Reading Dangerously: Some Thoughts About Edwidge Danticat’s Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work

I have been thinking and writing on my reading of Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work for a few weeks, now. It doesn’t seem to be getting tighter or shorter or sweeter. (Another few pages of notes not included in this post will just have to wait their turn!) I won’t fret about it. In the essay titled “Daughters of Memory,” Danticat writes that she has “tried to maintain a silent conversation with [Jacques Roumain]….” I suspect that I will maintain a silent conversation with Danticat’s work for a while.

“But another thing that has always haunted and obsessed me is trying to write the things that have always haunted and obsessed those who came before me.” (p.13)

The work of Edwidge Danticat has long impressed me for its gracious and skilled handling of stories that are emotional, political, spiritual, folkloric, and often, highly personal. Her ability to entangle my attention in multiple worlds of consciousness, memory, history, and place unnerves me. Her writing stirs-up my inner knowing and makes me a candle-bearing witness to very particular stories of Haiti, very particular stories of human beings.

“Writing is nothing like dying in, for, and possibly with, your country.”

Breath, Eyes, Memory (1994), The Farming of the Bones (1998), and The Dew Breaker (2004) were books I must admit I read back when I was still “inhaling the food without chewing”—-like my mother would say. Still, these works left their marks on me. When I read her 2007 book, Brother, I’m Dying, I was undone by the way she mined and transformed her own grief into a memoir that shared the richness and complexity of her family’s bonds as their love and history inhabited and straddled multiple continents, cultures, and contradictions.

In March of this year, as part of Columbia College Chicago’s annual Story Week, a reading/conversation/book-signing with Edwidge Danticat was scheduled. I arrived early and breathless, afraid that hordes of anxious folks like myself might squeeze me out of a good seat. That evening she shared with Donna Seaman and the audience, how the publication of Breath, Eyes, Memory taught her about the public role of being a writer, saying that she was scolded for not telling “happy Haitian stories.” She said that writers of color are often “not allowed the singularity of their story”—meaning that their works are easily assumed to represent a whole [monolithic] group. She said that she considers herself a writer of stories, rather than a writer of fictions and novels. Of Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, and Toni Morrison, Danticat said she “read them like crazy” while in high school. The writing of Brother, I’m Dying was “an act of righteous anger.” During this talk she expressed both admiration and gratitude for writers of Caribbean heritage like Paule Marshall and Audre Lorde who provided “middle space stories” of the diaspora, preparing the way for writers like herself to be published and widely-read in recent years.

Afterward, when my turn came to have my books signed, Edwidge Danticat patted me on my back, and said “You were one of the first ones here!”
“Will you take a picture with me?” I asked.
Leslie with Edwidge Danticat

After that meeting, I decided that I wanted to read Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work. (A title Danticat borrowed from Albert Camus as the title of her 2008 Toni Morrison Lecture delivered at Princeton University). A book of less than 200 pages, composed of 12 essays/chapters and a “postscript,” this book—published in 2010—is the ninth of Danticat’s published titles. It looks small and unassuming but—trust me—I am still meditating on its content, and will be for a while. Most of the pieces exist in other versions published in places like The Progressive, The Nation, and The New Yorker between the years of 2001 and 2011. One piece, entitled “I Am Not A Journalist”—I recognized as having provided some factual content in Danticat’s 2013 novel Claire of The Sea Light.

I first thought the book would be about her personal creative journey and processes, but the affect of reading these essays—almost as a whole cloth—casts a more dynamic net than that. In addition to bearing witness to Haiti’s tragedies, and ongoing crises, Danticat also shows us the roles that oral storytelling, filmmaking, radio, and theatre play in contemporary literacy. She also pays homage and introduces us to Haitian writers who have had “to create dangerously” such as Marie Vieux-Chauvet, Jacques Roumain, and Jan J. Dominique.

Some of the things these essays have begun to make me consider include:
(1) writing and creating as “disobedience” and “revolt against” multiple hungers and forms of suppression;
(2) the idea of “people who read dangerously”—that is, people who read at great risk whether that risk might result in something physically brutal or even fatal; as well as readers who are at risk of endangering their current self-image and worldview;
(3) reading and writing as acts of critical empathy and compassion that give us opportunities to listen and be heard, as well as draw parallels and recognize patterns in our human experience.

And now I have begun to wonder: if an artist takes a risk to “create dangerously,” what risk do I take as a recipient of their gift? Can I think and care more deeply? And what does that really look like? Do I open up my awareness or do I shut it back down? How might I share the ideas and issues an artist like Edwidge Danticat brings up with someone who is low-literate? Or with a well-educated person who may not have a habit of “reading dangerously”?

What would you consider and celebrate as “reading dangerously”?
Is there a writer whose works you have found yourself conversing with over time?

Please leave comments—I would love to hear from you!

13 Comments

  1. I’m a lover of Edwidge Danticat’s work. Her prose is poetry spilled and overflowing. She wastes not a single word or metaphor. Her writing is both affecting and timeless. Thanks for the prompt to return to her work again. I’m sure it will be even better the 2nd time around!

