The Port-au-Prince that Edwidge Danticat returned to last month was not the city of her childhood. The images of the loss were startling: her grammar school a heap of fractured cement, tents huddled among the ruins, and her cousin Maxo lying dead, his neighbors digging through the rubble around him to find his missing children. Then there was what remained standing: old, marble statues, sturdy wooden buildings, and, in a crumbling cathedral, Jesus on the cross.
“It was almost as if Christ was trying to transcend this lacerated wall, and climbing to heaven,” Danticat said in a lecture at Rose Hills Theater Thursday, Feb. 18. “And people who were now living in these tent cities were mingling with…those things that had remained standing, almost like the Christ that remained standing in the rubble.”
In Léogne, Danticat came across another mural, painted this time on a sheet. In a sea of lean-tos, she said, art was being created.
“In the middle of the tent city is this extraordinary, beautiful painting on a white sheet of a woman ascending to heaven like the Christ…with all these bodies underneath,” she recalled. “Suddenly you had this sense that this is really what will save us. It’s this sense of creativity. This kind of feeling that people really want to survive and that they will survive.”
In her discussion, Danticat tied these images to commentary on her work. She was this year’s selection in the Sojourner Truth Lecture Series, created by the Intercollegiate Department of Black Studies to recognize the achievements of outstanding African-American women. The Brooklyn-based writer has become a defining voice in Haitian-American literature since publishing her first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, in 1994. Her insight into the Haitian-American and immigrant experience also earned her a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” in 2009.
Invited long before the quake struck, Danticat planned to speak about the immigrant experience and the Haitian diaspora. But she said it is now impossible to talk about Haiti in any creative way without thinking of its history in two distinct eras—the before and the after.
“Our love for Haiti had not changed—in fact, it had even become deeper—but Haiti itself had changed,” she said. “From a distance, you don’t recognize yourself because everything that shaped you is in rubble.”
Danticat said she did not know how to respond to the earthquake at first. Caught in the rush of the first wave of relief workers, Danticat did not have the medical training or physical resources to help the victims. Instead, she turned to advocacy and art.
“While [interviews with the press] were therapeutic for me, what I hoped more than anything is that they would add one more voice to a chorus of bereavement, helping to explain what so many of us were feeling outside of Haiti in the diaspora,” she said.
Through that process, Danticat said she began considering her own role as a writer and as a Haitian-American.
“Would there be poetry amongst the Haitian wounds?” she asked. “For me, it felt too soon to write, to even participate in this artistic way. I wasn’t there. I didn’t live it. You question your own right to speak for anyone.”
Feeling that her own words were failing her, Danticat started reading the work of others. She read through hundreds of personal narratives, blogs, and news reports from Haiti. She read older novels about Haiti’s tumultuous past and contemporary novels that had become historical in their own right.
Danticat shared some of the passages that struck her, including lines of poetry she read at her cousin Maxo’s grave, stories of old men playing dominoes in the wreckage, and a mother’s poem about finding her son’s body in the rubble.
“You’re astounded that people are still able to write these things,” she said.
More than anything, Danticat said, her reading proved the strength of the Haitian spirit. The Western media combing the streets for provocative footage waited for looting and riots, but they never came. In the country’s despair, Danticat said, there was a looming quiet. Patience.
“When you would talk to people finally, there was a kind of eerie calm about them,” she said. “No one was screaming, no one was crying. People who were in the most unimaginable pain could still think about the pain of others. Haiti has so much to teach us about that.”
Danticat said that although she worries about the welfare of the Haitian people in the immediate aftermath of the quake, she is also concerned about the country’s long-term well-being. “The poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere,” she half-joked, has almost become the nation’s surname in the international press.
“Some of the tent cities are moving toward more permanent-looking things,” she said. “People have been very dignified, very patient, but you would hate for that to be taken in a way that five years from now people are still in this horrible situation.”
With an estimated $10 billion in international aid flowing into the country in the past month, Danticat also worries that the Haitian people will be exploited and lose control over their country.
“You see a lot of vultures circling,” she said. “I worry that, more and more, Haitians will have less and less say. I hope that there will be some kind of collaboration and the people who will be helping allow themselves to be led by Haitians.”
Danticat encouraged concerned Americans to give aid to smaller organizations that have been on the ground in Haiti for a long time but have been overshadowed by larger relief efforts. Beyond Borders and Lambi Fund of Haiti, for example, excluded themselves as first responders, but are now in need of resources to aid rural communities.
Despite the destruction and years of recovery that lie ahead, Danticat said she remains hopeful for Haiti’s future.
“I remember thinking how much like a birth it seemed to me when I watched those rescues on the news,” she said. “First it was a head, then it was a shoulder. It was almost the way a mother gives birth…a child emerges.”