Ask Edwidge Danticat too personal a question and the soft-spoken 29-year-old writer becomes flustered, nose scrunched in distress, polite smile suddenly frozen. A scrupulous hostess who serves guests spring water from a small enameled tray in her parents' living room in Brooklyn, the baby-faced Danticat can, without saying a single word, make an interviewer feel that some unwritten code of journalistic chivalry has been breached.
To find Danticat so guarded is surprising, considering the intensely personal nature of her writing. This is, after all, the woman who in her critically acclaimed first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory (Soho, 1994), described a young Haitian torn between her love for her mother and her sense of betrayal, particularly over the Haitian practice of "testing," or monitoring a daughter's virginity. (Danticat received hate mail from Haitian Americans for outing the custom). The stories in Danticat's collection Krik? Krak! (Soho, 1995) candidly examine not only the painful social legacy that Danticat left behind in her homeland of Haiti, but also the delicate, sometimes agonizingly twisted ties that bind an emigrant daughter to her heritage. Her new novel, The Farming of Bones (Soho), exposes the 1937 Haitian genocide at the border of the neighboring Dominican Republic, an episode that still haunts the Haitian community.
So why the reticence? Blame it a little on natural shyness, hinted at in the obviously autobiographical epilogue of Krik? Krak!; blame it also on Oprah, who selected Breath, Eyes, Memory for the June 18 "meeting" of her book club. Since her television appearance, Danticat says, she has been trying to "stay low." In its wake, the novel shot to the number one slot on the PW paperback bestseller list, Vintage took its edition back to press to bring the total in print to 600,000 and Danticat's agent, Nicole Aragi, at Watkins, Loomis, has been inundated with calls.
The lyrical, folklore -- steeped Breath, Eyes, Memory has many of the themes common to an Oprah pick: a troubled mother-daughter relationship and a present deformed by a shameful past. It tells the story of Sophie Caco, the daughter of a rape victim, raised in Haiti by her aunt until her mother summons her to New York when she is 12. There, Sophie struggles to appease her mother's demons, but at 18 finally flees into the arms of the family's next-door neighbor, a Louisiana-born Creole jazz musician. When marriage and motherhood cannot soothe Sophie's troubled soul, she makes a pilgrimage back to Haiti to seek solace -- and a measure of self-knowledge -- with her aunt.
Though she received "the call" in March, Danticat met Oprah previously when she worked as an extra on the talk show hostess's forthcoming adaptation of Toni Morrison's Beloved. "Being on Oprah doesn't turn your life upside-down -- it's been pretty calm for me, thank God," she says. Nonetheless, she has been trying to stop giving interviews in her parents' home, where she lives part-time but whose silver-flock-wallpaper and beige-carpet decor, she notes delicately, is not her own. Since January, she has been subletting a studio in a Haitian community outside New York. "I just feel you need a little safe place sometimes, some place that you have just for yourself," she explains.
Danticat may find her much-cherished privacy increasingly difficult to hold on to. The first African Haitian female author to write in English and be published by a major house, she captured the attention of the national media in 1995 when Krik? Krak! garnered a National Book Award nomination (the title is the traditional opening call-and-response at a Haitian storytelling session). One year later, she was selected as one of the 20 "Best Young American Novelists" by Granta. Paperback rights to The Farming of Bones, which is a QPB selection, have sold to Penguin for $200,000. Danticat's low profile, it seems, is in imminent danger of being blown for good.
Danticat's personal background is as turbulent as one might expect from her writing. Born in 1969, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Danticat was separated from her father at age two, when he emigrated to the United States to work in a factory (he is currently a driver for a car service). Her mother, now retired, followed him when Danticat was four. Danticat and her younger brother, Eliab, were turned over to the care of her father's brother, a minister, who lived with his wife and grandson in Bel Air, a poor area of Port-au-Prince. At 12, Danticat finally rejoined her parents in Brooklyn, but had to struggle to remake her family ties (for starters, she had two new younger brothers). She also had to learn English from scratch (the family still speaks Creole at home) and endure epithets from public school classmates who mocked her as a "boat person." "My primary feeling the whole first year was one of loss," she recalls. "Loss of my childhood, and of the people I'd left behind -- and also of being lost. It was like being a baby -- learning everything for the first time."
But what Danticat had already learned in Haiti would prove a more valuable education. As a child in Bel Air, she received an enduring lesson in the power of storytelling at the feet of her aunt's grandmother, a woman whose long hair, with coins braided into it, the neighborhood children fought to comb. "She told stories when the people would gather -- folk tales with her own spin on them, and stories about the family," says Danticat. "It was call-and-response -- if the audience seemed bored, the story would speed up, and if they were participating, a song would go in. The whole interaction was exciting to me. These cross-generational exchanges didn't happen often, because children were supposed to respect their elders. But when you were telling stories, it was more equal, and fun."
