Edwidge Danticat on Haitian Art and Literature (Ep. 108)

Plus, the enduring wisdom of Haitian proverbs.

Edwidge Danticat left Haiti when she was 12, she says, but Haiti never left her. At 14 she began writing stories about the people and culture she loved, and now is an internationally acclaimed novelist and short story writer as well a MacArthur Genius Fellow. Rather than holding herself out as an expert or sociologist on Haiti, she seeks to treat her characters and culture with nuance and show the beauty and complexity of the place she calls home.

She joined Tyler to discuss the reasons Haitian identity and culture will likely persist in America, the vibrant Haitian art scenes, why Haiti has the best food in the Caribbean, how radio is remaining central to Haitian politics, why teaching in Creole would improve Haitian schools, what’s special about the painted tap-taps, how tourism influenced Haitian art, working with Jonathan Demme, how the CDC destroyed the Haitian tourism industry, her perspective on the Black Lives Matter movement, why she writes better at night, the hard lessons of Haiti’s political history, and more.

Watch the full conversation

Recorded September 18th, 2020

Read the full transcript

TYLER COWEN: Hello, everyone. Welcome again to Conversations with Tyler. Today, I am very pleased to be chatting with Edwidge Danticat, the famed Haitian American author, also winner of a MacArthur Genius Fellowship. Edwidge, thank you for coming on the show.

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Thank you so much for having me.

COWEN: I have so many questions. Let’s start with one about you. Now, you moved to the United States from Haiti, I believe, when you were 12. How is it you have learned so much about Haitian history in the meantime, since you didn’t do most of your schooling in Haiti?

DANTICAT: I often say, and my parents used to say as well, that I left Haiti, but Haiti didn’t leave me. Twelve is, I think, young enough to transition somewhat easily, but also to have formed so many memories.

I had, actually, a big chunk of primary education in Haiti. Having learned both oral history and written history, I brought a lot of that with me to the US, enough that I was curious when I got here to find out more from this side of things. I think it was, in part, a love for Haiti that continued and also a curiosity about history in general, but Haitian history in particular.

COWEN: There’s a shift, I think, in Haitian cultural history. If you think of the 1960s or ’70s, Haitian cultural history is centered in Haiti. You have Mick Jagger, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis — they go to Port-au-Prince, Pétion-Ville. They buy paintings. They bring them back. Everything is very Haitian-centered, and that seems to end in the 1980s. Why did that happen?

DANTICAT: Yes, there was a time, even in the ’50s, where you had cruise ships going to Haiti, which I’ve always found somewhat interesting because all that time that you had the tourism, that high level of tourism, was still during the dictatorship. And so people were going at that time, anyway — the folks you mentioned and others.

Then, in the 1980s, during the pandemic of AIDS, Haiti was designated by the CDC as a . . . Haitians were labeled a high-risk group for AIDS, and we were the only ones designated by nationality. It was Haitians, hemophiliacs, heroin addicts, and homosexuals. That came out of some cases of people who had contracted AIDS and who came to a hospital here in Miami and were reported to the CDC.

Really, that designation killed the tourism industry in Haiti. It was later, after much demonstrations, after a lot of research, it was corrected. But it really killed whatever tourism industry there was in Haiti, which was already a strange kind of tourism anyway because people felt happy to go at a time of very strict dictatorship. There was already something a little strange about that, but whatever tourism industry there was, was destroyed by the AIDS epidemic.

COWEN: If you think of Haitian culture today, is it correct to think that the Haitian diaspora is now Haitian culture? If you think of Haitian painting, there’s Duval-Carrié, but he’s lived in Puerto Rico and France and Florida. You are the leading Haitian writer, if one were going to call you that. Wyclef Jean — from Haiti, but now mostly in North America. Leyla McCalla. Some would even call Basquiat a Haitian artist. Is that now outside of Haiti, what Haitian culture is?

DANTICAT: No, I think that would be incorrect to say because there is still a great vibrant culture inside Haiti. There are wonderful writers inside Haiti, as well. There’re wonderful visual artists, musicians.

If you think of it like any other diaspora, we’re going to be like . . . If you’re in North America or if you’re out in Europe, there are some mechanisms that make our work more visible. My work is in English, so naturally, people have more access to it more easily. But there’s a really strong and vibrant culture inside Haiti as well that people like us — we feel fed by, that we feel is still important to us as readers.

