Princeton U Press, 2010

“Create dangerously, for people who read dangerously. This is what I’ve always thought it meant to be a writer.”

So says Edwidge Danticat, in the early pages of the work inspired by Albert Camus’ essay and, also, inspired by countless tales of courageous reading and writing and living.

And what does she mean by this?

The more specific question she asks goes like this: “How does that reader find the courage to take this bite [of the apple], open that book? After an arrest, an execution?”

Because she is speaking of horrors and tragedies, resistances and revolutions.

She is speaking of daring acts, like the rewriting of Oedipus Rex and Antigone by playwright Franck Fouché and poet Felix Morisseau Leroy, in Creole, placed in Haitian settings: dangerous creations.

These are acts of national and international significance, but Create Dangerously is also a work which resonates with a more personal and intimate energy.

Danticat left Haiti when she was twelve, where she had been living with an aunt and uncle, when a dictatorship “forced thousands to choose between exile or death”.

But this collection of essays includes one which considers one of her trips back to the island, when she travelled up the mountain to spend a week with Tante Ilyana, her last close family member still living in Beauséjour.

Everyone else had migrated, some to the Haitian capital, others to other parts of the world, but Tante Ilyana remained there, with her daughter, who — though a young woman — had died not long ago.

Tante Ilyana’s way of life and way of mourning make for a moving and evocative segment, and this essay also demonstrates the way in which sharing such personal experiences can also reveal wider cultural experiences and patterns.

From a family home in the mountains on the island of Haiti to the dyaspora (a word from the Creole): the intersection of the personal and the political is intense and poignant.

The first essay in this collection is part of Toni Morrison’s lecture series, and the last chapter appeared first in the pages of  “The New Yorker”.

In between, besides the piece about Tante Ilyana, Danticat also reflects on (in the wake of Jean Dominique’s assassination in 2000) the project undertaken with Jean Dominique and Jonathan Demme, about Haitian cinema.

She also discusses Haitian novelist Marie Iveux-Chauvet’s trilogy (published for the first time in English in 2009, as Love, Anger, Madness), amongst others who create dangerously, like Hector Hyppolite, possibly the most famous Haitian artist of his time, and Daniel Morel, accomplished Haitian photographer.

And one of the most affecting essays considers Alèrte Bélance’s story of how she survived being dragged to Titanyen, the mass grave populated at that time by those accused of supporting Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s campaign for presidency.

She states: “They killed mother after mother of children. They killed doctor after doctor, student after student. Mothers of children lost their children….The devil has raped the confidence of the people….People of conscience, hear me who is trying to wake you up. Hear my story, what I have experienced….”

Create Dangerously is presented as a unified work, and thematically the interconnections are readily evident. Nonetheless, this slim volume is one which, in my opinion, is best appreciated in controlled doses.

One of the aspects that is most appealing for a reader who has little familiarity with Haitian literary and cultural history is the sense of a world (be it on the stage, the page or the canvas) being freshly discovered through this volume.

(My TBR list, for instance, was throbbing with additions made by virtue of Danticat’s reflections.)

That’s exciting. But the strong desire to read more-learn more-discover more via these essays is twinned with a sense of overwhelming complexity.

Whether as a reader or a writer, the act of creating dangerously is one which deserves contemplation.

This skinny little book has some great big ideas: it’s the sort one is happy to purchase, to keep in range, to read in regular doses, to change the way one sees the world.

For more of Edwidge Danticat’s view of the world, you can watch this.

(The first few minutes is an excellent introduction to Create Dangerously, but the interview which follows is even more interesting and includes the author’s reminiscences of discovering the public library for the first time and discovering the works of Haitian novelists therein: “Libraries have always felt almost like church to me.”)

Have you read Edwidge Danticat before? Or, have you thought about it? Do tell…