The New School hosts the 2020 National Book Critics Circle awards, which honor literature published in the United States in the previous year. The awards are presented in six categories — autobiography, biography, criticism, fiction, nonfiction, and poetry — and are the only U.S. literary awards chosen by critics themselves.
The following interview with Edwidge Danticat, the 2020 award winner in fiction, is part of a series of NBCC interviews conducted by New School creative writing students.
Edwidge Danticat’s Everything Inside is a finalist for the NBCC Award for Fiction. This short story collection takes us into the intimate depths of characters grappling to communicate with those they love, to rewrite the stories of their lives and sometimes their deaths. The stories are set in Port-au-Prince, Miami and, in one case, an unnamed Caribbean island. More than anything, there is a spare and resounding musicality that unites these eight resplendent stories.
Ms. Danticat’s light and ever ready laughter set the tone of our conversation, the sense of wonder with which she speaks about the power of stories. Just hours after we talked, she was awarded The Story Prize, making her the first-ever two-time winner of the prize.
Heran Abate [HA]: Thank you so much for making time to speak with me. If it’s okay to ask, where are we finding you this afternoon?
Edwidge Danticat [ED]: I’m in New York City. I live in Miami, but I’m here today because I’m a finalist for The Story Prize. I’m going to the ceremony in a few minutes, right after I’m done speaking to you.
HA: That makes it two big prizes that you are a finalist for. Is that a big deal? How does it feel?
ED: It’s a big deal because this book, Everything Inside, was in the making for a long time. With short story collections, there’s not really a linear path. You write one story, then you write another, and so on. I love writing stories, and I enjoyed writing these particular short stories over a span of twelve years. I never had in mind that they were going to be nominated for anything. Sometimes with story collections, you want to put every single story you have between two covers, but with this one, I wanted to have these particular eight stories together, because they have a certain flow and kinship to them, a joint emotional world. I loved seeing them come together that way. Everything else that’s happened with the book so far, including it becoming a finalist for these prizes, has felt like a bonus.
HA: A lot of the stories in Everything Inside have changed since their initial publication. “Hot Air Balloons” is a great example. In the book version, you’ve removed the sub-plot of an affair, changed how we learn about the relationship between the two girls, among other things. How has the meaning of this story changed since you first wrote it?
ED: I’m a constant editor. Even after my stories are published, I keep rewriting them. That’s a big passion for me; to see a story evolve in different ways over time. I always see reprinting a story as another opportunity to work on it. I spent so much time with these stories that the characters grew up! It was the same with “Hot Air Balloons”. At its core it remained a story about privilege. In rewriting it, I wanted to take away other plot points, so that the reader could concentrate more on that aspect of things. It also became a story about a first-generation immigrant woman being in certain spaces where other people feel so at ease and she feels uncomfortable and has no idea what to do with that discomfort. And a story about another young woman trying to figure out her place in the world. I wanted to explore those nuances, which were a bit overshadowed by the other plot points before.
HA: There was this one line in the same story, even as I’m bringing it up now is giving me goosebumps. Neah says to Lucy, “I’m too swayed by every story I hear, especially the tragic ones.” This was such a powerful moment. How do you, as a writer, relate to Neah’s words?
ED: I am that person (laughs). Every story I come across, in some way, becomes a part of my soul and the more tragic the story, the more it lingers there. That’s the power of good literature; it changes you. Here, Neah is talking about the power of stories in the real world. I am that person, too. That’s one of the reasons I write, to process those feelings and give them some kind of shape. That’s maybe why there are so many characters in this book talking about the power of stories. How are we changed and remade by stories? In “Seven Stories” [also in the collection], one of the characters says, “No story is ever complete”. That can certainly apply to what we were previously talking about earlier, in terms of an ever-evolving story. The book is in many ways a celebration of stories. Starting from the beginning with stories we make up to get something from other people to the stories that are passed down to us, the stories we inherit. Also towards the end of the book, in “Without Inspection”, a young man tries to change the story about his life, and even tries to rewrite what the story would be about his death.
HA: There was something in the telling of “Seven Stories” that I can’t quite put my finger on. The descriptions of place felt abundant like there was so much that the narrator was taking in. At the same time, I had this strong feeling of foreboding throughout. What did you want to do with this story?
ED: “Seven Stories” is about the voyeurism of certain types of stories. This perception we might have that we know somebody’s story, when – even when we’re doing our best – we might not fully grasp this hidden layer. That’s what the writer character, Kim Boyer, is facing in that story. It’s like with Hemingway’s iceberg, where most of the story is under the surface. The narrator of “Seven Stories” is someone who wants to write about this place because she has access to the best part of it, but then realizes that the deeper story lies beneath the surface.
HA: In so many of your books, you demonstrate this remarkable ability to inhabit your characters’ complex realities. This is especially true of conflicted characters like the former prison guard in The Dew Breaker. How do you enter such a character’s world without being crushed by the weight of their often-violent actions?
ED: To write any character who feels like an actual person, you have to try to understand that character, whether you like them, or agree with them or not. You have to step into their skins, good or bad. You have to (pauses) find layers to them, inhabit their experiences. No one is ever just one thing. Even with the characters whose actions I hate, or whose paths are troubling to me, I still have to try to find some redeeming qualities in them, in order to understand who they fully are.
HA: Does it ever get to be too much?
ED: It does, sometimes, especially when the character is based on someone real, like a really evil person. As I’m writing, I keep thinking about the real person and I want to punish that person – through the character – in all kinds of horrible ways.
