Haitian Novelist Edwidge Danticat Talks Love, Loss and the Power of Radio

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Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World. Haitian novelist Edwidge Danticat has a new book out this month. It's called “Claire of the Sea Light” and it's set in Haiti, in the fictitious seaside town of Ville Rose. The title character, Claire, is a little girl caught between her father's love and his intense desire to hand his daughter to a wealthy woman in town who might give her a better life. Danticat stopped by station WLRN in Miami, where she lives, to tell us why she chose to tell that story.

Edwidge Danticat: I wanted to write about that issue, that very moment that the parent decides really with their heart tearing out of their chest to give their child a better way of life in this way. I've had, not a same kind of experience, but my parents left Haiti when I was very young to come work in the United States and left me in the care of my aunt and uncle. And there are many of us in that same situation, so it's something that I've always wanted to write about.

Werman: That whole moment where the departure may be imminent, it just tears at your heart. What was that like for you?

Danticat: I didn't understand it because I was very young. My father, I don't even remember when he left. But my mother, I was four and I remember we went to the airport and they literally peeled me off her body. I didn't know when I would see her again. So it's confusing in the moment, but as you get older you realize the level of sacrifice, and certainly as a parent myself now, you feel so much more invested in understanding that choice, because it's a choice that so many people all around the world have to make. So writing it this way I was able to understand it both from the perspective of the child and the parent.

Werman: The Claire in the title "Claire of the Sea Light," she was born as her mother dies during childbirth. The midwife called Claire a rive nou. In Creole, what does that mean, and how does it kind of translate in Haitian culture?

Danticat: In Haitian culture there is folklore, but in my fiction of Haitian culture, what I create is fake lore. The town in the book is invented and so one has to invent codes. There's high infant mortality, high maternal mortality in many places in the developing world, including Haiti. So in this idea of the lore, the child is coming as the mother is leaving, and in the book, the last words the mother says before she dies is vini, come. And one is not sure whether she's telling her daughter to come with her or to come into this new life. So in this book, in this particular context, a rive nou is a child whose mother dies in childbirth who then has to spend her life with that idea.

Werman: It's really easy to read Clair of the Sea Light as this really beautiful fable, but I see lots of interesting threads of modern Haitian culture embedded in it as well, especially gossip and the way that news travels around. Talk about that, and you refer to tele djòlè.

Danticat: Well, tele djòlè, it's sort of, we would say "mouth television," it would be a literal translation. But tele djòlè is sort of a gossip network, it's faster than the Internet, it's sort of how word gets around from person to person. And in the book too, there is a story of a radio hostess, and radio is very big in Haiti, it's a medium of entertainment, of information. And the radio station is called Radyo Zorèy which was a little bit of a wink-wink at the idea of the tele djòlè. So you have the tele djòlè and Radyo Zorèy and you're covered for information.

Werman: You talk about that radio station, Radyo Zorèy, and the show hosted by this woman Louise Georges called Di Mwen, or tell me. She always begins by encouraging her guests to tell me a story, the basic currency of radio. And for myself, being in radio, I found it really fascinating. What is the role of radio in these villages in Haiti? Are programs like Louise Georges' a staple, really?

Danticat: I grew up in my house listening to the radio whether we had it on or not. It was always on somewhere in the neighborhood where I lived. And even now, when I go to the countryside in Haiti where we stay with my mother-in-law, the radio is really the primary source of information, of entertainment. So it's a very powerful medium and Louise Georges, the host of this program, tries to use it also as an instrument of justice. She tries to use it as kind of a way of demanding justice which can't be found elsewhere, which sometimes happens in radio in Haiti too. There's now some very powerful political commentary programs, call-in programs.

Werman: Do people like this radio host Louise Georges in your novel, do they incur the wrath of the community? They're spillers of secrets, after all. She's like the Julian Assange of Ville Rose.

Danticat: Well, she is a particular kind of hostess because I think she has a mission. But often people who do this kind of work that Louise Georges does on her program are on the side of the people, they are on the side of ordinary people, so they get the support of the community.

Werman: As far as radio production and style, what do you miss on radio in the US that Haiti radio, at least in your novels, seems to capture?

Danticat: What I love most are these call-in late-night stations on Haitian radio that sometimes you can get here on the Internet, where people discuss everything from love lives between songs, to these political programs. There's a program called [xx] which you can listen here online, where they have the biggest political discussions of the day. So I think you have probably the equivalent of them here. But in Haiti, because the country is smaller, and the political issues are sometimes so urgent it can get very cho, very hot on the radio.

Werman: You just said how the debates sometimes on Haitian radio gets very cho, and I was noticing that in your book. You shift pretty seamlessly in dialogue between Haitian Creole and English, but when you write, how do you determine what language to use and are you ever worried about cramming English and Creole into the same line?

Danticat: I try to write often they way I speak at the dinner table when my mother and my children and my brother's children, when we have several generations around. You find yourself shifting a lot between English and Creole and I think sometimes that comes into my writing too. It's not an artifice, it's just sometimes there are words or expressions that I fell like are impossible to translate so I will put them there, and then have an alternate interpretation of that phrase or of that word, or hope that the reader will understand it in a kind of context.

Werman: Finally Edwidge, your book begins with a gigantic freak wave taking the life of a fisherman, and I, again, won't spoil the end but it also involves the sea. Is there a belief in Haiti that the sea kind of taketh away but it can also give back?

Danticat: There's so much mythology about the sea in all of the world's cultures, but in Haiti, because it is an island surrounded by the sea, and we are here in the book in a culture of fishermen, the sea I think is a very interesting way to observe the environment. There were stories for example, after the earthquake, of people who had seen the sea completely retreat and come back, and in the culture of this book, the people live at the mercy of the seas. There are all kinds of proverbs about the sea, one in which is [speaking Creole], the sea does not hide dirt, the sea does not keep secret. So the sea does give, the sea does take away, and the sea sometimes is the way out, or not. You know, we came to Haiti by the sea, the Middle Passage and all of these other stories of how we crossed an ocean to get to this little island. So the sea is very much a part of Haiti's beginning, and in this book, the characters fear that it can also be part of its end.

Werman: Author Edwidge Danticat, her new novel "Claire of the Sea Light" is out right now. Thank you very much for speaking with us.

Danticat: Thank you very much for having me.

Werman: If "Claire of the Sea Light" piques your interest, you can check out a bit more. We asked Edwidge Danticat to read an excerpt from her new novel for us. You can listen online and read it for yourself. Edwidge Danticat will read for you at TheWorld.org.