    Thanks for the visit and the follow. Stay inspired.

    Empress

    1. Hello Empress- I totally agree with your comments about Edwidge Danticat’s writing. Your visit to my site, reading, and gracious comments are greatly appreciated and I look forward to reading more of your work. Cheers!

  2. Oh wow lucky you! You both look fantastic! What a powerful meeting with such an accomplished writer. I must admit shamefully that I’ve only read The Dew Breaker and that was years ago and can’t remember it so well. Need to get on to reading Ms. Danticat. After seeing your beautifully written post has encouraged to me to add one of her books to my summer TBR list. Thanks Leslie for your inspiring writing and your excellent taste in books. 😀

    1. Didi – you’re so right! That meeting was a powerful treat. Sometimes you may admire a writer’s work but then it turns out they are pompous or not particularly accessible in social settings and you just have to say “oh.” So it’s an added bonus when you get to connect with a writer’s work and personality. Edwidge Danticat encourages my aspiration to be both a better reader and a better writer. With as much reading, writing, booktubing, and book-clubbing as you do, why burden yourself with “shame” for what you’ve yet to read? (This is the pot calling the kettle black because there are books and authors I, too, feel ashamed of not having read!) Thank you for your generous compliments. Hugs!

  3. When I think of ‘reading dangerously,’ I think of reading works of activists like Assata Shakur… or tyrants like Charles Taylor of Liberia or Idi Amin of Uganda. I find myself conversing and referring back to Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart’ lots of the time. There’s just so much to unpack from the book and my views always change on certain things. I like this thoughtful post, thank you! I’ve only read Danticat’s short stories collection – Krik?Krak! ; I plan on reading more of her work soon.

    1. I love your responses to this post, Darkowaa. I’d be more inclined to “read dangerously” the works of activists and avoid the works of the tyrants—must be time for me to face that fear! I am placing Things Fall Apart on my list to RE-READ—it’s been a while, and Chinua Achebe‘s work was a stunner for me because of how it unmasked colonialism. Isn’t it something how our questions and views change and deepen?

  4. What a wondrous and challenging post, Leslie. Thank you! I love your questions and will consider them as I try to “receive dangerously” that which has been written dangerously.
    As for sharing the ideas with “a well-educated person who may not have a habit of ‘reading dangerously,’ I’m not so sure that I can believe “well-educated” ever comes without at least occasionally reading dangerously. (Many thanks for the reminder!)

  5. Thanks for this interesting and very thought provoking piece, Leslie.

    In answer to your question, I would cite the recently deceased Latin American writer Eduardo Galeano.

    I literally devoured all of his books, from the first one, Open Veins of Latin America, to the Memories of Fire series.

    I wouldn’t say its reading dangerously – rather, I’d say it was reading for the sheer pleasure of his incredibly beautiful prose, mixed with reading for otherwise supressed information, as he truthfully tells the tales of latin american. the powers that be might call his writings “dangerous,” but to me, the most beautiful, poetic inspiration, telling hard, desperate facts in such an incredible way the hardest heart could not but be touched…

    debbie

    1. Hi Debbie – ah….yes, the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano. Such a fine writer! I loved his Book of Embraces and Mirrors. I read Genesis from the Memory of Fire Trilogy and now I would like to read the whole trilogy. I think I might appreciate it now more than I did at my earlier reading. Like you, I admired the way he condensed his deep research of Latin American history into wonderfully readable, poetic prose. Galeano created his own form and genre! Thank you for taking the time to consider my questions and share your thoughts!

  6. I was just looking at her work today Leslie, thinking I want to start reading it, so your post is timely. I just finished Maryse Condé’s essays about her upbringing which was relatively privileged though not without its issues and I’m looking forward to her novels, but I remembered your attending the Danticat evening and thought I’d start on her work soon too. I was thinking to start with Breath, Eyes, Memory. These essays look great too, they seem like an interesting introduction into the thought processes of the author.

    Thanks for such an in-depth and thoughtful post Leslie.

    1. Claire- thank you for bringing up Maryse Conde. I knew that she wrote novels but I didn’t know about the autobiographical essays, Tales From the Heart. Many years ago I wanted to read Segu, but never got around to it. I’m glad you brought her back into my awareness. Here’s hoping that you enjoy reading Edwidge Danticat! I would like to re-read Breath, Eyes, Memory this year, but we’ll see. So, Claire, are there any writers with whom you have been having ongoing silent conversations?

      1. I don’t know that I have experienced silent conversations with a body of work. The work doesn’t always end with the reading of it and with some, like Jamaica Kincaid and Maryse Condé I wish to listen more to their voice, so I go looking not just for the stories but to learn about their inspiration and their lives, influences. Their work provokes much thought, so perhaps that is what you mean by a silent conversation. I think it is a great gift that you have this experience and ability. Thank you for sharing it.

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