In My Opinion

Fabiola Santiago: For Haitian writer, Miami is finally home

 

fsantiago@MiamiHerald.com

It feels so right to call her Miami’s Edwidge Danticat.

We are, after all, her kind of city.

“Filthy rich” in stories, she calls us, “the beacon city and the dream of refugees.”

What else would a writer desire but to dwell among characters, plots and other storytellers, multilingual and hailing from all points in the hemisphere?

There are so many things here that connect the nationally acclaimed author with the subject of her writing — Haiti, her native land — and with the intimate yet heartbreakingly epic stories she tells of her people.

There’s also the geography — “being in this middle place” — accessible to friends and family passing through from New York to Haiti and vice versa.

HOME AND FAMILY

There are her Miami-born daughters, Mira, 8, and Leila, 4, and the house in the Buena Vista neighborhood at the edge of Little Haiti.

Yet she’s cautious and tentative.

“I feel I have been given a green card,” she tells me, laughing ever so softly. “In a way, I think people are protective of their community so you want to wait for them to claim you before you claim yourself in a place.”

And so, we’re officially claiming her — full-fledged Citizen Danticat, the Miamian — and celebrating her rightful place in the region’s literary culture.

It’s a good day to do so.

The national debut of her new novel — Claire of the Sea Light, the tale of a 7-year-old Haitian girl whose widowed father makes the heart-wrenching decision to give her to a woman with better means to raise her — took place Tuesday where Danticat belongs, among us, at Books & Books in Coral Gables.

“When I was living in New York, our view of Miami was that this is the place where people go to retire after resigning themselves that they would not be able to retire in Haiti,” Danticat says. “But living here, you also see it as a landing place for a very large population of people, and in some cases, there’s a lot of heartache.”

UNCLE DIES

For her family, tragedy struck with the loss of her beloved uncle, Joseph, an 81-year-old pastor who had to flee Haiti after his life was threatened by an angry mob. He thought he would find refuge in Miami but he was detained, imprisoned, and he died in custody after immigration authorities ignored the gravity of his condition.

Joseph had been “a second father” to Danticat, the uncle who took care of her from the age of 4, when her parents left Haiti to seek a better life for their children, to age 12, when she was finally able to join them in New York.

Danticat told that poignant story in the 2007 family memoir Brother, I’m Dying, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award.

“My uncle and how he lost his life — that is the dark side of an immigration city,” she says. “All the inequalities are more glaring.”

That’s why, when she presented that book, she couldn’t help but say what was in her heart, reveal the hurt: “I’m an exile in Miami.”

Meaning, this did not feel like home.

“I was a little mad at Miami and the situation here” for Haitians like her uncle, she says.

These days, she’s increasingly concerned about the young people “whose parents sacrificed so much to live here” and who are getting into trouble, being deported, dying on the gritty streets.

I ask her: Will she ever turn her literary eyes toward Miami?

I expect a couched answer, as unsettled as her view of her status as a Miamian.

“Oh, yeah,” she readily says. “I used to be nervous and think that I could only write about places where I no longer am because I think distance as much as closeness feeds my work. But I started working on this book that is set in contemporary Miami, and all I can tell you it’s all about twins.”

She adds: “There is such a large and varied Haitian community here that I think we’ll see more and more stories [told] in different ways. We’ll see their stories through the younger writers coming up and joining the common narrative of Miami.”

She wants to see more bridging of stories by writers from different countries, and she quotes from the novel It’s Not Love, It’s Just Paris by Patricia Engle, a Colombian-American raised in New Jersey who now lives in Miami:

“…all immigrants are artists because they create a life, a future from nothing but a dream. The immigrant’s life is art in its purest form. That’s why God has a special sympathy for immigrants, because Diosito was the first artist, and Jesus, un pobre desplazado, a poor, displaced man.

That — “immigrants being the first artists,” Danticat says — is a powerful thought. “This city is full of artists creating, recreating, taking risks.”

A good fit, a good place for Madame Danticat to call home.

Read more Fabiola Santiago stories from the Miami Herald

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