During the release of an anthology entitled The Butterfly’s Way, that author Edwidge Danticat put together, I had a chance to interview her for a now-defunct online magazine called Native.
By Richard Louissaint
Imagine this scene: a grandmother of Haitian descent serving up stories to a group of children—many of whom are little nieces, nephews, and grandchildren—as they sit around her. Before the start of each story, the grandmother shouts “Kric!,” and only begins speaking, in her native language Kreyol, after the young audience responds with an affirming “Krac!” In the oral tradition of Haitian storytelling, these two phrases “Kric” and “Krac” represent the backbone of any story told (spellings of both words vary).
Following much in the footsteps of these normal, everyday Haitian orators, is Haitian-American author Edwidge Danticat. The critically-acclaimed Brooklyn, NY native has continued that tradition with her three published works—including her aptly-titled short story debut Krik? Krak! Danticat has a remarkable knack for packing anyplace she speaks at, and help push the sales of any publication she plays a role in— either as a contributor (foreword in the latest edition of Zora Neale Hurston’s classic tome Their Eyes Were Watching God) or as guest editor for an anthology (The Beacon Best of 2000 : Great Writing by Women and Men of All Colors and Cultures). However, this is not about her.
This influence is not lost on the Oprah Book Club winner and National Book Award nominee– the ability to get people to read like Harry Potter creator J. K. Rowling. In 1999, an email was sent out by her detailing a book project she hoped would embody experiences and accounts by Haitians who have lived in the most reluctant of melting pots—the United States. The electronically-administered message urged anyone to place their thoughts on their Haitian-American identity to paper. What would eventually surface is the recently-released anthology, The Butterfly’s Way (Soho Press) edited by Danticat.
Over the course of several emails, Danitcat expounded on the issues facing a new generation of Haitian’s living and growing outside and estranged from their own homeland– something that is at the core of Butterfly’s center.
Native: This anthology, Butterfly’s Way, is it the first of its kind to be solely focused on Haitians living and being brought up outside of Haiti and their experiences?
Edwidge Danticat: It might be the first to focus on Haitians in the United States telling their own story in their own voices, yes. Its focus is not really on all Haitians brought up outside of Haiti. We had to limit it to Haitians who were living or had lived in the United States. This was a way to make it more manageable and to explore that specific experience at this particular time. There were a lot of people we wanted in, but sometimes it was hard to find permissions, however, I think we have a nice sample of voices. The other day we got a review and the book was reviewed as though it was fiction. The contributors were called protagonists and characters. However, it’s a collection of essays with poems introducing the different sections. I guess you can say it’s among the first books of this kind, yes. Perhaps it’s not the first, but among the first.
Native: What sparked your interest in putting it together and was it more than one person involved?
Danticat: As I mentioned before, I wanted to document what it is like to be Haitian in the United States right now It was something I began doing for myself, by clipping different articles and saving them in a file. Soon my file got really thick and I decided we’d try to do an anthology for people of my generation and even younger who read more English than French or Creole and are looking for reflections of their experiences in English. So far when we have had readings, people who have read the book come up to us and say, “Ï always thought this only happened in my house. “People identify with the writers and feel a common link.
“Tell me how to imagine a better world in this place
where the rules of the game is this diplomacy
where blackness still equals poverty
wgere even after over 400 years
still too black too strong not French enough”–from “A Poem About Why I Can’t Wait” by Gina Ulysse
Native: I know that you travel back and forth to Haiti. Is America’s impact and influence still felt there? And is it negative and/or positive? In other words, what does the average Haitian perceive of the US– is there still the belief that things are better in the US for Haitians (despite Dorismand and Louima)?
Danticat: I can’t speak for the average Haitian, not even the one in the United States. I think it’s dangerous to generalize. You would get different answers depending on whom you talk to. Most Haitians have at least one family member abroad, in a lot of cases here in the United States, so I would imagine that their impression of the United States is filtered through that somewhat. Of course if the economic situation in Haiti does not improve, the United States is always going to look like a good place to go, yes, even with incidents like Abner’s and the death of Patrick Dorismond.
“My truth, like many truths, is partial. As I set out to tell this story, I suspect the other characters involved would tell it differently. Only on one point would my relatives and I agree: we had not been black before leaving the Caribbean.” — from “Homelands” by Marie-Helene Laforest
Native: From putting together the anthology, what have you learned from the contributors’ works?
Danticat: I’ve learned that there is a great breath of various experiences in the Haitian-American community. We are by no means a homogenous community. We have a variety of experiences, values, and lifestyles, and I tried as much as possible to have the book feel that way. At the same time, there are so many stories that we think are unique to us, but they are actually quite universal many people who are not Haitian who have read the book have commented on that.
Native: In the intro to the book you pay tribute to Haitian radio journalist Jean Dominique who died violently in Haiti. How much of an impact was he on the community here and in Haiti?
Danticat: Jean had a tremendous impact on the Haitian community everywhere. He was that huge a personality. He was heard in Brooklyn every morning on Radio Soleil and there are people who have followed him for years. He lived here in New York when He was twice in exile and participated in the debates and issues here. So his death was a great loss to Haiti and Haitians everywhere.
“Like many children of immigrants born and raised in the United States, i have skated precariously along the hyphen of my Haitian-American identity. ‘You were made outside.’ This is the way many Haitians speak of those of us who were born or grew up in the United States. It is as much a badge of pride as it is a stinging resentment.”– “– from “Made Outside” by Francie Latour
Native: Back to America. Do you feel, in regard to the generation of Haitians growing up now, are having it slightly easier (although that may be the wrong word to use) than the ones before them as far as being accepted. And are there maybe a new set of issues they might be dealing with as 2nd generation Haitian Americans (such as losing the connection to Haiti slowly)?
Danticat: I think it depends on where you live. Haitian youth in Miami are still having a hard time for example, still being teased in some cases to the point that they have formed gangs to defend themselves. Maybe with the Fugees and Wyclef making it so clear on a world stage that He is Haitian, it has become a little more chic to be Haitian, also with the rate of success among Haitians in many fields, medicine, law, professional basketball etc. These are often people who are not broadcasting that they’re Haitian, but still represent us positively. The best way to demystify a group of people is to meet individuals and I think people are starting to get to know us more in a way that is different from the media image of us. The second generation’s challenge will not be so much forgetting the culture–as you can’t really discard a culture if it’s that important to you–but their problems will probably become the same as those of the people in their same categories in the larger society. For example, in New York you have a lot of Haitian kids in the Crips and Bloods gangs. In many poor Haitian communities you have a rise in criminality among young Haitians. People are often shocked and say Haitian kids didn’t do certain things in Haiti that they do here, but what you will have is assimilation in positive as well as negative ways. It’s happened with many other communities and for some reason, it seems that we will not be immune from certain patters.
Native: Can you explain what is meant by the term half generation, which is used as the heading for one of the sections in the anthology, as opposed to first generation?
Danticat: It was a kind of tongue-in-cheek category. I think of myself as half generation, hard here, half there. I guess if you wanted a clinical definition, it would be people who were born in Haiti and came here in childhood and adolescence, what some people call first generation. By your definition, what I am calling first generation would be actually second generation. It’s just a way of playing with these terms which I think in real situations are far from definite.
©2001, 2008 Richard Louissaint