Think Out Loud

REBROADCAST: Author Edwidge Danticat on “Everything Inside”

By Sage Van Wing (OPB)
May 12, 2022 12:02 a.m.

Broadcast: Tuesday, March 26

Edwidge Danticat's latest book is the collection of short stories “Everything Inside.”

Edwidge Danticat's latest book is the collection of short stories “Everything Inside.”

courtesy of Edwidge Danticat


Edwidge Danticat is an award-winning writer of novels, short stories, essays, and memoirs, with a focus on the rich experiences of the Haitian diaspora. Her latest book is the collection of short stories “Everything Inside.” We spoke with Danticat in front of an audience at Woodburn High School.

The following transcirpt was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. We are coming to you today in front of an audience at Woodburn High School in conversation with the award winning writer Edwidge Danticat. Edwidge Danticat is a novelist, a short story writer, an essayist and memoirist. Although, as with the themes of her work, the borders of those genres are blurry and often overlapping. She writes about the universalities of the immigrant experience, across cultures and time as well as the rich specific details of the Haitian diaspora. Danticat was born and lived in Haiti until she was 12 when she joined her parents in the U.S. She is a recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship and two National Book Critics Circle Awards. Her latest book is the story collection, “Everything Inside”. Edwidge Danticat, it’s an honor to have you on the show.

Edwidge Danticat: Thank you so much for having me.

Dave Miller: You have said that you can partly trace your interest in being a writer and a written storyteller to hearing stories when you were growing up, the oral storytelling tradition in Haiti. What kinds of stories would you hear?

Edwidge Danticat: Oh wow! So many stories. And part of it was I think growing up in an era where we had a television in my house in Haiti, my uncle had a television, but it was only for a special occasion. And so storytelling was the means of entertainment and often it would happen at night and sometimes when we went to spend summers in the countryside, also at night. But so the stories would be kind of like the folktales. There was often, it would be about a child whose mother had died, right? And there’s one about a magic orange tree that I think has some parallel in a story that I’ve heard here like ‘The Giant and The Beanstalk’. But this one was a girl whose mother had died. She went by the river. She had this seed and she would sing to the seed to grow. It would be like teazore gandhi, gandhi, gandhi, teazore gandhi, gandhi mama, like stepmother is not real mother because the stepmother was treating her badly.

Dave Miller: So that’s like a kind of universal, bad stepmothers in kids’ stories.

Edwidge Danticat: Yes, exactly. And I think, and then at some point someone had said, oh, it’s because often you have a high infant maternal mortality rate, like when you get into the real world, but stories like that, stories often about lost children and there was one story about a horse named Galippo, who was a three legged horse that came at night for sort of terrible children, terribly behaved children. And then, and then at some point during the U.S. occupation of Haiti, 1915 to 1934, people merged that with the sound of Marine’s boots outside their doors. And there was a gentleman who was also a character with a knapsack who took minority children in there and during the dictatorship, they became a militia, but the dictator made them a militia. So there are also the ways that the storytelling would somehow weave itself into history somehow.

Dave Miller: Do you see yourself, tendrils of that in the work you do now? Do you see connections between the stories you heard and the stories you’re telling now?

Edwidge Danticat: Oh absolutely. I think the stories made me a writer, like when people ask who are your biggest writing teachers, I say my grandmother and my aunt because the way they told the story was so much, so instructive to me about storytelling, about engaging other people. I was a very super shy girl and I would just watch and soak it in like there were other kids who were watching and waiting for their turn to retell the story or tell the story.

Dave Miller: It was intergenerational like that?

Edwidge Danticat: Yes, it was actually one of the few extraordinarily intergenerational activities because you were supposed to not even look at adults, in the eye, like you were supposed to be so respectful and deferential and adults, like especially that your grandparents were always supposed to be super scoldy, but this was a moment where you saw them, just really happy and they were really engaged in the pleasure that the children, the young people were getting from the story so that if you were sleeping, they would add the song or they would add some suspenseful element and they would ask, it was a call and response ‘creek’, you know the storyteller would say ‘creek’, the audience would say ‘crack team team’, the storyteller would say ‘boache’ the audience would say… So there was such an interaction to it that you were not just being told a story. It’s like you were given a story, and as Toni Morrison writes to pass on, it was like now it was your story to pass on.

