“All Geography Is Within Me”: Writing Beginnings, Life, Death, Freedom, and Salt
Following the performances of two Haitian-inspired dances at the 2018 festival, Danticat delivered the following keynote to the audience of several hundred in attendance.
This past June I was in Haiti in part for the opening of a library in a southern town called Fond-des-Blancs. Fond-des-Blancs, which literally means “The Fountain of the Whites,” is mostly known for being home to a large number of people of Polish lineage, the descendants of soldiers from a Polish regiment that switched alliances from the French armies they were fighting alongside in nineteenth-century Haiti to join the Haitians in their battle for independence from France in 1804. The mutinous Polish soldiers who ended up settling in Fond-des-Blancs were the only whites and foreigners who were granted Haitian citizenship after Haiti became the first black republic in the Western hemisphere in 1804.
The library we were there to celebrate had been started by a nonprofit called Haiti Projects, which was run by an acquaintance of mine whose mother is American and whose father is Haitian. The opening-week program included writing workshops and conversations with writers. I took part in a conversation and writing workshop with the Haitian novelist and short-story writer Kettly Mars. Our moderator, a Haiti-based educator named Jean-Marie Théodat, asked each of us to read both the beginning and the end of one of our short stories, then explain to the group of twenty-five or so eager teenagers why we had chosen to begin and end that story the way we had.
If you have ever spoken to a group of teenagers, you know how intimidating it already is to explain anything to them, but this was a bit extra-intimidating for me. It is much easier to explain or elaborate on an ending than a beginning. For endings, you can always say that it ended this way because it had begun that way. Or it ended that way because something popped up in the middle that led me there. Beginnings have a much bigger burden and are often less clear.
In the beginning was the Word, the Good Book tells us. And perhaps the Word—or the Words—was, were . . .
Once Upon a Time,
Il était une fois or
Te gèn yon fwa or
I FEEL THE SAME DILEMMA right now while trying to trace the geography, or cartography, both internal and external, that has brought me from my own beginnings to this moment.
Once upon a time, a little girl was born in Haiti during the middle part of a dynastic thirty-year dictatorship. Her parents were poor, though maybe not as poor as others. My parents didn’t get very far in school because their parents could not afford it. My mother was a seamstress. My father, a shoe salesman and a tailor.
When I was two years old, my father left Haiti and moved to the United States to look for work. Two years later, my mother joined him and left me and my younger brother, Bob, in the care of my aunt and uncle in Port-au-Prince.
One of my earliest childhood memories is of being torn away from my mother. On the day my mother left, I wrapped my arms around her legs before she headed for the plane. She leaned down and tearfully unballed my fists so that my uncle could peel me off her. As my brother dropped to the floor, bawling, my mother hurried away, her tear-soaked face buried in her hands. She couldn’t bear to look back.
If my life were the short story I was asked to explain the beginning of in that writing workshop with the teenagers in Fond-des-Blancs, this might have been my chosen beginning, the most dramatic one I can remember.
If my life were the short story I was asked to explain the beginning of in that writing workshop with the teenagers in Fond-des-Blancs, this might have been my chosen beginning, the most dramatic one I can remember. After all, as the French-Algerian writer Albert Camus wrote, a person’s art is “nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.”
Since I was too young to remember my father leaving Haiti for the United States, my mother’s departure was one of the first images in whose presence both my heart and my art first opened, an art and a heart that suddenly expanded beyond geographical confines and also made me realize that one can love from both near and far.
In Haitian Creole when someone is said to be “lòt bò dlo,” on the other side of the water, it can either mean that they’ve traveled abroad or that they have died. My parents were already lòt bò dlo, on the other side of the waters from me, before I fully even knew what that meant. My desire to make sense of this separation, this lòt bò dlo-ness, is one of the things that brought me to the internal geography of words and how they can bridge distances.
One way I used to communicate with my parents was through letters. We spoke on the phone once a week while sitting in a telephone booth, where we had a standing appointment every Sunday afternoon, but we also communicated through cassettes that we sent back and forth with people who were traveling between New York and Port-au-Prince. We wrote letters too. Every month my father would send us a half-page letter composed in stilted French to offer news of his and my mother’s health as well as details on how to spend the money he and my mother wired for my and my brother’s food, lodging, and school expenses.
When my parents’ letters and cassettes found their way to me from Brooklyn to Port-au-Prince, I again realized how words—both written and spoken—can transcend geography and time.
