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Storytelling and Survival

By Lorraine Graham | Photos by J. J. Nelson

Known for her novels, stories and memoirs exploring Haitian history and immigrant experiences, award-winning writer Edwidge Danticat visited the University of Maryland on April 17 to share her work and talk about the power of storytelling in connecting across generations.

Her visit was the last event in the 2018-19 Arts and Humanities Dean's Lecture Series. Danticat spent the afternoon speaking with a group of graduate students in the English department's masters of fine arts program in creative writing before joining Grenadian writer and Distinguished Scholar-Teacher Merle Collins that evening for a public conversation in Dekelboum Concert Hall. Danticat and Collins spoke about how writing can be a form of witness and memorializing, especially in immigrant and diasporic communities.

The Arts and Humanities Dean's Lecture Series provides an opportunity for the campus community to engage with contemporary issues through the lens of arts and humanities scholarship.To complement UMD's yearlong theme of the Year of Immigration, the 2018-19 series focused on storytelling and immigration. The fall lecture featured Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and 2017 MacArthur Fellow Viet Thanh Nguyen, whose book “The Refugees” is Maryland’s 2018-19 First Year Book.

Danticat answered questions from both Collins and the audience, about how—in the space of six months—her uncle, with whom she lived for many years in Haiti before joining her parents in the U.S., died in U.S. immigration custody while seeking asylum, her daugher, Mira, was born and her father died of pulmonary fibrosis. These experiences prompted her to write a family memoir, "Brother, I'm Dying."

"This was not a book I wanted to have to write," Danticat said. "But I knew that my daughter would never meet my uncle, and I was afraid she would not meet my father—so this book was a way to reach across generations."

Other topics Danticat and Collins discussed:

On writing and history: In response to a question from the audience about incorporating history into writing, Danticat said, "I've always been very interested in history in general, and Haitian history in particular. Fiction gives you a kind of space in which to expand history. We can spend years learning about something and then you flesh it out."

On writing as a monument to people who might otherwise be forgotten: Collins asked about "Farming of Bones," Danticat's second novel set against the background of the 1937 massacre of Haitian emigrants by Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, and the way that particular book is "a monument to the disappeared." Danticat discussed how historical novels can function as a kind of memorial, and she discussed the importance of rituals surrounding death in Haiti. "Part of the tragedy of dying was not only that they were butchered and massacred," Danticat said, "but that they had no final rituals."

On the immigrant artist, storytelling and survival: Danticat grew up hearing traditional stories and Haitian folklore. She discussed remembering one story about a girl unable to cope with the death of her father, and drawing on it for comfort when her own father died. "All this time I thought I was being entertained," she said. "But instead I realized I had been given a tool to survive and to understand critical moments in my life. This reinforced the power of storytelling, why certain mythologies exist and how these stories are part of our survival as diasporic people."

On connecting with younger generations through story: Danticat talked about how enslaved Africans carried stories with them across the water as a way of keeping their culture alive. Immigrants also bring their stories with them to new places and into new languages. "All I have to leave my children are my stories," she said. "Storytelling feels like another layer of survival, the thread that carries us all the way from the African continent and through the Caribbean."

Date of Publication: 
Friday, April 19, 2019