Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work
by Edwidge Danticat, Princeton University Press, 181 pages
When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, its destruction, and the desperation of those in its wake, was often compared to that of the Third
World by the news media. Time magazine’s Nancy Gibbs wrote, “Watching helpless New Orleans suffering day by day left people everywhere stunned and angry and in even greater pain. These things happened in Haiti, they said, but not here.”
On American Morning, anchorwoman Soledad O’Brien noted that if you watched the television footage with the volume down, “you might think it was Haiti or maybe one of those African countries.”
In her new collection of essays, award-winning fiction writer Edwidge Danticat weighs in on the perpetual comparison. “It’s hard for those of us who are from places like Freetown or Port-au-Prince … not to wonder why the so-called developed world needs so desperately to distance itself from us, especially at times when an unimaginable disaster shows exactly how much alike we are.”
Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work examines and showcases artistic drive in the face of political oppression. Not American-style political oppression, which, if it exists, is actually sociopolitical — certain art falls out of fashion; and some artists, feeling stifled or ignored by critics, galleries, and prize committees, begin to question whether or not they’re truly meant to be artists in the first place. Instead, Danticat is speaking of the everpresent danger of violence and murder — not only against the artist but against the artist’s family and friends — as punishment for creative expression.
Each chapter focuses on a writer, journalist, visual artist, or other creative person from Haiti or of Haitian descent. Woven throughout the narrative is Danticat’s own journey; she lived in Haiti with her uncle until she was 12, and then in the early 1980s she moved to New York City to be with her parents and two younger brothers she had never met. Danticat’s prose is spare and piercing; she doesn’t waste words. Her ideas are never cloaked in layers of metaphor, yet every sentence has a lyrical, persuasive quality.
Speaking again of Hurricane Katrina, she writes, “The rest of the world’s poor do not expect much from their governments and they’re usually not disappointed. The poor in the richest country in the world, however, should not be poor at all. They should not even exist. Maybe that’s why both their leaders and a large number of their fellow citizens don’t even realize that they actually do exist. … I don’t know why it seems always to surprise some Americans that many of their fellow citizens are vulnerable to horrors that routinely plague much of the world’s population.”
It is Danticat’s friendship with Jean Dominique, a popular journalist and radio broadcaster who was assassinated in 2000, that shows how immediate the threat of violence is. Dominique, or Jean Do, as he was known, was arrested and exiled many times, but he always returned to Haiti to reopen his radio station. The author met him in 1994 at Ramapo College of New Jersey, where they and filmmaker Jonathan Demme worked together on a Haitian cinema history project. After Jean Do’s murder, assassination attempts were made against his wife, who eventually went to live in exile. Their daughter is the novelist Jan J. Dominique, who shares a chapter with Marie Vieux-Chauvet, a writer who died in exile in the U.S.
In many of the essays, the author is on an airplane, flying to or from Haiti. The book arcs inexorably toward Sept. 11, 2001, and then glides toward Hurricane Katrina in the summer of 2005 before coming home to Haiti after the earthquake on Jan. 12, 2010. These are the major recent tragedies in Danticat’s country of origin as well as her adopted home, and because she is from two worlds — and two cultures that face upheaval in vastly different ways — she confronts each event with this dual perspective, suffusing her writing with empathy, clarity, and simultaneous intimacy and distance.
Within this stirring collection, one theme struck me more strongly than any other: for artists, the drive to create triumphs over everything else. Or it should. The drive should be the same whether you’re scribbling your poems in the dark for fear of alerting authorities with your lamplight or lying on the floor in the dark, questioning your worth because blowhards on the internet are saying everything good has already been written (and is overrated). Creating dangerously means telling the truth — working without or in spite of fear.
On the telephone with a cousin after the earthquake, the author cries, wishing to be in Haiti with her family:
“My nearly six-foot-tall twenty-three-year-old cousin ... who says that she is hungry and has been sleeping in bushes with dead bodies nearby, stops me. ‘Don’t cry,’ she says. ‘ That’s life.’ ‘No, it’s not life,’ I say. ‘ Or it shouldn’t be.’ ‘It is,’ she insists. ‘ That’s what it is. And life, like death, lasts only yon ti moman.’ Only a little while.”
— Jennifer Levin