Edwidge Danticat is the author of several books, including Breath, Eyes, Memory, an Oprah Book Club selection, Krik? Krak!, a National Book Award finalist, The Farming of Bones, The Dew Breaker, Create Dangerously, and Claire of the Sea Light. She is also the editor of The Butterfly’s Way: Voices from the Haitian Dyaspora in the United States, Best American Essays 2011, Haiti Noir and Haiti Noir 2. She has written six books for children and young adults—Anacaona, Behind the Mountains, Eight Days, The Last Mapou, Mama’s Nightingale, Untwine—as well as a travel narrative, After the Dance. Her memoir, Brother, I’m Dying, was a 2007 finalist for the National Book Award and a 2008 winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for autobiography. She is a 2009 MacArthur fellow. Her most recent book, The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story, was published by Graywolf Press in July 2017.
E.B. Bartels: How did you begin writing in general and nonfiction specifically?
Edwidge Danticat: My first memory of writing something to share—aside from the things I wrote for school—was when I was nine. My brother and cousin and I used to make comic books together. We folded sheets of white paper and cut them into small books. I wrote the text and they drew the pictures. I was still living in Haiti at the time. When I moved to the United States at age twelve, I kept a journal about my new life. It was in French. When I started writing in English, my school essays tended towards the super personal. They were full of typos and run-on sentences. One “essay” was essentially a ten page, single-spaced, handwritten paragraph. When I started high school, I began writing for a teen newspaper called New Youth Connections. My first published pieces were nonfiction. I wrote about what was happening in my life, what was happening at my school, and in my community. I turned to fiction when I wanted to stretch the boundaries of what I could say. My first novel Breath, Eyes, Memory began with an essay I wrote about coming to the United States. I wanted to expand the story beyond the timeline of my own life, so I turned that essay into a short story that later became a novel.
EB: That’s so interesting that you turned an essay into a short story and then into a novel. As someone who writes both fiction and nonfiction, how are those two writing processes different for you?
ED: There is of course a lot more freedom with fiction. You can make stuff up.
EB: Of course.
ED: With nonfiction, you are working with existing material. It’s much easier for me, for example, to write an 8000-word short story than a 1000-word essay. I am less confident in my ability to editorialize on something than to describe people doing it. I like the “reporting” part of nonfiction. I like talking to people and reporting what they have to say. I like having a story to tell. A few years ago, I read Ann Patchett’s essay collection, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, and in the opening essay she talks about her experience writing for magazines and how you sometimes have to make each word stand for ten, or something like that. I feel that burden with all my writing, but even more with nonfiction. The process though is somewhat similar. Once I have a way in, a first line, a first scene, I am pretty much okay, even if I struggle with the body of the piece.
EB: Figuring out how to start is so hard.
ED: That’s true for both fiction and nonfiction.
EB: Your most recent book, The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story, which is part of Graywolf Press’s The Art of series, is a beautiful blend of your personal story mixed with literary criticism and analysis of craft. What is your approach to writing genre-defying nonfiction, and how did you decide on that format to tell the story of your mother’s death?
ED: I had written a straightforward memoir before about the death of my uncle and father. Brother, I’m Dying is a personal narrative, but it is also reportage because I was working with a lot of materials that we got from the government after my uncle died in immigration custody. I wanted to write about my mother’s death the way I did with my father and uncle, but I couldn’t. I knew I had to get the pain out, but I didn’t want to overburden the reader with it. Then the opportunity came to write for this series by Graywolf Press and I thought writing about grief and death along with craft and some literary criticism would be an interesting way to do it. I am a huge fan of what you are calling genre-defying nonfiction.
EB: Me too! It’s my favorite.
ED: Or even genre-defying fiction. One of the most beautiful books I read last year was Zinzi Clemmons’ What We Lose. It’s an incredible novel that also feels like nonfiction. It has illustrations, pictures, facts, which feels like necessary relief from the narrator’s pain about losing her mother. This is too much, you feel the writer saying. Let me just take a breath and veer toward this other interesting thing for a moment. That’s also the only way I felt I could write about my mother in The Art of Death.
EB: In general, what do you find most challenging about writing nonfiction?
ED: I am terrified of making mistakes, getting things wrong. Whenever you write nonfiction about anything whatsoever, someone will write to tell you that you maligned them or got something wrong. I like working with fact-checkers. When you work with big publications you get that, but it’s not always a given. Someone will always question your interpretation of things, but I like to get the factual things as right as possible and I feel a bit crushed—and somewhat ashamed—when I don’t. I recently read a profile of a writer who said she cried when she got things wrong and had to have that correction line at the bottom of her piece online. I can totally relate to that. So that element of it makes writing nonfiction less appealing at times. That rigor though is something writing nonfiction has taught me, that desire to make every word ring true, even in fiction.