Dave Miller: Your dad left Haiti for the U.S., for New York when you were two. Your mom left two years later when you were four. And then if I’m not mistaken, besides one trip a couple of years, a couple years later, you didn’t see them until you went eight years after that. So you were raised for that period by your uncle and your aunt. Can you tell us a little bit about your uncle?

Edwidge Danticat: Yeah, so my uncle was a minister in a neighborhood in Haiti called Bel Air and that was the neighborhood where they moved to from the, people who have migration stories, you often have several layers of migration. So my family had migration from the countryside to a place called Beuse Jure, it’s a good stay in the Leogane, in the mountains and they moved to the city, to Bel Air and my uncle was a minister and his house was the house, sort of of the house of the children whose parents had left, had migrated. So I was in the house with my cousins who’s, in one particular cousin, whose dad was in New York and whose mom was in Canada. And other cousins would come through as their parents went to the Dominican Republic and other places. So we were, my uncle was in charge of sort of a small household of small children with my aunt, Aunt Denise. And then a couple of years ago when there was trouble in the neighborhood, in Bel Air, he left Haiti, he had a Visa. He’d been coming back and forth to the U.S., then was detained by immigration and died in immigration custody at 81 years old.

Dave Miller: It wasn’t uncommon, I mean as you were just saying for kids’ parents to leave Haiti to go to the U.S. or Canada or France or wherever. Was it assumed that you and those other kids whose parents had gone for work in other places. Was it assumed that you would join them at some point?

Edwidge Danticat: That was always the hope. It wasn’t uncommon at all. And it still remains not uncommon, the separation of families. And it’s something that sometimes people misunderstand, but I think my parents as they explained to me later and as a parent now myself, imagining myself in that position, the parents often have to make this decision, do I stay with my child and then we both have, we were both in the ways of gangs, we’re both in the ways of this dictatorship, in our case, in the ways of poverty or do I make this temporary sacrifice and separate and then reunite with them later? Because often the parents are anticipating, you’re going to a new country you like, who you don’t, you won’t have childcare even, right? So my, so it was always the hope that once, my parents were undocumented, they didn’t have papers. They came onto as Visas and they stayed longer and then they were hoping to to change their status at some point, which they did and then were able to send for us, about eight years later. Once they had got their papers, then they went back to Haiti because at that time you had to travel to the host country and that’s the one time with my brother and I, who were in Port Au Prince, saw them that one time and then they return to the U.S. and our paperwork started and I was able to join them when I was 12 years old.

Dave Miller: Before that, what was it like to live in a kind of limbo where I imagine there was an indefinite expiration date on your time there? But yet that was the only home you knew.

Edwidge Danticat: Yeah, I mean it was, I mean I see when I go back to Haiti now and I see kids who are in that same situation and folks call them diaspora, diaspora, like as though they had already left, which is what diaspora is what you call folks who are, who are Haitian but are living outside of the country.

Dave Miller: Like there’s a part of them that’s not even there, even though they’re fully there.

Edwidge Danticat: Yeah, so people would say, oh that one is the diaspora, just like you, because both their parents are abroad and they’re waiting, like for their paperwork to come through, so there was always a very, a limbo and my brother who was younger than me dealt with it in the sense that he was like, it’s okay if I don’t do so well in school because I’m going, I mean, there was a part of you that was always kind of living in the future and even my uncle would say to us, sometimes he would say your parents will fix you when you get to New York. It was like there was that part of your life that was always projected and it was…

Dave Miller: Fix you? Was that a threat, though?

Edwidge Danticat: It was like, you’ll get like you, like if you don’t behave like you, I will tell your parents and then they will.

Dave Miller: There will be a spanking on the other side of the country.

Edwidge Danticat: You’ll get a spanking in about three years, maybe.

Dave Miller: Let’s take a question from the audience. Go ahead, tell us your name, if you don’t mind.

Berlin: My name is Berlin Mendoza. And so personally, my parents aren’t really fond of the idea of me pursuing a career as a writer and they kind of want me to pursue a more conventional career, like being a doctor or a lawyer, especially as a person of color. So I guess my question is like, what advice do you have for me or others in a similar situation?

