Edwidge Danticat's cousin was buried alive under his own house.
Like so many other Haitian-Americans, the Miami author lost family in the 2010 earthquake that by some estimates killed more than 300,000 people in and around Port-au-Prince.
"At some point, his body was moved to the family mausoleum, but his son was lost in the rubble and was never recovered," she remembers. "It's always a part of visiting Haiti, a visit to the living and to the dead."
Released this week, Claire of the Sea Light is Danticat's first book-length work of literary fiction since The Dew Breaker in 2004. Since then, she has received her second National Book Award nomination, for her memoir Brother, I'm Dying, and a MacArthur "Genius" grant. Also, on her most recent visit to Haiti, she was given a bag crocheted by the wife of her late cousin.
"She was in the rubble for three days with her other children, and after that," Danticat says, "she felt like she was going mad and started making these bags to cope. Sometimes, what you come away with from Haiti is so intangible, so from this last visit, I'm so happy to have this bag."
Mitchell Kaplan, cofounder of Miami Book Fair International and owner of Books & Books, says the Oprah-anointed Danticat is "increasingly being recognized as one of our most important writers. The new novel is really powerful and will continue that trajectory."
In Claire of the Sea Light, a body washes up on the shore of a Haitian fishing village. All of the witnesses seem to be connected to each other in surprising ways that are by turns terrifying, scandalous, and life-affirming. Overlapping narratives detail the lives of these characters over a quarter-century spanning roughly the period of Haitian history between the uprising against Jean-Claude Duvalier and the days before the earthquake.
"I wanted the reader to feel like you were on the beach that night," Danticat says, "like you just wandered through that town. You ended up on the beach and you are listening to snippets of conversation and watching what is going on around you."
Sections of Claire of the Sea Light date back as early as 2005, but for Danticat, "Even if it was always in my mind a pre-earthquake book, I was writing it with a preoccupation that something very terrible was coming to the country." The residents of her fictitious seaside town are subject to the same rogue waves, exploding frogs, and tremors that heralded the earthquake. One character, while considering the decaying lighthouse no longer able to protect the community's boats, presciently asks, "How do you even choose what to mend when so much has already been destroyed?"
Danticat's sly humor in disarming asides leavens the portent without upsetting the book's sea-foam delicacy. She sets a darkly funny sequence in a funeral home by using details from memories of her aunt's death, when Danticat and her family were given the option of dressing the body for the funeral.
"There were so many things that struck me about that," she recalls of the experience. "How heavy someone is. Just how heavy it is to lift a person's leg to put on their stocking. A living person gives you some help."
The traumas that the 44-year-old has detailed in her nonfiction are not evident in Danticat's easy laugh or smooth, ageless face. When Claire of the Sea Light repeatedly pairs births with deaths and sometimes opts not to differentiate the two, it's a confluence that Danticat attributes to her Haitian upbringing.
"When you lose a parent, when a child is born, you're suddenly hyperaware of where you fit in the continuity of things," she says. "I grew up with a minister uncle who might preside over a wedding on Friday, a funeral Saturday, and baptize a child on Sunday. There's isn't as much effort in Haiti as there is here to shield children from all that."
Danticat initially conceived Claire of the Sea Light's form as each chapter being an episode in a radio series. But eventually, the novel was told from multiple angles and perspectives, not unlike her previous books Krik? Krak! and The Dew Breaker. "This time, I really tried to resist it," Danticat laughs. "I don't want people to think that's all I'm ever going to do with fiction." The radio host character remains as a stand-in for Danticat, writing a book about her town that is described in the novel as "an extension of the show, but had grown into a type of choral piece. She called it to herself a collage a clèf."
"The book models, in a way, a very Haitian storytelling fashion," Danticat explains. "I always hear from friends who aren't Haitian, 'So-and-so started telling me a story and I had to tap them and remind them what they were talking about.'"
Chapters are linked by certain objects like a red t-shirt or by a conversation experienced from multiple perspectives.
"When I'm reading a book and something comes back that way, I'm like, 'Wow!'" she says. "I think it makes you participate so that you're putting the story together at the same time as the writer. I like when the writer has left something for me to do but it's a tricky thing with a lot of potential for disappointment. Some people will think the writing is unfocused."
The director of the University of Miami's creative writing program, M. Evelina Galang, suggests, "What we're responding to is not so much Haitian culture or our knowledge of the earthquake but an authentic voice and space of her creation. Edwidge's Haiti feels authentic because she is authentic."
