MIAMI – Edwidge Danticat has a favorite maxim in her native French Creole. “Piti piti, zwazo fè nich li” means “Little by little, the bird builds its nest.”
“There are so many life lessons in that one short phrase,” she said. “It’s also great for writing, because that’s exactly what you do — build a world, word by word.”
If that’s so, the Haitian-American author has feathered a treeful of nests over the past two decades. After vaulting onto the literary scene at age 25 with “Breath, Eyes, Memory,” Danticat has published several works of fiction and nonfiction, edited two anthologies and racked up awards, including a $500,000 MacArthur genius grant in 2009. In the process she’s become one of the most widely recognized, outspoken voices associated with Haitian culture in the United States.
Danticat opens this season’s Talking Volumes author-appearance series Sept. 25 with her fourth novel, “Claire of the Sea Light,” which intertwines the lives of residents of an impoverished fishing village near Port-Au-Prince.
Danticat lives on the border of two Miami neighborhoods, hardscrabble Little Haiti and homey, historic Buena Vista. A minivan sits in the driveway beside her modest stucco house. Inside, the smell of garlic wafts from the large kitchen, where a chicken is roasting and remnants of breakfast bananas lie scattered across the dining table.
The common area is open as an artist’s loft. Color-drenched contemporary paintings and tapestries cover the wall space that isn’t already occupied by bookshelves and children’s drawings, one of which reads “Bom! Bom! Dance party tonight!” A tiny twinkling vision wearing a tiara darts silently across Danticat’s living room like a stealthy Tinkerbell. It is the author’s younger daughter, Leila, who seems to have channeled her mother’s vivid imagination on this day to dress like a fairy princess.
“She knew someone was coming over,” said Danticat.
As she points out that the girl shown running in silhouette along a shoreline on the cover of “Claire of the Sea Light” is her older daughter, Mira, Danticat’s amiable husband, Fedo Boyer, saunters in the door, ready to assume child-care duties. She met Boyer, also a Haitian native who works as a Creole translator and helps immigrants with legal issues, 12 years ago when both were volunteering in their homeland. Were there instant sparks? “Yes,” she says, then laughs.
Though the theme of parent-child bonding runs through much of Danticat’s work, it resonates with fierce urgency in “Claire of the Sea Light.” On her seventh birthday, Claire, whose mother died in childbirth, is to be given away by her dirt-poor fisherman father, Nozias, to a well-off fabric-shop owner, still grieving over losing her own daughter to a traffic accident. Claire runs away rather than face leaving him. Across town, prominent schoolmaster Max agonizes over how to help his despondent son, Max Jr., racked with guilt over impregnating the family servant years earlier.
“This is my first book of fiction since I’ve had both my kids,” Danticat said, “and to have two little girls sleeping in the next room while writing about another little girl in such distress, it adds a whole new layer, occupying more space in my creative mind.”
Ocean waters also play a significant role in “Claire of the Sea Light.” Early on, a friend of Nozias drowns after a rogue wave capsizes his fishing boat. Danticat recalls the Haitian sea of her childhood as a place she both feared and revered.
“You had to be careful — someone was always nearly drowning. But it was also healing. My aunts used to put oranges in the fire until they turned black. When they cooled, they would rub the juice and pulp over their achy bodies as a balm and walk into the water.”
Danticat spent most of her childhood living with her uncle, a minister, and his wife in Haiti, after first her father, then her mother, moved to New York to find work when she was a toddler. She joined them there at age 12 and attended the science-focused Clara Barton High School, where she initially planned to become a psychiatrist. While pursuing a master’s degree in creative writing at Brown University, she worked in the school’s financial-aid office by day, writing “Breath, Eyes, Memory” by night. In 1994, she accompanied filmmaker Jonathan Demme to Haiti to help him with a documentary.
At 44, Danticat’s dewy skin is unlined, her demeanor serenely grounded. In the muggy, mid-day Miami air, her translucent purple silk tunic magically retains an unwrinkled elegance as she walks slowly past a row of the brightly colored “gingerbread”-style storefronts typical of her homeland, Caribbean adaptations of French and Victorian architecture.
A vendor steps out of a doorway and urges her to buy one of his cellphones. She politely rebuffs his suggestion with a “Maybe later,” and sails on. Observing her measured speech and sure movements, it’s difficult to imagine her getting ruffled about anything, ever. But she still frets, she says, about writing.
“I get crazy with doubt, just wrought with anxiety,” she said. “I want to ask people, did you understand this or that, did everything come across?”
She also gets stirred up —in a different, deeper way — by U.S. immigration policies as well as the continual political corruption and environmental destruction in her homeland. Though not an overt focus of “Claire,” these issues have been front and center in previous works. The titular character of her third novel, “The Dew Breaker,” is a man who tortured and killed his countrymen under the tyrannical Duvalier regime, but who now mingles peacefully among other immigrants in the United States.
Danticat returns to Haiti, where her husband’s mother still lives, at least twice a year. Especially since the devastating 2010 earthquake that killed an estimated 85,000 Haitians and left hundreds of thousands homeless, she has tried to sustain international attention on the country’s continuing woes.
Despite digging into the dark side of the Haitian ethos in some of her writing, she says she gets a good reception, such as when she was the guest of honor at the national book festival a few years ago. But as one who no longer calls the country home and speaks with barely a trace of an accent, she sometimes experiences tension with those who have remained there, she said.
Another well-known writer with Caribbean roots, Dominican-American Junot Diaz, is Danticat’s friend and fellow immigration activist. He jokes about the two of them being “nerds of color” together — “except I’m not as much into sci-fi as he is — ha!” she said. Diaz calls her “profoundly sensitive, compassionate and simply one of the best storytellers alive. She has mastered the depth and complexity that you need to render the human believable in literature.”
Joëlle Vitiello, who teaches French studies at Macalester College in St. Paul, assigns “Breath, Eyes, Memory” in one of her classes, and has met Danticat. She sees the author as being remarkably, quietly generous in her encouragement and championing of other writers. As Haiti’s best known cultural export in the United States, she said, Danticat also serves a secondary role that is perhaps more influential than her artistic status: “Everyone here thinks of Haiti as poor and violent, but in her writing she really brings back the pride and beauty of the country and its people.”
Faith in humanity
Danticat still attends a Protestant church in Little Haiti every Sunday, where she sings the same songs from the church of her childhood. But she sees her faith as something broader.
“Haiti is a very spiritual place,” she said, referencing vodou, the Caribbean religion that blends Catholicism with mysticism and West African animism. “I model my faith after the people I grew up with, not as a prescribed belief but an ability to envision a hopeful future even after facing extraordinary obstacles.”
Danticat showed early writing promise in an essay she wrote at age 14, just two years after she began to learn English. In it, she tells of the traumatic move from comforting, familiar Haiti to foreign New York, to live with parents she no longer knew and brothers she’d never met. At school, she was taunted by students who said Haitians were stinky, filthy and had AIDS.
“If only those who abuse us would ask, perhaps we’d explain that it’s not our fault that we are intruding on their existence,” the essay concludes. “We’d plead with them to accept us and accommodate us, not make life miserable for us. Because yes, we are strangers. Unfortunate strangers in a world full of strangers.”
Thirty years later, through the tales she tells, Danticat has become a major force in linking such cultural strangers, bridging gaps in understanding along the way. This doesn’t, however, influence her stories to turn out happy for everyone in the end.
“I had written an alternate, sadder ending to Claire’s story,” she said. “It’s hard for me to write a hopeful ending because I want to be true to reality. And when reality is brutal, it’s not an easy decision.”