They All Laughed at Edwidge Danticat
Other writers thought my favorite story was maudlin—but was that a matter of taste, or a matter of race?
During my second fiction workshop at my MFA program, my professor asked us each to take turns bringing in a favorite short story. The idea was that everyone in the classroom would read and dissect each short story, and that being exposed to the different tastes of our classmates might help us gain a broadened perspective on what short fiction is able to do.
For my week, I chose “Children of the Sea” by the Haitian American writer Edwidge Danticat, from her National Book Award-nominated collection Krik? Krak! The story had been my favorite short story since I’d come across it in undergrad. It was a story that broke my heart; a story that, when I finished, I simply closed the book and had to take a moment to breathe. I was so moved by the story that first time that I wrote a blog entry about how much it inspired me. I can’t remember the exact words I used, but the entry amounted to both a realization and a promise: that the thing I most ached to do was write something that would make someone feel the way I felt after reading this piece; that no matter what else I might do in my life, I wanted at least to try, once, to move someone with my words.
So, no big deal. I was only bringing in the story that set me on the path towards being a writer.
I worried a little that this wouldn’t be considered a “well-read” choice. I wasn’t entirely sure what a well-read choice would be. I didn’t major in English in undergrad (I majored in psychology, and I don’t regret it). This means that, unlike many of my peers, I was never forced to read many “classic” canonized works — to this day I have yet to pick up any Hemingway, Steinbeck, Twain, Austen, most of the Russians. I wasn’t exposed to Joyce or Flannery O’Connor until after college. I read Wilde for the first time two years ago. I’ve read a single book by Faulkner, never finished Anna Karenina, and struggled through D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love when I took it upon myself to read it. I don’t feel apologetic for this, but at the time, entering an MFA program — one I had been rejected from the first time I applied, no less — with this lack of knowledge meant that I felt a touch of imposter syndrome. Unlike my peers, some of whom confided to me that they felt the assignments were just a rehash of what they’d already learned in undergrad, I had mostly only read contemporary literature, novels I picked up in bookstores from the “New Releases” shelf. While I read a lot, the books I chose weren’t exactly what I figured those students who studied literature or writing seriously read during their academic years.
But when it came to Danticat, I was confident that the story’s emotional power would make clear why I’d chosen it as my favorite. “Children of the Sea,” if you haven’t read it, is written in epistolary form, told entirely in letters ostensibly traded by two young lovers in during a period of dictatorship and political unrest in Haitian history. Danticat’s language is lush, brimming with emotion, evocative imagery, and lyricism. It’s an unbearably sad story, highlighting the helplessness yet fragile hope of the lovers in the face of political machinations beyond their control.
The other workshop students intimidated me. Unlike me, they were mostly in their second year; unlike me, they were almost all white. They were opinionated and sure of themselves, having had an extra year to grow confident in their ideas, I guess. They were also less welcoming than the people I had met in my own cohort, and so, aside from a couple of exceptions, I hadn’t become friendly with them.
I don’t recall the discussion of the story being governed by workshop rules; that is, I’m certain I was allowed to speak and participate in the conversation. But, either because I was shy or because I was anxious, I don’t remember offering my thoughts on the story as it was being discussed, though I’m sure I was asked by the professor to give a brief introduction. The other students, never shy to share their thoughts, immediately jumped in. I can’t remember exactly how they phrased their criticisms, but I remember the gist: the story was too maudlin, too emotional. They felt the love was contrived. They disliked the form. They thought the metaphors were overwrought. They felt the tragedy was unconvincing. They felt it was the work of a young writer, an inexperienced one — certainly one they’d never heard of. (Danticat was indeed young at the time, and this was her first collection, but she had won several awards by that point, including the MacArthur Genius Award only months prior.) One by one, they tore the story to shreds. They even ripped apart the story’s last two lines: “From here, I cannot even see the sea. Behind these mountains there are more mountains and more black butterflies still and a sea that is endless like my love for you.” It was a quote I loved and had memorized and put in my email signature all through college, but they called it a vague and meaningless metaphor.
Not a single person liked it. I shrunk in my seat in embarrassment and shame. I remember trying to justify my choice in bringing in the story. “Maybe it’s because I’m a young writer too,” I said quietly. “Maybe that’s why I didn’t see all these flaws. Maybe that’s why it speaks to me.”
