Necessary danger

By Brendan de Caires

Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work,
by Edwidge Danticat
(Princeton University Press, ISBN 978-1-4008-3590-4, 189 pp)

Marcel Numa and Louis Drouin moments before their execution

Marcel Numa and Louis Drouin (at left), moments before their execution; Port-au-Prince, November 1964

Long before Jorge Luis Borges, the literary sage and labyrinth-builder of Buenos Aires, conjured up his infinite library, the French critic and poet Stéphane Mallarmé dreamed of a Total Book. In a brilliant speculative essay, charmingly entitled “Le livre, instrument spiritual”, Mallarmé wrote that “tout, au monde, existe pour aboutir à un livre” — “everything in the world exists to end up in a book.” This idea soothes Edwidge Danticat’s conscience when her beloved elder aunt Tante Zi complains that people don’t like talking with a writer because “everything they say to you ends up written down somewhere.” Danticat bows her head in shame, but she cannot apologise, since she knows that “the immigrant artist, like all other artists, is a leech.” Indeed, the very story Tante Zi wishes to protect ends up in this book, albeit with names changed to protect the bibliophobic.

In many ways, Danticat is the literary antipode of Borges and Mallarmé, since her work is grounded almost entirely in the politics and history of modern Haiti, but she is so attuned to the occasional surreality of her material that she knows when to slip into their metaphysical modes. In an essay commemorating Haiti’s bicentennial, she recalls Alejo Carpentier’s discovery of the real maravilloso during his trip to the island. “I was treading the earth where thousands of men eager for liberty believed. I entered the Laferrière citadel, a structure without architectonic antecedents . . . I breathed the atmosphere created by Henri Christophe, monarch of incredible undertakings . . . with each step I found the real marvellous.”

This is Danticat’s terrain, and she writes about it flawlessly:

The real marvellous, which we have come to know as magical realism, lives and thrives in past and present Haiti, just as Haiti’s revolution does. The real marvellous is the extraordinary and the mundane, the beautiful and the repulsive, the spoken and the unspoken. It is in the enslaved African princes who believed they could fly and knew the paths of clouds and the language of forests but could no longer recognise themselves in the so-called New World. It is in the elaborate vèvès, or cornmeal drawings, sketched in the soil at Vodou ceremonies to draw attention from the gods. It is in the thunderous response from gods such as
Ogoun . . .

Moving with exceeding subtlety between these worlds, Danticat’s essays beautifully convey the depth of the Haitian experience as well as its resonance within what might otherwise be considered foreign canons, literary and artistic. In the hands of an academic critic, this could easily have ended up as chloroform in print, a maze of tiresome theorising about “historical junctures” and the “political unconscious.” But Danticat is an accomplished novelist too and, when the occasion requires, she is willing to commit Literature.

The first essay in Create Dangerously, originally delivered as the second Toni Morrison Lecture at Princeton University in 2008, opens with a nail-biting account of the execution of Marcel Numa and Louis Drouin in Port-au-Prince, on November 12, 1964. Both men were from Jérémie, often called Haiti’s “city of poets,” and both were writers. “Papa Doc” Duvalier made the day of their execution a public holiday, and even filled out the crowds with schoolchildren, to amplify his message to the Jeune Haiti resistance movement. Danticat the novelist magics both men vividly to life. With a few deft strokes she puts them before us: Numa “barely leaning against the square piece of wood behind him,” while Drouin, wearing brow-line glasses, “pushes his head back now and then to rest it on the pole.” Then, when we have absorbed the full heroism and horror of their deaths, Danticat the critic seamlessly takes over:

All artists, writers among them, have several stories — one might call them creation myths — that haunt and obsess them. This is one of
mine . . . Like many a creation myth, aside from its heartrending clash of life and death, homeland and exile, the execution of Marcel Numa and Louis Drouin involves a disobeyed directive from a higher authority and a brutal punishment as a result.

In a later essay, we learn that one schoolchild present at this creation myth walked towards the “blood-ridden poles” and picked up Drouin’s spectacles. They were quickly snatched away, but not before the child, Daniel Morel (who would later document Haiti’s political traumas as a celebrated photojournalist), “noticed tiny chunks of Drouin’s brain splattered across the cracked lenses.” Morel’s destiny seems inevitable after this first, curious act of defiance, especially when we learn that “often in Haiti, the eyes of murder victims are gouged out by their murderers because it is believed that even after death, the last image a person sees remains imprinted on his or her cornea, as clearly as a photograph.”

