Authors: Edwidge Danticat

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

Haitian-born American novelist, nonfiction writer, and dramatist

January 19, 1969

Port-au-Prince, Haiti

Biography

Edwidge Danticat, the first African Haitian woman author to write in English, emerged on the contemporary literary scene as one of the United States’ most creative young artists. Krik? Krak!, a finalist for the prestigious National Book Award in 1995, brought Danticat to the attention of literary critics and media. In 1998, television host Oprah Winfrey chose Breath, Eyes, Memory for her book club, catapulting the novel into best-seller status. Danticat’s stories have been published in more than twenty-five journals. She has also edited several collections of Haitian writings.

When Danticat was two years old, her father emigrated to the United States, where he found a job driving a taxicab. Her mother followed him two years later to work in a textile factory, leaving Edwidge and her younger brother to the temporary care of an aunt and uncle. At the age of twelve, Danticat arrived in Brooklyn, where she had to adjust to two new brothers, learn English, and endure the stereotyping of Haitian immigrants as “boat people.” She nonetheless thrived in school, was accepted at Barnard College, where she majored in French literature, and went on to Brown University on a full scholarship to earn a master of fine arts degree.

Edwidge Danticat.

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By David Shankbone, CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/), via Wikimedia Commons

The inspiration for Breath, Eyes, Memory, Danticat’s first novel, was an essay she wrote for a high school newspaper about her childhood in Haiti. The novel begins as the first-person narrator, Sophie Caco, is summoned to New York, leaving behind the aunt she loves in order to live with a mother she barely recalls. The new relationship is deeply troubled, complicated by cultural conflict and the mother’s inability to cope with memories of her rape by a member of the Tonton Macoutes, Haiti’s brutal secret police. Sophie, the product of that rape, elopes with a neighbor after having mutilated herself in defiance of her mother’s insistence on the Haitian practice of periodic “testing” to ensure that her virginity is still in tact. It takes a pilgrimage to Haiti and the healing powers of her aunt and grandmother for Sophie to acquire the courage and confidence she needs to return to her mother and husband.

The title of Krik? Krak!, Danticat’s first book of published stories, refers to the practice of “call and response” by Haitian storytellers to engage their audience in the telling of their tales. The collection of nine stories begins with a counterpoint of letters destined never to be mailed between a young man, who recounts the horrors of his boat trip to the United States, and his girlfriend, who describes the escalating political violence at home. It ends with an elegy to the generations of Haitian women whose legacy Danticat celebrates. Other stories demonstrate a wide range of literary techniques, from the highly metaphorical tale of a father who wants to fly to the penetrating psychological portrait of a prostitute who tries to protect her son from the truth about her trade.

The Farming of Bones, Danticat’s first historical novel, is based on the 1937 massacre of an estimated twelve thousand to fifteen thousand Haitian workers in the Dominican Republic. The tragic events are narrated by Amabelle, a young Haitian woman who has worked as a servant on a sugarcane plantation since being orphaned as a child. After a harrowing journey, Amabelle finally escapes to Haiti, emotionally and physically maimed but determined to serve as a witness to the “ethnic cleansing” that has taken place at the hands of Dominicans and their government. The title refers both to the difficulty of sugarcane harvesting and to the massacre.

Danticat's next novel, The Dew Breaker, addresses life under the Duvalier dictatorship and follows the lives of both a torturer (the titular "dew breaker") and those he tortured in the years afterward. Written as a series of intersecting stories, the book received a great deal of critical attention when it was released. Danticat had stated in interviews that she chose to explore this subject because she grew up under that regime and wanted to better understand what had happened then.

The nonfiction books Brother, I'm Dying and The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story take as their subject the deaths of Danticat's close relatives—the uncle who raised her and her mother, respectively. The award-winning Brother, I'm Dying follows the often-violent political turmoil in Haiti after Danticat left and its impact on her family members who remained. In The Art of Death, Danticat talks about her mother's final struggle with cancer and her own use of writing as a coping mechanism.

