Edwidge Danticat: 'Whether Or Not We Belong Is Not Defined By Us'

Aug 30, 2019
Originally published on August 30, 2019 7:20 am

In a new short story by Edwidge Danticat, a mother and daughter need to have a hard talk. So they go out to dinner — which the daughter finds ironic. "The daughter thinks, why do people wait until they're in a public place with a mouth full of food to reveal the most horrible news," Danticat says. "And a lot of us do that! You're like, let's go out to dinner, I have some news for you."

The bad news in this story involves the main character's family, and her country of origin. She's from Haiti — most of the characters in Danticat's new story collection Everything Inside are Haitian American. Natural and political disasters have sent many of them fleeing to the U.S; they live in New York or Miami, but Haiti is often in the hearts and on their minds.

Danticat says the book reflects her own experience as an immigrant — her father came to America when she was only two years old and overstayed his tourist visa. Her mother followed when Danticat was four, and together the two lived undocumented for about eight years. "And during that time we were separated," she says. "I stayed in Haiti with my aunt and uncle. And when I was 12, after they had changed their status and got their papers, then they were able to send for me and my brother, to join them in Brooklyn, New York, in 1981."


Interview Highlights

On being separated from her parents for so long.

Author Edwidge Danticat
Lynn Savarese

It wasn't easy, but it was the lot of so many of us, and even in the house where I was growing up, my aunt and uncle were looking after my cousins whose mother was in Canada, and another cousin whose father was in the Dominican Republic. And our parents had made this choice so that we could have a better life. You know, they could have either stayed with us and struggled and tried to make a living, or they thought that they could carve out a future for us by going abroad and leaving us behind, and then later sending for us.

I mean, we see a lot of the parallels in the news right now. And then what we're seeing with parents and children, and the way parents are being forcibly separated from their children. When the parents make that choice, they know they're taking a big risk with their children. However, it's just that they might be in such a devastating situation that they're thinking, I'm sacrificing in this moment so that my child can have a better future.

On the story about the young woman who only learns her father's identity once he's dying

My father died in 2005, and I've had to make that journey to see him. I remember going to his bedside soon after my daughter was born and literally presenting my newborn to him, and and having them meet, and then also losing my Uncle Joseph in immigration custody in 2004. He was 81 years old. He was a father figure to me, because he had raised me in the absence of my parents. And in 2004 there was some trouble in Haiti, and he had a valid visa, but he took a flight and came to Miami. And when he got to the airport they asked him how long he would be staying. He requested asylum, and he was detained, and he died without his medication which was taken away from him, five days later, in a county hospital chained to a bed. And I tried very hard to go see him during that time, and I never got that last moment that the character in the story gets, to say a final goodbye to him.

On what loving America and loving Haiti means for her

Loving Haiti, you know, comes in the blood. And loving America, being grateful for what it's afforded my family, there are so many Americans now in my family. That's what also makes it sad to see what's happening now, in terms of how new immigrants are being scapegoated, to hear about children who could have been myself, dying at the border for lack of medical care. There's a kind of ache for for both places at the moment, a kind of ache for the troubles that Haiti has had. And then the kind of ache for this, for my second home, the place that had received my family, to see the way that others like us are being treated here at the moment.

On whether the current immigration situation has changed her view of America

America has a very complicated history with Haiti in terms of occupations and interventions. So that has always been part of my formulation of how I see America. You know, before we came to America, in many ways, it came to us — you know, from 1915 to 1934. So I've always had a very nuanced view of America. But the America we see these days — and it's not all Americans, it's not all of America — but the most visible representation of America through the presidency we have, and and how people like me are viewed. It's certainly helping me to reshape, and sort of worry about the future that my children, who are U.S. born, what future they will face as black children of Haitian immigrants in this country.

On feeling like she belongs here

Well I sometimes feel like I belong here. And then often I'm reminded by certain things — like when my uncle died in immigration, I was, you know, I felt like "Oh I thought I belonged. And yet I couldn't save my uncle from the jaws of death, from the immigration service," so often, I think, these days more than ever, we are reminded that whether or not we belong is not defined by us.

This story was edited for radio by Emma Talkoff, and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In a short story by Edwidge Danticat, a mother and daughter need to have a hard talk, so they go out to dinner.

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: The daughter thinks, why do people wait until they're in a public place with a mouth full of food to reveal the most horrible news.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

DANTICAT: And we - and a lot of us do that. You're like, let's go out to dinner, I have some news for you.

