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Teaching Multicultural Literature : A Workshop for the Middle Grades
Workshop 1 Workshop 2 Workshop 3 Workshop 4 Workshop 5 Workshop 6 Workshop 7 Workshop 8
Workshop 4: Research and Discovery - An Na, Edwidge Danticat, Laurence Yep, and more
Overview
Authors and Literary Works
An Na
Biography
Work
Edwidge Danticat
Biography
Work
Interview
Pam Munoz Ryan
Biography
Work
Walter Dean Myers
Biography
Work
Laurence Yep
Biography
Work
Interview
Key References
Video Summary
Teaching Strategies
Commentary
Student Work
Resources
Interactive Workbook -- Explore two poems using strategies from these workshops. Go.
Channel-Talk -- Share your views on the discussion board. Go.

Authors and Literary Works
Talking with Edwidge Danticat

Why did you decide to write Behind the Mountains in the form of a journal?

I had always kept journals myself. What I found when I moved to the United States at 12 years old was that I was between languages. I had a journal that was a mishmash of Creole and English and French. It came out of my desire to note down the new things that were happening to me while I was still trying to remember the old things -- the place that I had left, which was Haiti, and the friends that I had there. Back at that time, 1981, not everybody we knew had a phone, so I was writing a lot of letters to the people back home. So the journal was the form that most stood out to me. I liked the idea of not only describing for myself what was happening but also writing to others. So it became the natural form in which to write this particular story.


It was a very difficult time, I think, to have arrived here. First you had the first big wave of people coming by boat to Miami, which made the news really every night. And then it was also the beginning of this conversation about AIDS, and Haitians were the first -- the only -- people on the high-risk list by ethnic group. When you went to school, you were faced with those images, and the children teased you. So it was a very difficult time to be a child. My parents' friends were fired from their jobs because of the scare about AIDS. Balancing all of that was really difficult. And that's why I kept a journal: it was a way of dealing with it all. I would write in my journals and read a lot -- just really go on this quest for identification, but also to escape. I had always read in Haiti, and I had been told stories and had really found a kind of solace in that. So I started writing from that sort of turmoil and turbulence.

Before Behind the Mountains, you wrote books for adults. How did you approach the new audience?

I didn't come into it thinking that writing Behind the Mountains was going to be that much different because I felt that to write for young people, you had to write with a kind of respect for their intelligence, for their instinct -- not to write down to them. But what was different was trying to gauge the reaction of the character based on her age, because she, Celiane, who was the main character, wouldn't experience something, for example, the same way that her mother would. I had to try to narrow down this particular character, this particular young woman, based on her experiences and how she would react. So I think what was most different was gauging the responses to this particular character's age and her experience in the world.

How important was reading to you when you were growing up?

I feel that it is such an important part of my growth as a person and as a writer to be able to read. Reading was often a great escape for me, but was also really a kind of a light, really something that contributed so much to my life as a student, as a person, and eventually as a person who would write. So I would definitely encourage the students to read and read, find what they love and just read as much as they can. I think it's so important, even with the other mediums you can get -- it's true you can get a story through a tape or through a movie, but there's nothing like that experience of just being completely immersed in a book.

Part of the joy of discovery of reading is being able to choose: being able to go on that quest for a book and finding just the right book, and not being able to wait to read the next one. I think it's extremely important to have a great range of choices. Being able to wander and explore and find the kinds of books that might speak to you but might not speak to somebody else gives you a kind of ownership of that book, and a kinship with this particular author. When you come across a book that just gives you the desire to read more books like that, it definitely feels like you've found gold. To have that experience of reading as almost a treasure hunt, to be able to find what you love, just finding a book that speaks to you very strongly -- there's nothing more exciting than going on that quest.

When you came to America, were you able find books that could speak to you?

When I came here at age 12 I was so desperate, truly desperate, to find images of myself, or experiences that were like mine. And I looked and I looked and really was hungry to find books where I could read these parallels of people who were like me, people whose families had come from other places. And when I found them I was so elated, because I had the sense that I wasn't alone in this experience. Then when I read books that talked about people who were new to this country, there was a kind of validation of my own experience. I think that was valuable because it helped me to tell my own story. And when you see echoes of your story in other people's stories and you just feel that other people are going through the same experience that you are, I think it makes you feel more validated, a little bit more powerful -- a little bit less silenced. It feels like you also would be able to tell your story; that your story is worth telling; that you have a story to tell.

What was it like growing up with your aunt in Haiti when your parents were living in New York?

The fact that we were able to go to school, pay for our schooling, the fact that we had clothes and food -- that we were so lucky -- it was always clear that it was because my parents had left and were working very hard in the States. It was very clear to me from the time I was very young that all this was funded by the absence of my parents. There was a kindergarten of children whose parents were abroad. And every once in a while, one or more of us would have our parents send for us. There was this idea that our life was kind of in limbo, that at any time we could be reunited with our parents. It was very difficult at times to be without our parents. I had very strong and treasured memories of my mother, because she left when I was four. But I didn't really remember anything about my father because he left when I was two. I was always collecting what people told me about my parents.

