Edwidge Danticat on Art and Injustice

Haitian repression inspires Danticat

by Reilly Kiernan, The Daily Princetonian

An immigrant author must be brave enough to “create dangerously,” said Haitian writer Edwidge Danticat, who delivered the second annual Toni Morrison Lecture last night in Richardson Auditorium and received a standing ovation from the audience.

Danticat discussed how dealing with injustice in her native Haiti inspired her writing and cultivated her belief in the importance of art in coping with oppression and conflict.

“We must create as though each piece of art is a stand-in for a life, a goal, a hope, a future,” she said. “There isn’t anybody else.”

Danticat discussed the influence of politics on her and other Haitians’ art. Her central example was the November 1964 execution of two members of the Jeune-Haiti movement, Marcel Numa and Louis Drouin, by dictator Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier. The two men had returned to Haiti from America to fight in the guerrilla effort to overturn the dictator’s repressive regime.

Danticat explained that the footage of their execution was replayed so many times that it made artistic reaction necessary.

“They needed these young men and women who were being forced to witness this execution over and over to see that art could still be created in their circumstances … that words could still be written, songs still sung, stories still told,” she said.

Danticat described the groups of young Haitians who began to secretly stage Greek plays that had been adapted to Haiti. For these playwrights, “it was the only way they could talk about this situation,” she said. The new form of creation was “where these writers found their balance between silence and art.”

Haitians staged Greek plays as a form of silent protest. For instance, “Antigone” was once performed after executed bodies were not given a proper burial. The staging of these plays exemplified of the ability of an author’s work to transcend nationalities and time periods, Danticat said.

“I don’t think Sophocles thought he was writing for the Haitians,” Danticat said. “When they were reading ‘Antigone,’ Sophocles became a Haitian writer.” The kind of secret creative expression going on during the Duvalier regime is the essence of being a writer, Danticat said.

Writing “means creating when both the creation and the reception, the writing and the reading, can be considered a crime,” she said.

The danger of this kind of situation makes the art important. “This is what I’ve always thought it meant to be a writer,” Danticat said, “writing knowing that someday someone may risk his or her life to read you.”

In addition to the inspiration of the movements of theater and creativity in repressive Haiti, Danticat was also inspired by the lives and deaths of her father and uncle. “I feel like everything up to that point had been training for it … now they needed my voice for this story,” Danticat said.

Danticat said that she considers being a writer a privilege. “It’s not just your gift. It’s a gift you share with the community,” she said.

In her introduction, Center for African-American Studies (CAAS) Director Valerie Smith said Danticat’s work “explores the nuanced ways that political [upheaval] shapes the lives of the disenfranchised.”

Danticat has written works of both fiction and non-fiction. Her most recent work was the memoir “Brother I’m Dying.” Her other critically acclaimed works include “Breath, Eyes, Memory” and “The Dew Breaker.”

Alex Thomas ’09 attended the lecture because she enjoyed one of Danticat’s books in high school. “It was one of those books that really moves you,” she said.

“I really liked her as a speaker, she was calm and had this very deep soothing voice,” Thomas said. “I was very impressed with her.”

The lecture was sponsored by the CAAS and the Princeton University Press. Last year’s inaugual lecture was given by religion professor Cornel West GS ‘80.

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