Edwidge Danticat is the author of several books, including The Dew Breaker, The Farming of Bones, Brother, I’m Dying and Breath, Eyes, Memory. She is the recipient of the American Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Langston Hughes Medal (the speech for which was published in Issue Two of The Coffin Factory), and the MacArthur Genius grant.
On a rainy summer afternoon, Tweed’s had the pleasure of meeting Danticat at her agent’s office in lower Manhattan, where we discussed the craft of writing, the deteriorating environment, religious hypocrisy, social inequality, gender categorization, and her newest book, Claire of the Sea Light, which focuses on life in a Haitian fishing village. Below is a part of our conversation. The full interview will be featured in the first issue of Tweed’s.
Tweed’s: There are many moments in Claire when you seem to effortlessly conjure beauty. For instance, in the end when Claire is thinking about floating in the sea and “the magic of how it could be raining up in the hills and be perfectly sunny where she was.” I’m wondering how your writing process changed since you wrote Breath, Eyes, Memory. Is the writing coming easier?
Edwidge Danticat: I wouldn’t say that the writing is coming easier. However as I’ve gotten older, there is a kind of panic that I used to feel about it, which I no longer feel. I think when I was writing Breath, Eyes, Memory, I was worried that it might be the only book I would ever write. I just wanted to put everything I knew at that moment in there, everything I had observed and experienced and then some.
Then, as time went on and I got a chance to do more and more writing, different types of writing, that sense of panic slowly started to go away. I still feel a sense of urgency, a desire to lose myself in my work, but I started feeling like I could concentrate more on the details, rather than sweep through a story. I think that gradual sense of calm also comes with age. It comes with experiencing more things in life as well. When you’re younger, things seem a little more hurried, a little more brash, a little more black and white. As you get older and have more experiences, you become more familiar with the gray areas of life, which also affects what you’re writing about. But probably the biggest change for me is a quest for nuance, being more and more interested in thinking about the little details, the small reflections, the little scenes—not abandoning plot, but building plot in some way through those types of scenes as well. It’s also helped to have gone away from fiction for a while, to write nonfiction and then come back.
Tweed’s: When interviewing Junot Díaz for Bomb, you said, “Writing is also the way I process things, and when I’m done with the piece, I feel a lot closer to understanding the subject.” What is your “subject” of Claire of the Sea Light? What is it that you wanted to process?
Edwidge Danticat: I think I wanted to process motherhood. A lot of my anxieties about motherhood are in that book—like dying and leaving a child behind. I have to travel quite a bit, and when my children were much younger, sometimes there would be moments when we would be saying goodbye, and my daughters would cry so hard. There’s one line in the middle of Claire that’s a direct address to the reader, and which I wrote on a plane when I was thinking, Oh my God. Maybe the way my child was crying was a bad omen. Maybe she knows something instinctively that I don’t. Maybe I should have stayed. There is also this feeling that if anything were to happen to you, you would want to feel like you could reach your children, even from the great beyond. That is what I think Claire wishes and what her mother would have wished.