TEXT OF INTERVIEW
KAI RYSSDAL: Hurricane Toma is delivering yet more trouble to Haiti today. Officials in Port-au-Prince say three people have died in the storm. It’s just the latest in a year of tragedies for the country. There was January’s devastating earthquake and the recent cholera outbreak a couple weeks ago as well.
Haitian-born novelist Edwidge Danticat lives in New York City now. Her new book, “Create Dangerously,” is about that life as an immigrant and an expatriate writer and what it’s like to make art out of a country in chaos.
Today on our series Art of Money — what artists and other see when they look at the economy — the culture of Haiti. Its music, its literature and its paintings, and what that all means to the Haitian people, and how they get by.
When we spoke, I asked Edwidge Danticat to describe what it is like when people see Haiti for the first time.
EDWIDGE DANTICAT: You know, when you take a group of students and they get there at the airport, it’s almost suddenly tehnicolor because it’s art everywhere — the tap-taps, the transportation…
RYSSDAL: The little buses in Haiti.
DANTICAT: Yeah, all covered and they were like moving paintings, the lotto stands, the beauty shop stands — and all of that almost as if to contrast and to fight for beauty in a place that there is often some sadness.
RYSSDAL: Yeah. About that sadness, there is a strong element in this book of using the arts to get around the sadness of Haitian politics. Back in the days of the Duvaliers and the political killings and how art was an escape for you.
DANTICAT: Absolutely. Because one of the ways that I think a lot of Haitian artists over generations have created dangerously, if you will, is that they’ve developed a sense of marronage by seeming to talk about one thing — whether it’s in song or in music or in literature — but actually talking about more than that. So part of the arts is also a sense of self-protection, which I think adds to the nuance of whatever form of expression that it is.
RYSSDAL: Is it also a way to take yourself away from the poverty and the struggle of daily life sometimes in Haiti?
DANTICAT: It’s a way of escape and it’s a way of saying, ‘You know, this is not all we are — being poor, being desperate,’ as we’re often seen. There’s also the soul there. This capacity to create something beautiful because also Haitian artists are great masters of collage because people take for example, these oil drums and make beautiful metal sculptures out of them, they take these Carnation milk cans and make these beautiful painted lamps, and everything is recycled — for art, but also for daily use.
RYSSDAL: It has been at various points in Haiti’s history dangerous to express yourself either in the spoken word or the written word or in visual arts. How does that legacy affect you today?
DANTICAT: It makes me grateful for being able to do the work that I’m doing because often being a writer — I think especially as a first-, second-generation immigrant — is a privilege. First of all, economically because I’m only able to have the luxury of it because my parents. They worked hard. They were so busy in the business of survival. So it makes me grateful for the opportunity that I’ve been given, both to have my work freely read in Haiti and also here.
RYSSDAL: I want to pick up on something you just said — “the business of survival.” How do people in Haiti have the time for the expression of themselves that comes out in their art when survival there can be so hard?
DANTICAT: Art is part of the business of survival. And it’s one of the things that people know that they can share with the world. It’s almost one of the few guaranteed businesses. No matter what the time is — there will always be on the road to the airport or wherever you go, in front of the hotels — art has become, in terms of what we export, one of the things that has sustained the country financially.
RYSSDAL: You’ve been back since the earthquake a number of times, right?
RYSSDAL: Tell me about that first time.
DANTICAT: Well that first trip back was a couple of weeks after the earthquake. We had lost a couple two family members and we were gathering lists of what different families members needed and one of the hardest things about it was to just go through all these places — where I had gone to school, where I had gone to church — and to see that they had crumbled. Part of that was just to see the vanishing. But another thing, too, is just the strength of people and I’ve seen that in many different trips after that.
RYSSDAL: You lost a cousin, right? Maxo?
DANTICAT: My cousin Maxo and his 10-year-old son.
RYSSDAL: I wonder if I could get you, actually, to read something for me. It’s out of the last chapter of this book about the earthquake. You call that chapter Our Guernica after the very famous painting. It’s right there on page 162.
DANTICAT: “From now on, there will always be the Haiti of before the earthquake and the Haiti of after the earthquake. And after the earthquake, the way we read and the way we write, both inside of outside of Haiti, will never be the same. Daring to speak for the collective, I will venture to say that perhaps we will write with the same fervor and intensity or even more as before. Perhaps we will write with the same sense of fearlessness or hope. Perhaps we will continue to create as dangerously as possible. But our muse has been irreparably altered. Our people, both inside and outside of Haiti, have changed. In ways that I am not yet capable of describing, we artists too have changed.”
RYSSDAL: Edwidge Danticat, her new book, “Create Dangerously,” about Haiti and her experiences there and here in the United States as well. Edwidge, thanks so much for coming in.
DANTICAT: Thank you for having me.
Ryssdal: We have an excerpt from “Create Dangerously” by Edwidge Danticat.
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