We were talking about the intersection of information and atmosphere in the short stories of the Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat. What kind of consciousness and expectation does the reader bring to stories “about” Haiti? The challenge for Danticat is to subvert what we thought we knew, to write with the authority of observed detail, even detail observed inarguably in the imagination or passed down generations, hardened to a gemlike consistency. The challenge is to suggest (but not slavishly replicate) the sensations of lived life, to break down the distancing wall of our pity and evoke rather than merely name the atrocities – rape, suicide, dislocation, poverty, torture, murder – that humans suffer at one another’s hands.
The job of the reporter is to give us facts and evidence, causes and effects. The job of the fiction writer is to refuse the simple story we thought we knew, to inscribe indelible marks on our soul. The artist Francis Bacon said, “I look for phrases that cut me.” This strikes me as a fairly accurate description of the serious and complex experience of reading Danticat, whose stories again and again reveal stark beauty of the hard thing said simply: “Madame Roger came home with her son’s head.” Or, “Her teeth were a dark red, as though caked with blood from the initial beating during her arrest.” Or, “The woman we had been staying with carried her dead son by the legs.” “All of these women were here for the same reason. They were said to have been seen at night rising from the ground like birds on fire.”
The risk of repelling the finer sensibilities of the reader is one risk of writing beautifully about danger and survival. Offending fellow survivors is another. In his essay “Return to Sender,” Mark Doty speaks of writing a memoir that ended his relationship with his father. “If there is meaning in this,” Doty writes, “it is that art cannot be counted on to mend the rifts within or without. Its work is to take us to the brink of clarity.” Writing does not alleviate suffering. Doty’s father’s silence “is a burning in which I reside.”
Survival stories – the stories we tell to live – may be realist or postmodern, geopolitical or personal. They may find forms of beauty in the most harrowing things. Indeed the act of reading – of taking the hard stories of others into our own skins – may even expand and intensify human suffering, which is one definition of consciousness.
This Saturday night (October 9th) at the Litquake Lit Crawl, students and faculty of the California Institute of Integral Studies’ MFA Department present “Danger and Beauty: Stories We Tell To Live.” 7:15-8:15 p.m. at the Women’s Building, Room A, 3543 18th Street, San Francisco. Readers include Sarah Stone, April Serr, Brynn Saito, Pauline Reif, and Carolyn Cooke.