I’m a writer, but I’m also a reader. I appreciate art. I’m on the council of Centre d’Art d’Haiti, an esteemed institution that goes back several decades now, so there’s still that culture. It’s really a powerful statement, I think, to Haitians and Haitian culture because there’s so many obstacles all the time in the way of artists in Haiti, but they still are thriving and are very . . . been wonderful expressing what’s happening very powerfully through their work.

COWEN: Do you think the Haitian diaspora is culturally stable? Or do you think it will, in essence, be absorbed and assimilated into a more narrowly Afro-American culture?

DANTICAT: I think because there’s often so much happening in Haiti, let’s say, that tie — what we would call the umbilical cord — is really married to Haiti. Even over several generations, the Haitians who I know — I don’t want to speak for everybody — remain very connected to Haiti, and want their children to know Haiti, and want that connection through language, through food, through music.

No diaspora is fully stable. Of course, there’s integration, there’s assimilation. That happens with every immigrant community over the generations, certainly, for sure, but there’s a certain tie to Haiti that the diaspora has. There’re so many diaspora organizations, neighborhood organizations, where people support schools in the neighborhoods where they come from, where they support organizations.

Part of it, I think, that tie, that connection is connected to the fact that Haiti is often in crisis, and people in the diaspora are often the first-line responders after people in Haiti. After Haitians in Haiti are Haitians in diaspora. Even within our families, if there’s an illness, and that sometimes extends to the larger community. Definitely, there’s integration, but we have a diaspora that goes back further than people know, yet that connection to Haiti throughout the generations has been made.

Then, with these artists that you mentioned — Leyla McCalla — she’s a wonderful artist, born of Haitian parents, yet her music reflects that. Artists like Mélissa Laveaux. You mentioned Basquiat. I think that’s also a testament to a thread that runs through Haiti and the diaspora.

COWEN: Do you think there is, in fact, a natural language for Haitian literature? If you think of the earlier Haitian classics that you’ve had a hand in translating — they were written in French. Your work, of course, is written in English. It’s been slow to have been translated into Creole. Is it a fundamental fact about the future of Haitian literature that there’s not a natural language there?

DANTICAT: It’s such a topic of discussion often among critics of Haitian literature — what language is Haitian literature written in? I think now, some people — I can’t speak for everyone — but I think most people who study Haitian literature will say that it’s now a multilingual literature.

There’s literature in Creole, certainly, which is probably closer to the primary language that most Haitians speak Creole. That was slow to come. There was always literature in Creole, but not as much as there is now.

Haitian literature is mostly written in French, and like you said, we’ve worked on translating. I’ve worked with others in translating, for example, a masterpiece of Haitian literature called L’espace d’un cillement by Jacques Stephen Alexis, which we translated with Carrol Coates as In the Flicker of an Eyelid. I edited these two books, Haiti Noir and Haiti Noir 2, in which we translated many contemporary Haitian writers.

Then we have writers now who are Haitian American or Haitian Canadian, like Roxane Gay and Myriam Chancy, who write directly in English. So it’s a multi-language literature through immigration and migration.

We have writers who are writing in Chile and in the Dominican Republic in Spanish, and that’s another growing layer of Haitian literature abroad — this Haitian literature that’s so far mostly produced a lot of poetry in Spanish. There was a novel before by a Haitian writer named Micheline Dusseck, who had written one of the first novels about Haiti in Spanish. It’s a linguistically interesting literature and to see all the tentacles of it, if you will.

COWEN: What do you think of the . . . you might call them outsider novels about Haiti? There’s Graham Greene; there’s Victor Hugo’s Bug-Jargal, which is about the Haitian Revolution. Are those cultural appropriation? Are they bad novels? How do they strike you?

DANTICAT: Some are good, some are bad. There’re some wonderful ones like Madison Smartt Bell’s trilogy, All SoulsRising, on the Haitian Revolution. I think that those were wonderful. There’re some really great ones; there’re some that are a little cringey. [laughs] But I wouldn’t say to anybody that you can’t write about it. I think writers should be able to write whatever they want.

You should expect people to respond. If you do it with nuance and care, that’s really important. There are some tropes that often sometimes people just fall into when they’re writing about Haiti. The zombie situation. Sometimes they approach it like it’s never been done before. If you do it with care, if you do it with nuance, I’m open to reading it.