At break, I stood outside the building with some other people, including a white guy who was the only second-year student I was friends with. He looked at my face, took a drag from his cigarette, and then gently admonished me: “Don’t apologize for what you like. You like what you like. Stand by it.” I nodded, grateful for his kindness, but I noticed that he did not say he liked the story. I left that class burning with humiliation and self-doubt. Perhaps I simply didn’t know what good writing was, I thought. Perhaps I was so under-read that I had no sense of what made a story successful, what made it a failure, what was too overwrought, and what was elegant in its simplicity. I had embarrassed myself in front of my peers, outed myself as someone who had terrible taste in literature, someone who couldn’t determine a good sentence from a bad one. I went home that day second-guessing myself, wondering if I would ever be able to write a good piece of fiction given that my own taste in writing was so clearly off.
It was only several years later, when I was already out of graduate school and I began meeting other writers of color, that I discovered that not only did other writers know of Edwidge Danticat, but that she was beloved. I watched other people’s eyes light up the way mine did when they talked about her work, or become bashful and shy like I did when meeting her at a signing. I listened to these writers of color — many of them descended from immigrants like me; many of them women, like me — talk at length about how Danticat’s work served as a model and inspiration to them. The longing, the inherited pain, the oral storytelling quality, the poetry, the magic, the duende — all of the things about Danticat’s work that speak to me were qualities that also spoke to these people. For the first time, I began to realize that it wasn’t that I’d had bad taste — I’d simply been privy to the way a white audience reads something when it isn’t intended for them, when it isn’t rooted in the language and cues that they have valued as “good.”
It pains me now, to think of the years in between that workshop and when I realized other people loved Danticat. Those were years I spent trying to excise the emotions from my work, to wrestle my work into something palatable in a conventional (read: white) way. I read Carver and tried to figure out if I could ever be as sparse or economical as he was. I read the pithy, quirky, ironic stories of my peers and wondered if I could somehow become more wry, more darkly funny, or else more serious and filled with restrained gravitas like the canonical writers some of them looked up to. This isn’t to say that there weren’t things I had to improve upon — I was a young writer and I was prone to using too many metaphors, towards prose that veered towards purple. But my crisis was an existential one, where I wanted to be a different writer than I was, where I wanted to care less about being moved — or perhaps I wanted to be moved in a different way, the “right” way.
This illustrates, I think, the danger of a limited canon not just for readers, but also for young writers trying to find out how best to express the heart of who they are. It isn’t just about having mirrors, where readers can see themselves reflected in literature, and windows, where readers can understand other people’s experience through literature (though, of course, that’s a big part of the argument for diversity and inclusivity). It’s also about offering different models of work. What gets published, what’s deemed worthy — these are things selected by gatekeepers whose standards of what passes for “good” are rooted in their own worldview, histories, and traditions. Though this is starting to change, these gatekeepers still overwhelmingly represent the dominant culture. When they deem something “not good” instead of recognizing that they simply don’t understand it because it hails from a different literary and cultural tradition, a cycle is perpetuated where the same “acceptable” work gets made over and over again — and anything else is derided. Those in the margins are left questioning the validity of their work and stifling their impulses as artists, or else (and I am grateful for the folks who do this) defiantly making the work anyway, with the confidence that their work is meaningful, despite what those in power might say — and despite the fact that they may never be rewarded or recognized.
Sometimes, a marginalized writer breaks through; Edwidge Danticat, of course, has been lauded by gatekeepers, as is evident from her many awards. Still, a few token writers will never be enough to break people out of the mindset that this stuff isn’t worthy. I do wonder if my classmates might have looked upon the story differently if they’d known of Danticat’s many achievements, though. I wonder if that, in some perverse sense, would have “legitimized” her. I think it would.
I’ve reread “Children of the Sea” many times since that day in that workshop, and have even taught it to students, and while I can recognize that it’s an imperfect short story, it still moves me the way it did all those years ago, before I even knew I would become a writer. I proudly stand by my love for it, and to this day, Danticat remains one of my most cherished influences. Had I not found my community, people who confirmed what I had known in my heart — that Danticat and writers like her speak to people like me, and that alone confirms their merit — I might have wasted more time trying to become a writer that I was not. I might have continued in vain to write towards what I thought those white readers felt was “good writing” in an effort to please and pander to them. I might have given up on writing altogether, uncertain of my own discernment, discouraged by ability to conform. I’m lucky that I did not do any of those things. I’m lucky that I found the people for whom Danticat’s stories were meant, because now when I write, I too, in turn, write for them.