An Interview with Edwidge Danticat

Edwidge Danticat is the author of over a dozen books, including Claire of the Sea Light, a New York Times notable book; Brother, I'm Dying, a National Book Critics Circle Award winner and National Book Award finalist; Breath, Eyes, Memory, an Oprah Book Club selection; Krik? Krak!, a National Book Award finalist; The Farming of Bones, an American Book Award winner; and The Dew Breaker, a PEN/Faulkner Award finalist and winner of the inaugural Story Prize. The recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, she has been published in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and elsewhere. Edwidge was kind enough to answer via email the following questions about her new book, The Art of Death, from Graywolf Press.

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First, I was so excited to get an early look at your book The Art of Death, which Graywolf Press will publish on July 11, 2017. Could you talk about the process of bringing this book into being?

After my mother died in October 2014, I started to write again and realized that I couldn’t write anything new without dealing with my grief over my mother’s death. Many friends sent me books and poems they thought would comfort me. At first I couldn’t read them at all. It was too painful. Then I started reading a bit more and more. I returned to some other books I’d found comfort in after the death of my father, my uncle, and other people close to me. Then I started reading voraciously and started revisiting some things I had written and other things I’d read in the past, and looking at them through the prism of someone whose mother has just died. Then I learned about this series of books on craft being published by Graywolf Press. I thought it was the perfect vehicle for me to examine my grief as a reader and a writer, as well as a grieving daughter.  

I very much think of the Art of series as lead-by-example craft writing. How did you guide your writing for The Art of Death to fit with the larger discourse uniting the series?

I was not given many dictates for my contribution to the series. I read all the other books before starting mine and what they all had in common—it seemed to me—was that they gave some writerly advice while drawing examples for their own work and/or the work of others, while also sharing some personal experiences while writing on their subject. Because death is such a monumental as well as a universal subject, there is so much you can say. And because I had just gone through this whole experience of watching my mother get sick and die, I thought one way to address the subject was to also show, if you will, what it’s like to write about death, as I am talking about death. So I am writing in real time about my mother’s death, while also talking about what it’s like to write about death. In the book, I talk about something the writer Brenda Ueland in If You Want to Write calls “microscopic truthfulness.” “The more you wish to describe a Universal the more minutely and truthfully you must describe a Particular,” she wrote. I thought I would share with the reader my Particular, even as I am trying to tackle this universal truth.

Can you talk about your approach to creative writing craft and writing instruction in general? Do any pedagogical metaphors guide your relationship with writing students?

I try to come up with a pedagogical formula after I meet the students. The first day, I ask everyone what they’d like to get from the class. I try to see where folks are, learn about them as much as I can, and find out what they’re working on. Midway through the semester, we revisit that again and see how we’re progressing. I always bring in my marked-up, copyedited manuscript, and show them my lengthy letters from my extremely wonderful editor Robin Desser at Knopf. I stress that we are all writers together. I try to direct them to reading I think might help with the specific kind of writing they’re doing. I’m not a forceful teacher. I am not mean—some people want mean, I’ve found out. I try to be present and try to keep the class discussion balanced and flowing.

At the very beginning of The Art of Death, you write, “My mother once gave her factory forewoman my first novel for Christmas.” She also asks you to give your memoir Brother, I’m Dying to her oncologist. Could you talk a little about the ways your books have become part of your family’s story? How do you handle the risk of making loved ones feel exposed?

My parents, after they accepted the fact that I was a writer, always wanted me to give my books to strangers they were interacting with. So my dad when he was sick asked me to give my books to his doctors. It was the same for my mother. As I say in the book, I think this was their way of sending a message to the people they were interacting with, that what you’re seeing is not all there is to me. I have a much bigger life. I have children and they’ve done wonderful things. One even writes books. With the factory forewoman, I didn’t have to be there when she gave her the book, so it wasn’t so bad. But handing the books to the doctors was always kind of awkward. Very few people react after the initial moment, at least in my life, when you randomly hand them a book. Few ever read it and even if they do, do you really want to have a book club moment with the doctor while your mother’s getting chemo? So it was always a strange transaction, but one that always made my parents happy and proud. In terms of sharing family history, I try very hard to protect my family members. There is always the possibility of some violation when you write about others—and I have been guilty of them—but I try very hard to not overexpose people who would not want to be. Of course, if someone has done you serious harm, they—in my view—have already exposed themselves.

How did you determine that this book was the right place to tell the story of your mother’s death? Connecting her with an exploration of writing practice is a fascinating choice.

I had already written a memoir with Brother, I'm Dying. I did not want to do that again. Brother, I’m Dying is about the deaths of my father and my uncle who raised me. People were already asking me if I was going to write Sister, I’m Dying. I was not going to do that. I wanted to write my mother’s death in a more fragmented way, because it was still so fresh and that’s how I was living it. So this was a good way to do it with some imposed distance. Plus the books I was reading and rereading while grieving were very much a part of how I was narrating her life and death to myself.

In The Art of Death you wrote about the 2010 earthquake in Haiti: “My husband and I kept dialing the phone numbers of friends and relatives in Haiti and getting no response. Instead, I got a call from the producers of CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360°. They asked me to come on the show.” Could you talk more about processing grief publicly, and your own role in helping articulate collective grief?

That was such a hard time for so many in Haiti and for so many people here waiting to hear from  loved ones. I was in a haze myself. That night I was frankly hoping to find answers by going on the show. I thought—hoped—some of the friends and family members, some of whom eventually died, might see me on the show and call me. A friend of mine in Haiti who survived the earthquake and saw me on the show from there that night said he thought the earthquake was a global event and was relieved that we were okay. I tried to wrestle with the issue of collective grief in the book. How collective can it really be? There is definitely some comfort in grieving with others, in feeling that one is not mourning alone. I think that’s why we have post-death rituals in every community and every faith. It is important to feel that you are not alone.

In your 2011 interview with Guernica on the one-year anniversary of the Haiti earthquake, you told Nathalie Handal, “I’ve always had this fascination with death.” I’ve spoken with many writers about their obsessions. Do you imagine ever satisfying yours?

Thankfully death is not my only fascination. It’s not something I am looking to “satisfy” because the only way to that would be to die, which will happen to all of us. Obviously my satisfaction is what leads to death and how people deal with the aftermath, both individually and communally. Apparently Tolstoy, who was also fascinated with death, wanted to share with the people around him what it’s like to die, so he came up with some codes, including eye movements, so that when his time came, he could describe to the people around him what it’s like to die. That would be satisfying, but I think it would be the last thing on my mind at that moment.

How has your process of putting together book-length works changed over the course of your career? Does having an extensive oeuvre weigh on your new projects?

I always start with a burst of great excitement. I love new long projects and all the possibilities they offer. I write in a kind of fever. I get stuck in the middle, stop and read a lot, hope the fever returns. When it does return, it returns at a lower pitch. Then I work more methodically towards the end. The excitement returns after the end. Then I edit relentlessly to the bare bones. That’s why my books are relatively short.

My final question: If you could choose one living author to write the next book in the Art of series, who would it be? And on what topic would it be focused?

Wow! That’s a fabulous question. I’d say Junot Diaz on voice. Or Zadie Smith on dialogue. But I know they’re both super busy. We can still learn from them by reading their books.

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