Interviews June 2004

Grappling With Haiti’s Beasts

Edwidge Danticat talks about reconnecting with her homeland—and coming to terms with its legacy of violence—through fiction
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The Dew Breaker
[Click the title
to buy this book]

by Edwidge Danticat
Knopf
256 pages, $22.00

The acclaimed fiction writer Edwidge Danticat was born in Haiti and raised there by an aunt and uncle after her parents immigrated to the United States in search of a better life. It was not until age twelve that Danticat moved to the United States to reunite with her parents in Brooklyn, New York. There, she found herself turning to books for companionship and to escape the isolation of the early years of the immigrant experience.

She went on to attend college at Barnard and graduate school at Brown, and has since written extensively about her native Haiti in all its tremendous beauty and tragic bloodshed. She found early success as a writer—perhaps in part because she experienced so much at a young age. Breath, Eyes, Memory, her debut novel about a young Haitian girl's immigration to the United States, was an Oprah Book Club selection. Krik? Krak!, a series of stories about life under Haiti's dictatorships, was a National Book Award finalist. And her third book, The Farming of Bones, about an orphaned Haitian girl living in the Dominican Republic during the dictator Trujillo's genocide, won an American Book Award.

In her new book, The Dew Breaker, Danticat explores Haiti's legacy of violence and its lingering effects not only on those who have suffered from it, but also on those who perpetrated it. The narrative centers on a "dew breaker," a member of the Duvalier regime's government henchmen and volunteer torturers, also known as the Tontons Macoutes. We meet this particular dew breaker—who remains nameless throughout the book—in his later years, when he's living a quiet life in America with his wife and daughter. Through a series of interconnected stories, we also meet some of his victims, and witness their daily struggles to make sense of the physical pain they endured at his hands and the emotional pain they continue to endure as a result.

Danticat was named one of "30 Under 30" creative people to watch by New York Times Magazine in 1995, one of the Best Young American Novelists by Granta in 1996, and one of the "15 Gutsiest Women of the Year" by Jane Magazine in 1998. She teaches Creative Writing at New York University.

We spoke by telephone on May 1.

—Dana Rousmaniere


Author photo
Photo credit

Edwidge Danticat

 

Why did you decide to write The Dew Breaker as a series of interconnected stories, as opposed to one narrative?

I started writing "The Book of the Dead," the first story in The Dew Breaker, as a short story, and everything in the rest of the book sprang from that. I meant to write a story about a girl and her father who go on a trip where he reveals that he's not a victim of torture as she thought he was, but actually a torturer. From there, I wanted to find out more about him, so I started writing the last story, "The Dew Breaker," about his past, and then the middle story, "The Book of Miracles." Then I found myself writing other stories that were connected to him in the perimeters. So one story led to another. When it came together it just seemed like the structure it was meant to have. If I were writing a novel, I would have had a different approach.

Can you explain the significance of the term "dew breaker," and why you chose to center the stories on this character?

The term "dew breaker" is a Creole expression for a representative of the dictatorship in a rural area—a person with free reign in the area, acting as judge, jury, and executioner. A dew breaker comes in the early morning to claim his victims, breaking the dew on the grass. I decided to center the book around this character and around the dictatorship because my entire childhood was spent in a dictatorship. Growing up, I was always seeing people like that, and the things they did in the name of dictatorship. I didn't really understand it then, so I wanted to revisit it through the eyes of someone who was a victim of the dictatorship, and also through the eyes of a perpetrator.

It must have been scary to witness that sort of violence as a young child.

I didn't see it head-on. But it wasn't unusual to see people being arrested without knowing what they had done, or to see people disappear and never know why. Writing this was a way for me to try to understand it better now.

Do these same things still happen in Haiti today?

Not to that extent, but there are certainly people who are vulnerable to political violence because they support a certain side.

Are the stories you tell in The Dewbreaker fictionalized accounts of real events?

I guess in some ways they're a collage of real events. The dew breaker certainly could have been a real person. The reason he doesn't have a name in the story is because there were so many people like him. Even though most of the people are fictional characters, they intermingle with a lot of real people as well.

A theme that runs throughout each of the stories is separation from loved ones, whether it's a husband in America separated from his wife in Haiti, a daughter in America separated from her parents in Haiti, or a child living in Haiti without one or both parental figures. To what extent are these stories based on your own experience of having been raised by your aunt and uncle while your parents were in America?

The idea of family separation due to economic or political situations interests me very deeply because it's something that happened to me. My parents left Haiti when I was very young, and I was separated from them for about eight years. I'm interested in exploring not just how it happens and why it happens, but also the aftermath—how do parents and children, husbands and wives, live with these separations? People who have read the book tell me they can't believe people were separated for that long. But it's quite common. I'm very much interested in the effects of those kinds of separations and their human costs.

What was the human cost in your own situation?

There was a lot of heartbreak. But I was lucky that my family was able to come together again. There are some families that never regroup and never heal from that separation. I think that in those situations, absences are as important as presences. When people aren't there for certain holidays, certain meals, certain moments in life, it becomes very poignant.

In your stories each of the Haitian émigrés now living in America seems to be living a life of isolation, whereas you portray the sense of community in Haiti as very strong. Have you been able to find a sense of community among Haitians living in America?

Absolutely. There's isolation in the immigrant situation, but a lot of people have managed to recreate community. For much of my life, I've lived in Haitian communities, and I think people try to create a little bit of home in them. The new community becomes as much a part of one's identity as home was. I've definitely found community here, but it's been a community based on absences. Even in your own family, there are so many people who are not with you. My father, for example, has three sisters whom we never got to know. So you reach for another kind of community—you have a different type of extended family. But there's also a kind of longing for the life you had, or could have had—a different kind of life altogether. There is always that other part of you that's missing.

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