Haiti calling

Since she emigrated from Haiti to the United States in 1981, Edwidge Danticat has had her feet in two cultures. Writing always has been her way to connect the two. “When I got here, I felt so lost in a way,” said Danticat over the phone, a Brooklyn accent giving away where she spent her youth. “Writing was a way to interpret my world, to incorporate the new things I was learning.”

Danticat was a quick study, indeed. From Breath, Eyes, Memory, begun when she was still in high school and later made a selection for Oprah’s Book Club, to Krik? Krak!, which was named a National Book Award Finalist when Danticat was just 25, Danticat made her name as a writer who could depict characters caught between the past and the future—a Haiti mired in the past and an America where remnants of that past are surreally out of place.

Now Danticat has published her third novel, The Dew Breaker, with cruel timeliness, as Haiti nearly tips over into anarchy. The book revolves around a former dew breaker, a transliteration from Creole of the name given to enforcers from Jean-Claude Duvalier’s regime. The book opens in 2000, and Danticat’s dew breaker has moved to Brooklyn to put his past behind him. In the opening sequence, however, he must deal with his crimes when his daughter crafts a sculpture of him. “Ka,” he says, addressing his daughter with a nickname that means “body double,” “when I first saw your statue, I wanted to be buried with it.”

A note in Danticat’s acknowledgements makes clear that, unlike Breath, Eyes, Memory, this is not a very autobiographical novel. “After the first piece was published in The New Yorker,” she said, laughing, “a friend of mine came up to me and said, ‘Aren’t you worried people are going to think your pop is a torturer?’” Danticat’s father actually drove a cab, but she does know what it feels like to live in close proximity to people who may have done very bad things.

The Dew Breaker dramatizes this frisson of fear and dread by taking a round-robin approach to narration. The first story is narrated from the perspective of the dew breaker’s daughter; it then expands to include people in his East Flatbush neighborhood, including barbershop customers, Haitian-Americans who nearly escaped his sword, and his wife. Some chapters don’t even touch on him but merely evoke the brutal memory of living under the threat of violence. “They’d break into your house … before dawn, as the dew was settling on the leaves, and they’d take you away,” remembers a retired dressmaker. Although this interlocking story structure might fool people who think this book is a novel, it aptly mirrors the fabric of this community and how it must weave itself together.

Part of Danticat always will be in Haiti; not only does she have a past there, but she has relatives, too—a worrisome thing now. “Like everybody else, I check in with them regularly,” she said. “Thankfully, they’re not yet in the region that’s having the most trouble.”

Danticat recently moved to Florida to be with her husband, so she is closer to Haiti, but she’s not close enough. In the meantime, she does not bemoan having to write her way to wholeness. “Dealing with two places is a gift. A rich life is what every artist seeks. Having two cultures to draw from is great in terms of creativity, in finding nuance. That’s not tragic. It’s wonderful with possibilities; it adds layers to one as a person.” In The Dew Breaker, she proves what wonderful layers it can add to fiction, as well.