Edwidge Danticat on immigrant guilt, separation, and art

Her country is in peril, her father is dying, and she’s just found out she’s pregnant with her first child. This is how Edwidge Danticat’s memoir Brother, I’m Dying begins. The book traces her life, from her childhood in the care of her uncle in Haiti, to her move to America to be with her parents, to her adult years in New York and Miami.

Through Danticat’s retelling of her own journey, we learn about Haiti’s difficult past and the human stories behind immigration policies. Her elderly uncle, in some ways her second father, died while detained at Miami’s Krome Detention Center and that has spurred a quest for justice that continues today.

With 197,000 here in South Florida, we’re home to the largest Haitian immigrant population in the US. Danticat’s story is representative of so many more.

We spoke with the revered author, who has now made her home in Little Haiti, on her life-changing move from Haiti to America and on being an immigrant, daughter, and writer.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

What is the Haitian immigrant experience?

The central immigrant narrative, from wherever in the world you’re from, is that there’s something driving people to migrate. Human beings have been migrating from the beginning of time. We’ve always moved for possibilities, and that’s part of who we are.

That migration is often geared to the future. Usually we’re moving for our children to have a better life or a better future. I think that’s something that joins immigrants no matter where they come from.

So, in South Florida, even though you have a stark difference between the way Cubans and Haitians were treated in term of the policies of how they’re received — I think ultimately the opportunity for a better life is something essentially everyone shares.

Parental sacrifice is prominent in your book. At one point your dad says his life was defined by the people you and your siblings grew up to be. Do you think you’ve honored that sentiment?

Writing this book is what I think I did to honor that.

When my father was dying, I just kept thinking, “Oh he feels like he’s done nothing.” And in some way, I knew that he was rather disappointed with his life — he felt like he hadn’t accomplished much. This is why it was so moving for me that he felt like we were his prize.

But that’s also not unusual for a lot of immigrant families. For a lot of them, this is why they come. This is why they make the journey.

But it did feel like a big responsibility, like okay, now I have to do something really good with my life, because this big sacrifice had been made for us. I always felt that way — even before my dad died — but that was a big reminder of how much had been sacrificed for us to be here.

It guides a lot of what I do and how I think of honoring the past, and what I contribute to future generations.

Do you ever feel guilty about how much your family sacrificed for you to get to the U.S.?

I think writing this book was born out of this sense of not so much guilt, but more pain. A big part of the immigrant experience is separation. In most cases, not everyone leaves and there’s always people being left behind.

In my case, my parents left me in Haiti with my uncle. The book was written out of that feeling of the pain and the sadness and the feeling that someone is always being left behind.

Did your parents always want you to become a writer?

My parents really wanted me to be a doctor. Even when my father was dying, he said, “Oh I’m not going to have a doctor in the family.”

I understand that desire because with them having sacrificed so much, I think they really wanted us to have settled jobs that were pretty certain. And sometimes I still feel like maybe I should have become a doctor. Like after the earthquake in Haiti, I thought if I was a doctor I could go back and help people in more concrete ways. But I knew that was also a bit illogical.

I believe that writing, that this work, also makes a difference. I think my parents ended up being very proud of me. When my parents were sick and I’d take them to the doctor and they would say to me “Give them a copy of your book.”

That was a signal to me that they thought that what I was doing was alright.

Why do you write?

In the beginning of Brother I’m Dying, I said I was writing this book because my uncle and father couldn’t. It was as much their story as mine. I was writing a memoir, so I had to be really honest — and part of that was being vulnerable. Some parts were very difficult to write, and I had to go to very painful places to recall these memories. I found writing them to be healing.

There’s also a certain power in literature. It gets under our skin in a way that can incite change, at least we can incite individual people to change.

I truly hope there’s that element in everything that I do. I don’t want to be preachy, but I also think that it’s important to have a sense of engagement in your work, and certainly with Brother, I’m Dying, when I started writing it I was so angry and thought I had to tell people about this.

My uncle died because of a lack of awareness. If this man who was the first person who encountered him at the airport knew what was happening in Haiti at the time, if he had even the slightest sense of humanity and empathy, maybe if he had read a book like mine, my uncle might not have died in that way. He died as a result of lack of humanity and lack of information thats why it’s important for stories like this to be told.

But I also always wanted it to be art — something people could read for the beauty of it as well as the message that it carries.

Danticat is holding discussions on her book throughout this month as part of the Miami Book Fair’s month-long reading celebration with The Big Read. She will also give the keynote address on March 31. More information here