Edwidge Danticat was born in Haiti and moved to the United States to live with her parents when she was 12 years old. She’s authored essays, novels and non-fiction memoirs about Haiti. Danticat, who started her writing career as a high schooler writing for a publication similar to ThreeSixty Magazine called “New Youth Connections” in New York, says she writes her stories for her 15-year-old self.
Danticat visited the University of St. Thomas on Nov. 25, 2019 for the College of Arts and Sciences English Department’s Common Context series. In an exclusive interview, ThreeSixty Journalism Reporter Ayomide Adesanya spoke with Danticat in the Luann Dummer Center for Women at St. Thomas. The following is a transcript of their conversation, which has been edited for brevity.
Ayomide Adesanya: You came here when you were 12 years old. I came here when I was 14 in 2016. It’s been so hard move from Nigeria, a totally different culture, to the United States. How did you navigate between your Haitian culture and the American culture?
Edwidge Danticat: My parents folded them both because I have two brothers who were born in the U.S., and then two of us were born in Haiti. My mom always said to my younger brothers, U.S.–born, to speak to us in English, so we can improve our English. We supposed to speak to them, so they can improve their Creole. It turned out well. All of us speak English and Creole.
Also, like all immigrant families, there were certain things that were intimidating or frightening to my parents about American culture. Certainly, all the freedom kids have and what they saw sometimes as power. ... That power imbalance we had, for example, I would go to the doctor with my parents, and then I would translate for them in sensitive moments. You were still a child, but you had the power of language because you had to be kind of interpreter for them.
So those types of adjustments, certainly language and getting used to the United States, in the sense of going to school and in a new place all that, and also putting our families back together because I was separated from my parents for eight years. They were here, and I was in Haiti. I was 12 so that was probably the biggest adjustment getting re-introduced to my family unit.
AA: I can also relate to that because my mom is also (limited) in English. I am asked to be the person who interprets. …. What do you think it’s been like being an immigrant in like America right now, especially with President Donald Trump?
ED: I think it’s very difficult. Where I live in Miami, which is a majority immigrant city, there are a lot of people who are newer immigrants and people who are undocumented, who are DACA, which is Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, and are TPS, temporary protected status. There are a lot of people in the city where I live, who are in limbo.
Sometimes I visit with doctors who come from (elsewhere). … They realize that a lot of people won’t bring their kids unless they’re really sick because they’re afraid immigration will be at free clinics. … A lot of families are mixed status families: the U.S.-born children, the parents might be undocumented. There are all these tensions of the families that are separated at the border, but there’s these families that feel like they can potentially be separated.
It’s a very tense time if you’re an immigrant. … And even people with green cards, even people who are naturalized citizens feel some nervousness because you feel like the ground has really shifted under your feet.
AA: What advice would you give as an immigrant in America right now, trying to like juggle between those type tensions? What would you say to inspire students to keep going?
ED: One of the things I know is the ACLU, the American Civil Liberties Union, did a (“We Have Rights”) series of videos in nine languages. They’re online, and they have all kinds of advice in terms of if you’re stopped on the street by immigration, if they knock on your doors. There’s all kinds of scenarios. It has really some good, real concrete advice with things about what people can physically do like in terms of the steps that you should take.
The other thing is to stay informed. We have people who live in churches right now in some cities because they’re afraid that immigration will come for them. My mom, actually even before I came to the U.S., was taken in the immigration raid when she was pregnant with one of my brothers, so it’s something that’s not new. Certainly, it’s perhaps more, you know widespread these days. People now can be taken off buses. …
Inform yourselves. Like those videos say, we have rights. Even if you’re an immigrant, even if you’re documented, you have certain rights, and it’s important to know what they are and to inform yourself to know what to do.
AA: Now to go into your story, I have read a lot about your books, and I just got one. I’m really excited to read it because I love reading. What inspires you to write a new story? Where do you find them?
ED: I just love stories. From the time there was a little girl, I was told stories. Is there is a strong oral tradition in Nigeria?
AA: I grew up with my mom reading stories to me; but when I came to United States, it just became something I personally enjoyed. I don’t know how I found that love for reading. It started when I saw Wattpad. I had someone recommend it to me, and then I started reading. I just got hooked. Since then I (discovered) journalism, and I just started sharing my stories out loud. I don’t know exactly where it came from – I didn’t like reading in Nigeria. It was just something that clicked here.
ED: I love that it was Wattpad. My niece does a lot of work that she writes, she won’t tell me her code so I can read them, but she writes on Wattpad. I think part of that is the appeal.
I started doing journalism too when I was in high school for publication called “New Connections.” But I just love hearing stories, and then I transitioned to just loving reading. I think reading was also a way for me to escape the world and go into words. So, I started reading a lot, and then from reading, developed that feeling when I read something that I loved, I thought, “I want to do that.” And that’s how I started writing.
AA: Personally, my mom really wants me to study a science or medicine, and I really want to go for something journalism-related. There’s a clash. As an African immigrant, she expects better opportunities for me. It’s like I have to decide between what I want for my life and what they want for me. How did your parents react to your choice to write stories?
ED: My parents wanted me to be a doctor too. The high school that I went to was called Clara Barton High School for the Health Professions. I was in a program where you were on a fast track to get a quick medical degree. ... We were on that track, but I just I didn’t feel like it was for me.
But now seeing inside as a parent, I understand the impulse to want your child to do well. You want them to succeed, and you think you know what it is like. You want for them to have less risky paths.
One thing I would say is to also think about as you go into journalism the hybridity of it. My friend is the Caribbean correspondent at the Miami Herald. She makes videos, she writes the stories, she sometimes has to produce a video for the website. She has to do the Twitter. It’s also cool with the layers that the profession is also growing to expose yourself to all the other sides of it.
AA: How did you stick up for yourself when you started out as a writer to your parents?
ED: I don’t think I ever stood up for myself. I just kind of did it. Eventually I realized, if (my parents) realized that I wanted something, then they realized, “Oh, if she’s pushing on that particular point then it’s really important to her.” Eventually they relented, but we never had a clash about it. … They going to be just proud of you, no matter what.
AA: What advice do you want to leave students with?
ED: I think people don’t often talk about discipline in writing. … But for writing, people expect to just come from the gods and pour out of you. … Do your legwork, do your research. And then give it the best you’ve got.