, p. 22.

People, September 28, 1998, p. 51; March 29, 2004, p. 53.

Poets and Writers, January 1997.

Progressive, January 1997, p. 39; December 1998, p. 44.

Publishers Weekly, January 24, 1994, pp. 39-40; May 25, 1998; August 17, 1998, p. 42; November 2, 1998, p. 40; September 11, 2000, p. 69; December 18, 2000, p. 65; May 13, 2002, pp. 58-59; October 28, 2002, p. 72.

Quarterly Black Review, June 1995, p. 6.

Reference & User Services Quarterly, spring 1999, p. 253.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 21, 1999, p. D3.

School Library Journal, May 1995, p. 135; October 2002, p. 160.

Time, September 7, 1998, p. 78.

Times (London, England), March 20, 1999, p. 19.

Times Literary Supplement, April 28, 2000, p. 23.

Village Voice Literary Supplement, July 1995, p. 11.

Voice of Youth Advocates, December 1995, p. 299.

Washington Post Book World, April 3, 1994, p. 6; May 14, 1995, p. 4.

World & I, February 1999, p. 290.

World Literature Today, spring 1999, p. 373.

Online

"Edwidge Danticat," Voices from the Gaps, http://voices.cla.umn.edu/vg/Bios/entries/danticat_edwidge.html (July 5, 2005).



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