Growing up in the shadow of the Duvaliers, Haitians didn’t need to be told what literature meant. Their daily lives were constantly holding up a mirror to art. “When it was a crime to pick up a bloodied body on the street, Haitian writers introduced Haitian readers to Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and Antigone, which had been rewritten in Creole and placed in Haitian settings.”

Musing on the complexities of reading and writing under these conditions, Danticat adapts a phrase from Camus to suggest a role for the artist:

Create dangerously, for people who read dangerously. This is what I’ve always thought it meant to be a writer . . . Coming from where I come from, with the history I have . . . this is what I’ve always seen as the unifying principle among all writers.

The arc of literature she then imagines — from Sophocles to Mandelstam, “Ralph Waldo Emerson to Ralph Waldo Ellison” — is long, but it tends towards justice:

Somewhere, if not now, then maybe years in the future, a future that we may have yet to dream of, someone may risk his or her life to read us. Somewhere, if not now, then maybe years in the future, we may also save someone’s life, because they have given us a passport, making us honorary citizens of their culture.

There are so many memorable passages in this short book that I hesitate to recommend some instead of others. Whether writing about Katrina or the Port-au-Prince earthquake, Danticat always offers something new, often a transfiguring perspective born of the immigrant experience. For instance, after considering America’s appalled fascination with the “third world” imagery of flooded New Orleans, she concludes:

Among the many realities brought to light by Hurricane Katrina was that never again could we justifiably deny the existence of this country within a country, that other America, which America’s immigrants and the rest of the world may know much more intimately than many Americans do, the America that is always on the brink of humanitarian and ecological disaster. No, it’s not Mozambique or Bangladesh, but it might as well be.

When she writes about the cultural ancestry of Jean-Michel Basquiat, or the strange foreshadowing of 9/11 in the work of Jamaican sculptor Michael Richards — whose studio in the World Trade Centre contained “among other things a piece showing a man clinging to a meteor as it plunges from the sky” — Danticat is never less than illuminating about the intersection of art and life, and quite often she is transcendently intelligent.

If I had to select just one of these essays for posterity, it would probably be “I Speak Out” — a harrowing description of an interview with Alèrte Bélance, a Haitian woman who survived a machete attack by paramilitaries working for the junta in the 1991 coup. If Literature is there to break the frozen sea within us, these dozen pages of nonfiction deserve the name, for they manage to weave an ordinary life into the larger patterns of Haiti’s tragic recent history with astonishing force. The evocation of Alèrte’s wounds — which include the loss of a limb and a tongue sliced in two — verges on the unbearable, but Danticat also observes her indomitable grace. Refusing to cry, out of respect for Alèrte’s fortitude, Danticat helps us to notice her earrings, her poise, her happy children, and even to celebrate the persistence of sexual love when Alèrte bears another child for her devoted husband, the original target of the attack. This level gaze restores agency to Alèrte, and shows us how her testimony, offered without any self-pity, becomes “a great gift to many others who were still trying to stay alive, and the more than eight thousand others who died under the junta’s rule.” Unsure whether to weep or to scream while reading this account, I eventually split the difference and did both.

Mallarmé and Borges dreamed of books that might contain everything. I believe Danticat has written something more modest, but no less wonderful. This short book of essays, memoir, and criticism is a spiritual instrument for our times; it does not try to capture the world in some fantastical modernist scheme, but it shows us how wide the embrace of stories and images can be. It reminds us that while art can be used to contemplate the world at a safe distance, it can also serve the opposite function, collapsing that distance and placing us, dangerously, among the inner life of things.

An excerpt from the first chapter of Create Dangerously was published in the September 2010 issue of the CRB.


The Caribbean Review of Books, January 2011

Brendan de Caires was born in Guyana and now lives in Toronto. He has worked as an editor for various publishers, and written book reviews for Caribbean Beat, Kyk-Over-Al, the Stabroek News, and the Literary Review of Canada.