Edwidge Danticat: The Many Possibilities of an Award-Winning Author
by Stephanie Krulik
"The exciting thing about being a writer is you have a front row seat to what happens next. I feel a great deal of joy in this act of creation," says Edwidge Danticat, the Haitian-born, award-winning South Florida writer and recipient of a 2009 MacArthur Fellowship, given to “individuals who have shown exceptional creativity” in their work.
Each MacArthur Fellow receives a $500,000, “no strings attached” award over five years. "I am overjoyed,” Danticat says. “I am humbled, thrilled with this extraordinary gift. It is an amazing honor." The fellowships are often popularly referred to as “genius awards.”
Danticat is an extraordinary writer who takes the reader beyond the ordinary through her honest, beautiful, daunting portraits of immigrant life, here and in Haiti, by showing the reader that life is a dance of many kinds of people. She has written eight books: two non-fiction, two story collections, two fictional young adult books and two novels.
Danticat's 2007 memoir, Brother, I am Dying, a National Book Critics Circle Award-winner, tells a touching family tale about absolute love for her father, Mira, and his older brother, Joseph. It is her favorite book, she says, "because writing this book was like spending time with my family again."
As Danticat demonstrates in The Dew Breaker (2004) - a fictional tale of a dangerous man, a “shouket laroze,” a man who “shakes the dew,” a torturer - and in Anacona: Golden Flower (2005) for 8- to 12-year-olds, "For me, fiction is the act of imagination, mood and what I know."
As a 9-year-old child in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, living with her aunt and uncle after her parents emigrated to New York, Danticat stapled pieces of paper into a book, made comics with her brothers and cousin and created stories heard from her grandmother and aunt. Both were storytellers, she says, who "were powerful and powerless people, yet extraordinary women. Even now, I go back to my childhood where there is always that young sense of wonder in stories."
Her mentor, Professor Quandre Prettyman at Barnard College, where she earned a B.A. in French Literature in 1990, offered Danticat more of that sense of wonder and a passion about books. She subsequently earned an M.F.A. in creative writing from Brown University in 1993.
She says, "the passion for writing is a daunting task." The 40-year-old Danticat and her husband, an illustrator, work from home while raising two daughters, 1 and 4 years old. Using two story board collages, a technique learned from working with the filmmaker Jonathan Demme, allows Danticat a visual sense of characters whom she tracks like movie scenes. Like Demme's characters who look directly into the camera, Danticat looks directly into her characters’ eyes, which may be a reflection of her own. She adds, "You need to have different voices, different possibilities for your characters, just like acting."
Danticat's stories engage the reader to ask his or her own questions. She writes in 12-page blue exam notebooks that provide the story layering, shades, nuances and revisions. "I know the beginning and the end; I always have something to write towards," she explains.
Asked about the key to being a good writer, Danticat offers, "Keep working. Keep learning. Writing is extraordinarily humbling in the sense that no matter what you've done before, you're always starting over."
A collection of Danticat's essays, Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist At Work, based on The Toni Morrison Lecture at Princeton University (May 2008), will be published in 2010.