INSKEEP: The bad news in this story involves the main character's family and her country of origin. She is from Haiti. Most of the characters in Danticat's new book of short stories are Haitian-American. They live in New York or Miami, but Haiti is often in their hearts and on their minds. Natural disasters and political disasters have sent many of its people fleeing to the U.S. Danticat's book of short stories called "Everything Inside" reflects her experiences as an immigrant.

How did your family come to the United States?

DANTICAT: My father first came when I was 2 years old. He came on a tourist visa, which he overstayed, and as did my mother. When I - she left when I was 4, and they were undocumented for about eight years. And during that time, we were separated. I stayed in Haiti with my aunt and uncle. And when I was 12, after they had changed their status and were - got their papers, then they were able to send for me and my brother to join them in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1981.

INSKEEP: I'm sure you've had to tell this story more than once, and I'm sorry to dwell on it. But both as a parent and as a son, to think about so many years away from your parents and especially those particular years, that could not have been easy.

DANTICAT: It wasn't easy, but it was the lot of so many of us. And even in the house where I was growing up, my aunt and uncle were looking after my cousins whose mother was in Canada and another cousin whose father was in the Dominican Republic. And our parents had made this choice so that we could have a better life. You know, that - they could have either stayed with us and struggled and tried to make a living, or they thought that they could carve out a future for us by going abroad and leaving us behind, and then later sending for us.

I mean, we see a lot of parallels in the news right now. And then - what we're seeing with parents and children, and the way parents are being forcibly separated from their children. When the parents make that choice, they know they're taking a big risk with their children. However, it's just that they might be in such a devastating situation that they're thinking, I'm sacrificing in this moment so that my child can have a better future.

INSKEEP: Learning that, it makes me think differently about some of these short stories you have written. There is, for example, the story of a young woman who has never met her father and learns that he's dying and has an opportunity to go see him one time. That didn't literally happen to you, but it sounds like - that you - maybe you had some experiences you could draw on in writing that.

DANTICAT: Oh, absolutely. I mean, my father died in 2005, and I had to make that journey to see him. I remember going to his bedside soon after my daughter was born and literally presenting my newborn to him, and having them meet, and then also losing my Uncle Joseph (ph) in immigration custody in 2004.

He was 81 years old. He was a father figure to me because he had raised me in the absence of my parents. And in 2004, there was some trouble in Haiti, and he had a valid visa, but he took a flight and came to Miami. And when he got to the airport, they asked him how long he would be staying. He requested asylum, and he was detained.

And he died without his medication, which was taken away from him, five days later in a county hospital chained to a bed. And I tried very hard to go see him during that time. And I never got that last moment, that the character in the story gets, to say a final goodbye to him.

INSKEEP: You use the word love - that that's one of the things that brings together these stories. And, of course, we're talking about love of other people, but also love of country. As an immigrant, can you talk to me a little bit about what loving America means to you and what loving Haiti means to you?

DANTICAT: Loving Haiti, you know, comes in the blood. And loving America, being grateful for what it's afforded my family, there are so many Americans now in my family - that's what also makes it sad to see what's happening now in terms of how new immigrants are being scapegoated, to hear about children who could have been myself dying at the border for lack of medical care.

There's a kind of ache for both places at the moment, a kind of ache for the troubles that Haiti has had. And then the kind of ache for this, for my second home, the place that had received my family, to see the way that others like us are being treated here at the moment.

INSKEEP: Has it made you think differently about America?

DANTICAT: You know, America has a very complicated history with Haiti in terms of occupations and interventions. So that has always been part of my formulation of how I see America. You know, before we came to America, in many ways, it came to us, you know, from 1915 to 1934.

So I've always had a very nuanced view of America. But the America we see these days - and it's not all Americans, it's not all of America - but the most visible representation of America through the, you know, the presidency we have, and how people like me are viewed, it's certainly helping me to reshape and sort of worry about the future that my children, who are U.S. born, like what future they will face as black children of Haitian immigrants in this country.

INSKEEP: Do you have any doubt about your - that you belong here?

DANTICAT: Well, I sometimes feel like I belong here, and then often am reminded, you know, by certain things, like when my uncle died in immigration. I was, you know, I felt like - oh, I thought I belonged. And yet, I couldn't save my uncle from the jaws of death from the immigration service. So often, I mean, I think these days more than ever, we are reminded that whether or not we belong is not defined by us.

INSKEEP: Edwidge Danticat, thank you so much.

DANTICAT: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF WEBERT SICOT'S "MANHA DO CARNAVAL")

INSKEEP: The book of short stories by Edwidge Danticat is called "Everything Inside." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.