Ever since an earthquake struck Haiti on Jan. 12, 2010, and the airwaves buzzed with reports of thousands upon thousands dead, and with the catchphrases that have become emblematic of Haiti — "poorest nation in the hemisphere," "tragically deforested," "overpopulated" — ever since those scenes and faces and wailing voices, I have been searching for a guide through this devastation.
I admit I Googled my favorite, trusted writers on Haiti: Madison Smartt Bell, Amy Wilentz, Mark Danner. But the writer I most wanted to hear from was the Haitian-American Edwidge Danticat. I had read and reread her piece in The New Yorker, soon after the earthquake, where she told the story of her cousin Maxo, his son and some students who were being tutored, all buried under the rubble. The piece was written in such heartbreaking, clear-eyed prose, with no trace of self-pity, that it seemed not made by the hand of man, or acheiropoietos, a term Danticat uses to title one of the essays in her astonishing new book, Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work.
Here, finally, is the book I've been searching for, the book I urge everyone to read about Haiti. In 12 chapters, we enter into the heart of Haiti, not just the Haiti of the earthquake, though that looming loss makes every detail and person to whom we are introduced more luminous and precious. We learn about Haiti's rich culture — no poverty there — and about its artists, its freedom fighters, its rascals and its history. We get to know Danticat, the writer — why she feels she must create dangerously, fearlessly. We visit with Tante Ilyana and with Maxo, who will not survive the earthquake, and with the photographer Daniel Morel, who will. We hear Maxo's favorite passage in Jean Genet's Les Negres, a book Danticat will bring to where Maxo's body lies after the earthquake: "Your song was very beautiful and your sadness does me honor."
She quotes the Haitian novelist Dany Laferriere, whose fictional self responds to the question, "Are you a Haitian writer?" by saying that he takes on the nationality of his reader, "which means that when a Japanese reader reads my books, I immediately become a Japanese writer." The reverse is also true. Reading Danticat's book, we become Haitian. Our nation and our people lie under that rubble. But Haiti also rises from the ashes of all that has been lost in these heartening and heartrendingly beautiful pages.
In one early chapter, "Walk Straight," Danticat is sitting on her great-grandmother's tomb in pre-earthquake Haiti, and she decides to write a letter to one of her characters, Sophie, from Breath, Eyes, Memory. Her final words to Sophie could well be words that any reader of Create Dangerously could write to Danticat herself. "Sophie ... I write this note to you, thanking you for the journey of healing ... that you and I have been through together, with every step wishing that both our living and our dead will rest in peace."
Thank you, Edwidge Danticat, for this journey of healing. Your song is very beautiful and your writing honors Haiti. Your Haiti, and now ours.