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Vol. LXIV, No. 45
Wednesday, November 10, 2010
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Edwidge Danticat Returns to Princeton to Talk About “Create Dangerously”

Ellen Gilbert

“It’s a full circle moment,” said Edwidge Danticat, describing the aptness of her Friday evening appearance at the Princeton Public Library to discuss her new book, Create Dangerously. The inception of the book, she explained, occurred two years ago when she visited Princeton University to deliver the Toni Morrison Lectures.

Using Albert Camus’s lecture, “Create Dangerously,” as a taking-off point, she said that the memoirs and essays in the book reflect her status as a Haitian-American artist in exile from a country that has had more than its share of natural and political crises. Cover artist Pascale Monnin’s depiction of tent drawings illustrating scenes from the hurricane that displaced so many people sets the book’s tone of horror and triumph.

“This is the most powerful book I’ve read in years,” said author Dave Eggers. “Though it describes great upheaval, tragedy, and injustice, it’s full of humor, warmth, grace, and light.”

“She expresses feelings of shame throughout, because she writes from the diaspora and is therefore not sharing the pain and misery (and now disaster) that the people she fictionalizes have suffered,” said Amy Wilentz in the New York Times Book Review. “Danticat has lost many relatives and friends to the harshness of being Haitian, one or two to unacknowledged or unrecognized AIDS, another in detention as a hopeful refugee, one to assassination, two more to the recent earthquake. As a true humanist and dedicated fiction writer, she suffers with these victims, always empathizing, always wondering: What if that had been me?”

Princeton University English Professor Anne Cheng, a specialist in 20th-century American literature with a particular focus on Asian-American and African-American literatures facilitated last week’s discussion. “Some things are better spoken about in non-fiction,” said Ms. Danticat responding to Ms. Cheng’s question about why a novelist turns to personal history and interviews. Noting that she had not intended to her write her award-winning book Brother, I’m Dying, she described it as an effort to “process” the deaths of her father and uncle, even as she was giving birth to a daughter.

Ms. Danticat acknowledged the pressure on immigrant writers who must be representatives of their communities while offering universal appeal in their work. “I’m lucky in the way that I feel absolutely free and loyal to the thing that I’m writing,” she admitted.

Away from the self-assuredness of her writing, however, she said that she is fearful of confrontations and “worries like crazy when the thing is about to be published.” Frequently asked why she doesn’t “write happy things about Haiti,” Ms. Danticat said that her answer is simply that that would not be the truth. Agreeing with Ms. Chang’s suggestion that she and other Haitians may be victims of “transgenerational haunting,” she said that she relied on “normal everyday stuff” to keep her grounded while writing about so much violence.

The dichotomy between flights of fancy that accompany nostalgia (“longing for something we are not sure we ever had”) and everyday reality featured prominently in Ms. Danticant’s recounting of a visit to an elderly aunt in Haiti. Ecstatic to have arrived, she announced her intention to be buried in that mountainside community when she dies. It had taken her two days to journey there, observed her practical aunt. Did she imagine that people would want to carry her corpse all that distance? Then she would be cremated first, replied Ms. Danticat. “There is already enough dust in Haiti,” said her pragmatic elder.

Ms. Danticat reported that her next book will be fiction, and that she is also currently editing a series called Haiti Noir. Journalism and briefer articles in publications like The New Yorker also keep her busy.

Create Dangerously was published by Princeton University Press, which cosponsored the event with the library as part of the “Thinking Allowed” series

The next “Thinking Allowed” event on Wednesday, December 8, will feature Princeton University Class of 1943 University Professor of Comparative Literature Leonard Barkan discussing his new book, Michelangelo: A Life on Paper.

Program Coordinator Janie Hermann noted that, thanks to a major National Endowment for the Humanities Grant, the Princeton Public Library would be a hosting a number of new programs during the coming years.

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