Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work
by Edwidge Danticat
–Reviewed by Deanna Neil
A cultural critic and memoirist, Edwidge Danticat’s elegiac essays reveal the tumultuous history Haiti, and the urgency of immigrant art. Her collection of stories hinge on the themes of artistry, death, memory, and what it means to have a soul divided between two countries: America and Haiti.
Create Dangerously opens with a lurid description of Marcel Numa and Louis Drouin’s brutal 1964 executions in Haiti under the reign of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier. The two young men had returned from exile to overthrow the dictator, and failed. For Danticat, the story is an obsession; it’s a “creation myth” proving that the greatest patriots sometimes come from the farthest distances, where their long memories and foreign comforts fuel the urgency for homeland change. When all else seems lost, it is the artist’s job to keep that spirit alive.
Danticat left Haiti for New York at the age of twelve to reunite with her parents in New York and escape the brutal regimes of Papa Doc and his son, Jean Claude. But she never forgot the power and danger of words under repressive dictatorships or how people needed art to remind themselves of their own humanity and agency – on both sides of the water. “Create Dangerously for people who read dangerously,” she asserts. In writing,”no matter how trivial your words may seem, someday, somewhere, someone may risk his or her life to read them.”
The sentiment is jarringly loaded and foreboding for a first chapter, but as the essays unfold it seems justified. Story after story, Danticat seduces the reader with her honesty. She paints larger-than-life, vivid characters who are “guapa” – “courageously beautiful” – even in the face of tragedy: Jean Dominique, her colleague and heroic Haitian Radio commentator, who was ultimately gunned down outside of his station in 2000; her 75-year-old Tante (Aunt) Ilyana, who guarded of the family legacy in the rural mountains of Haiti. Danticat’s love and respect for each of the people she describes pulses through each sentence, and when death strikes, again and again, the loss is palpable.
The most haunting character we meet is Alerte Belance, a woman who is literally hacked to pieces with machetes and not only survives, but becomes pregnant months later in an unbelievable conclusion. Throughout Create Dangerously, Danticat artfully captures the unpredictable devastation of life, while simultaneously witnessing the resilience and joy of its survivors.
In her final chapter, Danticat reflects on the damage of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. She stands with family survivors and tells them that she’s glad the “Goudougoudou” left them alive, so she could see them. “They laugh,” she writes, “and their laughter fills me with more hope than the moment deserves. But this is really all I have come for. I have come to embrace them, the living, and I have come to honor the dead.” While her contemplations of art, music, film and writing are versed and interesting, her gift is in her portrayal of everyday heroes, and searing their stories on our minds.