Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work

By Clarisa Ramirez

Edwidge Danticat is an internationally renowned Haitian author and a friend of buildOn. She’s won several awards, including the 2009 MacArthur Genius Fellowship, and her book “Breath, Eyes, Memory” was selected as part of Oprah’s Book Club. We’ll be publishing a guest blog from Danticat on Friday, September 7, at 10 a.m. EST.

Create dangerously, for people who read dangerously. This is what I’ve always thought it meant to be a writer. Writing, knowing in part that no matter how trivial your words may seem, someday, somewhere, someone may risk his or her life to read them. – from “Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work”

People are resilient. And then there are the people of Haiti who survived a revolution, an occupation, a hereditary dictatorship, and natural disasters that killed thousands of people. The spirits of these people have not weakened. The Haitians Edwidge Danticat’s writes about in her book, Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work, struggled with censorship and not having the luxury of freedom of speech yet managed to make their mark on society. Danticat loves the people she writes about—immigrants, artists, and family members—for being bold.

Reading these 12 chapters is an intimate experience. Danticat introduces readers to Haiti’s superstitious culture and tangled history of politics through the perspectives of several generations of Haitians. The author immigrated to the United States when she as 12 and didn’t find many books written by Haitian authors in her Brooklyn library – or in Haiti, for that matter. She makes it her duty to write about what haunts and obsesses her, such as developed nations’ prejudices of Haiti despite their cultural similarities.  Haitian artists have had to choose between their art and the threat of death on many occasions, and many have sought exile as immigrants. She celebrates these artists who, like herself, looked to books, movies and art for wisdom by interpreting their experiences in her own voice. Danticat writes, she says, like nothing can stop her. When the 2010 earthquake killed her family and injured many (chronicled in book’s last chapter, “Our Guernica”), she notes her ability to observe and document the event was just as useful as being a doctor.

“I Speak Out” is probably the most heart-wrenching chapter in the book. Danticat introduces a courageous woman she met while working on a documentary about Haitian torture survivors: Alerte Belance, a casualty of Haiti’s military coup d’etat. Two paramilitary men, or attaches, were after her husband in Port-au-Prince because he organized elections for Haiti’s first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristride. Her husband escaped, not expecting the men to kidnap Belance and attack her with a machete, disfiguring her face, cutting her tongue in two and hacking off one of her arms. Her family said she was unrecognizable and looked like chopped meat. Belance tells her story to the media in the United States to encourage the Clinton Administration to do something about the junta killing and maiming people like Belance, and advocate for the return of a democratically elected government.

In “Walk Straight,” Danticat takes readers on a two- day hike up the lime-green mountains of Haiti’s countryside to meet her 75-year-old aunt, Tante Ilyana. Her writing is so clear and vivid; one can imagine trying to go to sleep in Ilyana’s twin bed, listening to the noises of the outside world. During this last and final visit before Ilyana’s death, she writes about not wanting to say goodbye and the pain of losing a loved one – something everyone can relate to. Writing about emotions is an effortless task for Danticat, or at least she makes it seem that way.

Reading “Create Dangerously” was a pleasure and a refreshing education about Haitian culture and history. Every story in this powerful book inspires people to advocate for what they believe in by being unafraid. I encourage you to read this book in celebration of International Literacy Day on September 8. Also, be a part of a positive change by creating dangerously.