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Each morning, Edwidge Danticat looks out the window of her Little Haiti home and sees neither her homeland nor the United States she always imagined. Instead, like tens of thousands of fellow Haitian-Americans in Miami, the 41-year-old writer is caught between two currents: the pull of the island and the tug of American opportunity. It's purgatory.
For years, Danticat has delicately explored her role in the Haitian diaspora. Her short-story collection Krik? Krak! and novels Breath, Eyes, Memory and The Farming of Bones established her as one of the best young writers in the United States during the '90s. But it wasn't until she wrote about her family in the intimate memoir Brother, I'm Dying three years ago that the levees of praise broke open. Last year, the MacArthur Foundation awarded her a "genius" grant for her skill in detailing "the Haitian immigrant experience."
But the January 12 earthquake that destroyed much of Haiti also forced Danticat and other diaspora writers to rethink their country of birth. First, there was the immense sense of loss that bagay la, the thing, left in its wake. The toll was horrendous: up to 300,000 dead — including Danticat's cousin Maxo — and more than a million homeless. The fabric of daily life was torn asunder, and so too must be the writing that defines the beleaguered country.
"There will always be the Haiti of before the earthquake and the Haiti of after the earthquake," Danticat says. "There is no possibility of erasure or forgetting." So her newest book, Create Dangerously, tries to come to terms with the burden, guilt, and power of an immigrant artist. In a stirring final essay, she struggles to say goodbye to Maxo in Haiti.
But there is hope amidst disaster. "What the earthquake has done most profoundly is to open up what was most ailing before January 12," she says. "You have a million and a half people homeless, and... their homelessness is so much more visible."
Yet Danticat is also careful not to become a spokeswoman for an entire nation. "I don't think my work is defining Haiti," she insists. "It's offering another version."
For a woman who has made a career of exploring her own otherness, Miami is the perfect place to create dangerously. "I love the fact that there are all these communities forming around you here," she says. Like so many immigrant artists, she's inspired by the chaos and culture hiding in the Magic City's dingy streets. Miami might be purgatory, but it is a loud and lively one.
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