Edwidge Danticat: A Voice for the Voiceless

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THIS AWARD-WINNING WRITER AND ACTIVIST CAPTURES THE RAW EMOTIONS OF HER FELLOW HAITIANS AND SPEAKS OUT FOR HUMAN RIGHTS

Under a single spotlight on a darkened stage, Edwidge Danticat broke the silence. "One," she called out quietly but firmly. "Respa," came the answer from the dim as hundreds of voices completed the traditional Haitian greeting: "Honor, Respect."

On that chilly Manhattan evening early last November, supporters of the National Coalition for Haitian Rights had been waiting for the best-selling writer to arrive to host an annual benefit. She apologized for being late, but nobody seemed to mind terribly. In her slightly accented voice, she introduced the night's agenda: to educate people about the horrors of the restavek system. A common practice in Haiti, it is named for the French rester avec, "to stay with," a privilege for which children of poor families are expected to clean chamber pots, wait on the children of their rich hosts, endure beatings, and sleep on nothing more than a cardboard box shoved under the kitchen table.

Then Danticat faded back into the shadows as two Haitian-American children and a young man took turns reading from Jean-Robert Cadet's 1998 autobiography, Restavec: From Haitian Slave Child to Middle-Class American. Danticat applauded, just barely visible backstage, as Cadet himself walked onstage and read a final passage from the book. Then she joined the readers and presented each one to the audience in a way that made it clear that she considered it to be a privilege to accompany them. The moment was typical of Danticat's personal and literary style: treating harrowing emotional and political material with grace, and honoring the voices of others, whether they be the characters in her books or people in her world.

Published when she was only twenty-five, Danticat's 1994 debut novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, received wide acclaim. The book of short stories and novel that followed have also been heaped with praise from the publishing world. Now, at thirty-one, she's quickly shed the buzz of "prodigy" and lent her literary weight to causes from Haitian immigrant rights to bilingual education to nurturing new voices.

"When I was younger, I thought I would die by the time I was thirty. I don't know why I felt this. I just did. I had a lot of people in my family die young, so maybe that was why," Danticat recalled in a recent conversation--carried out by e-mail, which is the way she keeps in touch these days because of her grueling schedule of teaching, writing, and public appearances.

"Now I do feel more rested at thirty-one. I feel more at peace with myself. People sometimes say I have an old soul. My friends call me a ti granmoun, an old lady. I've been called that since I was ten. So I have never felt like a girl prodigy, and when things started happening with my book, I took that to mean that I could do this now and move on to something else. I like the process of doing things, and I think as you get older the process begins to mean more than the destination."

For her that process begins with recognizing her roots and expands to giving back to the community of which she is a part. Such commitment is rare among the small part of the population with power and wealth in Danticat's native Haiti, where the haves care little for the have-nots.

Danticat's family came from the have-nots, though they were strong and lucky enough to make something; her parents emigrated to New York when she was four. Her father drove a cab, and her mother worked in a textile factory to raise the money to bring her to the United States when she was twelve. The long separation, combined with the knowledge of her parents' sacrifice, helped make her older than her years: "Always I felt I had to work since my parents worked so hard," she says now. "Even here in America, I have had a job since I was fourteen."

She entered New York City schools, including bilingual programs, which she has credited with nurturing her language skills. …