Some creative writing teachers ban beginning fiction writers from killing off their characters. Death can be too easy a plot point for those just learning about creating conflict and resolution in stories. But as Edwidge Danticat reminds us in “The Art of Death,” “even when we are not writing about death, we are still writing about death. After all, death is always the eventual outcome, the final conclusion of every story.”
“The Art of Death” is the 14th entry in Graywolf Press’ beloved “The Art of” series, slim volumes each written by a different acclaimed writer that explore a single craft issue; previous books have focused on nuts-and-bolts elements like syntax or point-of-view, as well as on larger concerns like “intimacy” or “recklessness.” And while creative writers have made the series popular, “The Art of Death” could nudge it into the mainstream of general readership.
Danticat, the Haitian-American author of “Brother, I’m Dying,” weaves personal accounts with explorations of death’s treatment in literary works ranging from Toni Morrison’s novels to the poetry of Anne Sexton. The book is organized by chapters that correspond to different facets of death, from near-misses to collective death — here Danticat draws upon the loss of family in Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake — to a heart-wrenching chapter on suicide. In each, she emphasizes writerly techniques she admires in confronting death: Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s journalistic precision in “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” for example, or symbolism in Taiye Salasi’s “Ghana Must Go.”
But with Danticat, this never feels like merely an academic exercise. Rather, turning to literature is one of the only ways we may have of coping with the unknown. Danticat writes, “I want to both better understand death and offload my fear of it, and I believe reading and writing can help … authors have provided me with hints, clues, maps that I hope might lead me to some still-undiscovered and undefined ‘other side.’ ” The central death that creates the narrative through line here is that of Danticat’s mother, Rose, who died six months after a diagnosis of ovarian cancer.
The book’s most poignant and life-affirming moments are those that show Danticat and her mother using literature and language to make their way through this singular experience. They read the Bible together. Rose makes a cassette for her children in the weeks before her death. And after Rose dies, Danticat writes a prayer in her voice, asking for comfort for her children, who must now recognize their mother as “their new sky.”
It’s unusual for a craft book to make such an emotional impact, but “The Art of Death” shows readers — through the words of others and through Danticat’s own — how it’s done.
Colleen Abel is the author of “Remake,” a collection of poetry. She is currently a 2017-2018 Tulsa Artist Fellow.
The Art of Death
By: Edwidge Danticat.
Publisher: Graywolf Press, 181 pages, $14.