14 September 2009
Today I had a very long day, which included some exasperation but ended with joy. It was like being a kid who was forced to eat some food he or she doesn't like but was given his or her favorite dessert afterward.
And what was that "dessert?" A reading by the Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat. I must confess that I have not read anything by her. Shame on me!
She read a chapter from one of her novels, a selection from her memoir and a selection from a work-in-progress. Her soft, lilting voice conveys barely a trace of an accent, but her words evoke the rhythms of the place where she grew up and move her stories along with the logic of dreams. As a poet, that is exactly the sort of fiction I can appreciate best, I think.
But even if you aren't a writer and don't read or listen to language for its music, her work has another very powerful quality which, I think, is the real reason for the wide readership she enjoys. Her characters endure some very harsh realities--as, I imagine, nearly everyone in Haiti does--yet they survive because of their spiritual force. I'm not talking about Hollywood-type "happy endings" where guy gets the girl or Horatio Alger-style "success" stories. What her characters do is this: By surviving, and by achieving seemingly-small quotidian victories, they show that life is beautiful simply because it goes on in spite--or sometimes because--of their circumstances.
If I had lived in Cite Soleil and my family had been terrorized by the Tonton Macoutes and my uncle died in a Homeland Security facility, I don't think I could believe that my life would have one of those storybook endings because I'm not sure that, under such circumstances, I would have the capacity to dream, much less believe in, such a thing. But I could--if I were anything like the person I am now--believe in the possiblilty of, if not miracles, at least a kind of momentary redemption from despair. And I certainly would hope, and possibly believe, that there was, or at least could be, some sort of beauty to be found in, or made from, surviving.
Danticat offers that to her readers. For that reason, I think she could get away with being half as good a writer as she is.
Plus--You may have already figured this out--I can identify with what she's expressing. Maybe I didn't live in the kind of poverty or misery her family experienced. But I have experienced pain and alienation that I wouldn't wish on anybody. People tell me that I am brave and strong for having gone through my surgery; if that's true, I think those qualities were forged in me when I was surviving through all of those years that I made it through one day of not harming myself or anyone else, then another, then another, and sometimes performing or experiencing small acts of charity and creativity. Even at my most despairing, I tried to create, in whatever small ways, beauty--or to bring it into my life.
If I'd read or heard Danticat's work earlier in my life, would I have appreciated it? I don't know. But at least I had the opportunity to hear it tonight.
Now you know what I'm going to read next!