Create Dangerously

When an earthquake destroyed the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince in January of this year, the celebrated Haitian-American novelist Edwidge Danticat was safely at home in the United States. Specifically, she writes in the title essay of her new nonfiction collection, Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work, she was "at work" on her writing. Why those quotation marks, which are Danticat's own? They seem to convey a guilty sense that sitting at a desk and making up stories can't be considered real work, especially when her fellow Haitians are dying by the hundreds of thousands. "While we are at work bodies are littering the streets somewhere," she writes. "People are buried under rubble somewhere. Mass graves are being dug somewhere."


Of course, every writer could say the same—there is always a disaster in progress somewhere in the world, and anyone who devotes her life to "writing, quietly, quietly," as Danticat does, must sometimes wonder about the coexistence of art and atrocity. But when you are an immigrant artist—like Danticat, who was born in Port-au-Prince and came to the United States at the age of 12—you have a special kind of connection to the problems of your home country. And when that country is Haiti, the contrast between your own privilege and your relatives' and friends' poverty can sometimes become unbearable. "My stories do not hold a candle to having lived under a dictatorship for most of your adult life, to having your neighbors disappear and not be able even to acknowledge it," Danticat writes.


This contrast, and the strategies by which Danticat redeems it, are the true subject of the twelve short pieces in Create Dangerously. Whether she is profiling a courageous Haitian photojournalist, writing about a visit to relatives in a rural village, or meditating on the career of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Danticat is always also writing about her responsibilities as a part of what is called, in Creole, the dyaspora. Basquiat, the 1980s art star, was born in New York to a Puerto Rican mother and a Haitian father: can he be considered a Haitian artist? Danticat quotes his demurral—"I'm an artist who has been influenced by his New York environment"—but she also compares him with the Haitian painter Hector Hyppolite, whose art teems with symbols drawn from Vodou. Somehow, she writes, "Haiti…was obviously both in Basquiat's consciousness and in his DNA."


In Danticat's own work, there is no doubt about Haiti's centrality: her novel Breath, Eyes, Memory is "the story of three generations of Haitian women." Yet when the book was selected for Oprah's Book Club and reached a huge audience, Danticat found that some Haitian Americans were offended by its portrayal of their culture—especially the practice of "testing," in which a mother would manually confirm her daughter's virginity. "You dishonor us, making us sexual and psychological misfits," one woman wrote to Danticat; she overheard a man asking bitterly, "Why was she taught to read and write?" The best answer she can give is the phrase of Camus's that provides the title of this thoughtful, powerful book. "Create dangerously, for people who read dangerously. This is what I've always thought it meant to be a writer."




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