EB: And what do you find most rewarding about writing nonfiction?
ED: I like forming a thought, an idea, an argument, that seemed rather vague to me before. Having to put into words something that was just a feeling before and making it feel concrete for myself and also, hopefully, the reader.
EB: You already touched on this a little bit, but how has writing nonfiction changed or affected your life, as both a writer and also a person?
ED: I think I am a more nuanced writer. The way I most often write nonfiction is I pitch something or someone asks me to write something. I send in a draft that I have worked on so much I get bleary-eyed. I edit it to the barebones, read it out loud then send it out as my first draft. The person receiving it of course receives it as a first draft and suggestions are made, then we go back and forth a few times, and each time I get the piece back I do that same thing with what I send back until I feel like every word in the piece has a purpose. It may not read like that always, but it’s an intense process for me. So of course that very exercise makes me a more rigorous editor of my own work. On the more personal side, I feel much more protective of my deeply personal stories these days. Maybe it’s because I’m older. Or maybe it’s because the public square feels a lot bigger than when I published my first book almost twenty-five years ago, but there are things about myself or my loved ones that I might have happily volunteered before in an essay that I might not do now.
EB: Do you think the internet has anything to do with that impulse? I always say that I think the internet is both the best and the worst thing to happen to nonfiction writing—it’s so much easier to get stories that needs to be told out there, and it allows us to hear from voices that are often underrepresented in the publishing industry, but at the same time, suddenly everyone’s extra-long Facebook rant is considered an “essay.”
ED: I don’t begrudge anyone the right to tell their stories. I think it’s very important to have these outlets available to writers that were not there before. I have read some great Facebook posts that are better than some essays.
EB: That’s fair. Good point.
ED: That part of it is not an issue for me. I just think you have to be braver when you write anything these days because—perhaps rightfully, because this is supposed to be a democracy—everyone gets a say. There is the comments pages, but people can track down your information and email you insults or death threats or call you a monkey and tell you to go back to Africa while using the same e-mail address they probably use to write to their relatives or children’s teachers. And sometimes the responses seem so disproportionate to what was actually written or said that it is actually very scary.
EB: Super scary. There is much less distance now between the writer and the reader. Sometimes I think that’s a really great thing, to have a writer be able to engage in dialogue with their readers more easily than before, but, yeah. Sometimes it’s awful.
Let’s go back to what you said about some Facebook posts being better than essays. When you were the editor of Best American Essays 2011 and also generally, when you are reading nonfiction, what do you think makes for really good nonfiction?
ED: It’s hard to say, but you know it when you read it. It’s that piece where everyone and their mother has written about the same subject but that writer makes you feel like you’ve never read about it before.
EB: Oh, I love that. That’s so true.
ED: During the process of editing [Best American Essays], I read an essay about a piece of grass that made me weep. Sometimes it’s vulnerability. Sometimes it’s linguistic brilliance or lyricism. Sometimes it’s the urgency of the subject matter. Sometimes it’s the voice that lulls you or outrages you, or echoes your own thoughts. Sometimes it’s a certain erudition or extreme clarity. It’s all of that and I suppose a certain je ne sais quoi.
EB: Finally, what is a favorite passage of nonfiction by a woman writer?
ED: Alice Walker’s “In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens” is the go-to for me. This is one of many highlighted passages in my weathered copy of the book:
What did it mean for a black woman to be an artist in our grandmothers’ time? In our great-grandmothers’ day? It is a question with an answer cruel enough to stop the blood.
Did you have a genius of a great-great-grandmother who died under some ignorant and depraved white overseer’s lash? Or was she required to bake biscuits for a lazy backwater tramp, when she cried out in her soul to paint watercolors of sunsets, or the rain falling on the green and peaceful pasture-lands? Or was her body broken and forced to bear children (who were more often than not sold away from her)-eight, ten, fifteen, twenty children when her one joy was the thought of modeling heroic figures of rebellion, in stone or clay?
Ever since I read that essay in college, it has never left me. She articulated something I’ve always felt. There are so many women in my family that, if given the opportunity, would have been brilliant writers and artists. That essay reminds me that it is in search of their gardens that I was able to find my own. And that it was while searching for my ancestors that I was able to find myself.
E.B. Bartels is from Massachusetts and writes nonfiction. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, The Toast, The Butter, xoJane, Ploughshares online, and the anthology The Places We’ve Been: Field Reports from Travelers Under 35, among others. E.B. has an MFA from Columbia University, and she runs an interview series on Fiction Advocate called “Non-Fiction by Non-Men.” You can visit her website at www.ebbartels.com, see her tweets at @eb_bartels, and read her haikus about strangers’ dogs at ebbartels.wordpress.com.
Photo credit: Charlotte Cristopher