How do you write about the death of a loved one? For most of us who have suffered the ultimate loss, it is a struggle to articulate the myriad emotions that engulf us in times of sorrow, let alone put the words on paper to share with the rest of the world.
But that was the challenge that acclaimed Haitian author Edwidge Danticat set herself following the death of her mother in 2004. She launched her latest work, The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story, at the Mount Restaurant at the University of the West Indies Cave Hill campus last week, as part of the programme of literary events of the recently concluded 13th Caribbean Festival of Arts (CARIFESTA XIII).
She shared that writing has been the primary way she has tried to make sense of her losses, including death.
“People talk about the peaks and valleys of grief. This book was in part inspired by my mother’s death in 2004 and I could not write other things I felt before I had confronted that. Then I started reading texts, including Toni Morrison’s Sula, in which the [main] character, when her best friend dies, talks about circles and circles of sorrow,” Danticat said of the difficulty of chronicling her mother’s illness and subsequent passing.
It is not the first time she has written about death. The author has tackled the subject in earlier works, including The Farming of Bones, which recounts the hard killings of Haitian cane workers in the Dominican Republic during the 1937 October massacre; and The Dew Breaker, where soldiers and paramilitary men and women collect their victims at daybreak in order to torture and kill them.
However, she was forced to draw on the experience of other authors when faced with her own personal loss.
“One of the things I will carry forward with me . . . is the notion that the book has a quality to it that it’s not a singular story but that there are many voices and different kinds of grief, which I didn’t realize until this moment, that I was looking for.
“And even attempting the writing of this book, I was looking for other voices of grief to join mine. Because for those of you who know it, there are public rituals of grief. When someone has died, there’s the funeral, the visits, but then there’s a very lonely quality after these rituals have moved on and it’s you, even when you’re surrounded by people. So I believe that I was very much looking for that core quality of the writers that I was talking about,” Danticat told her audience.
It also helped that she recalled the humour of her mother, a former factory worker, which she relied on to cope in her final days.
“My mother had a singular and wicked sense of humour, one that’s hard to convey and translate. Her type of humour was mostly for intimates or people she quickly made into intimates. Her jokes were best understood by people who already knew how she spoke; who could really read her body language and listen for the nuances in her speech.
“At my father’s funeral, my mother kept whispering something under her breath. Finally at the graveside I leaned over to hear what she was saying. She was muttering over and over, ‘until death do us part, until death do us part’. This moved me so much that I asked her why she was saying that. And she told me that she was reminding my father that their contract was over; that she had only signed up until one of them was dead, and since he was dead she didn’t want him to come back and bother her,” Danticat said, to much laughter from the audience.
It was standing room only at the Mount Restaurant when Danticat’s fans gathered for the launch of her latest work.
Several enthusiasts brought along their personal copies of her previous works, hoping for an autograph from the author, which she obliged.
However, they were disappointed to learn that the latest text did not arrive in time for the official launch.
Nevertheless, local author Esther Phillips gave the audience a glimpse of what they can expect, and had nothing but praise for the undertaking.
“The dead cannot write their final story. So it is clear from the very title of the book, that Edwidge Danticat is as courageous as we know her to be, in taking on the challenge of writing death,” Phillips said.
While she pointed out that Danticat has addressed the issue before, Philips acknowledged that “now, however, Danticat is made to confront death without the buffer that history may provide.”