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2:19 am
Sun August 25, 2013

Haitian Youth Illuminated In 'Sea Light'

Originally published on Sun August 25, 2013 8:22 am

On her 7th birthday, a little girl named Claire disappears in a seaside Haitian village. Through Claire's fictional journey, award-winning author Edwidge Danticat shares glimmers of her own childhood in Haiti.

In Claire of the Sea Light, the protagonist's mother died during childbirth, and her father is a poor fisherman, struggling to make ends meet. Just moments before his daughter disappears, Claire's father had agreed to let a local woman adopt her in hopes of giving his daughter a better life.

Word of Claire's disappearance spreads through the village. From there, the reader is taken on a journey through time, connecting lives in unexpected ways.

Danticat tells Weekend Edition host Rachel Martin how her own experiences as a child in Haiti helped to shape this luminous young character.


Interview Highlights

On the characters as survivors of grief

"The way that they survive is by the sense of community that this town offers. One of these things that Claire's mother liked to say was "Fòk nou voye je youn sou lòt," "We must all look after each other." Because their town is so small, and they're sort of precariously always on the verge of instability, the healing comes through their healing as a community."

On Danticat's separation from her parents as a child

"We were not a family of means, and my parents, I think, had a difficult choice that a lot of parents have. I stayed behind with my uncle and his wife, and we grew up in a house that was full of children like us, cousins whose parents were in Canada, in the Dominican Republic. We had also grown up with a notion — and I think this is something I wanted to show in the book — that family is not always just mother, father. I didn't feel abandoned, you know, even at that young age. I understood that it was something my parents were doing to offer us a better opportunity."

On the sea as its own character

"I just fell in love with the idea of writing about the sea, and there are many proverbs the sea in Haitian Creole. You know, one is ... 'The sea doesn't hide dirt,' and proverbs about, you know, 'My back is as large as the sea,' which is something you say if people start talking badly about you. And, of course, for a lot of people in terms of migration, the sea is also the way out. So, you have an island and you have the sea, and it's extraordinarily fascinating to me."

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Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

On her seventh birthday, a little girl named Claire disappears in a seaside Haitian village. Her mother died during childbirth and her father is a poor fisherman struggling to make ends meet. Just moments before disappearing, Claire's father agreed to let a local woman adopt her in hopes of giving his daughter a better life. Word of Claire's disappearance spreads through the village. And from there, the reader is taken on a journey through time, connecting lives together in unexpected ways. Edwidge Danticat is the author of several award-winning works of fiction. She's also a 2009 MacArthur Fellow. Her latest book, "Claire of the Sea Light," is her first new work of fiction since winning that prestigious award. She joins us from member station WLRN in Miami. Welcome to the program.

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: I'd love if we could just start off by having you introduce us to this young girl.

DANTICAT: Well, Claire - her Creole name would be Claire Limye Lanme - is a little girl who is born when her mother dies in childbirth. And her father feels as though he won't be able to take care of her the way he would like to. So, he makes this really difficult choice to give her to Madame Gayelle(ph), who's a well-to-do woman in town. And Claire is luminous - as luminous as her name - and a lucky and unlucky little girl at the same time.

MARTIN: To give us a sense of this place, this village, and this young woman, would you mind reading a bit from the book? Near the end, there's a scene where Claire's walking through a market.

DANTICAT: Yes. (Reading) Salt was life, she would often hear the adults say. Some of the fishermen's wives would throw a pinch of crushed salt in the air for good luck before they men left for the sea. Some would also refuse to eat or wash or comb their hair until their men came back. When zombies ate salt, it brought them back to life, or so she had always heard. Maybe if she ate enough salt, she would finally understand why her father wouldn't let her wander, flane(ph). She would always try, though. Sometimes while her father was at sea, she would walk through the open market and pretend that she was one of those children sent to buy provisions to bring home to her mother. And she would pick up things at the market and put them down, raising then crushing the hopes of the vendors who would mumble under their breath as she walked away. Every now and again, one of the vendors would shout: Just like her mother. And she would ask herself what else she might do to make them say even more often that she was just like her mother, besides dying, that is.

