University brings speaker to Queens Campus students: Danticat

Acclaimed author Edwidge Danticat spoke last Thursday in the Little Theatre as part of the University’s fall academic lecture series.

Danticat was introduced by Dr. Chandelle King, a professor at St. John’s who related a famous quote of the author’s, saying “I wanted to raise the voice of a lot of the people that I knew growing up, and this was, for the most part… poor people who had extraordinary dreams but also very amazing obstacles.”
Sponsored by the President’s Multicultural Advisory Committee, Danticat’s speech centered around her latest book, The Dew Breaker. A dew breaker was the name a government mercenary under the Haitian Duvalier regime of the late 20th century, so called because he broke the early morning dew under his feet as he went to destroy a house or drag an alleged criminal to jail.

Although the story centers on a reformed dew breaker who has moved to America, a more pervasive theme revolves around his victims, some of whom have also relocated to America, and their adjustment there. Having immigrated to Brooklyn with her family at the age of 12, Danticat is well familiar with the feeling of being uprooted.

“When I’m in the States, I’m a Haitian writer, when I’m in Haiti, I’m an American writer,” she explained.

The Dew Breaker is the third book for the author, whose previous works include The Farming of Bones and Breath, Eyes, Memory, which was featured in Oprah’s Book Club. In a question and answer period after the reading, Danticat discussed the pros and cons of writing a novel versus a short story. When asked why she would choose to begin one or the other, she confessed that short stories were “easier,” especially when she was tired. This elicited an enormous laugh from the appreciative audience.

However, “some stories will just give themselves to you,” said the author.

After receiving her Bachelor’s in French at Barnard College, she went on to Brown University to earn a Master’s in Fine Arts. Danticat’s thesis became her debut novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory.

Although Danticat is one of a multitude of Haitian writers, Haiti’s overall illiteracy rate is estimated at 80 to 90 percent, according to the New York Times.

“You wonder how many more [writers] there would be if there was a higher rate of literacy,” Danticat said.

The divide between country and city in Haiti is also paramount to its development. Danticat spoke about this divide, citing the fact that passports between rural and urban dwellers were differently marked. The city people were “citizens,” while the country folk were “peasants.”

Despite the importance of sharing these and other vital details to the world, Danticat laughingly insisted that first and foremost, “my personal goal is to write a good story.”

As for her political goals, the internationally known novelist stated that she wanted to get awareness up about the reality of Haiti, relating that, although times could be hard, there is more to the country than the violence and tragedy depicted in the news.

As one of the presentations in the Fall 2006 Lecture Series, Danticat illuminated students and faculty alike. “Really moving,” said graduate student Safiyia Roseman. “Really real…as a voice against forces economic [and] political. This is one force whose light, we hope, will continue to shine for a long time.”