In a searching new book, the Haitian-American author Edwidge Danticat examines themes of exile and diasporic identity.
Edwidge Danticat creates dangerously
At some point in the 1990s, the term "exile" began to seem alluring and even fashionable, in certain quarters, as a way to describe very nearly any sort of displacement from one culture to another. You didn't even have to endure relocation to claim the status of exile. Professors at conferences would sometimes claim to be writing from the exilic perspective granted to them by their ethnicity or sexual identity. The word had come to serve many of the functions performed by "alienation" in the higher chitchat of previous decades.
Exile of this metaphorical sort (with its glamour and relative lack of inconvenience) was a far cry from what Edward Said wrote about in Representations of the Intellectual (1994) as "a cruel punishment of whole communities and peoples, often the inadvertent result of impersonal forces such as war, famine, and disease". But the word's transmutation owed not a little to the influence of Said's own work and example. He sometimes pushed the notion to cover figures to whom it could not possibly apply. A case in point is when Said, in the same book, so identifies the Caribbean writer and thinker CLR James, whose history of the Haitian revolution The Black Jacobins (1938) remains the great book on the subject.
Shortly after publishing that work, James spent 15 years in the United States - and Said pairs him, in his reflections on the intellectual as exile, with the German-Jewish refugee Theodor Adorno. This is nonsense. No catastrophe, political or otherwise, had obliged James to relocate, and nothing ever kept him from returning to Trinidad. He became as enraptured with American culture as Adorno was horrified by it, and tried to gain citizenship despite the US government's insistence on treating him as a dangerous, radical alien.
Not every émigré is an exile. Neither does developing a critical perspective on a given culture preclude feeling deeply at home in it. True exiles may endure agonising bouts of nostalgia for their homeland. But there is something grotesque and not at all honourable about anyone else sentimentalising the exilic condition. These points should all be obvious, but clichés have their own dogged power - and it takes some grace to avoid them entirely, as the novelist Edwidge Danticat does in her new book Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work.
Born in Haiti in 1969, Danticat moved to the United States with her family when she was 12 years old. She is the author of several works of fiction and a recipient of the National Book Award and a MacArthur Fellowship. The essay which lends this collection its title was delivered as part of a lecture series at Princeton University named in honour of Toni Morrison. The book's opening pages offer a slow, agonising description of a few moments of film recording the public execution of young rebels by the regime of Papa Doc Duvalier in the early 1960s; its final chapter was written following her return to Haiti earlier this year, just after the earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people in Port Au Prince.
If ever an author could claim licence to indulge in self-dramatising profundities about the agonies of exilic consciousness, Danticat would qualify - but her posture here is modest, without any hint of pretension. Some of the pieces are personal essays; others are critical reflections on the work of Haitian writers and artists who worked as emigrants. The difference in focus does not involve a difference in tone, however. In either genre, Danticat registers an acute awareness that dislocation or relocation are, after all, common experiences.
They are also extremely complex and various ones: there are countless shades of experience between the extremes of having to flee one country and finding that one's adopted place has become not just a residence but a home. It is in the immigrant artist's power to make this spectrum of experience available to those who haven't gone through it (at least not yet).
The hardest parts of it are the reminders of the immigrant's precariousness - living in "hamlets that need our labour but want our children banned from their schools, villages that want our sick shut out from their hospitals, big cities that want our elderly, after a lifetime of impossible labor, to pack up and go off somewhere else to die". But there is also the sense of being caught between worlds, as with the hundreds of thousands of Haitians referred to by the Kreyòl word dyaspora, which Danticat describes as carrying a charge of stigma and shame.
She recounts being hailed as dyaspora by someone in Haiti trying to get her attention - and knowing that it had the connotation of those "arrogant, insensitive, overbearing, and pretentious people who were eager to reap the benefits of good jobs and political positions in times of stability in a country that they'd fled and stayed away from during difficult times… I'd bow my head and accept these judgments when they were expressed, feeling guilty about my own physical distance from a country that I'd left at the age of twelve during a dictatorship that had forced thousands to accept either exile or death."
But there are also moments when the conflicting dimensions of this unhappy self-consciousness can achieve a kind of synthesis, greater than the sum of its parts: "One of the advantages of being an immigrant is that two very different countries are forced to merge within you. The language you were born speaking and the one you will probably die speaking have no choice but to find a common place in your brain and regularly merge there."
The art or literature yielded by this fusion has an ambiguous status - wholly belonging to neither culture, and often enough viewed with suspicion. Danticat describes one response by Haitian readers to her work: "You are a parasite and you exploit your culture for money and what passes for fame." Members of her family make a point of asking her not to write about certain things. (Here the author may overestimate how specific this experience is to the immigrant artist. Every serious writer faces the moment when relations cast a wary glance at her notebook.)
But artistic creation is also a way to speak to the dead, and for them. There is the obligation to be a witness - to preserve and record what otherwise may be lost under the enforced forgetfulness of repressive regimes, or the endless distractions of more liberal societies that are awash in entertainment.
Danticat takes her title, Create Dangerously, from a lecture by Albert Camus. Employed by someone else the phrase might sound bombastic, but here there is a constant tension between the author's sense of creativity as a possible moral force in the world and her uncertainty about ever finding a place in it. "Do I know enough about where I've come from?" she asks. "Will I ever know enough about where I am? Even if somebody has died for me to stay here, will I ever truly belong?" She avoids grandiose claims about the insightfulness of the exile - while honouring the complexity of the immigrant artist's role, with its precariousness and its drive to make connections.
Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work
Princeton University Press
Scott McLemee is a recipient of the US National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in reviewing.