MARTIN: There are a lot of victims in this story, not just this young girl, who has lost her mom. But there are several characters throughout this narrative, who, through no doing of their own, are made to suffer from some grief. I wonder if you could talk about how that sense of loss or longing connects all these people and brings this story to life.

DANTICAT: I don't think of them as victims. I think of them more as survivors. And the way that they survive is by the sense of community that this town offers. One of the things that Claire's mother liked to say was we must all look after each other. Because their town is so small, and they're sort of precariously always on the verge of instability, the healing comes through their coming together as a community.

MARTIN: There is a real sense of place in this book. It is a small village, and you bring to life the people who make up the town, characters who might be familiar to a lot of us: shopkeeper, he schoolmaster, the undertaker, who also happens to be the mayor. There's a radio host. Are these people who are familiar to you in your own life?

DANTICAT: Well, the town itself, Ville Rose, is modeled after the town where my mother was born. And it was a town that was very devastating after the earthquake and I still have some family members there. But I wanted to have that sense of familiarity in the community so that you meet people there that you might find in any other town but they're singular in their individual issues and their problems in the way they interact with the rest of the town.

MARTIN: If I understand, you yourself were separated from your own parents when you were growing up. Do you mind sharing circumstances of that separation?

DANTICAT: Well, my father left when I was two and my mother when I was four. They went to Brooklyn. We were not a family of means, and my parents, I think, had the difficult choice that a lot of parents have. I stayed behind with my uncle and his wife, and we grew up in a house that was full of children like us, cousins whose parents were in Canada, in the Dominican Republic. We had also grown up with this notion - and I think this is something I wanted to show in the book - that family is not always just mother, father. I didn't feel abandoned, you know. Even at that young age, I understood that it was something that my parents were trying to do to offer us a better opportunity.

MARTIN: There is one point in the book, one of the characters talks about how feeling abandoned by a parent is the most profound kind of loss. And...

DANTICAT: And another one says feeling abandoned by a child is the second-most, yeah. It's sort of a volley of loss, of separations that one doesn't choose.

MARTIN: You say that you understood your parents' reasons for leaving when you were young, but was there a point when you did feel that they had left you inexplicably?

DANTICAT: This is why I understood it very young. Because I realize that I was able to go to a particular kind of school because my parents were abroad, and every month this money would come that enabled us to do certain things; get our uniforms on time, get our shoes made, which you could do at that time, and I had a crooked foot so I had to have a special boot. You know, and I used to write letters to my parents and I used to go to the calling center once a week with my brother and my uncle and aunt to talk to them.

MARTIN: Can you describe another character in this book, and that is the sea, which literally kind of pushes and pulls this narrative along. How did that come to you as a part of this story?

DANTICAT: I just fell in love with the idea of writing about the sea, and there are many proverbs the sea in Haitian Creole. You know, one is (Foreign language spoken), you know, the sea doesn't hide dirt, and proverbs about, you know my back is as large as the sea, which is something you say if people start talking badly about you. So, of course, for a lot of people in terms of migration, the sea is also the way out. So, you have an island and you have the sea, and it's extraordinarily fascinating to me.

MARTIN: You are able to draw us into these characters' lives, sometimes very quickly. And I found myself at the end of the book wanting to know more, wanting to stay with them longer. I wonder if you feel that way inevitably. Do you build out the next chapter in their lives in your imagination? Have you thought about Claire and what kind of young woman she would become?

DANTICAT: Oh. When I was done with the book, I kept having this talk with my editor because up until we had the callies(ph), it was still so open-ended. And she kept asking me where does Claire go, where does Claire go? And I realized that I didn't want to let her go. Someone said, you know, a good story is like a painting. You know, you might wonder what comes before and what comes after but you're just mesmerized by what you're seeing.

MARTIN: Edwidge Danticat. Her latest novel is called "Claire of the Sea Light." Thank you so much for talking with us, Edwidge.

DANTICAT: Thank you very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.