COWEN: Why does Haiti have the very best food in the Caribbean?

DANTICAT: Well, because we just do.


DANTICAT: I’m perhaps biased. I just have to say, overall in the Caribbean, we have amazing food. There’s wonderful food throughout the Caribbean. But Haitian food, in particular, I love because we have great spices, and even if the food is a little fad in some cases . . . you have the pikliz, which is sort of a pickled cabbage, carrots, like a spice that you sprinkle on top. For people who like meat, there’s griot, which is pork; tassot, goat.

There’s stuff that, even if you’re vegan, you can like, like mais moulin, which is cornmeal. Sos pwa — I think it’s a very rich and wonderful cuisine, but I am biased. People who have not had Haitian food, if you know anybody who’s Haitian, on January 1st, go over to their house — when we can go over to people’s houses again — go for soup joumou, which is a squash soup that we drink on the first of January to celebrate Haitian independence.

COWEN: Why is Haitian black mushroom rice so good?

DANTICAT: It’s the mushroom. That’s the key. Actually, I live in Miami, and that gives me a little more access to the djon-djon, so I’ve had to ship it to friends throughout the States. There’s a key to it in terms of just how you wash the mushroom and just the right . . . They try to make a kind of cube thing, but the cube thing is just not the same as the actual mushroom that you boil and you squeeze. Some people — if you’re from the north, like my friends from the north — will put some cashews in that. That’s another level, with some cashews.

COWEN: The collective buses in Haiti, the tap-taps, of course — why are they so beautifully painted? Why does that make economic sense?

DANTICAT: Well, I’ve gone to Haiti with a lot of foreigners, at some point.

COWEN: Like me.

DANTICAT: [laughs] There’s a time when I used to go — we had a program for college students every summer, and I used to love when they land to see the tap-tap. It’s so striking because it just feels like, “Oh, I’m in this world full of art.” They seem, to me, moving canvases. What I love, personally, most about tap-tap, even after you get used to the visual feast that they are, I love the sayings on them. You would see like, of course, basketball stars from here.

At some point, not too long ago, Toni Morrison, after she died, was on a tap-tap. It’s just that people really soak up what’s happening around. But the sayings are also great. One of my favorite sayings on the tap-tap was “w ap pale, m ap travay,” like, “You’re talking and I’m working.” I felt it was so powerful in terms of how you respond to people who talk badly about you. “w ap pale, m ap travay. You’re talking, I’m working.” [laughs] Things like that.

Also, the tap-taps with the art sometimes will have messages of gratitude. A tap-tap might have a message of gratitude to the driver’s mother or to whoever contributed. A lot of them are to Jesus, to God, to the Virgin and other religious figures, but also to people in the person’s life who contributed to the business. I always find them very beautiful to look at, but also really wonderful moving pieces of art.

COWEN: If I think of the Haitian arts today, I think of painting possibly as having peaked between the ’40s and the ’70s. The most interesting work today tends to be in Vodou sculpture. Why has that shift come about? Those are very large pieces. They’re like installations. They are hard to buy. They’re hard to transport.

DANTICAT: I think if you stayed there, you would be reducing your possible level of enjoyment because what’s most in that early period, the Centre d’Art period in the ’40s, like the early period, when the tourism that you were talking about, when people went to Haiti, what they bought the most was what they call naif, primitif art, which is super colorful, really beautiful figures, often market scenes. That’s traveled very well.

But there was always, at that same time, artists who were a little bit more adventurous, artists who were somewhat abstract. At the same time, there were these artists who were like, “This is what the tourists want. That’s what I’m going to produce.” Throughout the Caribbean, even if you went to other islands, you would see these paintings, and they became almost a little bit mass-produced, but they’re gorgeous. I have some.

The sculptures you’re talking about — those were started actually by . . . I used to work for Jonathan Demme, the filmmaker, who was a huge collector of Haitian art. In the office, whenever we acquired those sculptures . . . I traveled a lot to Haiti with him. He called them Liautauds because the original artist was Liautaud.

When I was growing up, in cemeteries, often we had metal flowers, really, because you would do a wreath of metal. It would be metal from oil drums because that lasted longer, as opposed to if you have a wreath of just roses — that dies quickly, so people would make these beautiful wreaths. Liautaud was from St. Mark, which is really the home of these sculptures.

