With the recent earthquake in Japan calling to mind last year’s disaster in Haiti, Just Buffalo Literary Center’s newest Babel visitor couldn’t have been more appropriate. Moved to America at the age of twelve, the Haitian-born Edwidge Danticat found herself at the forefront of media coverage last year—a sort of expert on her Caribbean nation during those tough times. She did her best to steer outlets towards more fitting sources—historians, culturists, etc—but welcomed the duty to speak and put a face on her people. One of the youngest authors to be included in the Babel speaker series, Danticat was quite eloquent, completely affable, and a treat to hear talk. She even made us all ‘honorary Hatians with a native greeting that made us feel at home, sitting back to enjoy the symbiotic nature of storytelling.
It was her first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, that we had been tasked to read for the talk. Written at the age of 25, an older, wiser Danticat reminisced about her voice at the time and how there were many things she would have changed if she wrote the same book today. Recently chosen by Oprah’s Book Club, the opportunity helped her gain exposure and also to set the record straight on what the true meanings of the tale were. Many Haitians back home were vehement about their dislike of her tome’s portrayal of their country’s women—rape and the two roads of silence or catharsis its aftermath can take the subject matter—and so the republishing allowed her the opportunity to compose an afterword explaining her motivations. The novel wasn’t about the women of Haiti, it was about the specific characters in the tale. People can read into it more if they’d like, but that was the truth.
To Danticat, storytelling exists as a way to keep memories of the past alive. She borrows heavily from people in her life and the stories they’ve told her. Stories jumpstart other stories and the orator is affected just as much as the listener. In Haiti there was a tradition of ‘Krik, Krak,’ where the storyteller says the former and his/her listeners the latter when ready to soak in what’s to come. There is a powerful connection between all parties and it is something our generation is losing fast. Citing theorists and artists who inspire her, the idea of social media allowing us to stay on top of the lives of people we know can be misleading. We no longer feel the desire to meet face-to-face and talk, share, and entertain. Instead we rationalize that we saw what happened to them on Facebook. But while the performative aspect may be dying, she does not think story itself will perish. We’re all storytellers whether we know it or not and through those physical representations of memories, humanity is immortal.
Danticat’s talk may have hinged on this concept to the point of repetition, but she never spoke a false word. Keeping it light with mention to our ‘big’ late-March snowfall—she had just left 87 degree Miami heat—and similes of first books being like first born children, except the children grow while the novel stays the same, the author gave us insight into her ideals and process. There’s a need for a basis of truth in her writing—why she doesn’t feel she is confident enough to write about people not Haitian American yet—and she believes in the power of literature to literally warm the soul and make us healthier as a result. The memory of her father, diagnosed with a painful life-ending disease nine months before he passed, will not be shaken for this reason. A taxi driver she and her family always thought resented his life, the man opened up to them and told his stories in a way that healed his soul to become reborn. According to her, this same healing can also work for victims of abuse or tragedy—by talking you can become whole again; by sharing you’re allowed to continue living.
Babel 2010/2011 Season:
Chris Abani (Nigeria) – April 15
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Courtesy of Bruce Jackson.