Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Edwidge Danticat on Haiti's Torturers and Ghosts in "The Dew Breaker"

I interviewed Edwidge Danticat in a Greenwich village cafe a few days after Haiti's president had been forced out of the country in 2004. Edwidge was still in shock. She was soft-spoken, angry over Aristide being forcibly removed and purely brilliant.

Edwidge told me an interesting detail in her family life. Her parents, very hard-working Haitian immigrants, tried to convince Edwidge to become a nurse for the job stability. It is for the good of American literature that she continued writing.

The Denver Post
April 4, 2004

By Dylan Foley

(THE DEW BREAKER By Edwidge Danticat Knopf, 256 pages, $22)

At the end of February, Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was forced out of Haiti in a coup. Gunfire continued in the capital of Port-au-Prince as rebels and Aristide supporters fought. American and French troops were sent in to restore order.

With sad but very appropriate timing, Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat's fourth work of fiction, "The Dew Breaker," has just been published. The book is a collection of linked short stories that follow a former Haitian government torturer who is now living as an anonymous barber in Brooklyn, N.Y. The stories look at the torturer through his own eyes, through those of his daughter, his wife and his victims.

"I was interested in seeing how different people saw the same man," said Danticat, in an interview in a New York City cafe. "It is dangerous to oversimplify him, because there are so many layers."

Danticat's joy at publishing a new book is overshadowed by the violence in her native land. "I feel very sad because Haiti is in a quagmire," said the 35-year-old writer. "I have been so numb these past few days."

Working with the "rebels" who captured Port-au-Prince are many of the same corrupt characters from Duvalier death squads and the 1991 coup that deposed Aristide the first time. "Guy Philippe (the coup leader) was a local chief of police," she said. "He was pinpointed by the U.S. for running drugs."

The title of the new book is a translation of the Creole slang for the men of the Haitian death squads who pick up their victims at dawn. The stories move back in forth in time from Haiti of the 1960s, where the torturer plied his trade of rape and murder, to present-day New York, where his survivors cope with their physical and emotional scars.

In telling the story of the torturer, Danticat explores the 29 years of the father-son (Francois "Papa Doc" and Jean-Claude "Baby Doc") Duvalier dictatorship, which ended in a 1986 coup. In her beautiful prose, Danticat looks at the everyday horrors of life under a brutal regime and random violence. A fisherman is killed for his fish market stall. A woman is severely beaten because she won't date a militiaman.

Part of the inspiration for the first story, "The Book of the Dead," came from a conversation with a Haitian girl. "I was visiting a school in Miami," Danticat said. "I was talking to this 14-year-old girl, and she told me in French, 'My father was in the military.' She said it adoringly." Danticat realized that the girl's father had been in the military during the 1991 coup. Thousands of Haitians were killed in the next few years by the army and the death squads.

At the beginning of the stories, Ka Bienaime, an artist, is told by her father that he was a torturer, not a political victim. Her kind father excelled at beating and killing Haitian dissidents. "I wrote 'The Dew Breaker' as the next story to understand the torturer's past," Danticat said. "I was writing separate pieces. When I finished the stories, I realized the other characters were linked to this guy's life."

Danticat was raised in Port-au-Prince for her first 12 years. She remembers the daily oppression of Duvalier's regime. Danticat went to Barnard College in New York City, where she started her first novel, "Breath, Eyes, Memory," which later became an Oprah Book Club selection. Her second novel, "The Farming of Bones," won an American Book Award. Her short story collection "Krik? Krak!" was a finalist for the prestigious National Book Award. Danticat's fiction deals with the political violence inflicted on the Haitian people by a series of regimes and the neighboring Dominican Republic.

Danticat lives in Miami with her Haitian husband. In her new book, Danticat explores the mind-set of Anne, the dew breaker's wife. Anne is the stepsister of a murdered dissident, but lives with her husband out of a mixture of denial and commitment. "When her daughter asks Anne, 'How do you love him?' I don't think she understands herself," said Danticat. "Every day, she wakes up, and she has to forgive him over and over again. Silence is one of the ways she has chosen to deal with it."

Danticat says that "what happens in Haiti is so dramatic. "If you think of it in terms of plot, there are so many subplots, twists and turns. It is never so clear, and it begs for a fictional parallel. You'll see a convicted murderer entering a town with the rebels, and he's cheered by the crowds. If you wrote this, no one would believe you.

"Aristide made some mistakes, but he was the best hope for the poor," said Danticat. "The way Aristide was forced out was deplorable," she said, referring to stories that Aristide was pressured onto a plane out of Haiti by the U.S. military. "I believe that he went out kicking and screaming. It sets an awful precedence for the U.S. to go into countries and force leaders out."

With Haiti suffering 33 coups over 200 years, Danticat notes there is never time to process the chaos. "Haiti's struggle has been to go from survival to some long-term plan," she said. "A friend of mine once said, our biggest problem is that we've never had a chance to mourn, we've never had a good cry," said Danticat. "Each time something happens, we immediately move into the next crisis."

Dylan Foley is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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