Now, there’s a whole industry in those sculptures for sure. I have to say, they’re very hard, I agree. You can’t just put that in your suitcase, often, like you would the paintings. People used to roll them. But they’re gorgeous, and now they’re almost three dimensional. One Christmas, we bought one that was a nativity scene that was 3D.

But there are a lot of wonderful young artists now. Some of them are moving away from the more primitive, naive Lionel St-Eloi. There’re so many whose names are escaping me, but there are just wonderful artists worth exploring. You mentioned Duval-Carrié, who is outside of Haiti, but there are quite a few other young artists, too, who are inside Haiti, who would use both that style of sculpture but also do painting, who do installations or doing really, really exciting things.

COWEN: I own a Zobop by Liautaud, by the way. Great work. It’s by the fireplace.

Why is it you think that Black African Americans have not evolved as natural collectors of Haitian art? It seems to be much more the nerdy White guys who buy it, or well-to-do families.

DANTICAT: I know a lot of African Americans who collect Haitian art, starting with, for example, Ishmael Reed, whose wife had a gallery. People like Danny Glover. Even friends that, again, when we traveled with folks to Haiti — a lot of them were African American, and there are quite a few African American collectors. My friend Carine Fabius has a gallery in LA called Galerie Lakaye. It’s a wonderful gallery because it’s in their home. Her husband, Pascal, is an artist who’s worked with the artists in Grand Rue, who do actually really amazing urban sculptures with discarded dolls, computer boards, and sometimes skulls. They recently had a show here at Moca.

Carine, for example, I think, has worked with a lot of African American collectors, including some in Hollywood, but some outside, also ordinary people who collect. There’s been, also, this marriage of African American art, in some cases, with Haitian art, like Lois Mailou Jones, who went to Haiti, who has spent time there, and this connection there with some African American artists who are very aware of Haitian art as well.

COWEN: How much Vodou inspiration is there in your writing?

DANTICAT: Well, it’s part of Haitian culture. One of the things that when you were asking about the outside gaze in Haitian literature, I think sometimes it’s easy to fall into that trap of, like, “Oh, let me throw in some Vodou just to exotify things.”

In my work, I treat that as a worldview. Some people might be practitioners; some people might not be. I also like to show a whole range of religious practices in my characters because not everybody is monolithic. As they’re not in their behavior, they’re not monolithic in their religious practice as well, so I try to show it as a whole range of religious practices.

In Breath, Eyes, Memory, for example, the family certainly have their family loa. They have their own practice, but there are members of the family that also practice other religions. To show the whole range of religious practices that there would be in a family like that, some of them are also Protestant, and sometimes that actually leads to some conflicts within some families. I like to show all the nuance of all that.

COWEN: Your novel about the twins, Untwine — isn’t that just a Vodou novel? And I mean that as praise.

DANTICAT: I didn’t think of it that way. There’s certainly twin loas in Vodou, and these girls are twins. I’d always been fascinated by twins. I think maybe that could be one interpretation. That wasn’t how I started out, but I think that could be one interpretation.

COWEN: To me, I just think Marassa when I’m reading it, right? The whole myth of the twins and rivalry and beginning, the end, struggle.

DANTICAT: Yes. Is it because they’re Marassa? Because there are a lot of novels about twins as well, but they’re written by people who are not from Haiti. Like I said, I don’t object to that as an interpretation, but I don’t think that’s the only thing that it is. It’s also about sisterhood and illness and separation and so forth. But again, I’m fine with that interpretation.

COWEN: In a world with so much mobile and social media, do you think radio is still of central importance for Haitian politics, as it had been in the past?

DANTICAT: I think radio remains very important there. For example, there are a lot of cultural figures, even younger people, in Haiti who emerged out of radio culture and now have transitioned into more social media, who do Lives and Facebook but who started out in radio. Radio certainly was very important when I was growing up, and there weren’t as many other outlets.

Now I find, for example, my mother-in-law, who’s 85, who lives with us — she’s in Haiti most of the time. Sometimes she’ll watch a YouTube video about something that’s happening in Haiti, but it’s a YouTube video of someone in a radio station, and she can watch it on YouTube. Someone can send the clip on WhatsApp. I think radio now is part of a series of many different ways that people get information.

When we’re in the country, if you don’t have internet, it remains one way that you get news, on the radio. Also, I find, even the older people in my life get a lot of news through their phones, through WhatsApp, also through YouTube clips. There’s a constant loop of information now that radio is just one part of, whereas for example, when I was younger, it was the primary, if not the only source of information that we had.

