Note: This is part of a series of profiles about Barnard alumnae. These profiles were originally posted on the old Barnard Archives website.
Unifier of Strands
Edwidge Danticat ’90, one of Barnard’s most prominent alumnae authors, has published three novels to date, as well as numerous articles and an acclaimed memoir, Brother, I’m Dying (2007). Born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in 1969, she was raised by her aunt while her parents lived in New York City. This early period in her life was extremely important to her development as a writer, as it instilled in her a love and regard for Haitian culture which she has carried with her throughout her career. At the age of nine, while still living in Haiti, she wrote her first story in her native Creole, and she has been writing ever since.
At 12 years of age, Danticat moved to New York and was enrolled in a magnet school in Brooklyn that prepared students for medical careers. Wishing his daughter to become self-sufficient and successful, her father encouraged her to be a nurse, but her love for the written word could not be suppressed. Writing was her only solace and means of expression during her high school years, when she was extremely shy and found it hard to adjust to the new culture and language with which she was confronted. In her last two years of high school, some of her articles were published in local newspapers, and the ideas for her first novel,Breath, Eyes, Memory, began to germinate in her mind.
In the fall of 1986, Danticat entered Barnard College, where her skills as a writer were nurtured and refined. Her father’s goal for her to become a nurse was never realized, as she began to focus even more intensely on her writing. While balancing a full-time courseload and an on-campus job at the Office of Admissions, Danticat still found time for her most beloved activity. She presented the first part of Breath, Eyes, Memory in a creative writing class at Barnard, and by the end of her senior year, she had completed the first 70 pages of what would become her debut novel. She graduated from Barnard magna cum laude in May 1990 with a B.A. in French, counting among her honors the Helen Prince Memorial Prize, the Howard M. Teichmann Writing Prize, and membership in Phi Beta Kappa.
Danticat went on to graduate school at Brown University, where she continued to improve her craft. One result was her senior thesis, the final version of Breath, Eyes, Memory. The manuscript was promptly discovered by Soho Press, and her graduation from Brown with an M.F.A. in creative writing coincided with the publication ofBreath, Eyes, Memory in 1994. This innovative novel, which draws on the lives and stories of four generations of Haitian women, was quickly well received and hailed as a landmark representation of Haitian culture from a new and refreshing perspective. Jordana Hart wrote in the Boston Globe, “Her story gives voice, depth, and anguish to the loving, bittersweet ties that bind her to her circle of women … Breath, Eyes, Memory paints a rich portrait of a lush countryside, cane fields, rainwater baths … and illuminates the beauty and family life of Haiti.”
One year later, Danticat’s second book was published by Soho Press. Titled Krik? Krak!, this collection of short stories (some of which were conceived and written during her years at Barnard) gives readers a look into the lives of Haitians and Haitian-Americans, especially women, during times of political unrest and upheaval. The relationships among women across divisions of age and class are at the core of Danticat’s fiction. She feels personally moved to give voice to these women because, as she sai in one of her interviews, “In Haitian culture women are taught to be silent, but I must write. To Haitian women I say ‘Kimbela,’ which is Creole for ‘Hang in there.'” In the epilogue to Krik? Krak!, she wrote:
“The women in your family have never lost touch with one another. Death is a path we all take to meet on the other side. What goddesses have joined, let no one cast asunder. With every step you take, there is an army of women watching over you. We are never any farther than the sweat on your brows, the dust on your toes.”
Praise for Krik? Krak! matched, if not exceeded, that earned by her first book. In 1995, Danticat received the Pushcart Short Story Prize for “Between the Pool and the Gardenias” from Krik? Krak! and was a finalist for the National Book Award. She was also given the 1995 Woman of Achievement Award from Barnard and selected as one of the 20 best young American novelists in 1996 by Granta.
Following the extraordinary recognition earned by her first two books, her third, The Farming of Bones, appeared in 1997. This novel explores the economic, political, and social situations leading up to the 1937 massacres in Haiti on the orders of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo.
