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Book Review: Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work by Edwidge Danticat

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Edwidge Danticat’s Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work speaks more of her experience as a Haitian immigrant and of memories of Haiti than it does general thoughts of immigrant artists. Yet, even though I would have liked more general philosophies of art as suggested in the title, the power of the work as written is incredible.

The book opens with a true story which so haunted and obsessed Danticat that she decided to become a writer; it is the wrenching story of the public execution of Marcel Numa and Louis Drouin under the Haitian dictator Papa Doc Duvalier. This story sets the tone for the rest of the work: these essays are filled with accounts of the tragedies of individuals and of Haiti, from which the reader wants to turn away, but instead is so gripped by the resonance of Danticat’s language that he is forced to recognize what so many of us wish was not a part of reality and spend our lives trying to avoid.

This eponymous essay is the most captivating in the book. Danticat writes of how the youth and intellectuals of Haiti during Duvalier’s reign turned to sharing subversive art and reading classical texts as a critical commentary against the political oppression of the time. It reminds me that great literature does exactly this: it connects us all to the shared tragedies of life. But, hopefully, the best literature also inspires us to reach for shared dreams for a more caring world.

The fundamental concept behind this work is laid out in the first few pages, yet I am not sure that the rest of the essays quite follow this idea, although it is a poignant one to ponder. The title Create Dangerously is taken from a lecture by Albert Camus, and Danticat asks her immigrant artists to create dangerously for those who are willing to read dangerously; for someday someone may risk death just to read your words.

This is a worthwhile question for all of us to ponder: would we still strive to consume and create art and ideas if doing so could be our death sentence, as it was for so many in Haiti during Danticat’s childhood? For that matter, how many of us in America are willing to embrace the study of the humanities, when this means we will probably never prosper in our technology based, consumer driven society? Are the things we are willing to die for not, in fact, the only things that are worth living for?

The remaining essays dissipate a bit after “Create Dangerously” in the sense that they do not continue to press at the question of why we create art and at what price, but each still offers a powerful story of human strength and the difficulties of being an immigrant from a nation that never had a fair chance. “Walk Straight” is the tale of Danticat’s visit to her elderly aunt who lives in a remote region of Haiti. It is a chronicle concerned with memory, family, the meaning of home and cultural representation. “Daughters of Memory” tells how Danticat did not discover Haitian literature until she arrived in the U.S., having been fed exclusively the literature of the French colonial power as a child in Haiti. This inspires Danticat to question how a culture remembers its history when it is not allowed to do so.

“I’m Not a Journalist” is the heartbreaking remembrance of Jean Dominique, Haiti’s most famous commentator and cultural critic. It captures his amazing personage, but also the fear and sadness inherent in a society where those who speak truth to power are killed with impunity; a fear that keeps the people confined in every possible way. I wonder if we in America have taken cultural criticism for granted in the past because it does not cost us anything to speak out. But then again, with ever more and more “security measures” that acclimate us to becoming mindless cogs of the power elite, perhaps we are headed toward a future when naming the abuses of the strong will result in suppression. Thinking in America may be becoming a more dangerous thing.

“I Speak Out” is one of the hardest stories to stand, and consequently one of the most important. In this essay, Danticat writes about her experience interviewing Alèrte Bélance, a woman who was hacked apart with machetes by Haitian paramilitary members during the 1991 coup. The description of her attack is raw and graphic, as is her long road to recovery. Well, recovery is the wrong term, as she still has large pieces of her body missing and the scars to remind her of her near death. Yet, at the same time, Danticat captures an innocence and a search for acceptance in Bélance, who questions whether or not she should wear a hat over her shorn hair, saying, “I look like a boy.” Her children play in the background while she tells her tale, certainly desensitized to the violence, not immune to it or healed after it.

Danticat tells of how she had to send her cousin’s body home to Haiti from the U.S. after he died of AIDS, and how even that sorrowful process was made complicated by the fact that he was an illegal alien, in “The Other Side of the Water.” I learned in “Bicentennial” that Haitian independence was the only time slaves successfully overthrew their masters to form a state, and also about Thomas Jefferson’s refusal to support this revolution.

As is the case with so many contemporary American works, “Flying Home” bears the mark of Sept. 11, which for many immigrants was a moment that made them embrace America in a new way. Toward the end, the book moves a bit more into the artist’s experience, with essays about Jean-Michel Basquiat and the moving life story of Haitian photojournalist Daniel Morel. Much is made of the link between photography and death in the essay on Morel, who himself admits, “I became a photojournalist because at Numa and Drouin’s execution, I felt afraid and I never wanted to feel afraid again….When I take pictures, I feel like something is shielding me, like the camera is protecting me.” The book ends with Danticat recounting her personal loss during the 2010 Haitian earthquake.

The tragedies in Create Dangerously are hard to stomach, but this is exactly the side of life we need to all open our eyes to if we are to move beyond causing each other pain and find a higher ground of mutual compassion and respect. Danticat’s voice offers a plaintive, entreating call for recognition of the suffering of so many in the world, and of their irrepressible desire to make life more meaningful by embracing art despite it all, no matter the cost.

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About Kerri Shadid