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. In that time, 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," Danticat says. "And after that, 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 one another 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, like you just wandered through that town," Danticat says. "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 far 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 her easy laugh or smooth, ageless face. When Claire of the Sea Light repeatedly pairs births with deaths and sometimes opts not to differentiate between 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. "There's isn't as much effort in Haiti as there is here to shield children from all that."
She is already 100 pages into penning a young-adult novel about a pair 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 that doesn't mean Miami has not figured prominently in her process.
"Where Miami helps, it in some ways has a similar landscape [to Haiti]. 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."
Evelina Galang, director of the creative writing program at the University of Miami, 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."
M. Jessica Fièvre is one such writer who has benefited from Danticat's support. In a Haitian story collection she edited, Danticat anthologized Fièvre. And after a New York Times interview with Danticat singled out Fièvre as another Miami-based Haitian novelist worthy of attention, Fièvre learned of the honor when she began receiving requests to do public readings.
Fièvre is dazzled by what she describes as Danticat's ability to write about her home country as though she never left despite having spent far more time in the United States than in Haiti.
"I started reading her when I was living in Haiti," Fièvre tells New Times. "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 that adulation as she does most compliments. (Despite garnering the MacArthur grant, she insists that she is "not a genius" and that her math skills have not noticeably improved since receiving the award.)
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 that her cousin's wife made, 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."