COWEN: With a Haitian background, do you think you have a different perspective on the fake news debates of the United States? Because Haiti, it seems, had a lot of fake news well before social media. It was a country of rumor in some ways. Or not?

DANTICAT: I think you’re thinking of this whole thing of maybe that expression, Teledjòl, which is “the mouth that would go,” I guess it would be like. That was a way that information is spread. I don’t know. I think every culture has that kind of rumor mill, if you will. I don’t think that would be unique to Haitians.

I think what I recognize in the whole fake news debate is the gradual slide towards autocracy. Certainly, those of us who have lived through dictatorship and other moments like that, you recognize the slippery slope, the demonization of media, that sort of forced silencing.

This summer I was reading with my girls. We were reading Animal Farm, and it was really striking, all the parallels in terms of “What your eyes are seeing, you’re not seeing.” All that is very familiar in terms of that whole thing of diminishing the press. Of course, at full autocracy, then you destroy the people who are giving the news. But there are ways, now, with the social media, to do it.

COWEN: Why do you think Haitian political history has shown so much instability in terms of turnover in the number of rulers?

DANTICAT: We started as a country with everything against us right there. Haitian Revolution was an impossibility to so many people. These enslaved people fought the French, the British, the Spanish, to start the first Black republic, the first place in the world, really, where enslaved people overcame their masters and started this nation in a world where slavery was the norm.

So Haiti was shunned, and we had to pay to the French for this independence until into the next century. I think there was so much stacked up against us, and then, in the early 1900s, you had the very long US occupation, and then the dictatorship.

I think we were set up, in a way, to fail because this was not meant to exist. Enslaved people starting their own country was not meant to exist. A lot of people have said it, and historians have said it, like, “How dare you?” I think to this day Haiti’s being told, “How dare you?”

Many instances when we’ve elected our leaders, then suddenly there’s a coup or there’s . . . So I think the instability is not fully the fault of Haitians. We’ve had our part where people have decided to turn against their own, but it’s also something that has been set up to fail.

COWEN: What did the United States get most wrong in its 1915 to 1934 occupation of Haiti?

DANTICAT: Being there? [laughs]

COWEN: Sure, but there’s better and worse occupations, right?

DANTICAT: Oh, I don’t think the people who have been occupied anywhere would ever say, “What a great occupation!”

COWEN: Well, say Barbados may have gone better than, say, some other countries in the Caribbean — it’s occupation.

DANTICAT: I think you mean Grenada or —

COWEN: Grenada also. They went better than Suriname. The Dutch were more extractive in Suriname than the British were in Barbados.

DANTICAT: I would ask them. I don’t know. I would not speak for them. I think people always want to be in charge of their fate. And the people who come, often, from what I know of the US occupation . . . and the writers at that time wrote about it. There were African Americans scholars who were living the moment, who visited, who wrote about it because it was meant for influence in the region.

One of the heads — I think it’s Butler, his name was — who had a mea culpa many years later, who was in charge of not just the occupation of Haiti, but also at that time, when there was a common occupation of Haiti and the DR [Dominican Republic] where he said, “We were there for City Bank. We were there for money.” That was his mea culpa.

There’s the example of — you’ve talked about Haitian art — Philomé Obin, who’s a Haitian artist from the north, has a very famous painting about Charlemagne Péralte, who was a leader of the Cacos, who fought against the occupation, who was murdered and attached to a door as a kind of frightening. And there were some horror stories, some massacres during the occupation.

What was left behind after the occupation, both in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, was this military structure that went through the generations. In the Dominican Republic side, it became Trujillo, who then carried out this 1937 massacre of Haitians. Then on our side, it went all the way down through the army that ended up in that dictatorship.

There was also a deeper layering of basically moving Jim Crow to these islands because, for the comfort of these people, they had to create these clubs to separate people who are light versus people who are dark in terms of how they interacted with them. So it’s not fun.

COWEN: In retrospect, do you think the US restoration of Aristide in 1994 was a mistake? Was it more colonialism? Or was it the best thing that somehow had to be done?

