FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla.—Edwidge Danticat’s serene nature is a stark contrast to the chaotic world she paints in her books. The internationally renowned Haitian writer’s latest work, “Brother, I’m Dying,” is a heart-wrenching memoir chronicling the lives of her father, who fled Haiti when she was 2, and the uncle who raised her.
The story starts in 2004 with the diagnosis of her father’s incurable pulmonary disease and confirmation of her pregnancy. From there, Danticat takes her readers on a journey through family separation, brotherly love, political upheaval, birth and death. The book climaxes with her Uncle Joseph’s inhumane treatment and subsequent demise while in the custody of U.S. immigration officials. It ends with the death of her father a few months later.
Surrounded by Haitian art and family photos in her quiet Miami home, Danticat spoke softly, yet passionately, about her life as a writer. Her novels include “Breath, Eyes, Memory”; “The Dew Breaker”; and “Krik? Krak!” She seems a bit stunned by the success of her second nonfiction book, a finalist for the National Book Award, brushing off compliments like a striking woman unaware of her beauty.
How does it feel to be Edwidge Danticat?
I don’t know. Sometimes it feels good. Sometimes it feels rotten.
You are so down to earth. Do you realize who you are?
Writers cannot be celebrities. The essential part of the job is to be an observer of life, and you can’t really observe if you’re soaking up all the sun. I think the great thing about being a writer is that there are these moments: The book comes out, people are talking to you or they’re talking about you, about the book, and then after a while you can go back into your pod and do your writing. It’s ultimately such an introspective kind of work that if you start taking yourself too seriously or if you start getting a big head it gets in the way of doing it.
Are you surprised at how successful you’ve been at nonfiction?
Yes, I am surprised that people have reacted to this book the way they have. And part of it is because it’s not my usual genre, so I expected so much resistance. ... Sometimes, you read things and people say, “Oh, I’m so tired of reading memoirs, and what makes this person think that their life is so special.” And so I was expecting a lot of that. ... The reviews have been extraordinary. I’ve never had reviews like that. But also the way individual people react to it. Like when people come to the bookstores, sometimes they’re crying. ... I think everybody has had a parent, everybody has lost a loved one, everybody’s had a birth in their family, so these threads in the story I think lead them to the other story, the other part that they don’t know about Haiti, about Haitian immigration and the refugee situation.
What would you say was the most difficult challenge writing the book?
The most difficult thing, I guess, was not having my father and my uncle to consult in writing about their lives. People always ask me if it was a hard book to write because of how sad it is and some of the stories are. But in a way it was one of the easiest books for me to write because every time I sat down to write it I felt like I was with my father and uncle again, I felt I was visiting with them.
How would you say that writing nonfiction is different from writing fiction?
Nonfiction is an act of documentation. Where the presentation is important, but the way that you link what you have is the great struggle of the story—what to leave out, what to put in. Whereas the fiction you can just draw it out of the air and make those connections. I mean, it still has to make sense, it still has to feel real, and it has to feel true, but if there’s a missing link you can produce it. Whereas with nonfiction you don’t have that, you’re working with what you have
Writing about your uncle and all that happened to him, how was it that you were able to have so much emotional control?
By the time you get to the actual writing of the book, I had been through so many ranges of emotion. There was anger, but also there was sadness, there was outrage, all of that I had already felt. And I had had a chance to vent in different ways, through the op-eds that I had written, through talking to family members, talking to different people and even through some of the advocacy I was able to do afterward. So I felt that as a writer, as an artist, of all the things that gets taken away from you as a person, you also don’t want your art to be taken away, so I didn’t want to write a rant, I didn’t want to write like a polemic. I wanted to write a book that had some art to it.
Besides the literary success, what do you hope the book accomplishes?
I hope the book makes people aware of the consequences of certain policies. ... As the economic situation, the war drags on, and the price of gasoline and the price of inflation, and people’s frustrations get higher, you see the focus, the hatred of immigrants. It’s increasing in a way that I have not felt before in this country. So I think in this type of environment it’s important to remind people there are families here, that there are children, that these decisions affect a whole range of people. And I think for most people you hope that you can link to them on an individual level. I hope this book gives people an insight into one immigrant family and the consequences of one horrible decision that was made about somebody who was first and foremost a human being that was seeking refuge in a country where he had family.
Do you see the book as an advocacy tool for immigrants and refugees?
I would hope that they would use it and other books in training people who are going to be customs officers, who are going to work in immigration. Because I think these people also need a reminder now and then that these are not numbers, that these are individuals, that there are families, that there are lives involved.
The birth of your daughter coincided with the deaths of your uncle and your father. What impact would you say that her entrance into your life has had on you as a writer?
It adds depth to you as a human being. It makes you think less about yourself, and more about somebody else and more about giving. I think because of my daughter, I feel a greater kinship with the world, with other children. And you want when you have a child to be an advocate. You want the world to be better. You want less fear, you want less violence, you want less menace for your own child, but also for others and the future.
It’s very obvious that you had a great love and respect for both your uncle your father. What do you think their reactions to the book would be if they were here?
We have a bookstore near where we lived in Brooklyn and one time I went in there to do a reading and the owner said, “You know your father is always coming in here to buy your book.” And I had no idea. He was buying it for his friends. So I think this one would have especially made him happy. My uncle, too, because my uncle always wanted to write a book of his own. I think they both would’ve been proud. I hope they would have been proud.