Edwidge Danticat: Yeah, thank you for that question. First of all I want to say, it’s so nice to be here with all of you at Woodburn Senior High School. Thank you for being part of the audience. So my parents were not thrilled at all with the idea of me being a writer at all. Because for one, the first thing was that we grew up under a dictatorship and writers were often persecuted, writers were exiled. Actually, there’s sort of one great, one of many wonderful writers, Jacque Stephen Alexis was ambushed and killed during their lifetime, you know? And so when I would say I wanted to be a writer, that was the first thing that came to their mind, but also they’re like, how are you going to make a living? And so, and one thing about being a child of immigrants is that slowly you realize, as your life goes along, that so much was sacrificed for you to be here, for you to have these opportunities. So my parents were like, try to find a sure career path and for them, that was for my parents, it was medicine and they wanted me to be a doctor and I said, well it’s a long road. And then my dad was like, you can be a nurse and I’ll tell you, to the extent, it was so important to them that when my first book was in Oprah’s Book Club, and I met Oprah, I was like, and the book was, people are reading the book, my dad still said, like, now you will have enough money for medical school. So he sort of never let go of that dream. But one thing I would say, you have, now at my age and having teenage children, I can understand both sides of it. And yes, it’s very important to follow your dream and to pursue it, which I did, sometimes against my family’s wishes, but I think it’s also important to have like a backup, like something, something that you, you can also pursue while you’re, while you’re pursuing your passion. It may not be medicine, it may be something else, but I think it’s also good to have a little footing.

Dave Miller: Can I ask you what makes you want to be a writer?

Berlin: So like for me, I love poetry and I realized that like poetry is like a way for me to express myself and feel safe while doing it and not necessarily having to speak with someone about it. So that’s why I really thought about pursuing being a writer.

Edwidge Danticat: Yeah, when I arrived, I arrived, actually my, I had my recent, I guess anniversary, I arrived in March of 1981. It was a Friday. I remember it so well and then I remember my parents having a conversation that Sunday about whether I should, my brother and I should sit out the school year or go to school and then my dad was like, no, they go to school. So, I arrived Friday. I was in mid, we say middle school now, but junior high school on Monday. I didn’t speak any English, but at that time they had English as a second language classes. So I was in an English as a second language class where it was my one teacher, who was an exile from Haiti, from the dictatorship, Mr Raymond Duceck who taught every class. So we were in a, it was kind of like, now I’ve learned like sort of being in first grade when you have the one teacher or kindergarten like, so he taught us everything and he was obsessed with soccer. So, and it was the World Cup, or some big soccer tournament and he taught us everything according to the games, like we had a TV in the classroom and it was like, this is physics, the way the ball is going, this is science and listen to what they’re saying. So it was, he was a really amazing and fun influence.

Dave Miller: But do you remember when you, before you got into that class, that very first day, that Monday morning, did you know you’d have Haitian teacher or did you think, did you have any idea what was ahead of you?

Edwidge Danticat: I didn’t, I didn’t know anything about the school system in the U.S. or the, in Haiti’s schools, you have these milestone tests, like at a certain age you take this to go to from elementary to secondary, you take a Cerifica, which is like a national exam. I had taken that early. So I I didn’t I didn’t know how it worked at all. So it was just really walking into a huge school, kind of like this school and my school in Haiti was pretty small. It was a small building. So it was like all these students, everybody at the same time. It was super overwhelming.

Dave Miller: I’ve read that one of the first books in English that you read was Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings”. What did that book mean to you?

Edwidge Danticat: Yes. So when I got to the, not far from where I was going to school was the Brooklyn Public Library and they would take us on, one of the parts of the thing was going there and getting your library card. And when I went to get my library card, I looked, of course, for the books in French and the Haitian books that I could read. I got a bunch of them. And then when we got to sort of the English section I saw this book, it was a paperback with a little girl in a sort of a house that looked sort of familiar to me that looks like, oh this could be in Haiti, but it was in the southern United States and I remember picking up that book and I read it with a dictionary because I really, really wanted to read it and I was so blown away by it and with the similarities in our stories and that she was raised, her mom sent her to the south to be raised by her grandmother in a way that felt very similar to how I was raised, like, very strict, very and so, in reading that book, I felt like it gave me permission to write my books because it was so, along with the Haitian books that I was reading, that we’re sort of about my home and seeing my home in a different way, but I, the stuff she talked about, all the, the really deeply personal experiences of abuse of, reconciliation with her parents and those years of separation and the way she worshiped her grandmother was the way I worshiped my uncle and my aunt, and then having to leave them at some point. So for me, it proved in a way that literature, I think people, many people have said it’s been said so much that literature can both be a window and a mirror, you could see a bit of yourself and you can also read to escape. And I felt like that book proved both to me, that there were other ways to tell stories, that there were people out there like you can write something and someone reads it who you’ve never met, you’ll never meet, but that that work can mean so much to them.

