"We are your Neighbors": Edwidge Danticat's New Narrative for Haiti
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"We are your Neighbors":
Edwidge Danticat's New Narrative for Haiti

In the wake of the world's ruinously misguided humanitarian response to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, it became clear that widespread and deeply held notions of Haitian exceptionalism continued to plague Haiti's relationship with the rest of the world.1 As a result, many Haitian and Diaspora authors and scholars called for new narratives for Haiti that inspire neither admiration nor pity but real empathy with Haitians among their transnational readership.2

In 2013, Edwidge Danticat published Claire of the Sea Light, the tale of one day in the life of Ville Rose, a fictional Haitian fishing village whose inhabitants are wonderfully, tragically, and inextricably tied to one another, whether they know it or not. This article argues that Claire of the Sea Light answers post-earthquake calls for new narratives by casting Haitians as neither sub- nor superhuman Others but rather as neighbors. Danticat accomplishes this by deconstructing the very notion of humanization, shifting the novel's focus away from legitimizing her characters' humanity and toward cultivating her readers' humaneness.

The Call for "New Narratives"

In the first decade of the twenty-first century, a considerable body of scholarship refuting Haitian insularity and exceptionalism emerged within Haitian literary and cultural studies. Scholars and artists alike insisted on the global impact of Haitian history and the universal appeal of Haitian literature. Nick Nesbitt's revisiting of the Haitian Revolution at its bicentennial, for example, placed that uprising squarely at the heart of human heritage, reasserting its universal importance as the greatest political event of the Enlightenment era and one of the primary events of modern history.3 A few years later, in 2007, Haitian authors Dany Laferrière and Gary Victor were among the signatories of "Pour une littérature-monde en français" ("For a World Literature in French"), a manifesto that advocated for literature that uses French as a vehicle of [End Page 98] expression for diverse specific experiences as well as universal human questions.4 Martin Munro's "Haiti's Worldly Literature" identified Haitian literature as the epitome of that very littérature-monde. Reductive race- and nation-based currents like Indigenism and Africanism, insisted Munro, are not representative of Haitian literature as a whole, even in the twentieth century. He cited Jacques Roumain's deracialized universalism, René Depestre's rooted nomadism, and Dany Laferrière's fluid, worldly vision of identity as well-known examples of Haitian literature's ongoing engagement with the world.5 At the time, these debates about Haiti's rightful place in and relationship to the rest of the world seemed destined to remain in the realm of the abstract, of little concern to the average non-Haitian.

Then, following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti—not only among the deadliest quakes in history but also a humanitarian disaster of catastrophic proportions in terms of destruction and displaced population—Haiti captured the world's attention. Sadly, observed a frustrated Yanick Lahens in the weeks and months following the calamity, the massive global humanitarian response did not always respect the collective will of the Haitian people and fell short of true global solidarity among equals.6 "In spite of those limits, in spite of its poverty, of its political tribulations, of its small size, Haiti is not marginal," wrote the indignant Lahens in Failles (Fault lines) in 2010. "Its history makes it a center. I have always experienced it that way. As a metaphor for all the challenges humanity must face today and for which this modernity hasn't kept its promises. Its history allows it to enter into a dialogue between equals with the rest of the world."7

Mainstream news coverage of the cataclysm and its aftermath deteriorated into reproducing stereotypes of Haiti and Haitians as eternal and perpetual victims. Over the past seven years, authors and scholars have repeatedly countered that stubbornly lopsided perception with reminders of Haiti's status as an important global center and integral part of the Americas and the world. Haiti was the inspiration for hemispheric slave rebellions and the staunch supporter of independence movements around the world...


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