Identification: Haitian American author
Born: January 19, 1969; Port-au-Prince, Haiti
Significance: The leading writer of the Haitian diaspora, Danticat memorably conveys the struggles and identity crises of Haitian immigrants, the grim poverty and political oppression of their homeland, their mistreatment in the United States, and their vibrant language and popular culture.
Edwidge Danticat’s father emigrated from Haiti to New York City in 1971, and her mother followed in 1973, leaving Danticat and her brother with her uncle Joseph, a Baptist minister who ran a school. In 1981, Danticat followed her parents, part of the immigration that has made New York City and Montreal the two largest Haitian communities in the Americas.
Danticat spoke Haitian Creole at home; her school language was French. A brilliant student, she received a bachelor’s degree in French from Barnard College in 1990 and a master of fine arts degree in creative writing from Brown University in 1993. From 1993 until 1995, Danticat worked on documentary films about Haiti with American filmmaker Jonathan Demme. She was the associate producer of Courage and Pain (1996) and The Agronomist (2003), about the life and assassination of a crusading Haitian radio journalist. She has taught creative writing at New York University, the University of Texas, and the University of Miami, where she moved with Faidherbe Boyer, whom she married in 2002.
Sometimes called “the voice of Haiti” in the United States, Danticat has been a forceful advocate for human rights. She has protested against U.S. interference in Haitian affairs, and she helped expose criminal violence by New York Police Department officers against innocent Haitian immigrants in New York, such as Abner Louima and Patrick Dorismond. In the 2004 presidential elections, she campaigned to register Haitian Americans in Miami. Many of them had been disenfranchised by Florida elections officials in 2000.
Danticat’s master of fine arts thesis, a novel on the multigenerational trauma caused by mothers “testing” their daughters’ virginity, was revised as Breath, Eyes, Memory and published by Soho Press in 1994. In 1998, it became Oprah Winfrey’s book club Selection of the Month. Danticat’s eloquent collection of Haitian folktales, Krik? Krak!, published in 1995, was a finalist for that year’s National Book Award. Among her other noteworthy contributions to preserving Haitian culture is After the Dance: A Walk Through Carnival in Jacmel, Haiti (2002), which vividly creates a sense of place and memorably links the fantastic figures of carnival to Haitian religion, history, and politics.
Danticat’s three masterpieces emphasize testimony, with varying degrees of fiction. The powerful saga The Farming of Bones (1998) retells from a woman’s viewpoint Jacques-Stéphen Alexis’s Compère Général Soleil (1955), a story of the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo’s unprovoked massacre of Haitian guest workers in 1937. The Dew Breaker (2004) tells of a former Tonton Macoute torturer, the traumatic aftereffects of his crimes, and his moral redemption as he lives quietly in the United States. Brother, I’m Dying (2007) records the scarifying experiences of the deaths of Danticat’s beloved uncle and father. In 2004, her uncle Joseph, pursued by armed mobs fighting with U.S. peacekeepers, sought political asylum in Miami. He was eighty-one and in ill health. He collapsed and vomited during his intake interview but was considered to be malingering. Immigration officials held him for five days; he died from acute pancreatitis shortly after he was finally taken to the hospital. Danticat was denied permission to see him.
Danticat frequently gives interviews, and she has published stories in more than two dozen magazines— most notably The New Yorker. Many of her stories have been anthologized. Her work has been translated into several languages, and she has won a number of literary awards, including the 2005 Story Prize for The Dew Breaker and the 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award for Brother, I’m Dying. After her first novel appeared, The New York Times predicted that she would be one of the thirty artists and writers under thirty most likely to transform American culture over the next thirty years.
Laurence M. Porter
See also: Anglo-conformity; “Brain drain”; Child immigrants; Families; Films; Haitian immigrants; Higher education; History of immigration after 1891; Literature.