There were special moments -- every three months or so we'd go to a photo studio and we'd take some pictures. We'd send them our report cards and talk on the phone. But, as time went on, they became less and less real. It just didn't seem like it was true. It just seemed like we were being told a fairy tale after a while. Things like Mother's Day or Father's Day were very difficult, because there were moments when you felt orphaned. I think we missed that kind of attachment a great deal. When I came here and saw my brothers, who had this opportunity to be with my parents their whole lives, I just felt even more that we had missed something wonderful.

What elements of Haitian culture have been important in your upbringing and your writing?

We had a very strong storytelling culture in Haiti, especially in the provinces and the countryside. Storytelling was a very strong part of my upbringing, and really the way that I learned about my culture. My first literary experiences really involved listening to stories. You heard warnings from the stories, and things that you were supposed to do, things that you were not supposed to do. And there are several rituals that were involved with storytelling. One of them, for example, was that you weren't allowed to tell stories in the daytime or something bad would happen.

So there was this very strong element of learning about the culture, learning morals and lessons through these stories, through the folk arts, learning core knowledge of the country through stories. When I go now back to Haiti, I see less and less of it, but it's something that has always been an important part of the construction of who I am, and something that I often infuse in characters like Celiane.

There's a Haitian proverb, "Behind the mountains are more mountains," which seemed a fitting way to name the series [of paintings in the novel]. The power of these Haitian proverbs is that they really allow you to interpret them based on your own experiences. Haitian Creole is such a colorful language -- it's a visual language, and basically you can pretty much communicate with somebody through those proverbs. You give them a proverb that they can translate based on your interaction, based on the circumstances, based on different things. Even the way you say it, or the intonation, gives the person something to interpret. So the proverbs are very loaded on some level, or sometimes they're very specific. There's a Creole proverb that my mother will say if I get impatient about something, which means, "Slowly the bird builds its nest." There's so much in that, you know: the whole imagery of the bird and the nest and patience and other things. There's a great deal of wisdom compacted in these very small, pithy phrases.

Talk about the themes in your work.

One of the big themes for me is the idea of migration and all that it entails: separation, and the notion of having to reconstruct yourself in a different place. And often, as has been the case for Haitians and Haitian Americans here, of facing rejection, of not always being wanted. We see it in the case of refugees who come by boat and are returned, having to reshape a whole family: just taking pieces and the fragmentation of family and having to redo them, and to reconstruct an identity somewhere else.

We're the first people calling ourselves Haitian American. It's still very new, this reconstruction of identity. What is our role going to be in this society, even as we keep our ties back home, which are also very strong? So I try to integrate all of that in my work, but in a very personal way, considering what it means for our families. For example, when you think about young children who go back to Haiti and don't speak the same language as their grandmothers, and may need a middle person, a translator -- what does that mean to that particular family, what does it mean to their history? I deal with these larger issues, but also in very, very personal and intimate ways, seeing how they affect individual lives, and how they affect people in the deepest part of their core as human beings or as families.

I think, often, immigrant parents who have given up so much to have their child come here would like a kind of security for them, a sense that they're going to have a better life than the parents had. And sometimes the ideas are very different about what that entails. In my case and in a lot of cases, parents had certain fields or careers that they thought guaranteed some security: you're going to be a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer. And being an artist seemed like sort of a great luxury that only people who already have money would do.

It's not easily understood that, for example, what Moy (in Behind the Mountains) is saying to his father is, "I'm willing to take these risks; I want to be an artist no matter what that means." But the father doesn't understand that. After all that's happened, after all the years of separation, after all the sacrifices, he wants to know that his son will have a secure future. And the reward for the parents for all they have done is that their children are safe, that they're stable, that they're financially secure, that they have a nice house and so forth. But sometimes the children have different ideas, and that's one of many places where conflict arises because really so much is invested.


How do you feel about being called a role model?

I consider myself a survivor more than a role model. I don't think that there's anything extraordinary about me except that I really love writing. I love writing and I'm lucky I've been able to do it. And I can't say to somebody that you can do it exactly the way I've done it. But I hope that the things I've been able to do can inspire somebody else to do something that they really want to do. I feel that if I didn't write, I would be so unhappy and my life would mean so much less. And so I've just been able to do something that I'm very passionate about, and that makes me very happy.

I feel like I'm one of the voices for my community. Any community is a chorus and any one of us can be a voice in the chorus. There are many voices, and I'm one of them. After me there will come other voices with more recent experiences, and there are others who came before me and for different reasons weren't heard as much or weren't paid attention to as much. Every one of us has a story. I think it's very important to know that.

back to top Next: Pam Muñoz Ryan: Biography
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