Claire Limyè Lanmè’s “birthday was also a day of death.” The star of Edwidge Danticat’s Claire of the Sea Light took her first breath as her mother took her last. Her latest novel reveals the inner turmoil of parents like Nozias, a widowed fisherman forced with the paradoxical urgency of giving up his daughter to give her life. Tossed by the uncertainties of the sea, Nozias anxiously wants to anchor his daughter’s future with an affluent fabric vendor whose threads connect the villagers of Ville Rose, a fictional seaside Haitian village. Claire of the Sea Light, like the village’s decrepit lighthouse, illuminates the hearts and souls of victims, perpetrators, and survivors yearning for healing, forgiveness and, above all, life.
Once again the prolific Danticat, 44, illustrates her craft in Claire of the Sea Light. The novel is lyrically narrated in English, jeweled with Haitian Creole expressions, and endowed with a wisp of magical realism. At 12, Danticat left Haiti and her Uncle Joseph to join her parents, who sought a better life on foreign soil.
Her celebrated catalog includes Breath, Eyes, Memory, a collection of voluptuously rich short stories; Krik?Krak!, an autobiographical masterpiece; Brother I’m Dying, a collection of insightful essays; Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work; and a collection of Haitian literary voices, Haiti Noir, among others.
Back in the early 1990s, I interviewed Danticat for a Haitian radio station after reading Breath, Eyes, Memory. Over three decades later, I catch up with the writer over the phone as she waits to present Claire of the Sea Light at the Town Hall of Seattle, Washington.
EBONY: The radio is an important symbol in many of your works, among them Claire of the Sea Light. Are you an avid radio listener?
Edwidge Danticat: I was an avid radio listener when I was a kid. I grew up in Bel Air. In my neighborhood, even if you were not listening to the radio in your own house, you could hear your neighbor’s radio. There was always a radio on somewhere. I just grew to love the radio. The radio is also a very powerful and consistent medium in Haiti.
When I started the book, I thought I was writing a book about the radio. I wanted to write a book in which each chapter was an episode of a radio show. That’s where the character of Louise George emerged. Even though she is not a central character, she has a very powerful presence, as does the radio, because she is using the radio as a means of giving people justice. Otherwise they would not get justice in certain types of situations. The radio is definitely a very important part of the story.
EBONY: I noticed that you have made the brave move of including same-sex love in Claire of the Sea Light.
ED: I have those relationships in my books because I try in my stories as much as possible to cover a whole range of a society. [In Claire of the Sea Light, the relationship between Bernard and Max Junior] is like a tragic love story. It’s like any other tragic love story about two people who couldn’t be apart and who couldn’t be together. I wanted to challenge even my most oppositional reader who might be Haitian to [realize] this is a story. This is a love story like any love story. I think that is my job as a writer, to try to cover the whole range of human emotions and human love.
EBONY: Rape is a prominent theme in many of your works and an unfortunate reality. What are your views on rape?
ED: I think rape is a problem for wherever you have vulnerable women around the world. It is a global problem. Recently, I worked with a group of women: a group called Potofi.org. They did a report called Beyond Shock. It tells the stories of women and girls who were raped after the earthquake. I try to explore—starting with Breath, Eyes, Memory—what type of imprint rape leaves on a young woman, sometimes for a year, sometimes even for generations. It is a very strong concern of mine that I try to address both in fiction and non-fiction. As a woman, it is one of those things I would love to see eradicated everywhere.
In Haiti, less than 10 years ago, they declared rape officially a crime. We still have a long way to go there with the prevention or rape and the prosecution of rapists.
EBONY: Your father and your uncle saw you burgeon as a writer. Do you think if they were alive today, they would have anything to say about your writing? Or would there be anything you would want to ask them?
ED: My father was sick for nine months, and so I got to ask him everything I wanted to. My uncle over the years wanted me to write a book about him, so we talked a lot about his life. I know they both got to thankfully see me become a writer, to see my books published.
Neither my father nor my uncle would be the type to say, “I am very proud of you, my daughter.” They were not demonstrative like that. One time I went to a bookstore where I was reading, the owner shocked me when she said, “You know your father is always coming in here. He buys a couple copies of your books once a week to give to people in the cab.” My father never told me that. She told me this right before reading, so I started crying. I know what I was doing meant something to them. And I know they were proud of me. That also makes a very big difference. When I was nominated for the National Book Award, my father was there at the ceremony.
EBONY: What do you remember most about leaving Haiti?
ED: I write about this in Brother, I’m Dying. The saddest departure was leaving my uncle. I used to go around with him talking to other people for him because he had had surgery on his throat and couldn’t speak. I had made a place for myself in this family, and I missed them very much. I had not spent that much time with my parents, so I did not know what it would be like.
But my first sight of New York was looking down on the plane and seeing all those lights. I just remember thinking, “Oh, my gosh. It’s so bright.” [Author] Junot Díaz says that being an immigrant and travelling from country to country, especially when you are a kid, is like space travel. You go into this big silver machine. You basically go from one world to another. And that’s how I felt. Like, “wow, this is different.”
I remember the drive from the airport. It was March, so it was cold. I remember going into the building where we were going to live and there were all these doors that were closed. I thought, “Oh, my God.” It looked to me like a prison because I was so used to the openness of Haiti. Eventually I got used to it. I had two brothers that were born in the United States, so I was also getting used to my family, getting used to the school.
It was also the time in 1981 when people were not very nice to Haitians because there was a lot of talk about AIDS and Haitians. We were called Boat People, AIDS People. It was a really hard beginning, but I did a lot of reading. I think that was my escape. I loved to read. Reading was my salvation.
Natasha Labaze is an educator in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her parents moved from Haiti to the United States during the 1960s.