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“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.”
Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046