Tuesday Jun 2nd, 2015
Edwidge Danticat and Carla Hill; photo by World Red Eye
As a student of performance poetry, studying for years with Teo Castellanos, I recognized a trait in Edwidge Danticat’s writing that translates to her very speech: rhythms. There are five universal rhythms for which I’ve studied the art of embodying, transitioning between, and recognizing: legato, staccato, stillness, lyrical, and chaos. These are terms familiar to musicians and dancers, seen in visual art and film and key for performers who desire to deliver more than just a performance, and they are the essential elements for literature. There was stillness in the room at this past YoungArts Salon and chaos in the minds that listened to Edwidge’s lyrical voice that was both legato and staccato. The atmosphere was structured by the collective movement of the audience and the paces they carried inside of them. Somehow the room was filled with a thrill many may associate with playoff finals, bonfire intimacy, and artistic freedom. This atmosphere is no stranger to the YoungArts Campus, and on this night the atmosphere was interactive with the artist Edwidge Danticat’s words and the minds of everyone in the room.
Danticat’s writing, rich with her Haitian culture, knowledge, discipline and boldness to write out the voices in her, brought out many ears to this last installment of the Salon Series last Tuesday (YoungArts has brought artists from various arts for these Salons). There were plenty of Alumni and community members attending the Salon to meet the writer, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who attended to see if this language in which Danticat spoke was confined to the pages I’ve been reading ravenously.
The Salon was a very open and welcoming space, a “safe space” where Carla Hill (a YoungArts alumna herself) moderated a talk with Edwidge Danticat. Their chemistry was undoubtedly a foundation for the openness in the entire room, and it welcomed Ms. Danticat’s voice in a way that exhibited the power of words. As a very auditory-inclined person, I juggled with listening and writing everything down into my journal. I came with an army of questions, and Danticat repeatedly loaded my questions with flowers (too much? Clearly I’m a fan). Basically I’m saying that she answered all my questions, with poise like in the image of Flower Power 1967: she placed her answers, she didn’t give them. She placed them. She placed her work by reading to the audience initially; she placed her opinion on the #blacklivesmatter campaign and her personal story of her uncle that strengthened her beliefs. She and Ms. Hill continually placed anecdotes and advice that really opened up Ms. Danticat to any onlooker.
And the presence that Edwidge carried into the room and throughout the Salon can be said to be attributed to her Haitian culture she is so evidently in tune with. The Caribbean legacies of storytelling and oral histories were clear in Edwidge’s talk. In her novels there are references to culture that strengthen the fictional places and characters she presents to readers, and there are sayings and other utensils of expression that are distinct to Haitian culture in her writing. During the Salon, I found myself wondering what language she thinks in, and I figured it must be English. Yet based off of my familiarity with her written work, I’d say she sees in Kreyol (Haitian Creole). She sees in Kreyol, depicts that in English, and leaves room for what cannot be directly translated. Sometimes words. Sometimes stories themselves. When asked later in the salon how she determines in which language a story is written, she basically said that the stories themselves determine that. Aside from language there are lifestyles, dances, songs and articles of custom and memory that service her narratives and her speech, making her a woman who clearly holds power in her.
Sitting in the Salon, I’d say I had selective synesthesia as I saw her words in color, and they brightened the room. These words had a Caribbean glow to them with strokes from different places like New York and Miami. I saw what made Edwidge different: her accessibility to culture. And this is what I believe was most important about the Salon. It was a wonderful time where Carla Hill got language flowing, and then everyone opened up simultaneously. But as Edwidge opened up I saw in her what I was missing myself, what I’m sure Miamians in general are missing themselves: a bank of culture.
I asked Edwidge this after the Salon, I asked her “which is more important? Found culture or given culture? Where do you look if you are trying to find the culture of multiple places?” And she elaborated on what she said during the Salon about reading and history being important for a young writer. Though we face realities like cultural diffusion (which is a key trait in Miami), what you are given of an essence is one thing, but culture is something that you make your own, that you can find or claim.
We have all reclaimed our identity crises and made a society out of it, adding to it our personal stories through art, history, and an imagination that is educated by artists like Edwidge Danticat and basically everyone that visits the YoungArts Campus. I’m sure through the language of the discussion, everyone in the room left that night with a word or two from Edwidge that left them more intimately attached to their own tongues.
Christell Victoria Roach is a 2015 YoungArts Winner in Writing and word junkie who’s studying Poetry and Journalism at Columbia College Chicago with the full support of her family and friends who she regards as her pens.