Loss figures prominently in Danticat's novel Claire of the Sea Light as well. That story employs a widowed mother and the disappearance of a motherless little girl in order to show the history and interconnectedness of one Haitian community.

Danticat has also tried her hand at fiction for young adults and some storybooks for younger children. Her juvenile novels include Behind the Mountain, Anacoana, and Untwine.

Most of Danticat’s major works chronicle the suffering and endurance of Haitian women, set in the context of the immigrant experience and against the backdrop of Haitian culture and traditions. Most critics praise Danticat for her sensuous descriptions and accessible language and note a growing maturity in her embrace of broader historical and political themes. Over the years, Danticat has also received several honors in recognition of her work, including the 1999 American Book Award, the 2005 Story Prize, the 2005 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, the 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award, and the 2007 National Book Award for nonfiction. In 2004, the Lannan Foundation gave her a literary fellowship for fiction, and in 2009, Danticat was named a MacArthur Fellow, winning what is also known as the "genius grant."

Danticat became active in New York’s Haitian community, organizing joint Haitian Dominican youth groups and working with the National Coalition for Haitian Rights through a grant from the Lila Acheson Wallace Foundation. She has taught at New York University and the University of Miami.

Author Works Long Fiction: Breath, Eyes, Memory, 1994 The Farming of Bones, 1998 The Dew Breaker, 2004 Claire of the Sea Light, 2013 Short Fiction: Krik? Krak!, 1995 Drama: The Creation of Adam, pr. 1992 Dreams Like Me, pr. 1993 Children of the Sea, pr. 1997 Nonfiction: After the Dance: A Walk Through Carnival in Jacmel, Haiti, 2002 Brother, I'm Dying, 2007 Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work, 2011 The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story, 2017 Conversations with Edwidge Danticat, 2017 (Maxine Lavon Montgomery, editor) Edited Text: The Beacon Best of 2000: Great Writing by Men and Women of All Colors and Cultures, 2000 Butterfly’s Way: Voices from the Haitian Dyaspora in the United States, 2001 Haiti Noir, 2011 Haiti Noir 2: The Classics, 2014 Children's/Young Adult Literature: Behind the Mountain, 2002 Anacoana: Golden Flower, Haiti, 1490, 2005 Eight Days: A Story of Haiti, 2010 (Alix Delinois, illustrator) Untwine, 2015 Mama's Nightingale: A Story of Immigration and Separation, 2015 (Leslie Staub, illustrator) Bibliography Danticat, Edwidge. “The Dangerous Job of Edwidge Danticat: An Interview.” Interview by Renee H. Shea. Callaloo 19, no. 2 (January 17, 1996): 382-389. Interview focuses on the centrality of mother-daughter relationships in Danticat’s work. Danticat, Edwidge. "Grappling with Haiti’s Beasts." Interview by Dana Rousmaniere. The Atlantic, June 2004, www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2004/06/grappling-with-haiti-s-beasts/303391. Accessed 25 May 2017. A brief profile of Danticat and an interview focusing on the writing of The Dew Breaker. Page, Lisa. "Edwidge Danticat Illuminates Haiti." Virginia Quarterly Review, vol. 89, no. 4, 2013, pp. 249–51. Literary Reference Center Plus, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lkh&AN=90646176&site=lrc-plus. Accessed 25 May 2017. Analyzes the themes of birth and death, use of Creole, and gender in Claire of the Sea Light. Shemak, April. “Re-membering Hispaniola: Edwidge Danticat’s The Farming of Bones.” Modern Fiction Studies 48, no. 1 (Spring, 2002): 83-113. Analysis of the novel and detailed discussion of its historical context. Wucker, Michele. “Edwidge Danticat: A Voice for the Voiceless.” Americas 52, no. 3 (May/June, 2000): 40. Discussion of Danticat’s activism.

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