Edwidge Danticat — loyal child of Port au Prince and Brooklyn — says in conversation: “I always feel like I bring some of there to here, and some of here to there.”
Like her friend from the Dominican east side of Hispaniola Junot Diaz, Edwidge Danticat is writing “global” literature in our midst, for our mainstream, documenting the “permanent floating” migration games and the fascinating creolization of identities in our time.
The definitions of identity are so fluid. Sometimes people in Haiti will say, “well, you’re Haitian if you live here.” That’s one definition. There’s global youth culture. It would be hard to tell a kid from Johannesburg from a kid from Sao Paulo or Rio or Port au Prince if you put three of them together and they didn’t speak.
There are kids in Port au Prince who don’t even speak English but can recite to you an entire 50 Cent song, who can “do” Kanye West with the same accent and tonality…
If you concentrate on young black men of a certain age in all these places I’ve mentioned in the African diaspora, if you think of them as a particular element of the diaspora, and the disuniting of them throughout time and our history — you know, the slave trade and so forth — then I think these things, whether you like them or not, like hip-hop might be the only common culture there is. If might be the one thing in which all these young men from all these different places can see themselves as one.
All this is part of a cosmopolitan culture, which is usually an urban experience of living in crowded places in a kind of outsider status. These are people who are trying to redefine their outsider status and make something that others find appealing, as they young men and women did in the Bronx with Rap, when that began. You see it in the Paris suburbs — young people who know they’re not part of the main culture: they’re lucky if someone thinks they’re French, or unlucky! They know they have this outsider status. A lot of them, taking their cue from Rap, are trying to create a culture of their own. That interests me a great deal! Young immigrant people who are struggling to become part of a culture, or if that doesn’t happen trying to create a culture of their own that they can belong to and that others end up emulating. That’s their inclusion. That’s where they belong. They create their own belonging.
Edwidge Danticat, in conversation with Chris Lydon, Watson Institute, Brown University, September 18, 2007
Edwidge Danticat has just been through her own “year of magical thinking,” encompassing the deaths of the father and uncle who brought her up, and the birth of her own daughter in Miami, all in the space of a few months. Her new non-fiction book, Brother, I’m Dying is a cool, meticulous chronicle of family history, of sudden shock and turmoil, and of her heart, breaking and surging.
The first part of our conversation tells one of those “refugee stories” that could seem someday to typify this era of mass displacement. Danticat’s 81-year-old uncle Joseph was a Baptist minister in Port au Prince. In the autumn of 2004, in fear for his life in a neighborhood beset by gangs, he fled to Miami, en route to his brother’s place in New York. Though he had visited the States many times and had a current tourist visa, he was detained, then shackled by Homeland Security officers who saw him as “another black man trying to get in.” In his “credible fear” asylum interview, Joseph Dantica vomited violently in an apparent seizure, but humanitarian parole was not to be considered, nor the process interrupted. “I think he’s faking,” said the medic on duty. Then suddenly Joseph failed. “His eyes are open and he’s not unconscious,” the medic commented. “I still think he’s faking, but we’ll take him to the clinic.” Then suddenly, at Jackson Memorial Hospital, Joseph Dantica was dead. When Edwidge saw his body, she was struck by the look of anger on her gentle uncle’s face — a look described in Haitian Creole by a word meaning “you were choked by your own blood.”
In the second part of our conversation, Edwidge Danticat takes a “transnational” view of the “cosmic mobility” in a globalizing economy and culture. She says: “Even before people get here, they’re working for you, making your baseballs and denims.” About Iraq, she says, Haitian memory begins with the US invasion by President Woodrow Wilson in 1915 and the occupation of Haiti until 1934 — “one of the most scarring things that ever happened to us… The Haitian in me sees the circularity in these things… It takes a long time to recover from these interventions and occupations.” I ask her, as I did Junot Diaz, to write us an immigration bill that corresponds with real demography and her own heart’s experience.