Dave Miller: Do you read books now that hit you as hard as that hit you? Can you recapture that or was that kind of a cataclysmic time?

Edwidge Danticat: I still read books like that, don’t ask me to name any one but because but I still, I still do and it’s over the years where I remember also reading “The Joy Luck Club” which was very different from my experience, Amy Tan, and feeling like whoa that’s like my, these are my like my aunts or reading Paul Marshall and others and there are certainly reading in a way it’s sometimes it’s the least place you expected and then it just blows you away. I call it a shock of recognition, like sometimes when you’re reading a book and you’re like, this is exactly what I was thinking but this person said it in that way, like that I could never say it that way. That happens to me all the time.

Dave Miller: So that’s the reading side but then obviously you started writing and you started writing, if I’m not mistaken, for a high school newspaper in New York city that was distributed to a bunch of schools all around the city called New Youth Connections. What made you say I’m going to do this?

Edwidge Danticat: Yeah, I don’t, it’s kind of, I mean it’s was that journey towards moving away from what my parents wanted me to be and then actually to try to explore in concrete ways like how I could pursue my dream, right? So, it wasn’t that easy to write for that paper because at that point if you all can believe it, there was no internet, like I couldn’t do it at home and email it. I literally had to get on the subway which was horrifying to my parents and a little scary for me, to go to an office that they had in Lower Manhattan and sit there and type my story and then the editor would go over it and that was the process. And then we had to do that a couple of times a week after school. But I really wanted to see how my dream would exist in the real world. And I think that sometimes something that I think is hard for young people to process because like sometimes we want to do something like you want to be a doctor and and even the school where I went to like my parents put me, I went to a high school. This is how much my family wanted me to be in medicine. My high school was called Clara Barton High School For the Health Professions. So, I was commuting from Clara Barton High School For the Health Professions to this publication a couple of times a week. At the same time, my school, we had to volunteer in the hospital. So I was actually the other time after school, I was volunteering in the geriatric ward at King’s County Hospital in Brooklyn, and both in an effort to kind of see like what to kind of bring into the present, these future visions of my life to see which I was more sort of like, would be able to live with.

Dave Miller: Do you remember the day or the week when your first piece came out and people all around the city, but also, I imagine, your classmates could read your words?

Edwidge Danticat: Yeah, I remember it very clearly because at that point, my younger brother was also in my high school and people, I had been there like a good two years before him and people were like, I was Andre’s sister and so I was still super shy and then people were like, oh my gosh, I didn’t know, then kids would read it, the teachers read it. And I had a byline. And so I think people suddenly started seeing me in a different way. And it actually taught me a lot about writing, about the power of words in the sense that they were amazed because I was very quiet. I didn’t really speak to many people, I didn’t have that many friends and I was in a sort of a program with maybe 30 kids who were on the same path and I didn’t, I wasn’t popular. So when people read it, it was almost as if they could have this silent conversation with me, and and I was always blown away by the interactions that that provoked because it was as if we had been talking and then they were, now could respond to to what I had said, and that was, that felt so incredibly strange, but gratifying to me. And then I realized, oh, this is another way of communicating with people into a really large group of people at once.

Dave Miller: That’s so fascinating to imagine, because what you’ve just described is the experience that I think so many of us have when we read anything, especially if it’s something that moves us, it does feel like we’re in conversation with the author or with their characters or with the story that, and but I guess I haven’t thought about it from the perspective of the author who then experiences people coming up to them as as if they actually have been in conversation. That does sound like it would be an odd experience.

Edwidge Danticat: Yeah, I mean, it’s it’s awesome too because you’re, you’re like mid conversation when you and I remember when I published my memoir, “Brother, I’m Dying”, which is in part about my uncle and his story and immigration, and but my whole family story is in there, to get to his. And I remember meeting people and they would say, how’s Bob? And I was like, you know Bob? They’re like, from your book. So that was that always, it was both kind of a little eerie and awesome at the same time.

Dave Miller: Let’s take another question from the audience. Go ahead, please.

Alondra: Hello, my name is Alondra. I was just wondering if you could say something to the high school you, right now or the old high school you, what would it be?

