Monday, September 26, 2011

Edwidge Danticat booksigning, immigration, time travel and the umbilical cord

Odilia Rivera Santos

It’s always interesting to see how an artist presents his or her work and how it is received. Living in NYC makes it easy to meander over to a performance, reading, or art gallery on the spur of the moment, alone with a notebook.
If I’m not taking notes, I’m taking notes.
I went to see Edwidge Danticat read excerpts of Brother, I’m Dying and answer questions. An audience is always a loose cannon and how an author handles the inappropriate or downright offensive question reveals his or her level of insularity.
Ms. Danticat is a writer I admire, partly because I can identify with her experience as an immigrant, having to learn a new language and deal with the acculturation process. Like many immigrants, Ms. Danticat took full advantage of what this country has to offer: a great education and an opportunity to abandon limitations set by one’s country of origin.
I have seen her speak before and find her presence is always constrained as if she were holding on tightly to the practiced stoicism of those who’ve experienced great losses and seen tragedy up close. She spoke as gently about the infuriating policies restricting Haitians’ entry into the American immigration maze as one would of going to the supermarket to get milk, However, I’m certain she has strong feelings regarding the inequities and racism in the immigration process. Considering the problems in Haiti, she must keep calm and practice compassionate detachment, as it must be a burden to be a public figure with its requisite unrealistic expectations. Persons from colonies/third-world countries who succeed in the U.S. are expected to do a lot for their countries of origin.
For many, Ms. Danticat provided a first glimpse into Haiti and its myriad wonders.
What I find most moving is the simple scene of Danticat giving birth in the U.S. As a woman living a privileged existence, she was able to choose natural childbirth as opposed to women in impoverished third-world countries who would never use the term ‘natural childbirth’ because there is no other kind. In a third-world country, women just hope to survive childbirth; labor pain is not as frightening as death or permanent injuries.
Her natural childbirth sounds like a ceremony to welcome and celebrate a new life with little to no fear of the mother’s life being endangered. Danticat reads of being surrounded by flowers and caring people and how this is probably what her mother would have liked as, Edwidge, her own child was born.
My mother had seven children with a midwife in her small cement house in Puerto Rico and the last two children were born in a hospital. Ironically enough, the complications during birth occurred in the hospital surrounded by the latest modern equipment, not with the elderly Black midwife who my father said chewed tobacco.
He also joked the midwife was an old lady when he was a little boy.
Danticat spoke of sacrifices immigrants make to bring their children to another country in order to live a better life or merely survive. To me, we leave our countries through a one-way door bolted from the native-country side. We can go back, but we might do so as anthropologists, sociologists or some other -ist prepared to survey the scene. Equipped with American educations, where we learned the history of our countries of origin, we balk at classifications we would have accepted had we never left. Leaving your country of origin gives you some new reference points.

Danticat’s uncle died in an USCIS prison; she used a Haitian proverb -- Running from the rain to jump into the fire -- to describe his flight from the privations of his country to the privations of an immigration holding cell where he died in the same way as a pauper with no connections. The immigrants with whom I’ve worked suffered from severing ties with their origins, but truly rejoiced at seeing their children succeed, and, in some cases, become the first literate members of a family.
To a loving parent, any sacrifice is fine as long as the child makes it to shore.

She really does speak of the experience of traveling not from one country to another, but from one century to another. Our consciousness shifts as we land in a new place in which electricity and hot water are freely available, libraries offer a free education, hospitals do not require the infirm to find transportation to get to the hospital and notions of race, gender, class and happiness become notions to be examined and compared with one’s original reference point. I imagine in her life, as in mine, thinking about childhood as a poor kid in a colony and moving to a city with every conceivable comfort is akin to being very elderly with a lucid mind. We try to explain what this travel from there has been, but unless the listeners have also traveled from there to here, it is an abstract fairytale.

I am writing about work for my next e-book: Work Chronicles, which I will published on Smashwords in November. In the meantime, you can check out my creative nonfiction essays Latinalogue Puerto Rican Nonfiction Part I and Latinalogue Puerto Rican Nonfiction Part II:

Writers, be careful not to die of exposure.!/UrbanBrainiac!/bezotes!/latinaauthor
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