"But what's important to recognize," Mitchell Kaplan says, "is that her success isn't just as of late. From almost the very beginning, people have recognized Edwidge's talent and she's had a very long career."
Though she is only 44 years old, Danticat published her first novel at 24. In the long lag between edits and its publication, she took a job at a film company.
"My first editor, we were working a couple of streets apart then, and she came to that office," Danticat recalls. "She said to me that you have to start something before your book comes out. Because whatever the reaction, good or bad, you don't want to make it impossible to get back to work."
And so even as she is on her current book tour, Danticat will be writing scenes on "the biggest index cards you can get." She is already 100 pages into a young adult novel about a set of twins, her first novel set entirely in Miami.
"I've been here 11 years now but I haven't written anything set here," she says, though this doesn't mean that Miami has not figured prominently in her process.
"Where Miami helps, it in some ways has a similar landscape. I live in Little Haiti and I can see there similar faces to those of the people I'm writing about. The gait of the old lady walking down the street. Sometimes there's a way that people skip because the light is changing quickly, that reminds me so much of how people cross the street in Haiti. It's certainly not a substitution, but it does feed me."
The town in which Claire of the Sea Light was set was modeled after seaside towns Danticat has been to in Haiti, but descriptions of the sea were inspired by what she could see in Miami while she was writing.
"There is definitely something here that draws so many different voices," she says of Miami. "There are Tom Wolfe and Joan Didion. Cristina Garcia is a writer who has written very powerfully about Miami and the immigrant experience. But I'm most excited to see the what happens with the new people who are landing here, who are seeing it for the first time."
Kaplan points out that as Danticat's influence continues to expand, "when she edits anthologies, she always includes work of younger writers. She is generous with introductions and sits on panels with younger writers."
Evelina Galang says, "It's so easy for writers of stature to just live here and do their own thing. She raises the literary bar in the community by just being here. But you see her at readings, she asks me about students and supports Miami writers as much as we adore her."
In a recent interview with the New York Times, Danticat gave an endorsement of M. Jessica Fievre, also a Haitian novelist living in Miami, albeit one who has written most of her books in French.
"My nieces and nephew distracted me and I posted the interview to Facebook before I got to the part at the end that mentioned me," Fievre remembers. "The next day I started getting all these emails, people congratulating me and I've had several libraries contact me about visits. I thought maybe people were confused and thought the interview was with me. But then I saw the ending and, well, I was really pleased."
It was a particularly meaningful experience for Fievre given how dazzled she was by what she describes as Danticat's ability to have spent far more time in the United States than in Haiti, yet be able to write about her home country as though she had never left.
"I started reading her when I was living in Haiti," Fievre says. "The first book of hers I read was Krik? Krak! but I read it in French. With translations, part of the original meaning is going to get lost even if you find a fabulous translation. But when you look at Edwidge, not a lot is lost if anything at all. This is because her words, they have in them the Haitian soul."
Danticat deflects this as she does most compliments (despite her MacArthur grant, she insists both that she is "not a genius" and that her math skills have not noticeably improved since receiving the award).
"English is my third language after Creole and French and sometimes their intonations and sentence structures will influence the sound of the English," she says. "When I was starting, in Breath, Eyes, Memory, I didn't always plunge into a sentence. 'He starts to walk.' That kind of progression toward saying what you need to say came from that. People will accuse writers of using other languages for flavoring but I use it when there's no other way to say it in English."
Claire of the Sea Light is a gorgeous and fragile novel that, through death, explores what it means to be alive. Though the 2010 earthquake is seemingly inextricable from the story, Danticat insists it is not an earthquake novel.
"Everyone is talking about who will write the great Haitian earthquake novel," she explains, "but I don't want to get in the running for that. If something comes to me, I might follow it. But right now, it's still too fresh."
She thinks of the bag made for her by her cousin's wife, each stitch a buttress against the pain of a world collapsing around the woman.
"It has a rose on the front," Danticat says, "this bag that grew out of this woman's grief."
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Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat. 256 pages, hardcover. Published by Knopf.
On Tuesday, August 27 at 8 p.m., Edwidge Danticat will read at Books & Books, 265 Aragon Avenue, Coral Gables. Call 305-442-4408 or visit booksandbooks.com.