Edwidge Danticat: Oh, that’s so, that’s such a great question. Because I often feel like I’m speaking to the high school me when I’m speaking to my daughters who are in high school, and they always remind me that it’s not your time. As young people, I want to, I would say if you’re if you’re having a hard time, it gets better and, and you don’t have to be like, you won’t be, you won’t have to be for the rest of your life, the person you are now in high school and that goes to the ways that sometimes we pigeonhole ourselves or others pigeonhole us. I think it’s also very important to learn to enjoy your own company. Like solitude or being alone is not, it’s not gonna kill you. It’s the way it is, I feel like that’s the most important thing to learn to enjoy your own company so that you’re not at the mercy of other people’s love or hate for you, which can change so quickly. Read as much as you can, try to expose yourself to as many experiences in terms of sort of things that you’re thinking you might want to do. Like I’m very grateful, for example, that I was told to like go volunteer at the geriatric ward or or try this newspaper because there are things that you can, you’re looking at now that you’re thinking about doing that, you never know what will what will be like, like would carry you forward into your future. So this paper, my first novel, started up for the last essay I wrote for them, and then when I was done, I thought, oh maybe I can write more about this. And that became my novel, “Breath, Eyes, Memory”, which was the one that was on Oprah’s Book Club. So, sometimes there is a thread to things that you’re doing now to your future, but stay, stay open, explore and learn as much as you can.


Dave Miller: We’ve got to take a quick break, but we have much more with Edwidge Danticat and our audience here at Woodburn High School. Stay tuned. This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. We are talking today in front of an audience at Woodburn High School. We’re talking with the author Edwidge Danticat, she is the author of many books including “Breath, Eyes, Memory”, “The Farming of Bones”, “The Dew Breaker” and most recently the story collection “Everything Inside”. Let’s take another question from our audience.

Esperanza: Hi, my name is Esperanza Hernandez and my question is, a lot of your stories deal with a lot of trauma and in general, pain. How do you deal with writing this?

Edwidge Danticat: Thank you for that question. So I often feel like when I’m, the writing of the story is helping me with the trauma, writing for me is of course, a way that I learn what I’m thinking or what I developed my thoughts, it’s pleasure, but also it’s very, it’s therapeutic in many ways. So I feel like once I put my thoughts down, when I put the stories down, I feel it a little bit lighter and I and also with the hope that other people who are going through similar things might find a little bit of themselves in it. So, part of dealing with trauma is writing, but of course I do other things like exercise and meditate and other things that also help, when you step away from the writing so that the writing is not also re-traumatizing.

Dave Miller: Let’s go to another question. Go ahead please.

Jada: Hi, my name is Jada. How did you get your first book published?

Edwidge Danticat: So, thank you Jada. So the story of my getting my first book published was a little bit unusual. So as I said, I had written an essay for this new, this high school paper and I aged out so I couldn’t write for them anymore and I thought, oh maybe I can write this as fiction. And so I started writing and I entered the Seventeen Magazine fiction contest, which a lot of writers have entered and some have won, but I didn’t win. But then I thought, so I got an honorable mention and that encouraged me and then I sent it to a publisher in New York, it was a small publisher called Soho Press. And later my editor told me that she was trying to figure out what my name was, Edwidge, it was like it was unusual, she couldn’t tell if I was, she should address my letter of rejection to Ms. Danticat or Mr. Danticat, so she started reading it to figure out and then she said, “Oh!” and then in reading it, she liked it.

Dave Miller: Wait, she was going to just say no.

Edwidge Danticat: Yes.

Dave Miller: Wow. Just even without having read it, even without having read your story, she was prepared to say no?

Edwidge Danticat: Unsolicited. And I was like a kid and then she, yeah and then and then she said, “Oh, do you have more?” and I didn’t have more. So I spent like months frantically writing more and then she rejected it. But then she said when it’s ready, you can send it back. And so then with that encouragement, I went into an M.F.A. Program at Brown University, I made it my thesis and I sent it back and then she accepted it before I graduated. So that was like a very unusual kind of journey, but I think people who want to, if you have a manuscript you want to publish, usually there are some publishing houses, fewer now, that will accept unsolicited. They had you know my publisher had listed that they do unsolicited but you know not maybe not a lot. And some people get an agent, but it’s still there’s a lot of information out there now on how to submit and stuff, but it was kind of a, my story was a bit unusual.

