Each week, the My America blog series will introduce you to one of the writers featured in our newest exhibit My America: Immigrant and Refugee Writers Today, now open. The exhibit is designed to elicit thoughtful dialogue on a wide array of issues with contemporary immigrant and refugee writers delving into questions about writing influences, being multilingual, community, family, duality, otherness and what it means to be American. Check back every Wednesday to learn more about these writers and their thoughts on these themes, as we highlight select quotes from the exhibit as well as reading recommendations. Today, learn more about Edwidge Danticat, two-time National Book Award Finalist and winner of the 2008 National Book Critics Circle Award for autobiography.
When Edwidge Danticat was two years old, her father moved from Haiti to the United States. Brooklyn, to be exact. Two years after that, Danticat’s mother followed, leaving Danticat and her brother to live with their aunt and uncle while their parents established residency in the U.S. Finally, after eight years, Danticat’s parents got their papers and were able to bring her and her brother to the U.S. During those eight years, they had two sons born in the U.S., so when Danticat moved to Brooklyn in 1981 at the age of 12, not only did she meet a new country, but she also met her U.S. born brothers for the first time.
To add to that, this was a tumultuous time for Haitians for a couple of reasons. For one, a decades-long dictatorship was on its last legs and getting more and more brutal, so many Haitians were fleeing. The dictatorship would be overthrown in 1986, but when Danticat moved to the U.S. in 1981 it was still very hard. Additionally, at this time the AIDS epidemic began to get covered by the news but people still didn’t really know much about it, resulting in groups of people being told they were at high-risk of contracting AIDS. As Danticat says, “I think there were four groups: homosexuals, hemophiliacs, heroin addicts and Haitians. And Haitians were the only ones identified by nationality. So it was a very difficult time in the community…People were not really informed so there was a panic that led to people being really stigmatized and people being really prejudiced.”
Today, Danticat is an accomplished writer of fiction, nonfiction, and children’s literature with many awards to her name. Her latest title, Everything Inside, is a “collection of vividly imagined stories about community, family, and love…the indelible work of a keen observer of the human heart, a master at her best.” Yet despite the success of her career and having lived here permanently for decades Danticat still feels like an outsider. “There’s a whole generation of my family that’s now born in the United States, so there’s moments where you feel totally American. And then there are other moments where you’re reminded that you don’t belong…and as a parent I realize the only way that you can teach your children to cope with that is to just teach them about the fullness of who they are, both as Americans and also as Haitian Americans, so that they know the full spread of their history.”
The following are excerpts from our newest exhibit My America: Immigrant and Refugee Writers, now open. You can read more about Danticat and hear her speak on these topics in more by exploring My America. Plan your visit today!
Selected Quotes from My America
“I became a writer because I grew up with storytellers, oral storytellers. Some of them did not even know how to read. But they sure could spin a tale. My grandmothers and my aunts could liven up a place by just telling a story… Often in their ordinary interaction with us, especially as children, they were very stern…they didn’t seem like fun people. But when they were telling a story they came to life. And there was something from a very young age I realized was transformative about the process of telling a story.”
On Defining “America”
“Well, I am from the Americas, so for me what it means to be American is broader than the United States of America. It means all of the Americas, right? Being born in the United States of America is just one aspect. But [Haitians] are of the Americas for me, and that’s what makes us American.”
On Being Multilingual
“Creole is a language that’s full of imagery. There’s a lot of proverbs and there’s a lot of variations in the way that you say things and the tonality that you have changes the meaning of certain words. So I feel like that is a big influence on the English that I’m writing. My English is certainly wrapped in that Creole and the French that I learned to speak as a child.”
“I feel at home and I feel like I belong wherever the people I love are. And maybe it’s because I’ve had to leave the place I considered my home at such a young age in my life. So I’ve always felt like home is where the people I love are with me.”
“The way immigration is these days, the constant change of policies, even as people who have been legal residents, who have a passport, that doesn’t guarantee a kind of certainty or American-ness anymore. So I feel like I have to teach my children the whole spectrum of that. Like, you were born here, but for some people that’s not enough. But at the same time, teach them the history of how we got here, why we got here, what we’ve contributed so that they do not allow people to take away from them things that are rightfully theirs, things that belong to them.”
Selected Works by Edwidge Danticat
Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work