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Maneuvering Myself Around a Scene: A Conversation with Edwidge Danticat

by Brendan Dowling on October 21, 2013

Edwidge Danticat’s extraordinary new novel, Claire of the Sea Light, introduces the reader to the fictional Haitian town of Ville Rose. Centered around the resilient Claire, the novel takes place over the course of her seventh birthday, when her widower father asks a local businesswoman to adopt his beloved daughter in the hopes of her having a more financially secure life. From that wrenching decision, the novel spins out to the other members of the community, from the local principal and his visiting son, to the host of a popular radio show, to the gang members on the outskirts of town. Danticat’s career has been incredibly prolific, ranging from her National Book Award nominated novel Krik! Krak! to her National Book Critic’s Circle award-winning memoir Brother, I’m Dying. Her latest book has been equally praised. The New York Times observed that “the images in Claire of the Sea Light have the hard precision and richly saturated colors of a woodblock print or folk art painting” while The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette proclaimed that “the beautiful prose, captivating story and intricate narrative structure are to be savored.” Danticat spoke to Brendan Dowling via email on October 14, 2013. Photo Credit: Jonathan Demme.

Public Libraries: All of the characters—whether they seem good or bad at first glance—have such rich interior lives, and many have huge secrets that are revealed as the novel progresses. Do the characters arrive fully formed as you begin the writing process or do these layers appear through subsequent drafts?

Edwidge Danticat: Some characters arrive fully formed, but that is rare. Most of my characters offer me a glimpse of themselves, then I have to dig deeper and think about them and even start writing about them before I fully understand who they are. I see the creation of characters as being a lot like getting to know actual people in real life. Some people you just meet and feel as though you’ve known them all your life. Others take a little longer or a lot longer to reveal themselves to you.

PL: The novel has a distinctive lyrical tone and you’ve talked in other interviews how the plot is structured on the wonn songs that Claire and her friends sing on the beach. Can you explain what wonn songs are for our readers who might not be familiar with them and how they worked their way into the book?

ED: Wonn is a children’s game that is a lot like “Ring a Round the Rosie.” Kids, often little girls, get together, hold hands, make a circle, and run clockwise, or counter clockwise while singing. One child is in the middle while the others are singing and they switch places during different moments in the song. This game mirrors the structure of the book in that the book moves back and forth through time and circles back to different characters. The main action takes place in one night. I imagine the reader joining that circle, if you will, as he or she tries to understand what is happening in the town at that moment. Though the book is named after Claire, it is really the story of this entire town, Ville Rose, which is a fictional town based on the place where my mother grew up. The structure of the book also mirrors the waves of the sea, pulling back and forth towards the people on the beach, sometimes with tragic circumstances.

PL: All the parents in the novel go to incredible lengths to protect their children or provide them with a better life. How did your own role as a daughter and mother inform these parent-child relationships?

ED: My parents moved to the United States for work when I was very young, leaving me in the wonderful care of my aunt and uncle. I grew up in a house full of children like me, children whose parents were away in different countries working. It is a great act of sacrifice to leave your child. I understand that fully now from the perspective of both a child and now a parent, who can fully understand how much love and strength it would take to move to a new country and leave my child behind, which mothers and fathers all over the world are forced to do all the time. This is something I tried to show in the book, the difficulties of that choice from three points of view, that of Claire, her father who has to give her away and the woman who might eventually take her.

PL: In your interview with “Guernica,” you talked about how when you adapted some of the stories from Krik! Krak! into radio plays, the essence of the stories changed when they were told in Creole. What about these stories changed when their characters were speaking their native Creole?

ED: The stories were more “oral”. Part of that was Creole, which is a language I heard stories in when I was a child. But also because they were meant for the radio. They were meant to be spoken so there was more dialogue and the characters were speaking directly to an audience that understood everything they were saying, every reference, every word.

PL: You’ve served as editor for the anthologies Haiti Noir and the upcoming Haiti Noir 2. What do you enjoy about editing and what draws you back to it again and again?

ED: I love that conversation with other writers and their work. You read very closely and also have to see how things fit together to make a whole book which includes many voices but is not repetitive or inconsistent. It’s also a lot easier than writing. Someone has already done all the hard work.

BD: You were working for Jonathan Demme’s production company when Breath, Eyes, Memory came out. Has your work in film and love of cinema had any effect on your writing style?

ED: I have grown to love storyboarding for example, a crucial element in imagining a scene in movie making. Sometimes I will do story board now, with stick figure images as I can’t draw to save my life. I will make a story board if I have trouble visualizing or maneuvering myself around a scene. I have also learned a lot from the way films are edited. A lot of writers linger too long on transitional scenes that don’t add much to the plot. In films and on TV, those scenes are just cut and you jump to the next one that matters, so there is more narrative drive to the story.

PL: This year you worked with Emeline Michel on her album “Quintessence” and provided vocals for her song “Dawn.” How did that partnership come about? Are you interested in exploring the music world more?

BD: Emeline is a friend and someone I admire very much. We have been meaning to work together for a long time. When she asked me to write a song for her new album, I was very happy. I would love to do more songwriting in the future. It would be amazing to write a libretto for example.

PL: And finally, what role have libraries played in your life?

ED: Where do I begin? I have written entire essays on this. Libraries have saved me. When I first moved to New York from Haiti, I was very shy. I did not speak any English. I would go into the Brooklyn Public Library and find books in French, books by Haitian writers and other Francophone writers and those books made me feel as though I was back home. I would always borrow the maxium amount of books and devour them in a week. My parents didn’t have enough money to buy that many books so I would not have had access to them if not for the public library. I am grateful, deeply grateful, for public libraries. I think if you interview a hundred writers, especially those of us who grew up in poor urban centers, you’ll find that the shadow of a public library looms rather large in our formation and in our psyche.