Friday, November 16, 2007

Brooklyn Lit Life: Edwidge Danticat

Haitian novelist and memoirist extraordinaire Edwidge Danticat was a finalist for the 2007 National Book Award for her most recent book Brother, I'm Dying; you can read an interview about her book and the nomination here. A few weeks before the awards, however, Danticat was gracious enough to talk a bit about her childhood in Brooklyn. Though Danticat no longer lives here, the borough's literary culture is a little bit richer for having her.

Brooklyn Lit Life
Edwidge Danticat

Describe your particular literary project, and your role in it.
It’s a book called Brother, I’m Dying, a family memoir.

Why Brooklyn? What made you decide to live/work here, in both practical and emotional terms?
My father moved here when I was 2 and my mother when I was 4. They left me in Haiti with my aunt and uncle while getting settled here. With immigration red tape it took us 8 years to be reunited in Brooklyn when I was twelve years old.

Is there a Brooklyn sensibility or character? How would you describe it? How does it differ from the character of New York City as a whole?
Brooklyn is like a microcosm in the world. So many people from Brooklyn come from somewhere else, even somewhere else in the United States. Brooklynites are feisty and strong and proud. I meet people all the time from all over the world who have some type of connection to Brooklyn and they are always very proud of it.

What about your particular neighborhood? Does it have its own unique character? This can include the kinds of people you tend to find there, particular characters or places that epitomize the neighborhood, etc.
I grew up in East Flatbush which was a very Caribbean neighborhood. You could/can find spices and foods there that you can find in Port-au-Prince, or Kingston. That made it feel even more like home, in spite of the cold winters. Also the labor day Caribbean festival is unmatched in its scale in the States. It’s a wonderful carnival that we all participated in from my community and others.

Is there a Brooklyn literary sensibility? Which writers or works most emblematize Brooklyn for you? Which older writers set the tone? Which contemporary writers are you reading with interest?
Paul Auster has it. Sapphire, Gloria Naylor Paule Marshall, Jacqueline Woodson, Jonathan Safran Sofer [sic], Jonathan Lethem of course are all emblematic Brooklyn writers. But we have wonderful writers too who even though they’re not writing about Brooklyn yet are now part of the fabric, writers like Jhumpa Lahiri and other more recent Brooklynites.

Why do you think Brooklyn has such a dense population of writers? Is there something particularly literary about Brooklyn? Where and how do people read here?
Brooklyn lacks the craziness of having to be all business all the time publishing wise, plus it offers a community. I think that’s very appealing to writers.

What events, series, readings, happenings, places, stores, publications, movements, etc. seem to you currently interesting or important in the Brooklyn literary world?
The Brooklyn public libraries have some great liteary events. The Brooklyn book festival is fabulous. I’ve never seen that many people at a book event in Brooklyn. BAM is a great treasure, our own Lincoln Center with edge. There are also a slew of smaller event within the different ethnic communities that are very exciting.

Imagine the ideal Brooklyn bookstore or literary venue, a place you'd like to read on your own or participate in literary community. What would it be like? What would it avoid?
Nkiru Books when it existed was great. It was a great independent that brought wonderful writers like that. More small independent bookstores would be great.


Anonymous said...

As one who grew up in Brooklyn during the 1970s and 80s, I can tell you that the revitalization it has undergone is wholly illusory. While it is wonderful that the Borough is well-represented by a coterie of strong authors, the general influx of out-of-sate hipsters and would-be artists has assured the displacement of immigrant groups that once gave Brooklyn its character. Given this trend, the borough is headed for a cultural implosion.

In time, Brooklyn will come to look like any one of a number of pretty, affluent, well-read and self-righteous locales across America (Boulder, Portland, Seattle). Pretty and affluent--yes; Brooklyn--I think not.

Jeff said...

Interesting. The first comment actually reminds me of the situation that is happening with some of the barrios in Buenos Aires.

Anyway, for those who like Danticat then they might want to view some videos of her from 1992 & 1994 at the Caribbean Writers Summer Institute.

Anonymous said...

I currently live in Brooklyn. I'm not a native.

When I arrived a decade or so ago, I researched the history of the building I lived in. I found records of previous residents stretching back to the early 1800s. There was an accident prone steamship captain, a teacher fond of writing letters to the Eagle in support of Socialist causes, a family that lost their son in a construction accident, and others.

One of my favorites was a gent who only appeared once in the written record. He put his name and my current address on a petition to stop the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. I don't know anything about him other than he apparently agreed with the petition that stated the Brooklyn Bridge would certainly destroy the then city of Brooklyn.

Whenever I read one of these jeremiads about the death of Brooklyn, I'm reminded of that man.

Tom said...

While an historical perspective is certainy critical at moments, I tend to agree with the initial observation. All I can offer is anecdotal evidence. After twenty years in the same Windsor Terrace apartment, my parents (both of whom hold down decent-paying blue collar jobs)could no longer afford the rent. As a result, they have had to move from neighborhood to neighborhood, finally settling in Canarsie. I know that they are not alone in this situation.