Edwidge Danticat says she was an accident of literacy.
In her keynote address to the Sanibel Island Writer’s Conference, she began with that statement.
She went on to explain that as a child she was told stories in the dark. Words had a danger. Books were her freedom. They were quiet — like her.
Her first book was Madeline. “I wanted to be Madeline,” she said.
I, too, had the book Madeline. But I don’t remember ever wanting to be Madeline, except in the deepest regions of my being. Madeline was brave in the face of the other girls and the nun. Even though she looked like and dressed like everyone else, she was not like everyone else.
In a Catholic world where blending in and flying under the radar was my mode of operation, Madeline was not something to aspire to be. Instead, I looked to Winnie-the-Pooh and Piglet and Christopher Robin. They were safe, and suffered just a bit. And later, Laura Ingalls Wilder took me on journeys to places I could only dream — the wild midwestern world of snowstorms and Indians and living in the woods.
Danticat says that I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou was “the Godmother of her writing career.” It gave her the courage to write Breath Eyes Memory — certainly the most memorable book I read in my entire college career. She also appreciated Richard Wright’s Black Boy. Alice Walker. Amy Tan. Toni Morrison
Her reasons are simple, yet profound. What these authors went through to get WORDS was the inspiration. In a dictatorship, Danticat says, those who use words get killed.
Her parents were afraid for her to be a writer.
The only reason she got published is because someone was opening up her manuscript to figure out if she was male or female in order to send the proper rejection notice.
In this way, she says, she was also an accident of publishing.
I have to let her words stand here. There is nothing I can add. I have never been very aware of how much I may avoid words. How people like Madeline shocked me, and how not much has changed since then. I still feel fearful when I consider radical honesty.
Danticat reaches out to me and says — it can be done. For that, I am grateful. But I am not sure I’m ready.