DANTICAT: I think that was a very difficult moment, and those generals in that moment . . . During that coup d’état, thousands and thousands of people had been killed. At that time, I was working on a film called Tonbe leve, and we were interviewing many people who had been victimized during the coup d’état. One of them was an incredibly brave woman named Anette Bellance who had survived and been really butchered and had lost her arm, and other people.

I think at that time, President Aristide was part of that decision, and he wanted to return. At that time, I guess, that was the right thing to do. The generals — they were ready to stay, and people were dying. That was the decision that was made by President Aristide, and he returned.

COWEN: If you were minister of education in Haiti and had a fair amount of latitude, what would you do?

DANTICAT: I would give the job to a woman I know who runs an organization called Anseye pou Ayiti, and her name is Nedgine [Paul]. Nedgine works with schools. Actually, she works with educators. If I were minister, first of all, I would make sure people who are better qualified than me were minister of education.

But one thing I think would be important, to actually make sure every single child is educated and to make sure that Creole is part of the education because often, children just jump into school in French, and there’s a lot of rote memorization. That would be an important thing, I think, to make sure every child has access to education because in Haiti, something like 40 percent of a parent’s income is spent on education. And often, the children are not getting the best education because it’s rote memorization.

What I know is, there’s such a love for education in Haiti that parents really, really sacrifice a great deal to have their children educated, that every child, of course, deserves an education. I would love for every child to have that opportunity. I think that would be the most important thing to have, a good education that could serve them and help them to function and grow in their country.

COWEN: As a Haitian American, how do you feel your perspective on Black Lives Matter might be different from that of many Black Americans?

DANTICAT: It’s not different. I believe that Black lives matter, of course. I think, maybe, as a Haitian American with the history that I’ve just outlined to you, with having come out of a culture of revolution and the constant fight that Haitians have always had, we can certainly identify with that. Absolutely.

One thing that’s been really wonderful to see with this generation is that, as Black immigrants, there’s no separation. Maybe in previous generations, there was that feeling that “Oh, this is not my problem.” But in the demonstrations, you see Haitian flags. You see Dominican flags. You see people from the continent.

I think we realize that this affects all of us. It’s my nephews. It’s my African American friends that I grew up with, their children, my children. It’s certainly a common struggle. Certainly, that cop is not going to be asking you which country you’re from when doing these types of encounters.

COWEN: Now, in all of these conversations, there’s a segment where I present to the guest my favorite Haitian proverbs, and he or she reacts. Are you ready for a few?

DANTICAT: All right. You’ve been sharing Haitian proverbs with your guests?

COWEN: Here’s one. “After the dance, the drum is heavy.”

DANTICAT: Oh my god.

COWEN: What does that mean to you?

DANTICAT: Aprè dans, tanbou lou. I actually have a book called After the Dance. It’s on Carnival. Yes, for me, it means that there are consequences to everything, even the most joyful thing. You have to be prepared for the consequences of things that you’ve done.

It’s something that my mom used to say quite a bit, too. If you have just had a really big celebration, or if you waited too late to do your homework because you’re having a good time watching a program you like, she was like, “Aprè dans, tanbou lou.” After the dance, the drum is heavy. It’s like the morning-after, hangover situation and the most joyful outcome, but really, that there are consequences to everything.

COWEN: Here’s another one. “It is the owner of the body who looks out for the body.”

DANTICAT: Oh, this one. You will not believe how much we hear that these days. Se mèt kò ki veye kò. It’s something that we say a lot now in the coronavirus era. You hear it on the radio. You hear people say it when they talk to their neighbors. Se mèt kò ki veye kò. That means that, really, you are the best person to take care of yourself.

If you’re saying, “Wear your mask when you go out during the coronavirus era.” “Wash your hands.” It’s like the best, the most qualified person to take care of you is you. It’s not the doctor. It’s not your loved one. Se mèt kò ki veye kò. It’s the owner of the body who takes care of the body. It’s like, “Watch out for yourself.” It’s very good advice these days.

COWEN: “When they want to kill a dog, they say it’s crazy.”

DANTICAT: Yes, that’s the dehumanization. I guess that’s fake news. [laughs] It’s connected to the fake news. If you want to diminish or slight someone, you call them names. So that’s also a timely one, I think.

COWEN: How about this one? “The constitution is paper; the bayonet is steel.”

DANTICAT: Yes. Again, back to our conversation about dictatorship, in a way. I believe that one was often cited by one of the generals, actually, during the ’90s, during the coup d’état, or it might have been even before. I think it speaks to the fragility of documents like the constitution. Yesterday was Constitution Day in the US, so that might also apply here.

