Cre­ate Dan­ger­ously: The Im­mi­grant Artist at Work

by Ed­widge Dan­ti­cat, Prince­ton Uni­ver­sity Press, 181 pages

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words -

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

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