By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature.
In the early 1970s, Edwidge Danticat’s parents sold everything they owned to purchase passports. They fled the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince and the chaotic rule of Francois and Jean-Claude Duvalier to find a better life in New York City. Danticat, then a small child, and was meant to follow shortly with her infant brother, but things didn’t work out that way: “Because of United States immigration red tape, our family separation lasted eight years,” Danticat wrote in The New York Times in 2004.
Danticat was 12 when she finally traveled to the States in 1981 to see who her parents had become—and meet two U.S.-born brothers for the first time.
When I asked Danticat to talk about a favorite literary passage for this series, she chose a section from a new book—Patricia Engel’s It’s Not Love, It’s Just Paris—that distills the essence of the immigrant experience. The book says something that the author had long felt but had never articulated: that trying to start a life in a strange land is an artistic feat of the highest order, one that ranks with (or perhaps above) our greatest cultural achievements. We discussed the ways immigrant parents model artistry for their children in their struggle to survive, and how the decision to choose a creative discipline can be fraught for the subsequent generation.
Danticat’s new novel Claire of the Sea Light concerns the people of Ville Rose, a fictional town on the Haitian coast. The novel’s intertwining stories whirl around one catalyzing choice: a poor fisherman gives his daughter away to a wealthy widow, hoping to offer her a better life. Edwidge Danticat’s memoir, Brother, I’m Dying, won the National Book Critic’s Circle Award; she’s also a two-time finalist for the National Book Award and a McArthur Fellowship recipient. She spoke to me by phone.
Edwidge Danticat: As I thought about my choice for this series, I felt nervous to choose something that isn’t a classic. But Patricia Engel’s It’s Not Love, It’s Paris struck such a chord with me that I feel I have to talk about it. I got the book in galleys earlier this summer, just as I was about to travel to Haiti. I took it with me while I was there, and was totally absorbed. So much of the book is familiar to me. It’s set in Paris, where I spent my junior year abroad, and it’s about being a kind of double-foreigner: the narrator is a foreigner in Paris, but she’s also a foreigner in the United States, her home.
I came upon one paragraph that really jumped out at me, one that I read over and over and over:
I thought of my father. Once, before my graduation, I’d mentioned the possibility of changing direction and not studying diplomacy as I’d been planning. Papi thought I meant I’d join him and Santi at the family business, but when I said I was considering something more creative, he shook his head as if I’d been terribly mistaken and said there was no need for that; I was already an artist by blood; all immigrants are artists because they create a life, a future, from nothing but a dream. The immigrant’s life is art in its purest form. That’s why God has special sympathy for immigrants, because Diosito was the first artist, and Jesus, un pobre desplazado.
“It’s not the same, Papi,” I’d tried, but he shook his head.“Pero of course it is, mijita. All your life is a work of art. A painting is not a painting but the way you live each day. A song is not a song but the words you share with the people you love. A book is not a book but the choices you make every day trying to be a decent person.”
The narrator encounters resistance when she tells her father she’s considering a creative path. Often, in an immigrant family, it’s a very big departure for a child to say: I want to be an artist, not a doctor, not a lawyer, or an engineer. The father, here, tells his daughter what so many immigrant parents tell their children: Art is not the safest route in life. We didn’t sacrifice all this for you to take up a precarious profession.
He tries to comfort her, at the same time, by insisting that being an immigrant makes her an artist already. And this is a fascinating notion: that re-creating yourself this way, re-creating your entire life is a form of reinvention on par with the greatest works of literature. This brings art into the realm of what ordinary people do to in order to survive. It takes away the notion that art is too lofty for the masses, and puts it in the day-to-day. I’ve never seen anyone connect being an artist and an immigrant so explicitly, and for me it was a revelation.
My parents spent their entire lives in Haiti before they left. They didn’t know much about the United States except that, at that time, there were opportunities there. They basically packed two suitcases and came. That experience of touching down in a totally foreign place is like having a blank canvas: You begin with nothing, but stroke by stroke you build a life. This process requires everything great art requires—risk-tasking, hope, a great deal of imagination, all the qualities that are the building blocks of art. You must be able to dream something nearly impossible and toil to bring it into existence.
As in art, there are always surprises. For my parents, one thing was snow. Cold. They’d never had to worry about being cold before! It took creativity to know how to cope with it. My mother, because of a rule in her religion, wasn’t allowed to wear pants. Other women told her that pants would help quite a bit with the cold, but she knew she had to find another way. In the end, she learned to sew these legwarmer-like things for herself, which she wore under her dresses to stay warm.