Dave Miller: It also seems like, at two different moments, no’s that that came your way but that that left the door open or that they provided enough encouragement to keep you going, even if it wasn’t a yes, at that moment it was, keep trying.

Edwidge Danticat: And publishing often works like that, like they’ll say you sort of like their degrees of rejection, they’ll be like we can’t use this, but if you have other things, send it again and I think if you do submit and that happens, it’s good to follow through.

Dave Miller: Let’s take another question. Go ahead.

Alondra: Hello, my name is Alondra and I had a question. You have gone through a lot and you have shown it in your books, but I was wondering what are some things that have kept you moving, kept you waking up every morning and dealing with life and everything you have gone through.

Edwidge Danticat: What’s what’s kept me moving is truly like the stories of people who have come before me like at any moment that we’re living through and some of you know we’ve lived through a lot in the past two years, the past decade really, in terms I think of people like my grandparents and what they went through and how they overcame, like my ancestors and all the people who came before me. But also I think one way to keep moving also is to do whatever service you can, right? There are always people around who need you. You know whether you think like, when you think you’re going through something extraordinarily difficult, there are always others you can help. So for example, when the issues with my uncle, when my uncle died in immigration custody, through that whole period, I had been going, I’d been visiting detention centers where kids were, who were separated from their parents were held. I had gone to Congress to talk about this experience before. I had visited detention places with Congress people and reporters. But so, so in a way, I felt like this was not just, I knew that this was not just happening to me. So in a way, service is a good way I think of moving through the world and so like having other people to care for, to go on this kind of difficult journey with.

Dave Miller: You’ve written about a particular kind of service that you took part in with your father after your family was reunited in the States. He would take you with him on, I think it was weekly visits to the immigration detention center in Brooklyn where Haitian refugees or asylum seekers were essentially behind bars. What was he doing there? And why did he bring you?

Edwidge Danticat: Well, my dad was a deacon in this church in Brooklyn that in the, in the 80s, the dictatorship was just on its way out. And I think Rudy Giuliani was like Attorney General and there were people who were detained in the Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York. And so the church, when often, when people were released, would host them. And my dad was a deacon there. So we would go on Sundays, new members of the church would go on Sundays after church to visit people who were being detained and my dad would take me with him. And what I remember is seeing people who often, people who had come by boat, had a very difficult journey and a lot of times their family members didn’t know if they had made it and they would often give my dad, give us like pieces of paper with numbers and they would say, ‘Call this person and tell them I’m here’, and that was often extraordinary. It was very moving. And so when they were released and they were released with families within the church, and a location that their church had. So then we would see, you would see, even though I was, as a teenager, you would see over the years, how people would grow, like would, when they, once they were released, they would get jobs, they would start families and you would see their lives over the years. It was just extraordinary to witness.

Dave Miller: That’s something that you’ve continued to do, to use your phrase, as a witness or as a journalist or as a writer, to go to detention facilities in recent years. Can you give us a sense of what you’ve seen?

Edwidge Danticat: The most recent, they, it’s been harder and harder for lay people. I’m not officially a journalist. And often the ways that I would go in would be with, like if a congress person was visiting, you would go with a delegation and I’ve worked with an organization in Miami called Americans for Immigrant Justice. So most recently I’ve seen unaccompanied minors, often young people like you whose, and they might have relatives in the states, but their parents are in another country and it’s hard, that permission processes have not happened. So often you see them, they’re teenagers, like really bouncy happy teenagers who have had some of them very traumatic experiences, often they’re concerned about missing school. They miss the food, they miss their families. They, so it’s, and I have teenagers. I used to go actually with my daughter when she was much younger and just to have conversations with them about their journeys. One of the most heartbreaking things I did, I do remember that there were, there was a time when you would, the children were so young and to have a hearing where they were going before a judge. So this organization Americans for Immigrant Justice had to make a coloring book to say to their children, this is the judge, this is the lawyer, this is and they were very young children who would have to have these, these hearings, really. And that was the only way that this organization could figure out how to help them tell their stories at their immigration hearing.

Dave Miller: How do visits like that, witnessing places like that, how does that make its way into your fiction?

