December 6, 2010

Book Review: Create Dangerously by Edwidge Danticat

To choose writing as a vocation is to risk shame as well as personal and professional failure. First, your parents, quite legitimately, will worry about your ability to make a living and whether or not they will have to subsidize your lifestyle for the rest of their lives. They fear you will be bankrupt before you turn thirty and ruin your chances for financial health for the rest of your life—or  at least until you turn thirty-seven. For American Express never forgets. Or forgives.

Your friends, some of whom you have known for most of your life, will hold their collective breaths because they know you could probably do other things reasonably well, but you are risking your reputation for a vocation in which there are no guarantees, no health insurance, and no gold watch at the end of fifty years of valuable service. They know you will be at the mercy of book sales, the odd job or grant here or there, and all for the sake of “following your bliss?” Grow up they say.

If you choose to be a writer from the Caribbean, where vestiges of shame culture still exist and the chances of a number one bestseller, moderate book sales, odd jobs or grants are even less remote, multiply the preceding scenario times ten. For committed writers, combine this with the realization that a writer’s habits, whether she is bestselling, midlist, or struggling, remain the same. She writes, writes, writes and rewrites, rewrites, and rewrites. And then some.

Now, if you are a writer from Haiti, add the possibility of death if you offend someone by your writing. And you know even the most banal form of writing is bound to offend someone.

Then, uproot the writer from her homeland.

I’ve just described the prospect that Edwidge Danticat faced when she told her family that she wanted to be a writer. And this is how she begins with her version of “Genesis” in Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work, which takes its title and opening chapter from Albert Camus’ essay “Create Dangerously.”

Before Edwidge Danticat became a published author, she knew that death as a punishment for writers who offended the elites, was not just a possibility, it was a reality for Haitians such as Marcel Numa and Louis Drouin. Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier executed Numa and Drouin on November 12, 1964, and their deaths became an indelible part of the nation’s memory about the price of writing. This memory had a profound impact on Danticat and her anxiety is revealed even when she tries to “universalize” the experience:

All artists, writers among them, have several stories—one might call them creation myths—that haunt and obsess them. This is one of mine. I don’t even remember when I first heard about it. I feel as though I have always known it, having filled in the curiosity-driven details through photographs, newspaper and magazine articles, books and films as I have gotten older.

Like many a creation myth, aside from its heartrending clash of life and death, homeland and exile, the execution of Marcel Numa and Louis Drouin involves a disobeyed directive from a higher authority and a brutal punishment as a result (5).

Yet, despite these real fears, Ms. Danticat chose to write because she had the example of her cousin Maxo, her father, and writers such as Félix Morisseau-Leroy. who read and wrote dangerously:

Create dangerously, for people who read dangerously. This is what I’ve always thought it meant to be a writer. Writing, knowing in part that no matter how trivial your words may seem, someday, somewhere, someone may risk his or her life to read them (10).

Then, in another telling passage, Danticat writes earnestly about the plight of immigrant artists:

Self-doubt is probably one of the stages of acclimation in a new culture. It’s a staple for most artists. As immigrant artists for whom so much has been sacrificed, so many dreams have been deferred, we already doubt so much. It might have been simpler, safer to have become the more helpful doctors, lawyers, engineers our parents wanted us to be. When our worlds are literally crumbling, we tell ourselves how right they may have been, our elders, about our passive careers as distant witnesses.

Who do we think we are? (18)

Throughout Create Dangerously, Ms. Danticat catalogs through personal narratives many of the dilemmas that immigrant writers face: readers and critics who question the “veracity” of the stories; the accompanying guilt from the accusation of being a “parasite,”  and my personal favorite, the “intrusion” into the lives of family and friends: “People talk," Tante Zi went on. They say that everything they say ends up written down somewhere” (94).

Danticat also writes movingly about her friendship with writers such as the uproariously funny, in and out of print, Dany Laferrière; Jean Dominique, who was assassinated in Haiti, and the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat, whom she compares to an elder artist, Hector Hyppolite, in “Welcoming Ghosts”:

In Vodou, it is also believed that possession, trance is an opportunity for the spirits to speak to mortals and the person who is in trance, or possessed, becomes the vessel, the chwal or divine horseman or horsewoman, through whom the spirits speak. Both Basquiat and Hyppolite were in a type of trance, divine horsemen, possessed,  as their hyperproductivity shows, by spirits they were either seeking to either welcome or repel. Possession, however, is not supposed to last a lifetime. Neither the body nor the mind could bear or sustain it (135).

Create Dangerously ends appropriately with “Our Guernica” in which Danticat describes the recent earthquake in Haiti and muses and bout the demands and rewards of her chosen vocation:

Maybe that was my purpose, then, as an immigrant and a writer—to be an echo chamber, gathering, and then replaying voices from both the distant and local devastation. Still words often failed me (159).

For some readers who are accustomed to reading the biographies or memoirs of cosmopolitan writers, some portions of Create Dangerously may not be new, but for Caribbean writers and readers this is a vital and pleasurable act of education from one of the region’s most beloved writers. For every time Ms. Danticat picks up a pen or laptop, it is not the idle musing of a bored bourgeois dilettante. She is risking life and limb to tell stories about the disasters and triumphs of her birthplace  and adopted homeland. Stories that need to be told.



persistence said...

It's been a while brother! Such a poignant review. I love Miss Danticat's work. Can't wait to read this one.

Geoffrey Philp said...

Good to hear from you. Yes, I liked this one...full of courage and wisdom.