When my parents’ letters and cassettes found their way to me from Brooklyn to Port-au-Prince, I again realized how words—both written and spoken—can transcend geography and time. My mother could tell me stories—once upon a time—in my mind. And I knew, because she later told me this, that she was imagining every day of my life, then would dream of whatever indispensable thing she thought I needed to know, things she believed that only she could tell me. The way she imagined my life in her absence was sometimes better and sometimes worse than what was actually happening to me at ages four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven and twelve, but we were constantly alive in each other’s imagination. And because my mother did not write letters and because I did not ever want to forget the things I wished my mother were telling me, the stories I wish she were telling me, I tried to write them down in a small notebook I made from folded sheets of paper bound together by thread. In that notebook, I also sketched a series of stick figures, which were so closely drawn that they almost bumped each other off the page. But mostly I wrote stories, which I later found myself elaborating on. Stories like one of the first prose prose poems I would write years later and call “Legends.”
“Legends” is about a desire, a hunger, I had developed both in my parents’ absence and, much later, to tell stories. “Legends” is about a little girl who is dreaming of telling her immigrant mother a story. It’s also about a mother who works in a sweatshop in the United States while dreaming of telling stories to her daughter back home in Haiti.
Once, upon an endless night,
I dreamed of telling you a story,
Of pleating you a tale out of my breath
And carving it into your flesh with my hair.
I imagined that my parents wanted to tell me stories because they were worried that I would forget not just them but the geographies within both me and them. I imagined they wanted to tell me what in Creole we call lejann, stories about night women, women with wings of flames who want to draw you out of your bed. Stories about three-legged horses rising at full speed to either snatch or rescue children who had lost their way.
I also imagined that they wanted to tell me what it was like to work in a sweatshop where they might or might not pay you at the end of the week because you’re undocumented. Or how the immigration police might come and raid your workplace at anytime and take you to a detention center to await your deportation. I imagined that they wanted me to know even before I stepped foot in the United States that the streets were not littered with gold.
Once, while cradling someone else’s child in my arms,
Standing at a kitchen stove,
Stirring a soup for the child’s hunger,
I dreamed of telling you a story.
A story that rains with salt.
I am telling you to open your mouth,
And catch as much of the salt as you can.
The salt sizzles on your tongue.
And suddenly you understand
That this story is all I know,
And that this story is all I have.
I always say that my best writing teachers were the storytellers of my childhood, who were not readers at all—and some not even literate—but who carried stories like treasures inside of them.
I often tell people about this salt by way of a question I am asked quite often. Who taught you to write? I always say that my best writing teachers were the storytellers of my childhood, who were not readers at all—and some not even literate—but who carried stories like treasures inside of them. In my mother’s absence, my aunts and grandmothers told me stories. They told me stories in the evenings in the countryside, or when the lights went out in the city, or while they were doing my hair, or while I was doing their hair. This too is another possible beginning. These stories that were told to me in such intimacy by women like the ones the great writer Paule Marshall called kitchen poets. The kitchen poets in my life are also the poto mitan, the middle pillars of my beginning as a writer, because they taught me that no story is mine alone, that a story lives and breathes and grows only when it is shared.
I MOVED TO THE UNITED STATES in 1981 at age twelve to join my parents soon after cases of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) were first discovered in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control named four groups at “high risk” for the disease: intravenous drug users, homosexuals, hemophiliacs, and Haitians. Haitians were the only ones solely identified by nationality, in part because of twenty or so Haitian patients who’d shown up at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. Suddenly, every Haitian was suspected of having AIDS. At the public junior high school where my parents enrolled me, some of the non-Haitian students would regularly shove and hit me and the other Haitian kids, telling us that we had dirty blood. My English as a Second Language class was excluded from a school trip to the Statue of Liberty out of fear that our sharing a school bus with the other kids might prove dangerous to them.
But I also had a wonderful teacher at this junior high school, a Haitian exile named Raymond Dusseck. Mr. Dusseck was part of my beginning in the United States. Mr. Dusseck built science, math, and ESL lessons around games and songs to help us begin speaking in our new tongue. He taught us English songs that were full of stories, starting with the African American national anthem. I remember being enchanted by James Weldon Johnson’s beautiful lyrics:
Lift every voice and sing,
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty . . .
Let us march on till victory is won.