It’s that whole thing with freedom. Freedom is something that we have to always keep watching out it doesn’t slip away because, sometimes, we think these documents or these rules are set in stone. I think this general who kept saying this was saying, “Well, I have the weapons.” It’s kind of paper, rock scissors. Which is stronger?

COWEN: “When the mapou tree dies, goats would eat its leaves.”

DANTICAT: Yes. This one, I think, is about humility because we have this expression that we say when someone has died who has contributed a great deal to our culture: we say that a mapou has fallen. A mapou is a soft cotton tree, it’s a kind of sacred tree, and it’s also a big tree that lasts forever. It’s a regal institution, a mapou.

What this one is saying, actually, the goat is a meager creature compared to a mapou, and there’s no way a goat would actually be able to access the leaves of a mapou, but when it dies, it falls. I’ve always heard that proverb as a way of encouraging humility, that all our leaves are vulnerable to the goat, if you will. [laughs]

COWEN: One more proverb, “Beyond the mountain is another mountain.”

DANTICAT: Yes. Dèyè mòn gen mòn.

COWEN: That’s a very famous one.

DANTICAT: Yes. I actually use that a lot myself. One of my neighbors just passed away, and she used to use that proverb a lot. I think it means that no matter what, we can see there is more. I think it’s about there’s more to everything than what we see.

It also speaks to the physical layout of Haiti because it’s a very mountainous place. Ayiti. The Arawak called it Ayiti. It actually means land of the mountains, and it’s physically true. If you’re traveling across Haiti, literally, there’s always a mountain physically behind a mountain, but in a spiritual sense, it also means that there’s always more.

There’s this mountain-connected saying that I love, which says “de mòn pa janm kontre, men nou menm petèt yon jou nou ka kontre,” which means — and it’s a great closer in a way — it means two mountains can never meet but perhaps, you and I, we can meet again.

COWEN: Have you ever been to West Africa?

DANTICAT: I have not. I have only been to South Africa. Actually, this year, we were hoping to make a trip to different countries in Africa, but we’re obviously not able to. I’m 51 now. I feel like I should have already made it, but it’s definitely something that I’ve wanted to do with my family, with my girls, and that hopefully we’ll all get to do together.

COWEN: What is special about Jacmel in Haiti?

DANTICAT: Jacmel. One thing — there’s a wonderful novel by a great Haitian writer, René Depestre, called Hadriana in All My Dreams, which was recently translated by Kaiama Glover. That novel will tell you everything you want to know about Jacmel. It’s a beautiful place, and the location — it’s got both the mountains and the sea. It’s got a wonderful waterfall called Bassin Bleu. It’s a gorgeous place.

After the Dance, the book that I wrote — it’s about Carnival and Jacmel. It has a spectacular Carnival as well. There are some wonderful artists who live there, actually, who I write about in After the Dance — one of them, Ronald Mevs, who still lives there next to a beautiful mountain.

COWEN: Now, in your own life, how did you manage to be such a prodigy? You come to the US. You’re 12. You grew up speaking Creole. By the time you’re 14, you’re writing for something called New Youth Connections perfectly fluently. Then, your first book is published as an undergraduate. What accounts for this? What’s your own story about the beginnings of your own success?

DANTICAT: Well, my first book actually was published when I was 24. That’s still early, but I loved writing. I loved stories, and I loved writing. For me, it was always fun, even when I was doing other things. I was studying at school, but I loved to write. You know that saying that people say, “If you love what you do, you’ve never worked a day in your life.” [laughs] For me, really, I wanted to write, and it started with New Youth Connections, that journal that I started writing for when I was 14, and went through all my books to this day.

I knew that my book was published early, and a lot was made of that, I think, as when you publish when you’re young, but for me, it was just always a joy. It was just something I love doing, and I always felt really blessed to be able to do it, and I still feel that way to today.

COWEN: What’s your most productive or most unusual work habit?

DANTICAT: Working at night, and the older I’m getting, the harder it is to actually stay up all night, but I find that writing at night is really my most productive time because somehow, at night, you just feel everybody is safe in bed that I’m responsible for, and there’s not too many distractions. The internet is always there, but it’s just easier to imagine a whole other universe at night. I feel that that’s when I’m most productive.

