Witnesses of Haiti’s History

Sad, beautiful, pathetic Haiti: the world’s oldest black republic, suffering from the indignities of American interventions, ruthless dictators, and devastating natural disasters. You wonder why this gorgeous country can never get ahead. You think Haiti is all the proof we need that some people are losers and some countries are failed states, that they’ve brought these things upon themselves. Think again—or, better yet, visit Haiti before you make such statements. The Haitian deniers are like those who deny the Holocaust. They’ve never visited Auschwitz, based their judgments, instead, on long-distant reporting.

Long-distant reporting is not what Edwidge Danticat wants to be known for as a writer. The sub-title of Create Dangerously is The Immigrant Artist at Work, and Danticat makes great effort to demonstrate that many of Haiti’s greatest artists (painters, writers and film makers) who live in the United States might more accurately be called “exiled,” rather than immigrant. They’ve either left their country for fear of censorship or fear that something worse will happen to them if they remain in Haiti. That fear of repression/death links Danticat to dozens—if not hundreds—of contemporary writers who have fled their native countries in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and the West Indies. The American branch of PEN spends much of its resources trying to help writers in exile or those incarcerated in their own countries realize that they have not been forgotten.

Danticat’s collection of twelve essays focus, broadly, on the writer’s own experiences as an immigrant, living in the United States and frequently able to visit Haiti, but also on the troubled lives of other Haitian artists and the tortured relationship all share with their birth country. The title essay is taken from Albert Camus, an earlier immigrant writer who, though French, lived much of his life in Algeria, another troubled country. The title essay, “Create Dangerously,” which was delivered at Princeton as one of the Toni Morrison lectures, begins not where one might expect, but with the description of a public execution in Port-au-Prince in 1964, five years before Danticat was born.

On that occasion, “Papa Doc” Duvalier used the execution of two young men as an example, as a warning to keep control of the dissidents in Haiti. Danticat has viewed a movie of the execution; her description is gruesome, but a young man, named Daniel Morel who had observed the execution (had, in fact, picked up the blood-stained glasses of one of the executed men) decided on that day that he “wanted to be a photographer so that [he] could document Haitian history.” “Daniel Morel has been trying to document Haiti’s relentless melt ever since he saw Marcel Numa and Louis Drouin die. His instantly recognizable images…are raw and startling, urgent and frightening, like screams rising from an unending nightmare. He does not spare his subjects or his viewers any more than life would spare them. He is a witness, but barely there. You almost have a feeling that the photographs take themselves, because they document acts that you’d expect people to take part in only when others are not around: biting another’s dismembered finger, setting a pile of men on fire.”

Danticat’s origins as a writer are similar to Morel’s—an accident of history. “Perhaps there are no writers in my family because they were too busy trying to find

bread. Perhaps there are no writers in my family because they were not allowed to or could barely afford to attend a decrepit village school as children. Perhaps there are no artists in my family because they were silenced by the brutal directives of one dictatorship, or one natural disaster, after another.” Thus, she describes herself as an “accident” of literacy.

This brilliant accident of literacy demonstrates precisely why America was founded on immigrants and why the steady stream of immigrants (legal, like Danticat, and illegal, like others) is still needed. In the most memorable essay in the collection, “Another Country,” a response to Hurricane Katrina, Danticat observes, “This is the America that continues to startle, the America of the needy and the never-have-enoughs, the America of the undocumented, the unemployed and underemployed, the elderly, and the infirm. An America that remains invisible until a rebellion breaks out, gunshots ring out, or a flood rages through. Perhaps this America does have more in common with the developing world than with the one it inhabits. For the poor and outcast everywhere dwell within their own country, where more often than not they must fend for themselves. That’s why one can so easily become a refugee within one’s own borders—because one’s perceived usefulness and precarious citizenship are always in question, whether in Haiti or in that other America, the one where people have no flood insurance.”

Connected at the hip.

Create Dangerously: the Immigrant Artist At Work
By Edwidge Danticat
Princeton Univ. Press, 189 pp., $19.95

CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.

 

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Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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