The most vibrant thing happening in American literature in the last 30 years or so has been the rise of writers belonging to various immigrant diaspora, writers who can fluently navigate more than one culture, who are greatly aware of the troubles and dislocations of distant and recent history, and know that these troubles aren’t exotic objects for entertainment, but that they are, instead, the crucible in which a tentative understanding of our increasingly mobile, global world might be forged.
To my taste, the greatest of these writers is Edwidge Danticat, a Haitian-American who has worked in many genres: the novel, the short story, the memoir, the children’s book.
In "Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work," Danticat is interested in history, in politics, in culture, in memory, in violence, in risk, in bravery, in reading, in writing, in what it takes to make things true, and most of all in understanding how the circumstances in which things are made can give rise to whatever great power they might achieve.
In mid-career, she has achieved a clear, singular and strong voice that would require something special of an audiobook narrator who wished to do it justice, and, fortunately for listeners, Kristin Kalbli, whose delivery is equally clear, singular and strong, is up to the task.
Danticat takes her title from Albert Camus, who wrote: “Art cannot be a monologue. We are on the high seas. The artist, like everyone else, must bend to his oar, without dying if possible.”
She thinks of Camus while considering the case of the public execution of two would-be guerrilla revolutionaries — Haitians who had immigrated to the United States and then returned to try to set things right in their native country — by members of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s private terror squad, the Tonton Macoutes. Throughout Haiti, government offices were shuttered, schools were closed and school principals were ordered to bring their students to see the spectacle.
Afterward, Duvalier circulated graphic pamphlets, the gist of which were characterized in this way by Time magazine: “Dr. François Duvalier will fulfill his sacrosanct mission. He has crushed and will always crush the attempts of the opposition. Think well, renegades. Here is the fate awaiting you and your kind.”
To Danticat, this story becomes a kind of “creation myth” for her own experience as an immigrant and a writer. One of the first things Duvalier tried to take from the executed men, Danticat says, was “the mythic element of their stories.” Because they had left Haiti and then returned, their previous immigration had rendered them “not Haitian, but foreign rebels, good-for-nothing blans.”
Art, then, becomes a way of reclaiming what power will take, in the face of “both external and internal destruction.” She compares the work of immigrant artists to the ancient Egyptians, with their “pyramid and coffin texts, tomb paintings, and hieroglyphic makers,” and especially their tombs, which were arranged to try to make more bearable the life that follows this one. She writes: “We are still trying to create as dangerously as they, as though each piece of art were a stand-in for life, a soul, a future.”
It is a thrilling directive, and one that isn’t aimed only at the immigrant writer. As the audiobook proceeds, the listener begins to see previously unexplored connections among seemingly disparate things, as Danticat explores what a 1991 military coup d’état in Haiti has to do with a public housing project in Newark, what the Haitian novelist Marie Vieux-Chauvet has to do with Beethoven or Cézanne or Dostoevsky, what Zora Neale Hurston has to do with Hurricane Katrina.
Toward the audiobook’s end, after the earthquake that rendered Port-au-Prince — “Our … entire city was a cemetery” — Danticat makes one more trip to Haiti, to honor the memory of her cousin Maxo, whose house — “The house,” Danticat says, “that I called home during my visits to Haiti,” -- has collapsed on top of him, and she is reminded of some lines from Jean Genet’s "Les Nègres":
“Your song was very beautiful, and your sadness does me honor. I’m going to start life in a new world. If I ever return, I’ll tell you what it’s like there. Great black country, I bid thee farewell.”
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