Danticat made her own first foray into storytelling at seven, when, after borrowing the Madeline books from an aunt who was a street vendor, she rewrote the stories with a Haitian heroine. In Brooklyn, she was penning articles for a high school newspaper, New Youth Connections, within a year of her arrival. An article she wrote in high school about her arrival in America and her reunion with her mother became the germ of Breath, Eyes, Memory. "I felt like I was stuck with more of the story," says Danticat. "I started writing it in fictional form, and adding things to it."
After graduating from Barnard College in 1990, Danticat worked as a secretary and applied to both MBA schools and MFA programs while writing after-hours at the office. When she was simultaneously accepted by NYU's Stern Business School and Brown's creative writing program, she chose the latter, not least because it offered a full scholarship.
Even before taking her MFA, however, Danticat had a publisher waiting in the wings. After leaving Barnard, she had sent 70 pages of what would become Breath, Eyes, Memory to Soho, a press she discovered in Writer's Digest. It was fished out of the slush pile by editor and v-p Laura Hruska, who eventually purchased the novel for a $5000 advance. "They would send me notes and ask if I was done with the book yet. They were very encouraging," says Danticat. It wasn't until the spring of 1996, after the writer had negotiated the deals for her next two books herself, that she signed with Aragi, who had been courting her ever since reading the galleys for Breath, Eyes, Memory in early 1994. "She's a younger agent, and her list isn't so long that she doesn't take my calls," reports Danticat with characteristic modesty.
Danticat, who currently travels to Haiti as often as four times a year, has been researching The Farming of Bones since 1992. The novel takes as its historical background the reign of dictator Rafael Trujillo Molina, a period of rising Dominican nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiment (Haitians have been emigrating to the bordering Dominican Republic for work since the 19th century). In 1937, the anti-Haitian propaganda campaign flared into violence, resulting in the death of thousands of Haitians. An earlier story about a survivor of the massacre, "Nineteen Thirty-Seven," is included in Krik? Krak! But it wasn't until Danticat stood on the banks of the river Massacre itself, where the killings had taken place, that she fully realized that she wanted to make a novel out of the story. (The river is named after another 19th-century genocidal episode that had occurred on its banks.) "It was really strange to stand there -- it was low tide, and people were bathing, and washing their clothes in the water," recalls Danticat. "There are no markers. I felt like I was standing on top of a huge mass grave, and just couldn't see the bodies. That's the first time I remember thinking, 'Nature has no memory' -- a line that later made its way into the book -- 'and that's why we have to have memory.' "
The Farming of Bones is told from the perspective of Amabelle Désir, a young Haitian woman working as a servant on a sugar-cane plantation in the Dominican Republic in 1937. When the violence breaks out, Amabelle is maimed as she flees back into Haiti, but her lover, Sebastien, is murdered. The novel is more overtly historical than Danticat's previous writings. One senses that its author has laid to rest some of the personal issues that loom so large during the passage from adolescence to adulthood. These days, Danticat is focused instead on a mission of writing for the benefit of her community. "The massacre is not as well-known here as it is in Haiti," she says. "But I wasn't thinking so much I wanted to popularize it with a larger audience as with younger people, like my brothers, who didn't know about it at all. It's a part of our history, as Haitians, but it's also a part of the history of the world. Writing about it is an act of remembrance."
Today impoverished Haitians still migrate across the border to the Dominican Republic to work in construction or sugar-cane harvesting (known colloquially as "farming the bones" due to the cane's toughness). To foster greater understanding between the two nations, Danticat organizes joint Haitian-Dominican community youth groups in the New York area with writer Junot Díaz, who grittily chronicled Dominican immigrant life in his 1996 short story collection, Drown. ("Junot and I were paired so much for readings that it would have been tragic if we didn't like each other," recalls Danticat with a laugh.) As part of a 1997 three-year grant from the Lila Acheson Wallace Foundation, Danticat also works with the National Coalition for Haitian Rights.
Danticat has no concrete plans yet for her next book project, and Aragi says her client has no thought of cashing in on her current status as a hot property by rushing to sign a hefty contract with a larger house. Says Danticat: "I feel really comfortable with Soho. I like the size." But she grins and makes a zipping motion with her fingers over her lips when asked if she intends to remain with them for her next project. "I always felt like I was a four-book writer, but I don't know when that fourth book will be written," she says. "I don't want to sign papers and feel like I have to produce something on demand."
It is difficult to imagine Danticat working to someone else's demands. She insists that her newfound role as mouthpiece for her community will not burden her as an artist. "The only pressure I feel is that I always have to explain to people that when I describe a character in one of my books, I'm only writing about this one, perhaps exceptionally twisted individual," she says. "My characters are not representative of the community as a whole. As a writer, it's the person who is different from everybody else who might be interesting to you." Just as, one might argue, it is the writer who is different from everyone else -- who, like Danticat, has a unique personal and historical legacy to share -- who is most interesting readers.