Friday, April 23, 2010

Edwidge Danticat: Remembering and Moving Forward

Haitian American writer Edwidge Danticat was in Portland last night. She was presented by Literary Arts with a portion of the proceeds of the event supporting Mercy Corp’s efforts in the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake. Danticat’s highly acclaimed books include Breath, Eyes,Memory; Krik? Krak!; The Farming of Bones and Brother, I’m Dying, which won the National Book Critics Circle award for autobiography.

Danticat began her speech by saying that the phrase that Haitians are saying to each other after the earthquake is “remembering as we move forward.” She devoted much of the evening to speaking about Haiti before and after the earthquake, and Haitian literature and culture. She noted that Haitians have a lot of proverbs and stories about God and the Angel of Death. “When we have tragedies, we look for meaning,” she said. Danticat relayed one of these stories about God and the Angel of Death, which is also told in her latest book Brother, I’m Dying:

God and the Angel of Death went out knocking on doors to see who would give them water. They stopped at one house and the woman who answered gave water to the Angel of Death. God asked the woman, “But I’m God, why wouldn’t you give me the water?” And the woman answered, “Because the Angel of Death is more democratic. The Angel of Death doesn’t play favorites and affects everyone. You, God, give water to some, wealth to some, poverty to some.” Danticat said that now in Haiti, everyone got some. Everyone was affected by the earthquake, regardless of whether you were rich or poor, had a good house or not.

Danticat spoke of her cousin Maxo who died in the earthquake along with one of his children. Fortunately, his wife and other four children were rescued from the rubble of their house. Danticat, who now lives in Miami, visited Haiti less than a month after the earthquake and visited the grave where Maxo was buried. Danticat wrote about Maxo after his death in a column in the New Yorker.

She recounted a couple of striking images that she encountered: the airport run by U.S. military, her husband’s uncle who now wears a helmet everywhere in case of falling debris, the tent cities and “sheet” cities – people who only have a sheet, and the overwhelming number of people living outside. She spoke of seeing the ruins of a nursing training school and piled up outside were body parts that looked like people had been embracing.

Danticat said that Haiti is “slippery ground.” It is not a steady ground, physically or politically. However, she noted the richness in culture of Haitian people and their motto: In Unity, There is Strength. She ended with a few proverbs: “We have stumbled but we have not fallen,”
“We remember but we move forward.”

To support Mercy Corps efforts in Haiti, please go to this link.

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