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Atlantic Unbound | June 22, 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


book cover

The Dew Breaker
[Click the title
to buy this book]

by Edwidge Danticat
256 pages, $22.00

he 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.

Another theme that runs throughout the book is the sabotage of your characters' ability to interact with the rest of the world; there's the man who hides his scarred face, a woman whose larynx has been removed, a woman who's been blinded in a fire, even an artist whose sculpture has been destroyed. Can you explain the significance of this?

It's just that there was so much physical violence associated with the dictatorship. People ended up not just psychologically scarred, but physically scarred as well.

Toward the end of the story, the dew breaker has a dream about being in a garden with his mother, trying to touch a mimosa pudica, or "shame plant, " which has leaves that fold up when touched. Is this scene meant to show the dew breaker finally coming to terms with his shameful past?

That scene is meant to be the dew breaker's mother's way of telling him that it's time to change. I had discovered the mimosa pudica on a trip, and was awestruck by it—the way it opened and closed. I just loved that plant immediately. And when I found out that it was called a "shame plant," I decided that I had to have it in the story—it was the perfect opportunity. The dew breaker's mother was a gardener and had such knowledge of plants, so it seemed like a good way for her to communicate with him. But it also represents his state of mind at that moment—that he's always wanted to change, but needs to get out of the life he's been leading in order to move on.

I thought the character of Anne, the dew breaker's wife, was an interesting contrast to the dew breaker himself, in the sense that she's almost saintly. In fact, when she meets him, she appears like an angel in a plain white nightgown—albeit a mad angel. Anne believes "that atonement, reparation, [is] possible and available for everyone." Is that the moral you want people to walk away from this book with?

No, I don't want people to think that. Personally I'm somewhere between believing in the possibility of atonement and reparation, and wanting to say "execute all the brutes," like Kurtz in Heart of Darkness. I think I want people to come to their own conclusions. This is Anne's way of explaining her choice (to forgive this man and be married to him), which I thought was a very big challenge for the book. It's the one thing people seem to have the most trouble with. People say, "How can she?" Well, this is how she can. But this is only one path. It doesn't have to be true for everyone. If there is a moral for me it's that I want people to examine the circumstances that create people like the dew breaker—the conditions out of which they arise. What Anne's saying is that she was able to lift him from that, to take him out of that environment and allow him to become a different person. That was her role. It's important not to simplify these people—to just write them off as bad and remove ourselves completely from the equation. Anyone subjected to certain conditions of deprivation and under the rule of all-powerful people could be vulnerable to falling into that same kind of morally twisted life.

The dew breaker's final victim, the preacher, encourages his followers to ask, "What will we do with our beast?"—seemingly referring all at once to the government, the devil, and evil itself. Who or what do you think is Haiti's beast right now?

That's a big one. I think we have many beasts. Certainly, one of them is division—the fact that different elements of Haiti's society see their goals as contrary. I think people often believe our biggest problems are political, but we also have very strong social problems—like extraordinary inequality in the distribution of resources, unsympathetic political leadership, and poverty. There's a lack of unity across social and economic classes—an inability to move on together as a nation. That's the case in many countries, but in Haiti it's almost as if one group's progress is seen as another group's loss, and there's a history that only encourages that feeling.

Do you see any hope for eliminating Haiti's beasts?

I have hope. We have to have hope, because whether it's worse than the past or a little better, the future is going to come no matter what. My hope is in the people of Haiti. If given an opportunity, I think Haiti's people can really thrive. It's just a matter of getting that chance. This year is the bicentennial of Haitian independence. It's a symbolic moment for renewal and hope. When you think about it, our ancestors, who were slaves, had an even greater battle to fight than we do now. So from that we can take some hope.

What do you think of Haiti's new acting Prime Minister, Gerard Latortue? Do you think his background with the United Nations and as an economist will help him make significant changes?

I hope he can make a difference. But I think in some ways, he's in a position where he has to do whatever the United States or other large powers ask him to do. He has inherited a great burden and responsibility, and I don't know how independently he can act.

Would you ever go back to Haiti to live full-time?

Oh, yeah, I could imagine that. I've gone back a lot in recent years, mostly to the countryside. I could see myself living there—not in the city so much.

What are you working on next?

I'm working on a book for young adults. It's part of the Scholastic World Diaries series and will be published next spring. World Diaries is a series of books about young women who are leaders. The books are fictional diaries, capturing women's experiences right before they take on a leadership role. I'm doing mine about a woman called Anacaone, an indigenous woman who was one of the few female leaders on the island of Haiti and the Dominican Republic before Columbus came. It's my second young adult book. I did another one called Behind the Mountains, which is also in the Scholastic World Diaries Series. I've enjoyed writing young adult books. It's a nice change.

You've accomplished so much at a young age, publishing your first book at age twenty-five and being nominated for a National Book Award at age twenty-six. To what do you attribute your early success, and how do you think your work has evolved since then?

I hope my work has gotten better. You never know why anything happens, but I've always been really passionate about writing, and it really helped me to adapt and survive my early years here. I never thought about it. I was just consumed by the desire to write, so I did. I'm really lucky and blessed that people have read my work and have taken to it, but I feel like it's something I would have done no matter what. There are so many writers who don't get a readership, so it's hard to know what makes people pick up your book over someone else's. I just feel really lucky that they do.

What advice do you have for other young writers?

Write what you're most passionate about. Also, stop and consider what your story is—what you have to say. And I would recommend plenty of reading. When I teach, I tell students that you have to read other students' writing in order to learn. Just read for the joy of it, to learn process, and to see how people do things in their writing. Then, just write for your life. Write whenever you can. When I teach writing, I find that I often meet people who have a great story and are passionate about it, but may be struggling with a way to tell it, and I meet others who have a really great way with words, but don't have a story. I would recommend that they find their stories and then find the best way to tell them.

What do you think? Join the conversation in Post & Riposte.

More interviews in Atlantic Unbound.
Dana Rousmaniere is a freelance writer living in the Boston area. Her most recent interview was with Tracy Kidder.

Copyright © 2004 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.