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It took a few minutes for the crowd to quiet down on September 21, 2013 as Régine M. Roumain, Executive Director of Haiti Cultural Exchange (HCX), stepped to the podium to introduce herself and welcome everyone to the event. After all, it was clear that people were excited. They were gathered at FiveMyles Gallery in Crown Heights for Salon D ‘Haïti, a special Bookend Event leading up to the official Brooklyn Book Festival, featuring two special guests: Elsie Augustave (author of The Roving Tree) and Edwidge Danticat (author of Claire of the Sea Light). The afternoon began with individual conversations with each author, moderated by Alice Backer, editor of Kiskeácity Daily, a daily edition of articles, blog posts and media by bloggers and journalists of Haitian descent. Alice delved right in, asking Elsie if she had all Haitians in mind when writing The Roving Tree. It seemed in Alice’s opinion that the life of Elsie’s main character Iris could easily serve as a metaphor for the experience of Haitians living abroad. Not surprisingly, Elsie’s response was reminiscent of the presence that she seemed to exude naturally: reflective, poised and well-collected. She explained that she drew from, not just her own experiences, but also from those of the people around her. She stressed that the Haitian experience is so varied in so many ways, from the different types of prejudices lived by Haitians, all the way to some of the younger generation of Haitians who know so little of the language or the culture, and who seem to shy away from it. Every question was met with an equally in-depth and insightful response. She engaged the audience with her thoughts on Haitian folklore and how it heavily influenced her prose. People were riveted by her quiet, yet powerful, recounting of being so haunted by the story she had to tell, comprised of years of sleepless nights and characters popping up unexpectedly. When Alice asked, “What did it take? What did it take to write such a compelling [debut] novel?”, Elsie kindly yet emphatically reminded the crowd of one of the most important traits one must have in order to achieve anything: “A lot of determination and more determination and more determination.” The excerpt that Elsie chose to read spoke not only to this determination, but also to a commitment to create a story that is wholly thought-provoking while allowing readers the space to insert a piece of themselves into a narrative that so closely mirrors their own experience.
The afternoon continued with Edwidge Danticat, a woman whose bevy of accomplishments and long-standing reputation in the literary community as one of the most talented Haitian-American authors, barely need an introduction. To hear Edwidge speak is to get a glimpse inside a mind that is so keen and so aware, that you can’t help but get completely drawn into her words. Alice began by asking Edwidge why she chose to write about a fictional town. The crowd broke out in laughter as Edwidge confessed that, when one writes about a real place, people will ultimately ask, “O, kote sa??” or “Kote mache a??” — “Where is that??” or “Where’s the market??” — invariably questioning the accuracy of her story. She continued to answer questions just as seamlessly, weaving the crowd in and out of her thoughts on: the sense of timelessness she feels whenever she visits Haiti and how she incorporated that into her new novel; the way in which she pokes fun at herself in referencing the discomfort of the Haitian Djaspora (Diaspora); and the idea of some things existing simultaneously, like Life and Death in her new novel Claire of the Sea Light, a cycle that truly never ends. Eventually Edwidge was posed with, “Why? Why write such an unconventional novel?” to which she unabashedly replied, “You have to ultimately write what’s important to you.” It was clear from the quiet murmur that quickly spread through the crowd that for many, her words had hit close to home, and struck a nerve. “Passion”, she stated. “We all should do what we do with the most passion in our hearts.” Her words, far from sounding preachy, instead came off with a sincerity and humility that is often so rare when it comes to those with as much influence and staying power as Edwidge. As she went on to quietly read an excerpt from her new novel, Claire of the Sea Light, the crowd was silent, drinking in her words and taking in every sound, as if they were starkly aware of the fleeting nature of the moment.
The event ended with a Q&A session followed by a book signing, during which audience members asked thoughtful questions and were able to engage more directly with Elsie and Edwidge. Long after applause had died down and long lines to meet Elsie and Edwidge had dwindled, people still lingered, to chat, to catch up and to meet other kindred spirits. This was a testament to the profound impact that HCX continues to have on the community– by allowing community members the opportunity to engage with Haitian artists and change makers on a very real and intimate level.
By Wynnie Lamour, HCX supporter and founder of the Haitian Creole Institute of NY
This entry was posted on Thursday, October 10th, 2013 at 4:10 pm and is filed under An n' Pale, Archive, Events, HCX Collaborations, HCX Programs, Literature, Public Forums, Weekend. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.