I was eventually mainstreamed from ESL to a regular English class, where my English teacher, an African American woman named Mrs. Wright, asked me to write an essay about my first Thanksgiving. I wrote that I was looking forward to eating the “golden” turkey, which I thought was rather original. Later I would be horrified by my cliché, but she told me I had a great writing voice. Lift every voice, indeed.
In high school, I had a history teacher named Mr. Casey who taught an elective black history class during our lunch period. I wrote an essay for that class about wanting to be a writer, and Mr. Casey loaned me a book called Black Women Writers (1950–1980): A Critical Evaluation, which was edited by the African American poet, writer, and dramatist Mari Evans. It was in that book that I discovered, among others, Paule Marshall, Alice Walker, Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Gayl Jones, Sonia Sanchez, Gloria Naylor, Nikki Giovanni, Toni Morrison, and Zora Neale Hurston, who would become some of the great literary loves of my life.
They were not only part of my new beginning as a writer, but they, along with the great Haitian writers I began reading in New York, writers like Marie Vieux Chauvet, Jacques Roumain, Jacques Stephen Alexis, J. J. Dominique, Ida Faubert, and Dany Laferrière, gave me a place to stand.
“Give me a place to stand,” the Greek mathematician Archimedes is believed to have said, “and I will move the earth.” But how can we move the earth when all seems to be against it? I asked myself then and ask myself that now. Can words, language change some of the worst conditions we face, especially in situations that seem insurmountable?
The day that Donald Trump was sworn in as president of the United States, I went to hear the Alabama-based poet Ashley M. Jones read from her book Magic City Gospel at my local bookstore in Miami, a city that is home to one of the largest foreign-born populations in the United States. In his inaugural speech, Trump had repeatedly invoked “the people” and said, “And this, the United States of America, is your country,” but it was hard to believe that he meant to include my black and brown neighbors, friends, and family, many of whom came to America as immigrants. Trump’s speech was dark, rancorous. Political language, like poetry, is rarely uttered without intention. Afterward, I wanted to fall into a poet’s carefully crafted, insightful, and at times elegiac words.
At the bookstore, I listened as Ashley M. Jones read a poem called “In the beginning there was sound”:
After I was born,
I cried for three months straight . . .
Alive, I said.
Pain, I said.
Later that same week, some writer friends and I, along with dozens of others, rallied in front of Miami International Airport to protest Trump’s executive order barring all refugees, particularly those from seven predominantly Muslim countries. At the airport rally, we carried signs, like mine, that said “No Human Being Is Illegal.” A woman held one that read “Immigrants Are America’s Ghostwriters.” Another woman had simply scribbled on a piece of cardboard the word “No.”
Throughout the rally, my thoughts kept returning to the late Gwendolyn Brooks and some lines from her ode to the singer, actor, and activist Paul Robeson:
we are each other’s
we are each other’s
we are each other’s
magnitude and bond.
Once again, I was seeking a new beginning in words.
How far do we have to go through to provoke new beginnings? Does it take the image of children in cages, cell-phone videos of policemen and women shooting black men, women, and children in the back?
What does the artist do to move the world? I want to say we can begin by bearing witness. Not everyone is comfortable with the term witness. But no matter what term we use, it means, to me, being as Henry James said, “one of those on whom nothing is lost.”
James Baldwin had the following exchange with the writer Julius Lester in a 1984 New York Times interview:
“Witness is a word I’ve heard you use often to describe yourself. What are you witness to?” Lester asked.
Baldwin answering in the simplest terms said, “Witness to whence I came, where I am. Witness to what I’ve seen and the possibilities that I think I see.”
Sometimes we cannot fully move the world, but it can move us with its vastness, its expanse, its limitlessness, its geography or geographies, its beginnings and endings, its injustices, and lòt bò dlo-ness.
Witness is not just where I began but also where I want to end up as a writer. This is the kind of writer I would like to be. Sometimes we cannot fully move the world, but it can move us with its vastness, its expanse, its limitlessness, its geography or geographies, its beginnings and endings, its injustices, and lòt bò dlo-ness.
A few weeks ago, a friend I was talking to about this week told me that I should talk about love. I started considering all the things I could possibly have to say about love, but then I realized that, without sounding too lofty here, that every word I put down on paper is in some way an act of love. And I’m sure that I am not the only writer for whom this is true.
I also started thinking about what James Baldwin wrote about love in The Fire Next Time. In that book, he talks to us about the geography of love that is potentially within us all. “Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within,” Baldwin wrote. “I use the word ‘love’ here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace—not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.” Yes, that kind of love is also part of my beginning.