In 1998, one year after the publication of The Farming of Bones, Danticat appeared as a guest on the Oprah Winfrey Show to discuss Breath, Eyes, Memory, which had been selected for Oprah’s Book Club. Danticat’s appearance on Oprah simultaneously brought her celebrity status and a much broader audience than her works had previously enjoyed. Meanwhile, her literary stature was reaffirmed by the 1999 American Book Award for The Farming of Bones.
Aside from writing three books, Danticat has also taught creative writing at New York University and worked with Jonathan Demme (creator of the film versions ofBeloved and The Silence of the Lambs) on Courage and Pain (1994), a documentary about her native country. She remains closely connected with Barnard, having returned as a distinguished guest speaker on multiple occasions, including the 1997 Helen Rogers Reid Lecture on the topic of “Migration and the Literary Imagination.” In 2001, Krik? Krak! was distributed to the entering class of 2005, and Danticat spoke and read excerpts from the book as part of the 2001 New Student Orientation Program.
In 2000, Danticat received the high honor of being asked to write the foreword to the new HarperCollins edition of Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston ’28. Most recently, one of her short stories was selected for inclusion in Mothers Through the Eyes of Women Writers: A Barnard College Collection. This anthology of stories, which were written by Barnard alumnae and compiled by former Barnard President Judith R. Shapiro, focuses on intergenerational relationships among women of many cultures. Now at the height of her literary career, Danticat continues to inspire readers through her ability to illuminate both the harmony and the conflict between different cultures in the same land. But at the root of her art will always be her passion for the delicate craft of writing, for as she observes in Krik? Krak!:
“When you write, it’s like braiding your hair. Taking a handful of coarse, unruly strands and attempting to bring them to unity. Some of the braids are long, others are short. Some are thick, others are thin. Some are heavy. Others are light.”
— Stephanie Pahler ’05
Atanasoski, Neda. “Edwidge Danticat.” Voices from the Gaps: Women Writers of Color. Last updated February 23, 1998. Retrieved November 9, 2001 from the World Wide Web: <http://voices.cla.umn.edu/authors.EdwidgeDanticat.html>.
Danticat, Edwidge. Breath, Eyes, Memory. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007.
Danticat, Edwidge. Brother, I’m Dying. New York: Soho Press, 1994.
Danticat, Edwidge. Krik? Krak! New York: Soho Press, 1995.
Danticat, Edwidge. The Farming of Bones. New York: Soho Press, 1998.
“Edwidge Danticat.” Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 29. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group, 1999. Retrieved November 5, 2001 from the World Wide Web: <http://www.galegroup.com/freresrc/blkhstry.danticat.htm>.
“Edwidge Danticat.” The New York Immigrant Achievement Awards: 2000 Honorees. Retrieved November 9, 2001 from the World Wide Web: <http://www.ailf.org/notable/iaa/ny2000/danticat.htm>.
Hart, Jordanna. “Debut Novel Reveals Haiti’s Heart.” Boston Globe, August 12, 1994, p. 53.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: HarperCollins, 2000.
Kerlee, Ime. “Edwidge Danticat.” Emory University: Postcolonial Studies. Last updated December 20, 2000. Retrieved November 9, 2001 from the World Wide Web: <http://www.emory.edu/ENGLISH/Bahri/Danticat.html>.
“Oprah’s Book Club: Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat.” Oprah.com. Retrieved November 9, 2001 from the World Wide Web: <http://www.oprah.com/obc/pastbooks/edwidge_danticat>.
Shapiro, Judith R., ed. Mothers Through the Eyes of Women Writers: A Barnard College Collection. Berkeley, CA: Conari Press, 2001.
Barnard College Graduates Honors and Awards, October 25, 1989, February 14, 1990, and May 16, 1990; and The Mortarboard 1990 (Barnard College Archives).