COWEN: Being a Haitian American writer, what criticisms do you feel you get from Haitians? Is there any tension there?

DANTICAT: I think there’s always tensions but not so much because of the people who read me. I have friends from other groups. It’s the same. You seem to be plucked out of your group, and people think you consider yourself a representative. I’ve never considered myself a representative for Haitians, all Haitians. I don’t think I speak for all Haitians.

But often, when you’re spoken about in the press, people put you as a kind of sociologist, as a kind of expert on Haiti. When I started pretty young, “I just want to tell this story. I want to tell that story.” Then, I started to realize that people were, at times, overgeneralizing my stories. They would say, “Oh, this character in your book does that, and that’s what all Haitians do.”

Of course, some of my compatriots didn’t like that because people would literally say to me, “Oh, that person read your book and said that. They think that’s my life, too.” That happens, I think, with the work of writers of color a lot. For example, Alice Walker — people say, “Oh, because she writes this character, then she hates Black men.”

For me, they were saying, “Oh, because you wrote about this girl whose family really wanted her to be a virgin, that means everybody who’s Haitian has the same situation.” I think that people in the mainstream culture sometimes generalize what we write. That leads to some tensions within the culture. I’ve had some rebuke, which is normal.

Again, there are circumstances to whatever you write, whatever you do. I learned from that. I started out very young, so I think over the years, I’ve also had to learn how to tell maybe more nuanced stories and how to be conscious of just how what I write will be read by different types of people.

COWEN: You’ve taught a history of Haitian cinema class at Ramapo College. Correct? What did you do in that?

DANTICAT: Well, actually, we taught that class when — it was Jonathan Demme and Haitian journalist Jean Dominique — when Jean was in exile from Haiti. Jonathan wanted to do, actually, a festival of Haitian cinema. We used that class as a way of, first of all, finding the films that we would show, and then to talk about them.

There’s a Haitian film, for example, called Anita, which is about a young girl who’s a domestic servant in a home. Haitian singer TiCorn is featured in it. We would get that film. We would show it, and we’d talk about it. Jean, who was more versed in Haitian cinema than either of us, would speak on it, and then the students would film it.

I hope all of this is in the archives at Ramapo College. It was both a history of cinema class, but also a class in which the students got an opportunity to film what we were doing. We were trying to figure what had been done in Haitian cinema before.

Soon after that — not because of us — but there was a kind of explosion of Haitian cinema. There were a lot of films made — some of them wonderful, some not so great — but there were a couple of keepers. If we were doing this project now, for example, we would have a lot more to work with, with the films of Raoul Peck and other filmmakers inside Haiti.

COWEN: Two final questions. First, let’s say our listeners are thinking of doing a trip to Haiti — which by the way, I would recommend strongly — but what tip would you give them for how they can make it somehow manageable and safe, assuming, of course, they’re not Haitian?

DANTICAT: Well, a lot of people go to Haiti. I think you have to go with an open mind. I would say try to get out of Port-au-Prince, to go outside, go see the countryside. For example, in the south, there’s some wonderful grottoes or caves. There are some hikes. Not to try to stay in the urban space but also to go outside.

I think it’s Palmer’s Guide to both Haiti and the Dominican Republic that has some wonderful tips in terms of where to go. There’re also some local traveling groups. If you’ve never been to Haiti, and you don’t know anybody in Haiti, try to find a group to accompany you. But to go with an open mind, to try to learn and listen, and certainly, go outside the urban space into the countryside. I would recommend.

COWEN: To close, finally, if you could give us one more Haitian proverb that is dear and important to you.

DANTICAT: Well, this one reminds me very much of Jonathan, who, though he was not Haitian, I probably traveled with him more to Haiti than my own parents when I worked for him. He always used to say, “Piti piti, zwazo fè nich.” Little by little, the bird builds its nest. That was his favorite answer to, like, if you asked him how he was doing, he would say, “Piti piti, zwazo fè nich.”

Unfortunately, as you know, he passed away not too long ago. That was one of his favorites. That remains very special to me for that reason, but also what the proverb says. It’s kind of like that — every journey begins with one step. I feel like it’s good advice these days. Piti piti, zwazo fè nich. Little by little, the bird builds its nest.

COWEN: Edwidge Danticat, thank you very much. It’s been a pleasure.

DANTICAT: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Photo credit: Carl Juste