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.
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!