Photo by Nancy Crampton.
The noted Haitian-American novelist Edwidge Danticat has recently published a memoir of her family, Brother, I’m Dying. When her parents went to New York to find work, the young Edwidge remained in Haiti with her brother, her aunt, and her uncle. There, her uncle Joseph builds a Baptist church that local gangs eventually loot and burn down. Joseph flees to the United States. At the age of 81, he ends up at Krome detention facility in Miami. He falls sick and dies shortly after arriving. Brother, I’m Dying is a finalist for a National Book Award. FPIF’s E. Ethelbert Miller talks with Edwidge Danticat about her new memoir, U.S. immigration law, and U.S.-Haitian relations.
E. Ethelbert Miller: When I think about the looting of your uncle’s church in Haiti, I also think about the bombing of mosques in the Middle East. It seems as if we are destroying the things that are sacred to civilization. How can a writer restore hope to a society in which its basic moral fabric seems to be crumbling?
Edwidge Danticat: I worry that it would be overreaching to think of the trashing of my uncle’s church in the same way as the bombing of a mosque. The looting of his church and the fire set in some parts of it was a personal matter, something that was seen by the people doing it as revenge against him for what they saw as his letting riot police and United Nations peacekeepers shoot from the roof of his church. It is interesting, though, the fact that his church was desacralized not just by the gangs who pillaged it but by the police and peacekeepers who stormed it to shoot from the roof.
When I was going up in Haiti, churches were places where gendarmes, even during the dictatorship, were not supposed to enter. I remember once when the Tonton Macoutes, the henchmen enforcers of the Duvalier regime, wanted to attack a very popular preacher, they waited until he left the church to do it. Thus even during the dictatorship, which was horrible and cruel, the church was still seen as a sanctuary. Obviously in my uncle’s case and in the case of these mosques, this rule was broken. So you can say that a neighborhood, a society, is truly unraveling when these things happen. In my view, though, the body is sacred, yet people are raped, maimed, beaten and killed. Breath is sacred, yet we smother it every day. We do not value people either as much as we should. A writer cannot really restore hope to any of that, at least not the kind of writer I am. All I can do is document it.
Miller: How is the Haitian community within the US dealing with proposed changes to immigration laws? How organized are Haitians?
Danticat: In Miami where I live, we are very organized around immigration issues primarily, I think, because they affect us a great deal. Miami is still the first place many Haitians migrants land, so it is ground zero. We have wonderful organizations like Haitian Women of Miami, the Haitian Neighborhood Center, and the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center that help in that fight. We also have many Haitian elected officials here, mayors, judges, and others who help in that fight. We do have room to grow, but we are not complacent. We are fighting. While the new immigration laws were being proposed, there was a dialogue going on here both within the community and with elected officials. There were reactions from our community leaders at every step of it so we were part of the debate.
Miller: Why is a detention facility like Krome not being discussed in the media? These places seem to be invisible to the American public. Is this true?
Danticat: It’s funny you should say that. The year my uncle died, Krome received an award as best detention center or something like that from some watch dog group. I think these things happen because few people, unless your loved ones are there, know that these places even exist. When my uncle died, I was told that there would be a general investigation of all these places, but unless a human rights group writes a report about a place like this, you don’t hear very much about it.
Miller: What should the next president of the United States do to improve conditions with (and within) Haiti?
Danticat: I think he or she should support the leader the Haitian people have chosen for themselves and not impose U.S. choices on the people. Haiti is a very close neighbor and should not be neglected.. Aid should be given toward building infrastructure and long-term institutions so that every couple of years there is not a forced regime change that requires putting out more fires.
Miller: If your daughter Mira decides to become a writer, what stories are you leaving behind for her to tell? What lessons will she learn when she reads your books?
Danticat: I think she will have her own stories to tell, stories that are perhaps much more different than mine. I have been conscious since she was born that she will know me a whole lot better than I knew my parents because she will have these things I have written to read for herself, in her own time, in her own way. Most of us don’t have that much access to our parents’ minds and hearts. I can only hope that this would inspire her on whatever path she chooses to follow for herself.