Edwidge Danticat on the Writing Process, and Her New Novel Claire of the Sea Light
Edwidge Danticat has an obsession with the sea, from The Children of the Sea, a harrowing story from her short story collection Krik? Krak! to her latest workClaire of the Sea Light. The book centers on Claire Limyè Lanmè, a little girl who vanishes in a small fishing hamlet in Haiti on her seventh birthday. It has a thriller-like pace that’s reminiscent of The Dewbreaker. The last time Danticat had a juvenile protagonist was in Behind the Mountain and of course Anacaona: Golden Flower, but there is something extremely odd about little Claire, and she is bound to be ranked among Danticat’s most memorable protagonists.
How did the idea for Claire of the Sea Light come about? Once, I was watching a TV program about Haitian children who are placed in foreign-run orphanages in Haiti, even though their parents are still alive. These parents, who, for economic reasons, were unable to care for their children, put them in orphanages, hoping that their children will have a better life. I have a dear friend who grew up this way and eventually reconciled with his birth family as an adult. In the program I was watching, someone said that Haitians are not as attached to their children otherwise they wouldn’t just give them away. That stayed with me because I didn’t grow up in a nuclear family. My brother and I spent the early part of our lives with my aunt and uncle in Haiti, in a house full of cousins, whose parents, like ours, were working abroad. I knew how difficult that choice was for our parents and for my friend’s parents, and many other people who find themselves in that kind of situation. I wanted to try to write about someone making that choice and show the very moment that choice is made from these three different perspectives: the parent, the child, and the potential new parent.
Do you sometimes find yourself feeling torn between painting certain realities about Haiti, and painting another picture? Censoring yourself? Like, sometimes do you think to yourself, “Some people’s only exposure to Haiti are my books. So I’d better… I love Haiti, and I want others to love it too, but I don’t think creating an alternate reality in which all is rosy and perfect is the only way to write about it, even in fiction. I think it’s important to tell nuanced and complex stories that show many sides to our physical spaces as well as our humanity. Nothing new about that though. That’s what some of our best Haitian writers have been doing for generations now.
Who does Edwidge Danticat read in terms of authors and poets? Who are her faves exactly? I read a lot. I have lots of faves. Currently I am reading Jessica Fievre’s memoir Inheritance in manuscript and it’s spectacular. I am also reading Amy Tan’s new book, The Valley of Enchantment. I am re-reading a lot of older Haitian writers since I am editing a follow up to Haiti Noir, a book called Haiti Noir 2: The Classics.
Speaking of languages, do you think that one day English will supplant French as the language alongside Creole that is spoken and written in Haiti? I don’t think so. Instead, I’d love to see the role of Creole expand further, in academia, in the educational system. I have now lived in the United States for 32 years. I write in English because of the circumstances of my life, but it’s not something I would want to see imposed on others, especially in their own country.
You tend to shy away from social media and the web… Believe it or not, I am a little shy, and there is a part of me that feels like social media is the biggest stage in the world. I like the idea of having a book out then fading away for a while to become somewhat invisible again. I kind of need that to reboot and start working on something else. But I am doing a little bit more of the web and social media these days. My publisher does most of the posting on my wonderful Facebook page, but I contribute sometimes as well. And this year, I will finally get a website.
You lived in New York for most of your early life. But when one studies your career history, it seems that since you’ve moved to Miami, it’s like you’ve been producing books practically back to back, with less and less time in between new releases. Do you think that geography has had an influence on your creativity? Like, the closer you are to Haiti, the more inspired you are? Miami is a great city and living here has definitely made it possible for me to get to Haiti more often. However, I don’t think living in Miami can necessarily be credited for my productivity. Actually I have a lot more responsibility now than I had when I was younger and living in New York. The family. The kids. Aging parents and in laws. Maybe becoming older and having more on my plate has taught me to better manage my time and has given me more to write about.
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Edwidge Danticat’s latest novel is Claire of the Sea Light, the closest thing she’s ever written to a paranormal novel. The story takes place in Ville Rose, a little town in Haiti, where Nozias—a man of little means—is seriously considering giving his daughter Claire away to a better-off store owner. But Claire disappears and as the story develops, it becomes apparent that Claire Limyè Lanmè is no ordinary little girl.
In Part 1, Edwdige Danticat discussed everything from social media, to book title choice, and the use of the Creole language in novels. The conversation continues!
The Dew Breaker, The Farming of Bones, Breath, Eyes, Memory. Your novels have the most intriguing and poetic titles. Do you usually come up with the titles, and then write the novel? Or do you name your literary babies after their actual birth? Some titles come before. Some come after. Some come during. Breath, Eyes, Memory, for example, was initially called Daughters of Haiti, until the editor brought a line from the book to my attention. The Farming of Bones comes from an expression some former cane workers used to tell me about, travay tè pou zo, working the land to the bone. The Dew Breaker is a literal translation of choukèt laroze, a henchman from the dictatorship era.
Your books have had some really interesting covers. Do you have a say with cover design? The publisher usually sends me covers and thankfully, if I really hate a possible cover, they won’t go with it. They are also very much open to my suggestions. The cover photo for Claire of the Sea Light, for example, was taken by my friend Carl Juste and the cover girl is my oldest daughter Mira.
Do you tend to finish every novel you start? I have at least four unfinished books in my drawer right now. Two of them might become one at some point in the future and two might never become anything at all.
All your heroines, from Sophie Caco to Ka and down have always inspired pity, empathy, and admiration. They’ve been good, well-meaning girls all around. Do you ever think about having a villainess as your main character? That’s one of the novels in my drawer.
Out of all your novels and literary works, do you have a favorite? Brother, I’m Dying because my father and uncle are alive in there.
Which one do you think would make a great Broadway musical? Anacaona, Golden Flower, one of my children’s books.
At this point of your life, you’ve written nearly a dozen literary works. Do you sometimes revisit, say, your first book; your second book, and tell yourself, “Ugh, why did I write this! If I were writing this now, I’d do it so differently!” Like, do you wish you could rewrite some of your other earlier books, based on what you know now, as a human being who has done a lot more growing up, and a writer whose pen has gotten more mature? I can’t even read some of the early work. Most writers will say that. Of course there is so much I would do differently, if I were writing those books now, but I had to write them to mature and that’s how it is.
What’s the most off-the-wall interpretation; wait-a-minute-I-never-intended-for-this you’ve ever had about one of your novels, either from a critic or from a reader? I don’t consider any interpretation off the wall. When I’m done with a book, I realize it is no longer mine. I might disagree with an interpretation of something, but I never consider it off the wall.
Edwidge Danticat. Author. Wife. Mother. Daughter. Should the word feminist be added to the list of your descriptors? Wi. Feel free to add it on. I am definitely a feminist.
What do you like to do when you’re not writing? I spend time with my family. I have two small children, so the “time when I’m not writing” is well accounted for.
What’s next for you? I am currently editing Haiti Noir 2: The Classics. It will be published in January 2014. It’s a sequel to Haiti Noir, with many older stories. We have stories that have never been translated into English before from Ida Faubert—one of Haiti’s first published women writers—Jacques Roumain and Paulette Poujol Oriol. We also have stories from Lyonel Trouillot, Jan. J. Dominique, George Anglade, and Dany Laferrière, among others. I am extremely excited about this book. I think it will introduce—or reintroduce—a whole new generation of readers to some older as well as contemporary giants of our literature. And just as with Haiti Noir, part of the proceeds will go to one or several grassroots organizations in Haiti.
You can purchase Claire of the Sea Light HERE.