Diasporic Fault Lines: Michelle Cahill reviews Create Dangerously
Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist At Work
by Edwidge Danticat
Princeton University Press, 2010
Reviewed by MICHELLE CAHILL
What does it mean to create dangerously and what compels the immigrant writer to abandon the reflections of a poetic or fictional imagination to risk arrest, failure, deportment, death, or at the very least being isolated and ignored by the literary mainstream? In a lecture given by Albert Camus, from which Edwidge Danticat borrows the title of her recent collection of essays, the Algerian-born writer/philosopher addresses the ethical and aesthetic considerations imposed by frontiers of all kinds, and by the “crudest implications of history.” It’s hard for us in the comfort zone of the antipodes to imagine a country of such humanitarian oppression as Haiti with its history of Spanish and French colonists, slave rebellion, US interventions and enforced dictators, its natural and biological disasters. What was once the ‘Pearl of the Antilles,’ one of the richest outposts of French colonialism bears a history of complex social, political and economic mutilations, which for decades writers and artists of differing persuasions have attempted to reframe. In this slim volume, Danticat upholds and celebrates this tradition of revolt against silence by readers and writers of littérature engagée, to quote Sartre’s term, and she does this with understated elegance moving between radical history, anthropology, memoir, philosophy, moving with subtlety between the real and the surreal.
As an immigrant writer, I’m intrigued by the concept of writing as an act of risk, playing out the impossibility of contact with its subject through the slippages between fiction and non-fiction in the fractured topography of diasporic narratives. If I came to Danticat’s book for further knowledge and for inspiration, I was captivated from the opening essay with its themes of urgency and sacrifice. A chilling account follows of the public execution of Marcel Nouma and Louis Drouin in Port au Prince on November 12, 1964. Both men were writers, political activists and members of Jeune Haiti, a group attempting to overthrow “Papa Doc” Duvalier. Rather than burdening the reader with literary reportage of the officially recorded scene, Danticat focuses her lens, filtering the perspective into the present tense. Her emphasis on simple detail creates an immediate and vulnerable portrait of the assassinated patriots:
Numa, the taller and thinner of the two, stands erect, in perfect profile, barely leaning against the square piece of wood behind him. Drouin, who wears brow-line eyeglasses, looks down into the film camera that is taping the final moments. Drouin looks as though he is fighting back tears as he stands there, strapped to the pole, slightly slanted. Drouin’s arms are shorter that Numa’s and the rope appears looser on Drouin.
A choice between exile and execution existed for these renegades, both of whom, being from middle-class Haitian families had begun comfortable and successful lives in the US. This kind of alternative between separation, silence and activism, is familiar to Danticat. She describes it aptly as one of her creation myths, a moment captured in history, which her father’s generation extolled as political martyrdom.
Such a symbolic act of defiance resonates long after the firing squad have completed their task. In the poetically titled essay, “Acheiropoietos,” we learn how an adolescent Daniel Morel witnessed the event. After walking past a photographic studio near his father’s bakery the following morning, Morel noticed enlargements of Drouin’s and Numa’s corpses. Morel, now an acclaimed photojournalist, cites the event as being the causal influence behind his work.
“I’d immediately wanted to be a photographer so that I could document Haitian history,” he’d said that day….”
Like many artist émigrés, Morel has suffered both in his homeland and abroad for making visible the subaltern face of Haiti’s dispossessed. Sensitive to this precarious balance, Danticat weaves poetry and philosophical meditations with biographical details of the photographer’s personal tragedies. She turns her lens to the artist as subject, while probing a more universal fear of how it might feel to be misread, mis-seen (missing?) or misunderstood. Danticat has been exposed to censure from family as well as from the wider Haitian communities for using the singularity of a narrator’s voice to dissect private afflictions or to make emblematic a nation’s complex cultural and political grievances. In her work she shares the almost-parasitic experience of those who leave a country-in-crisis for better prospects. While she returns to memorialise, to make sense of the past, others, like her uncle Joseph and her Tante Ilyana, stay behind, to document the atrocities, to maintain the physical legacy of their ancestral home.
A sense of torn loyalties and survivor-guilt becomes apparent in many of these essays as they sketch a family tree of deceased relatives: uncles and cousins brutally imprisoned or deported by the US Department of Homeland Security. Precise and metaphoric prose infuses with the beautiful and the courageous, the guapa of Creole and Vodou beliefs. Danticat explores the divisions that arise when one is cast lòt bò dlo, across the seas, or anba dlo, under the water, where the spirits are reborn. The skilful restraint she exercises never permits a tone of self-pity or sentimentality to enter the writing so that the impact of the book is all the more potent. A cultural memory in which killings, death, and disease are so mundane, so ignored by the outside world, transcends the conservative status of realism in Danticat’s capable hands.
The reader begins, ever so palpably, to perceive the spirit of the dead, undying, as living hope for the future of this beleaguered nation. Danticat acknowledges the cultural influence of Marxist–surrealist and Negritude writers like Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon and Camus in the underground staging of plays, and in clandestine book clubs, which formed a literature of resistance during the Duvalier regime. Yet what she describes as the pleasures and dangers of reading or writing could not be compared to the fear of being tortured, killed, or living in a time or place when that could happen.
Elements of amnesia as well as cultural anamnesis are shown to characterise the “dyaspora” experience. Forgetting can be an anaesthetic, a way of protecting a country from its past horrors, its internal corruptions, Danticat suggests in “Daughters of Memory,” but the immigrant writer, is twice removed from home and past.
