'All Immigrants Are Artists'

Edwidge Danticat, author of Claire of the Sea Light, believes that "re-creating your entire life is a form of reinvention on par with the greatest works of literature."
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By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature.

Doug McLean

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.


AP / Wilfredo Lee

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.

Alice Walker has a wonderful essay called “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens,” where she talks about women who were slaves and dying, perhaps, to paint or write. Because they couldn’t, they channeled their creativity into domestic forms of art—into their quilts, say, or gardens. I see this impulse in my mother. She could have been an extraordinary designer in another place, in another situation—she was an excellent seamstress. When we’d walk through a clothing store together, I’d pick out a dress—she’d always touch the fabric and say, “This is such cheap quality.” And she’d tell me, “I’m going to make you this dress—but better.” So we’d go to the cloth shop, buy some fabric, and she’d make me a beautiful replica of the dress. 

When I was little, I bought her reasoning: It was the quality of the cloth, she wanted better for me. And it might have been. But when I got older, I realized it was just cheaper for her to make my clothes. My mother made most of the clothes I wore through high school. Until I had my own money, we didn’t buy dresses. Sometimes it was weird—I wore more dresses than other things. But these are ways people find to survive. If you can’t afford clothes, but you can make them—make them. You have to work with what you have, especially if you don’t have a lot of money. You use creativity, and you use imagination.

And that’s another thing this passage hints on: that first-generation immigrants often model artistic behavior for their children. They don’t necessarily realize it, like the father who says the immigrant life is art in its greatest form. But I realize now I saw artistic qualities in my parents’ choices—in their creativity, their steadfastness, the very fact that we were in this country from another place. They’re like the artist mentors people have in any discipline—by studying, by observing, by reading, you’ve had this model in the form of someone’s life. My mother could not have found time for creative pursuits with four children and a factory job. But she modeled the discipline and resourcefulness and self-sacrifice that are constant inspirations in my own life’s work. The things she did, the choices she made, made the artist’s life possible for me. I didn’t know it, but she taught me that being an artist makes sense.

While it’s natural for the children of immigrants to want to be artists, it is natural for the parents to feel threatened by artistic vocations. As a parent myself, I completely understand that impulse. When you’ve given so much, when you’ve sacrificed everything to make this huge transition, you want to see your child have an easier life as a result. You want to spare them the anguish of worrying always about survival, especially after all the sacrifices you’ve made. The first generation feels they created a path, they sacrificed, they made the way—and now their children should have stability and peace of mind. This, of course, is not the emphasis of being an artist.

And so, for children of immigrants, the creative path is fraught with added risk: There’s so much more at stake if you fail. There’s a feeling that—as the character in the passage feels—if you fail, you’re not only failing yourself, but your family, your parents who have gone through so much to give you this opportunity. It’s not just your own failure at stake—artistic failure can mean the failure of your family’s entire enterprise.

My father died of pulmonary fibrosis in 2005, after a very long illness. On his deathbed, he wrestled very much with the idea that his life ultimately meant nothing. He’d ask me questions like, “What have I contributed to the world?” And the conclusion he came to was: well, you guys—my children. You are my contribution. I think the fact that my brothers and I had some success in life helped him come more readily to this conclusion. My father always wanted me to be a doctor. As he was dying, if I had become neither doctor nor writer, I fear he might have felt like his life meant nothing. That weight was on my back, this feeling that success—however it’s defined—was somehow crucial.

The worst feeling that immigrant parents can have is, “Maybe we shouldn’t have come here. Maybe we should have stayed.” Often, their feeling about their decision to leave home is bound up in the fates and careers of their children. If they do succeed, though, this wonderful thing can happen: When they speak to the culture about the journey a particular family went through, and it validates the parents’ decision publicly. I found that, as my father was dying, this counted for him somehow—the fact that other people, through things I had written, knew how much he sacrificed to raise me and my brothers. This success ultimately convinced him that he made the right choice. It validates the decision he made all those many years ago.

This passage made me feel something different: a new and sudden connection with the generation before. After having read this, I can no longer say I’m the only artist in my family. This passage broadened my artistic community beyond my fellow writers. It makes my community larger in terms of who I think of being artists, and how I think of others. It makes me honor, through the prism of art, the way other immigrants have lived their lives, all the difficult choices they have made. I’m part of a broader community—beyond just artists and just immigrants—one that links them both. It makes me look at my work differently, and I see my parents in a different way. 

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Joe Fassler is a writer based in Brooklyn. His fiction has appeared in The Boston Review, and he regularly interviews authors for The Lit Show. In 2011, his reporting for TheAtlantic.com was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award in Journalism.

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