Author Edwidge Danticat discusses power of storytelling ahead of KU common book event

photo by: Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press File Photo

Haitian-American author Edwidge Danticat is pictured in October 2010. Danticat is the author of the University of Kansas' 2018 common book, "Create Dangerously."

Edwidge Danticat hopes the power of her story will resonate with those who have lived a privileged life.

Danticat, the author of “Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work,” will be visiting the University of Kansas to discuss her book at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Lied Center.

The book of essays, published in 2011, was selected as this year’s common book at KU, which means it was provided to every incoming freshman and will be the focus of discussions in classrooms and other forums throughout the school year.

“For someone starting college, they get this book as they are about to leap into this great adventure” of young adulthood, Danticat, 49, told the Journal-World in an interview Wednesday.

photo by: Contributed image

The book cover for the 2018-2019 KU Common Book, “Create Dangerously,” by Edwidge Danticat.

The book explores what it’s like to be an immigrant artist — in Danticat’s case, an immigrant from Haiti, who was born during the repressive regime of the Duvalier family. However, the reader doesn’t have to come from such an environment to relate.

“Artists can be storytellers in the times we are living,” she said. “Making people aware could, perhaps, move people.”

Sometimes she meets students who tell her they have nothing as dramatic in their lives as her stories.

“We don’t have to travel abroad to see a hungry person,” Danticat said. “We don’t have to leave this country to see people imprisoned and enslaved. When people grow up relatively privileged, they sometimes feel this just happens in other places.”

But all one has to do is look around, look deeper and see what is happening, she said.

“Where are there pockets of injustice and what can you do about it?” Danticat said.

This is the seventh year of KU’s common book program, said Howard Graham, associate director of the Office of First Year Experience. Deciding on a book takes several steps, beginning with nominations from the university community.

The selection of Danticat’s book as the common book was considered “timely in the context of ongoing conversations about race and citizenship at KU and across the nation,” KU Chancellor Douglas Girod said in March when the book was chosen.

Discussions of the book, KU said in a release, will continue examining themes of citizenship and identity explored in KU’s previous two common books: “Citizen: An American Lyric,” by Claudia Rankine, and “Between the World and Me,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Born in Port-au-Prince in 1969, Danticat was separated from her parents, who had fled to the U.S. to escape the political turmoil in Haiti at the time. For eight years she was raised by relatives until she and her younger brother could join their parents in New York City. She studied French literature at Barnard College and earned a creative writing degree from Brown University. Her master’s thesis evolved into her debut novel, “Breath, Eyes, Memory.”

After winning many prestigious awards, Danticat in 2009 was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship. Known as a “genius” award, the fellowship is a prize of $500,000 received over five years. When the fellowship program called out of the blue, to let her know she had won, she was asked if she was sitting down.

“I told them I was holding a baby. And they said, ‘Put the baby down,'” she said, laughing.

For Danticat, “Create Dangerously” came into being as she prepared to be a guest speaker at Princeton University’s Toni Morrison lecture series. The book’s title was inspired by the French philosopher and novelist Albert Camus, who championed the artist as a voice of resistance and liberator of society.

While the essays can be read individually, Danticat hopes people will read the book in its entirety, as the last essay brings the audience full circle.

“I hope all the students who read the book will not just come away with a sense of tragedy, but also the beauty and complexity of the experience,” Danticat said.

While the book is a kind of memoir, it also tells the story of other artists striving to carve meaning out of the world around them — such as the story of Haitian photojournalist Daniel Morel, who documented the atrocities of the Duvalier regime and the horror of the 2010 earthquake that killed hundreds of thousands of Haitians and left many more homeless.

This is the first time “Create Dangerously” has been used for a common book discussion, Danticat said, although other of her books have been.

She said she was eager to meet KU students and the public at Thursday’s free event.

“I want to see how the book can apply to their lives — and connect to them,” Danticat said. “The power of literature is to create a connection we don’t think exists.”

Spencer Museum names common work of art

To complement the selection of Edwidge Danticat’s “Create Dangerously” as KU’s common book, the Spencer Museum of Art has chosen a portrait of Marie Laveau by Ulrick Jean-Pierre as the common work of art. The portrait is by a Haitian immigrant and explores issues of history and identity.

The portrait will be part of the exhibition “The Ties that Bind: Haiti, the United States, and the Art of Ulrick Jean-Pierre in Comparative Perspective,” from Sept. 8 to Jan. 6.


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