My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Architecture is supposed to solve problems, and the 16th century Italian architect Andrea Palladio was bent on problem-solving. Harmony was the foundation to his structures. He insisted houses not be built around stagnant water. This design wasn’t simply for aesthetic purposes but turned out to be incredibly practical and hygienic as well. Architecture is not only a source of spatial poetry but, in this sense, the discipline saves lives as well. Literature for better or worse, doesn’t quite work the same way. Words can’t elevate people physically from unhealthy, mosquito-infested water, and novels or poetry can’t be retrofitted to withstand earthquakes. Words will never house a family or shelter them from mudslides.
Edwidge Danticat in her non-fiction work, part of the Toni Morrison Lecture Series, Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work knows all too well how little words can aid in the face of her country’s history. This past semester my English 5: Argument & Research students were assigned this text, which complemented the theme of the class “Citizens of the World” focusing on globalisation, cosmopolitanism, international travel, and social justice.
From the start of the book, Danticat pushes into the thick of Haiti’s past:
On November 12, 1964, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, a huge crowd gathered to witness an execution. The President of Haiti at that time was the dictator Francios “Papa Doc” Duvalier, who was seven years to what would be a fifteen year term. On the day of the execution, he decreed that government offices be closed so that hundreds of state employees could be in the crowd. Schools were shut down and principals ordered to bring their students. Hundreds of people from outside the capital were bused in to watch. The two men to be executed were Marcel Numa and Louis Drouin
Here begins Danticat’s creation story as a writer, an immigrant, and by default a reluctant activist though she probably wouldn’t agree with the last title. Both Drouin and Numa were highly educated friends who moved to New York “when Duvalier came to power” and then returned home to join the group Jeune Haiti, which waged guerilla warfare in the hopes to end Duvalier’s dictatorship. These two men have haunted Danticat’s memory since she can remember, and she compares them to the Biblical exile of Adam and Eve. For Danticat they represent the story of her country, her people, and her task as a writer. She writes, “Like most creation myths, this one exists beyond the scope of my own life, yet it still feels present, even urgent. Marcel Numa and Louis Drouin were patriots who died so that other Haitians could live. They were also immigrants, like me.” Critics have called Danticat’s work an attempt to wrestle with survivor’s guilt, and though she may feel culpable for the physical and emotional distance that keeps her relatively safe in New York, which she now calls home, she still claims the power she has as a correspondent who must shuttle between two very different worlds.
Danticat explains the title of her work, “There are many possible interpretations of what it means to create dangerously, and Albert Camus, like the poet Osip Mandelstam, suggests that it is creating as a revolt against silence, creating when both the creation and the reception, the writing and the reading, are dangerous undertakings, disobedience to a directive.” Since the recent Haiti earthquake, Danticat has been asked countless times to speak about her country and to serve as “spokeswoman” for “her people.” And of course, she is uneasy with this, knowing how hungry the West is to hear about Haiti. She is also wary that Haiti may not accept her as their ambassador. Too many writers of color find themselves in this position, but the issue is compounded when the country has been devastated by a brutal dictatorship and disaster. The urgency is palpable, and this type of ambassadorial work, for Danticat, brings to light the constant wrestling she must deal with as a creator and correspondent, two roles she does not take lightly.
Danticat firmly believes that readership is citizenship, and she scrutinizes the relationship between author and reader because, where she comes from, lives hang in the balance, at the threshold of creation and reception. She covers the dictatorships of Duvalier and his son Jean Claude, as well as the exile of Aristed. She writes of visiting her grandmother who lives in the mountains of Haiti, where visiting her requires a full day of hiking through rugged landscape. After the January 12, 2010 earthquake, the distance between Port-au-Prince and rural areas throughout Haiti became impossible to traverse. Danticat introduces us to diverse Haitians, who are loved, misunderstood, revered, estranged, exiled, and feared: the deportee, the survivor, the artist, the journalist, the writer, the filmmaker, the martyr, the police officer, the soldier, and the immigrant. None of the stories she shares, not the snippets of lives she reports on, are easy to handle. They are as jagged and piercing as the soul survivors who have lived to tell their tale, and Danticat’s writing is as dark and terrible as the lives who didn’t make it to the light.
Despite the violence she reveals, from the executions to the brutal account of a wife and mother who survived being raped and hacked alive by Duvalier’s hired henchman, the Tonton Macoutes, my students read this work without flinching, and every single one of them came to class genuinely engaged, concerned, and outraged that these stories weren’t covered in the mainstream news. They loved Danticat’s work and took to home all the horrors and truth-telling. Danticat writes to remember and claim all the pieces of the past, not just the proud memories but the awful facts, as well. She knows that these stories are owned by everyone, immigrant, native, migrant, writer, dictator, freedom fighter, and reader.
Create Dangerously is an elegy to a Haiti that no longer exists except in memory. It is also a prayer for the future, connecting us across oceans, reanimating decades past, and keeping safe remembrances for tomorrow. These narratives compose her worldview, and she warns her readers, Haitians and Americans not to become cultural amnesiacs. We must own our history and culture, all the ugly horrors and the shining bravery. Reader and writer, immigrant and native, artist and audience, we must all stand behind our strengths and weaknesses.
In addition to reading and writing about the text, the students were assigned to watch interviews with Danticat on UC Television
as well as a TED Talk
Some of the freewrites prompted by this text:
What is your creation myth?
What’s the story of your culture and people?
What images that keep coming back to you from your childhood?
From your adolescence?
Pick one image and try to get on paper as many details as possible.
What does citizenship mean to you?
How do you claim your culture?