HA: How do you navigate telling a story that might have happened to other people? Do you ask their permission to use their story?
ED: When I’m writing non-fiction I ask permission, especially to the people in my family. If I’m writing about a sibling, I ask because we share the story. It’s also good to listen to a different version of events, because what you think you know of the story expands. In fiction though, my biggest challenge is trying to write an individual and not a type. You can compile different people’s traits into one character. There are enough ways in fiction to avoid making people easily identifiable. And there’s always that disclaimer (laughs) at the beginning of every book anyway. “This is a work of fiction etc…Not actual people!” (Laughs.) It’s funny though how some people will claim resemblance to a fictional character and accuse you of borrowing their lives, even if it’s not the most flattering character.
HA: In the Acknowledgements, you mention “writerly advocacy”. What do you mean by that?
ED: It was a way of saying thank you to so many people who have helped me all my writing life, emotionally and otherwise. I know how much effort that requires in a very busy life. I’ve been so blessed to have that in life – from the late Toni Morrison to Nikki Giovanni, to Sonia Sanchez, to Elizabeth Alexander, and Achy Obejas who I mentioned at the end of this book.
HA: How do you form those relationships?
ED: If you’re lucky they form organically. Often, writers gather – like today at the Story Prize, there was a lunch earlier and I got to spend time with Zadie Smith and Kali Fajardo-Anstine [the other two finalists]. Then you see each other at another thing and that’s often how community is built. Often someone will reach out in a loving way. The most important of these relationships though begins on the page. With all the writers I love, I initially get to know them on the page. When I see them in person, I’m in awe because I’ve already been inside their heads.
HA: You have written and published over twenty books. How do your intentions and goals differ when you’re writing children’s books, young adult fiction, novels, essays, etc.?
ED: For me, it’s all storytelling. The characters will sound different based on certain aspects, like their age, but they’re all trying to tell a story. I don’t see a children’s book as one in which you talk down to children or a young adult book as a younger version of an adult novel. I think of how the characters speak based on their life circumstances, background, etc. You’ll definitely speak differently if you’re a six-year-old than if you’re a 51-year-old like me. The difference for me is voice.
HA: Does the type of story you choose to write about change at all?
ED: The themes don’t necessarily change. You can write about immigration, as I did in my memoir Brother, I’m Dying, where I wrote about my uncle dying in immigration custody, or you can write about the same subject in a picture book, as I did in Mama’s Nightingale, which is about a child whose mother is in immigration detention. You have that whole range of ways to do it.
It’s been wonderful to see, for example, how many serious and urgent matters are being dealt with in YA. I don’t think there are those barriers anymore where people are writing kiddy stuff for kids because the kids are super woke! They have access to a lot about the world.
HA: What’s your definition of success? And how has it changed over time?
ED: Some days success is getting to a really great point in a story, overcoming a hurdle in a part of my novel where I was stuck for a while. That just happened to me two days ago and I was like, “Wow! I’m so happy” (laughs). There’s always this moment that just opens up the whole book. You start, and you’re just dragging along until you get to a point where you’re like, “Now I know what’s going to happen until the end of the book.” I just have to write it now. That always feels like angels are singing and trumpets are blown (hums). And the whole thing finally seems feasible. So sometimes success feels like that. I mean, certainly, if you get nominated for a prize like this one, that’s not necessarily the sole definition of success, but we’re all human. At the heart of that, you are thinking, “Some people who are really smart and read a lot of books, thought that my book was okay” (laughs). So that sometimes also feels like success.
HA: Do you read your reviews?
ED: (Laughs). I have the kind of family that even if I don’t see a review they’re like, “look what somebody wrote about you!” So I end up reading reviews, not to get my feelings hurt, but in order to learn. It’s the studious student in me. All writers have patterns; we all have these things that we do over and over that, after the fact, we wish we’d caught sooner. A really thoughtful review can help you grow. I also have to balance that because you can have one review that says one story is the worst in the collection, and another that says that same story is the best, so ultimately you have to keep your own counsel, as they say.
HA: Was there ever a time in your writing career where you had to choose between a big opportunity and a compromise you weren’t necessarily willing to make?
ED: It’s hard to avoid that. Many of these things happen out of the spotlight. Saying no to certain things that just don’t feel right, or that you’ve researched and feel don’t represent your values. I think most of us, especially those who come from marginalized communities, are always trying to balance making the most of the opportunities we are given – especially when they are given to us as rewards for our work – and also trying not to damage or hurt other people with our associations with certain people and projects.
HA: What books have you read recently that really spoke to you or are there any writers that you’re very excited about at the moment?
ED: I’ve been reading Zadie Smith’s Grand Union. And Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s Sabrina & Corina, before seeing them at The Story Prize. I am also reading My Mother’s House by Francesca Momplaisir, a very powerful book, narrated in part, by a house, and one I think we’ll be hearing a lot about. I just started working on a novel, so I’m also reading a lot for research.
HA: Are you okay to share anything about your novel right now?
ED I can’t just yet. It’s still like a fragile baby.
HA: Of course, I completely understand. Thank you so much, it has been an absolute pleasure to talk to you.
ED: No, it’s my pleasure.
This interview was first published on March 6, 2020, at the Creative Writing at The New School blog, thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School.
Heran Abate writes fiction about the people and places she calls home, primarily in Ethiopia. She is currently pursuing a Creative Writing MFA at the New School.
Edwidge Danticat is the author of numerous award-winning books, the 2018 Neustadt International Prize for Literature winner and a recipient of the MacArthur “Genius” grant.