Writers love their rituals and symbols, even the ones who aren't particularly superstitious. For Edwidge Danticat, who has filled a void in American literature by telling nuanced stories of her native Haiti, this is especially true. She has always written at night, which started when she lived with her family in a crowded apartment in Brooklyn. She was reunited there with her parents from Port-au-Prince when she was 12. Now, as an adult, her friends send her articles explaining that lack of sleep is bad for her health, but she can't keep herself from night-writing. "I would wait until people were asleep to do my deep thinking," Danticat says. "The night is my time. I've dug in further having small children."
As for symbols, Danticat has always loved the sea. The fictional seaside town where her latest novel, Claire of the Sea Light, is set was first introduced in Krik? Krak! the acclaimed collection of short stories published in 1995 that emerged out of her MFA work at Brown University. "I'm extraordinarily intrigued by the sea and its power and what it means," Danticat says. The ocean evokes nostalgia for her, since she spent the first 12 years of her life on an island, absorbing the stories adults told her during trips to the sea and observing other islanders who made their living fishing from it.
There is also a spiritual connection. “In every culture in the world, there's a goddess of the sea. In the book and when you're standing on a shore as an adult, you're thinking of the mythology and realities of the sea," Danticat says. "As Haitians, being linked to migration, as people of African descent, we come from the sea because of the Middle Passage, and we've lost people to the sea in that way. In Haiti, people have been lost to the sea in boats."
It has been almost 10 years since Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat wrote a work of fiction—her third novel, The Dew Breaker, was published in 2004. In that time she has produced award-winning nonfiction like Brother, I'm Dying, along with three other books.
Claire of the Sea Light reads like the work of a writer eager to create another world. "I love plunging into a world that comes out of my imagination," Danticat says. "It was fun to go back into a make-believe world. It wasn't so hard. Often, if you write fiction or nonfiction, people will say, What's your favorite? I really enjoy both. But at this point in my life, it was wonderful to have the fiction. So much more is possible in terms of adventure."
A sense of the possibilities is tangible in Danticat's fourth novel, where she delves into parenting, revenge, reconciliation and remorse. Claire Limyé Lanmé is the daughter of a widower who is mulling whether or not to let someone else raise his daughter. In this small town, other mothers and fathers are working through reconciling their feelings about parenthood while readers experience a day in her life. Simultaneously, Danticat masterfully weaves in necessary parts of the past.
The book is the first full narrative she's written since she's been a parent; her oldest child is now eight years old. Writing Claire of the Sea Light was a way to "pour out all my fears about parenting and to lay that burden down in a way," Danticat says. She wanted to write about parenting and sacrifices that parents like her make in Haiti so that their children can have better lives.
Since her parents left Haiti when she was a child, the longing in the book also hints at another motivation for the narrative: a "way of maybe recreating a childhood I didn't have with my parents, because the book circles around my childhood and my parenting,” she says. “It's a deeply personal book for me; it bridges my childhood with my children's childhood." In that way, the novel is more of a fiction-memoir hybrid, Danticat says. "I don't want to seem like I'm trying to get over with a novel," she adds, laughing. "It's something between those two things."
Joshunda Sanders is a writer based in Austin.