Edwidge Danticat: Well, I mean, it’s something that I think is so, I feel like it’s out of view from most people who don’t have a family member and an immigrant in the immigration system and most immigrant families are mixed status families. So you might have American citizens, people on TPS people on DACA people, TPS, Temporary Protected Status, DACA is the program for young people who came here young, and so you have this whole range of experiences. So for me, I think fiction is a way that you sort of, you can flesh out, like I could, you could present a family, and tell a story, tell many different stories that are sort of meld, just like true stories at the same time. And you can tell true stories while you take some liberties with the intimacies of their lives and at the same time you protect people. So for example, I have a picture book called “My Mama’s Nightingale”, which is a fictional version of it. It’s about a child who is trying to get her mom out of immigration custody. And so that was inspired by sort of many children like that, who I’ve met whose parents are detained while they’re out there trying to have a life, trying to go to school and well, while this is in having visits, while this is always in the back of their mind.

Dave Miller: Let’s take another question. Go ahead, please.

Mikayla: Hi, my name is Mikayla and I was just curious if you’ve ever had second thoughts or regretted becoming a writer?

Edwidge Danticat: Not a single day. I have never had second thoughts or regretted being a writer. It’s, and I’m sure like people, you have heard this a lot and it’s very true, like if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life. So I was, I love, what I love most about being a writer is is kind of following what starts out as a kind of vague, amorphous thought, something you like, I’d like to write a story about this and then seeing it becoming more clear, like the clarity, like the story coming, coming, and then to getting it to the point you want, some people have compared it to like being a sculptor, you get a big stone and you’re chipping away and chipping away until, like a version of what you imagine in your head emerges. So, I love being a writer, I feel very blessed that I get to do it and I get to do things like this and also share my work with other people. Once I leave that sort of, like, that solitary space of being by myself with the characters and with what I’m writing.

Dave Miller: We have another question from the audience. Go ahead.

Jasmin: Hi, my name is Jasmin. When you were writing your first novel, is there like, anything you wish you would have done differently?

Edwidge Danticat: Oh, yeah, so I think writers, notoriously, like hate their first novels. Like most of the writers I know, are like, ‘Oh my gosh, I wish I had done this differently’. Yeah. I had, so a couple of years ago, so my first novel will be, as it was published in 1994, so it’s almost like 30 years old. And so a couple of years ago I had an opportunity to do a like a 25th anniversary edition. And so I tried to tweak a bunch of things that I wish, I couldn’t change the whole story. But yeah, they’re looking at it now, with the lens of time, there are many things I wish I could have done, but at the same time, I think, like it was, and that’s what I always try to do in my work. I try to write the best thing I can right now, and that goes, whether you’re writing an essay in school, like, you try to, you try to get it the best that you can at the moment. And I felt like, I mean, for a first novel, it was about a young woman who was very close to my age. So I think it actually has, the rawness of it, it’s true to that voice of someone who was that age at the time that I wrote it.

Dave Miller: I think we have another audience question in the back. Go ahead, please.

Madison: Hi, my name is Madison, and I’m just wondering how you deal with something like writer’s block.

Edwidge Danticat: How do I deal with writer’s block? So I often think of, if you’re like, when I’m blocked, I just realized, oh, maybe the story is not ready, right? And so I’ll go on to do other things. So I’ll read maybe something along the same vein as what I’m writing, to see how that author got through that. So I’ll just put it away for a while and let it ruminate, I think, because sometimes it takes like, your, sometimes your subconscious will work. Like, even like, I always feel like I’m writing, even if I’m driving, I’m picking up my kids from school, like, that process is still happening, so I don’t force it too much, but I also try to do some free writing. And the free writing could be like, you could wake up in the morning and you’d be like, I can’t write because I like to try to do it, 20 minutes or so of just like a brain dump and and just plow through. But sometimes, I mean, sometimes the story is just not there yet.

Dave Miller: It almost seems like what you’re, I mean, the way you’ve reframed this is you’re not talking about writer’s block, You’re talking about story block. It’s not, the problem isn’t you? Right? I mean, is that a fair way to put it, the problem is the story?

Edwidge Danticat: I think maybe different people would experience it differently. But for me, I try to sort of like, yeah, I try to feel like it’s just not, it’s kind of like if you’re cooking right, the food is just, it’s just not ready. So yeah, I think it’s for me it feels a little more doable, shifting the, also allowing the story some time to breathe or some agency in the process.

