My Conversation with Edwidge Danticat

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is the CWT summary:

She joined Tyler to discuss the reasons Haitian identity and culture will likely persist in America, the vibrant Haitian art scenes, why Haiti has the best food in the Caribbean, how radio is remaining central to Haitian politics, why teaching in Creole would improve Haitian schools, what’s special about the painted tap-taps, how tourism influenced Haitian art, working with Jonathan Demme, how the CDC destroyed the Haitian tourism industry, her perspective on the Black Lives Matter movement, why she writes better at night, the hard lessons of Haiti’s political history, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Now, in all of these conversations, there’s a segment where I present to the guest my favorite Haitian proverbs, and he or she reacts. Are you ready for a few?

DANTICAT: All right. You’ve been sharing Haitian proverbs with your guests?

COWEN: Here’s one. “After the dance, the drum is heavy.”

DANTICAT: Oh my god.

COWEN: What does that mean to you?

DANTICAT: Aprè dans, tanbou lou. I actually have a book called After the Dance. It’s on Carnival. Yes, for me, it means that there are consequences to everything, even the most joyful thing. You have to be prepared for the consequences of things that you’ve done.

It’s something that my mom used to say quite a bit, too. If you have just had a really big celebration, or if you waited too late to do your homework because you’re having a good time watching a program you like, she was like, “Aprè dans, tanbou lou.” After the dance, the drum is heavy. It’s like the morning-after, hangover situation and the most joyful outcome, but really, that there are consequences to everything.

COWEN: Here’s another one. “It is the owner of the body who looks out for the body.”

DANTICAT: Oh, this one. You will not believe how much we hear that these days. Se mèt kò ki veye kò. It’s something that we say a lot now in the coronavirus era. You hear it on the radio. You hear people say it when they talk to their neighbors. Se mèt kò ki veye kò. That means that, really, you are the best person to take care of yourself.

If you’re saying, “Wear your mask when you go out during the coronavirus era.” “Wash your hands.” It’s like the best, the most qualified person to take care of you is you. It’s not the doctor. It’s not your loved one. Se mèt kò ki veye kò. It’s the owner of the body who takes care of the body. It’s like, “Watch out for yourself.” It’s very good advice these days.

COWEN: “When they want to kill a dog, they say it’s crazy.”

DANTICAT: Yes, that’s the dehumanization. I guess that’s fake news. [laughs] It’s connected to the fake news. If you want to diminish or slight someone, you call them names. So that’s also a timely one, I think.

COWEN: How about this one? “The constitution is paper; the bayonet is steel.”

DANTICAT: Yes. Again, back to our conversation about dictatorship, in a way. I believe that one was often cited by one of the generals, actually, during the ’90s, during the coup d’état, or it might have been even before. I think it speaks to the fragility of documents like the constitution. Yesterday was Constitution Day in the US, so that might also apply here.

It’s that whole thing with freedom. Freedom is something that we have to always keep watching out it doesn’t slip away because, sometimes, we think these documents or these rules are set in stone. I think this general who kept saying this was saying, “Well, I have the weapons.” It’s kind of paper, rock scissors. Which is stronger?

COWEN: “When the mapou tree dies, goats would eat its leaves.”

DANTICAT: Yes. This one, I think, is about humility because we have this expression that we say when someone has died who has contributed a great deal to our culture: we say that a mapou has fallen. A mapou is a soft cotton tree, it’s a kind of sacred tree, and it’s also a big tree that lasts forever. It’s a regal institution, a mapou.

What this one is saying, actually, the goat is a meager creature compared to a mapou, and there’s no way a goat would actually be able to access the leaves of a mapou, but when it dies, it falls. I’ve always heard that proverb as a way of encouraging humility, that all our leaves are vulnerable to the goat, if you will. [laughs]

COWEN: One more proverb, “Beyond the mountain is another mountain.”

DANTICAT: Yes. Dèyè mòn gen mòn.

COWEN: That’s a very famous one.

DANTICAT: Yes. I actually use that a lot myself. One of my neighbors just passed away, and she used to use that proverb a lot. I think it means that no matter what, we can see there is more. I think it’s about there’s more to everything than what we see.

It also speaks to the physical layout of Haiti because it’s a very mountainous place. Ayiti. The Arawak called it Ayiti. It actually means land of the mountains, and it’s physically true. If you’re traveling across Haiti, literally, there’s always a mountain physically behind a mountain, but in a spiritual sense, it also means that there’s always more.

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