It is as if we had been forced to step under the notorious forgetting trees, the sabliyes, that our slave ancestors were told would remove their past from their heads and dull their desire to return home. We know we must pass under the trees, but we hold our breath and cross our fingers and toes and hope that the forgetting will not penetrate too deeply into our brains.
For Danticat’s generation the erasures of language and enforced Francophone education had effectively suppressed Haitian literature, yet she suggests, there exists a memory of amnesia in the public and private executions of the Tontons Macoutes. Many of the essays broach deeply disturbing topics with remarkable tact, a kind of seduction by which we are convinced. In the essay which commemorates Haiti’s Bicentennial, Danticat makes seamless if necessary comparisons between overthrown president Aristide and revolutionary leader Toussaint L’Ouverture, between the speeches of Negro liberty and the contradictions of Thomas Jefferson’s racist declarations, which could not “reconcile dealing with one group of Africans as leaders and another as chattel.”(98) Danticat’s prose seems informed by Sartre’s notions of there being an engagement between writing and society:
One does not write for slaves. The art of prose is bound up with the only regime in which prose has meaning, democracy. When one is threatened, the other is too. And it is not enough to defend them with the pen. A day comes when the pen is forced to stop and the writer must then take up arms. Thus however you might have come to it, whatever the opinions you might have professed, literature throws you into battle.
(What is Literature)
Resisting historical reality, Danticat writes as if for the freedom of sight, her voice unburdened by modernist agendas. The Vodou ceremony of Independence marked by machetes and pig blood, and Jefferson’s crude claim of “cannibalism,” appear as bizarre historical facts. As butter is made from water, what “we have come to know as magical realism, lives and thrives in past and present Haiti,” (103) Danticat asserts, reminding us of Alejo Carpentier’s discovery of the real maravilloso during his trip to the island. I am reminded, too, of the French poet and Antillean anthropologist, Michel Leiris, whose writing explores the function of danger in subjectivity through tauromachic tropes. For Leiris the bullfight, represents not merely personal mutilations but the agonies of the Spanish Civil War. This dance between the shadow of the bull’s horn and the shadow of recovery from its psychological wounds is akin to a transition Danticat negotiates from fiction to essay and memoir in her two most recent books, Create Dangerously and Brother I’m Dying.
Risks are taken in the poetic motifs, which segue her prose, the flow of tropes resisting a dominant discourse. Danticat speaks in near-whispers of writing against hope, as if one is summoned or driven by acheiropoietos; she cites the artist being briefly possessed by a trance as if he or she were merely a vessel for the chwal, the Vodou horseman. She evokes alternative spatial experiences but the writing remains grounded in unbiased descriptions of personal tragedies and injustice. A cultural memory is intuited to the ghost of the Brooklyn-born, Haitian-Peurto-Rican artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, who died of an overdose. Through his story, Danticat fictionalises the seldom-voiced identity of a mixed-ancestry migrant, by re-imagining his syncretic origins, his complex threads of cultural and artistic heritage. Yet she returns to Alèrte Bélance, a victim of the 1991 terror gangs, her own tortured words. She refrains from any summary or interpretation of what the mutilated amputee speaks. I found this chapter, “I Speak Out” to be the most harrowing prose I have read in a long time.
Danticat questions her authority to speak about the Haiti earthquake. The essay, “Our Guernica” embodies her experience of returning home to engage a self that is compelled to glance, albeit briefly, beyond the grave. She writes with a humanistic responsibility to record and reframe disastrous historical realities. Her anguish, her guilt, the self-exploitation of her writing are clearly evoked for the reader. But in this chapter she describes being gripped by the sudden fear of death. Perspective shifts are finely attuned, averting any lapse into sensational or spectator reportage. In Port-au-Prince, the muse has altered. On visiting her cousin Maxo’s grave, in the rubble of a half-collapsing church she becomes aware of the hazard to herself. Panicked, she forgets her intention to leave behind a favourite book, Genet’s Les Nègres. These subjective confessions describe fragmentation and fear yet they read as unclouded. Danticat farewells her country with fragile hope, flying back to the safety of Miami but what is experienced and described is an intimate suspension between living and dying; between the fear of dying and the fear of not being able to die.
Danticat’s essays and her memoir are highly finessed and subtle. She breaches the vertiginous fault lines between the real and the surreal, between writing and archeiropoietos, between lòt bò dlo, and anba dlo. Create Dangerously celebrates love, physical beauty, painting, music and literature of a country that defies its economic oppression and invisibility, its manipulation by media stereotypes. It asks us to consider art and literature as vehicles for authenticity and self-expression, however dangerous that might be. This achievement is effortless and utterly compelling, with not one syllable or sentiment below guapa. Under the radar of humanitarian organisations the US deportations to Haiti and the death toll from cholera, with its high infant mortality, continue to rise. Danticat brings this torn world closer to our own as she questions: “How is the world reflected in a dead man’s eyes?”
Camus, Albert. Create Dangerously, a lecture delivered at the University of Uppsala, 1957, reprinted in Resistance, Rebellion and Death (New York: Vintage International, 1995)
Danticat, Edwidge. Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2010)
Sartre, Jean-Paul, What is Literature? (New York, Philosophical Society, 1949) p 65
MICHELLE CAHILL writes poetry, fiction and essays. Her work appears in Southerly, Jacket and Pennsylvania Literary Journal. She serves as editor for Mascara Literary Review. Vishvarūpa is her forthcoming collection of poetry.