So along with this particular kind of love, I decided instead to also talk about the geographies within me, starting with my beginnings.
AFTER ZORA NEALE HUSTON'S MOTHER, Lucy, died and she was forced to leave her home and travel to places previously unknown to her, she wrote in her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, that she realized that she was suddenly forced into “the beginning of things” and that “all that geography was within me. It only needed time to reveal it.”
All that geography was within me. It only needed time to reveal it. I love this line so much that sometimes I misquote it as “All geography is within me. It only needs to reveal itself.”
When, after graduating from high school in Brooklyn, I had yet another beginning and became a student at Zora Neale Hurston’s alma mater, Barnard College, I felt as though her ghost was shadowing me. This new and unexpected geography—Barnard and Zora—was now within me too, along with all the others from my past and the possibility of other geographies in the future. Like reading and writing, this type of geography can take you away and bring you back, internally and spiritually, back to the source, back to the ground from which you had been wrestled away.
Zora’s ghost was also shadowing me in the car in March 2014 after my mother had been told by her doctor that she had terminal ovarian cancer. At a red light, where I stopped for too long, my mother spoke up for the first time since we’d heard the news and warned, “Don’t suddenly become a zombie.” My mother was telling me not to lose my good sense, to keep my head on my shoulders, but it popped up in my mind that a motherless Zora had gone to Haiti to study zombies.
When we got home from the doctor’s that day, my mother made us each a small cup of coffee that she sprinkled with salt. According to Haitian folklore, one way zombies can be liberated from their living death is by eating salt. People who suddenly receive terrible news are also given salt, in coffee for example, to help ward off the sezisman, the shock so that we are able to pick ourselves up and keep moving.
This salt is for me the source of all forceful beginnings and the source of all freedom. We are here because in some way we were given the salt.
This salt is for me the source of all forceful beginnings and the source of all freedom. We are here because in some way we were given the salt. For some of us that salt is words. For others, it is paint. For others, it is music. For others, it is God. For some it is simply the ability to survive.
When I first came to this country, I remember being shocked that salt was powdery white. In my household in Haiti, we would often buy rock salt in the market, and it often looked like little crystals or small pebbles, which were unevenly shaped and had dark streaks either on the surface or inside. You always had to wash the crystals before putting them in food, and even after you washed them they looked more gray than white. This is the salt I imagined those seeking their liberation wanting to be fed.
This type of salt shows up in another part of “Legends”:
And what was that Sleeping Beauty,
If not a zombie?
And what was it that gave her freedom
From the sleeping sickness,
If not the taste of salt on the prince’s lips?
Let no one tell you that it was the man’s breath itself.
Everyone knows—or Manman knows—that it was the salt.
It is always the salt that wakes the dead.
And brings the children home.
This home for me is first and foremost the page. And the page is both full of death and free of it. Full of death because a trail of bodies from the Middle Passage lies behind me in the sea that made the first kind of salt I ever knew.
“The sea is salt,” Zora Neale Hurston wrote.
“The sea is History,” Derek Walcott wrote.
The sea has been part of both our beginnings and our endings.
The story whose beginning I chose to explain to the teenagers at the library in Fond-des-Blancs is from my 1995 short-story collection Krik? Krak! and is called “Children of the Sea.” It is about a group of Haitian refugees who are trying to reach the United States by boat, like so many refugees and migrants have been trying to reach so many shores, lately including European shores.
I began the story the way I did, I told them, with lines borrowed from a Haitian proverb: “Dèyè mòn gen mòn.” Behind the mountains are more mountains. The story begins with “They say behind the mountains are more mountains. Now I know it’s true.” I began it this way because that story had reminded me that some people’s potential new beginnings can also lead to their end. Writing that story had reinforced for me the idea that the page—my writing home—has to also be free from death because creating anything, be it words, images, song, and dance, means that we believe in immortality, that we believe we can survive, even on the other side of the waters, even lòt bò dlo.
You never know a person until you’ve eaten salt together, Toni Cade Bambara writes in The Salt Eaters. And this week we have all had the privilege of eating salt together, by yes, breaking bread together, but also with the words we have spoken, the songs we have sung, the ways that we have moved our bodies through these dances that have come to us, through both ancestral memory and more recently acquired knowledge. And for this I do not have enough words to say thank you. So, I will offer my gratitude in the voices of those who came before me, with all my honor and respect (Onè, Respè).
Mèsi anpil, anpil.
October 11, 2018