An Interview with Edwidge Danticat
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An Interview with Edwidge Danticat

This interview was conducted via telephone on May 30, 2007, between College Station, Texas, and Miami, Florida.

COLLINS: Dr. Rowell told me that when you received the Afro-Mexican issue, you were so struck and moved by it that you sent a short story to Callaloo, as a result. I'm just wondering, what struck you so about the issue?

DANTICAT: I just loved it. I thought it was visually stunning. The work in it was great. It reminded me of what Callaloo is all about. I really enjoy this journal and I wanted to be part of that energy again. Of all the publications we once had—if we ever had that many—that published literary work by writers from the entire African Diaspora, Callaloo is the only one left. You know the iconic story of Richard Wright and Langston Hughes encouraging Ralph Ellison to write fiction for such Harlem renaissance journals as The Crisis and The Messenger and New Masses, we don't have these types of places to publish in anymore. We don't have publications anymore that would publish, say, the young Zora Neale Hurston or her Afro-Mexican or Afro-Brazilian or Haitian equivalent. We're in a time now when even journals are fading out, yet each time you open Callaloo they've traveled to another place and are taking us along, finding writers we've not read before. Thanks to Callaloo, this whole world of Afro-Mexican arts and letters was suddenly open to me. I liked that issue a lot.

COLLINS: The issue's cover features a person in a carnival mask. Do you see any parallels with your book After the Dance, which also discusses the use of masks in carnival celebrations?

DANTICAT: Maybe that's one of the things that grabbed me. There are masks in most of my books. Mostly they are mentioned in passing, funeral masks and carnival masks. In After the Dance, I guess I looked more closely at them because everyone was wearing them—in indigenous cultures, Pre-Columbus. Masks were such a crucial part of life. Few rituals were performed without them in indigenous cultures. The same is true of African cultures. So, it was inevitable that in the so-called New World, we would be madly in love with masks in our own way when these cultures meet and/or clash through us.

COLLINS: Do you find they exist strictly as parallels or do the cultures feed into each other? [End Page 471]

DANTICAT: Both. We emerged out of violent encounters between these two cultures, in which I think the people who survived had to put on their masks, and still must put on their masks, as in the Paul Lawrence Dunbar poem. Think of people who had to smile through pain, play music through pain, say "Yes, Sir" or "Oui, Madame" through pain. We wore the mask post-destruction and through slavery towards revolution. What I discovered in writing After the Dance is that when people wear the mask in carnival, it means more than masquerade ball type masking. At least in the carnival I wrote about in Jacmel, it's about memory, re-membering, as Toni Morrison has said, putting pieces of ourselves back together again. Back to the question of the issue, as close as Mexico is to the United States, a lot of us simply don't know that much about its arts and letters beyond the big names like Octavia Paz and Laura Esquivel, for example. We risk thinking that all that is worth knowing about Mexico involves the immigration debate. Lately, there's also been strife between Mexicans and African Americans in certain areas on the West Coast of the United States. So this literature, these arts, can also be—to use another object metaphor—a cultural bridge.

COLLINS: One of the things that struck me about After the Dance—is this mixing of cultures. For example, there is this "cowboy" who comes to Jacmel—I forget his name—an American guy . . .

DANTICAT: Yeah. The Special Forces, Green Beret guy who comes during the invasion...