Friday May 22nd, 2015
In anticipation of our YoungArts Salon with Edwidge Danticat, enjoy this quick but fantastic Q&A with the author, discussing cultural identity, inspirations and motivations for young writers. The questions were asked by 2015 YoungArts Winner in Writing Carissa Chen.
Carissa Chen: In your interview with Guernica, you’re quoted as saying: “You’re told you don’t belong to American literature or you’re told you don’t belong to Haitian literature. Maybe there’s a place on the hyphen.” As an immigrant student myself, I’ve often noticed that readers/teachers ask us to “capitalize” & almost commercialize a stereotypical aspect of our culture (aka talking about rice paddies or piano or stereotypical parents because I’m Chinese) as an ironic celebration of diversity. Kind of like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Single Story discussion, what are your viewpoints on the role of immigrant stories in the current writing world?
Edwidge Danticat: I’m lucky that I’ve never been asked to capitalize or commercialize any aspect of my culture. I realize it does happen, especially if people feel like there’s some kind of trend out there that new writers have to jump on. I think immigrant stories are like any other stories you must struggle to tell as a writer. The “otherness” is not yours but someone else’s. Culture clash is as personal as it is cultural. There are always important personal stories to tell within larger narratives and immigrant stories are no different. A few years ago, Jhumpa Lahiri was asked about immigrant fiction and she said that writers have always tended to write about their worlds. It just so happens that some of us come from different parts of the world and write about that. If some books are called immigrant fiction, she said, then what do we call the rest? Native fiction? That started me thinking a little deeper on this. Why do some people, as you say, want to force our fiction into certain molds that they’ve already created for themselves anyway? You’d think they would want to be surprised by learning something absolutely new about cultures they think—perhaps falsely—that they already know.
CC: How can young writers tip toe that line of cultural identity and assimilation, the precarious tight rope on the hyphen, while still trying to understand what their culture means to themselves?
ED: By writing the stories that are most important to them in the most heartfelt and meaningful way they can. It’s often hard to do everything you’ve listed above all at once, especially if you’re writing fiction. Fiction is about people, who, even if they are facing all these issues you mention here, must feel real to readers, as real as actual people we know. Even if you’re writing nonfiction, you still have to balance writing about all of this in a way that’s engaging and not over indulgent and boring.
CC: You often write about very personal, traumatic moments. As a writer, it’s often hard to do justice to stories that are deeply emotional. Do you have advice? Is there a moral imperative to write about these stories?
ED: I think it’s up to each writer to decide. Sometimes the stories we have the deepest emotional attachments to are the ones that touch people most deeply. Even if these stories are hard to tell. Even if they’re traumatic. When I teach, I always tell my students to trust the stories they’re telling while they can barely see the page while crying. Those stories come from the deepest part of you and even if you don’t publish them, just putting them down on paper might make is possible for you to tell other stories. I don’t know if there’s a moral imperative to telling these stories—that’s up to the writer to decide—but I know that stories like these, when they remain untold, become obstacles to other writing.
CC: The generic but important question: any advice for young writers?
ED: In 1997, when I was 28, I was asked by the Scholastic Arts and Writing Awards to write an advice letter to young writers. The letter is at the link here along with some other letters, including ones from Alec Baldwin, Richard Avedon, Arthur Miller and others. My advice remains the same. Start with your heart. Look into it and look deeply. Search it for the things that make you happy, the things that make you sad, the things that make angry. Your heart is always a great source for subjects. Also don’t give up. Don’t let anyone discourage you. Work on your craft as much as you can. It’s also very important for young writers to read. When you read widely, every writer in the library becomes your mentor. I also love Richard Avedon’s advice. “To be a young artist is to ignite and thrive on the volcano of your imagination,” he wrote. So find the volcano of your imagination and keep thriving.