Dave Miller: You have a story called, ‘Without Inspection’ in the new latest collection. It takes place in the span, technically, of 6.5 seconds. That’s the time it takes and this does not give anything away because we find this out in the first sentence and this is time it takes for a man to fall from a construction site to his death, but the story also encapsulates his whole life as he, as he thinks about what’s happened in the past and and has his hopes for the future as well, and that includes his arrival on a beach in Miami and the woman who he eventually makes a life with who, who takes him in and who saves his life. What was she doing on the beach?

Edwidge Danticat: Well, she is Darlene who is the woman who loves and who is loved by the main character, Arnold, in the story, is on the beach because she came through the beach also and recently, with with events in Haiti, we’ve had more reoccurring of these arrivals where people would just, who have come by boat, land on the beach in Key West behind some kind of resort or in Key Biscayne or in different, and it’s something that if, living in Miami happens quite a bit, so Darlene, because she lost a loved one on that journey and makes, has made herself a kind of greeter of people who arrive on the beach and this is kind of her calling to to make that transition easier for people, which of course she can’t do for everybody, but on the day that she does, that she’s there and meets Arnold who is the main character of the story.

Dave Miller: What did you want to explore in that story, in terms of how families are, are made or reconstituted?

Edwidge Danticat: Well, that is, that is the immigration experience or a huge part of it, that is sometimes under-discussed, in the public sphere, is that, just as my story began, as an immigrant here, with my parents, leaving me behind, so that my family was, which was never defined in the nuclear way anyway. For us, family was always an extensive, it was just never mother, father, children, but that the way that my family had to step in back there, and then my family in New York that, that greeted my parents there, and so, the way we remake family, that’s that’s definitely part of the immigration experience, that you, because you’re in a situation where you have to really count on others, you have to count on the on the kindness of strangers, which, in a way, I mean, I think, defines the whole way that, which perspective you decided to take on immigration, whether you define the stranger as someone who needs your help or or as someone you need to keep out, and so, and often within, that starts too, that is defined within families, so, I think, Darlene, in the story, her understanding of that is clear now, having been on both sides of this, kind of, like, like I have of having needed to be received also, now having to receive other people.

Dave Miller: You wrote an article for the New Yorker four years ago with a headline, ‘We Must Not Forget Detained Migrant Children’, but I have to say that in recent years coverage of immigration policies and of children in the detention system, I have seen a lot less coverage of that. How do you explain that?

Edwidge Danticat: I think, because it was, it was, the the coverage was of course, very political, very much politicized, where children had, have been detained migrant children, refugee children, children seeking asylum, but have been detained for a very long time, and continue to be, that process of reuniting them with their parents still lags, there are hundreds, probably of of children now, who are in different places, waiting for some kind of resolution, some of them become adults in detention. So there’s not much more attention to that. And when I wrote that article, that’s what I was a little bit concerned about, I was very concerned about that. The fact that there was that heightened moment where we were talking about it, and then it goes back, there was a kind of silence about it without, without much coverage, but people who who work in the trenches of immigration, who are always, who, no matter what, the administration are always working with children, know that it it’s something that that continues.

Dave Miller: What do you seek in an ending? Whether it’s a short piece of work, of short fiction or a longer work, what do you, how do you know, you’ve arrived at the end of a piece?

Edwidge Danticat: I often don’t know because they’re they’re pieces, going back to that question of wanting to change things. They’re often pieces that years later, I feel like, oh, I would love to tag on a little bit more.

Dave Miller: Or cut something away?

Edwidge Danticat: Yes, exactly. And I, and I cut a lot away actually from that transition from something being published in a magazine to, to gathering them in a book like I did with “Everything Inside”. But I know, I think there’s a certain sense of peace and closure after wrestling a lot and sort of like taking things in, putting them back, taking things in and putting them back and realizing, as I said before, that this is where this is going to end. This is the best it’s going to be for now.

Dave Miller: Edwidge Danticat, thank you so much for your time today. I really appreciate it.

Edwidge Danticat: Thank you so much for having me and thank you Woodburn Senior High School.

Dave Miller: Thank you everybody in our audience, all the students here who asked questions and who took part. Also thanks to Olivia Jones Hall from Literary Arts and Charles Sanderson here at the High School who made today’s show possible.

If you don’t want to miss any of our shows, you can listen on the NPR One app, on Apple podcast or wherever you like to get your podcasts. Our nightly rebroadcast is at 8 p.m. Thanks very much for tuning in to Think Out Loud on OPB and KLCC. I’m Dave Miller, we’ll be back tomorrow.

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