Edwidge Danticat

Top Ten contributor Edwidge Danticat is featured in this Sunday’s New York Times Book Review. Here are some select questions (read the entire piece here) as well as her Top Ten List and brief appreciation of one of her favorite books, Masters of the Dew by Jacques Romain.

Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).

I can pretty much read anywhere. I used to be one of those people who would walk down the street reading. When I was a teenager, I read a lot in church. Haitian Pentecostal services are very long, and I was a quick reader. Now my dream reading experience is having an entire row to myself in the back of an airplane on a very long flight with a book that is impossible to put down.

Did you grow up with a lot of books? What are your memories of being read to as a child?

I didn’t grow up with a lot of books, but some. Actually I owned only one non- school-related book before I was 12. It was Ludwig Bemelmans’s Madeline (French version), which my uncle had given me for my birthday. I had an aunt who sold schoolbooks and she would occasionally have some children’s fiction that she’d let me borrow, if I promised not to crease or stain the pages. I also read French comics, Tintin and Asterix, with my brother. I was not read to as a child. Instead, I was told fabulous stories by my aunts and grandmothers and many family friends.

Who is your favorite overlooked or underappreciated writer? 

I would choose two, Paule Marshall and Percival Everett. It is possible that they are neither overlooked nor underappreciated, but they are both so incredibly brilliant that they should be household names.

If you could meet any writer, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you want to know?

Thanks to writers’ conferences and other such gatherings, I have met many of my living favorites — and am grateful to even call some of them my friends — so I’ll go with the dead. I would invite Colette, Zora Neale Hurston and Jean Rhys to lunch, then sit back and just listen to them talk about all kinds of things. I am pretty sure that during their conversation I’d learn absolutely everything there is to know about everything. 

If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?

It would be Eduardo Galeano’s Memory of Fire trilogy, an epic and poetic history of the Western Hemisphere, which offers, among other things, a unique and almost intimate view of what happens when U.S. administrations cause or participate in the devastation, if not the total destruction, of other countries.

What’s next on your reading list?

I loved Salvage the Bones, so I am looking forward to reading Jesmyn Ward’s memoir, Men We Reaped. Also on my list is Alexander Maksik’s novel A Marker to Measure Drift, which is about a young Liberian woman with a mysterious past. In manuscript, the talented Cynthia Bond’s first novel, Ruby, is there too, next to Bob Shacochis’ new novel, The Woman Who Lost Her Soul, which is partly set in Haiti.

Edwidge Danticat’s Top Ten List

1. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937).
2. The Stranger by Albert Camus (1942).
3. Germinal by Émile Zola (1884).
4. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (1952).
5. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez (1967).
6. Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987).
7. Night by Elie Wiesel (1958).
8. The Color Purple by Alice Walker (1982).
9. The Trial by Franz Kafka (1925).
10. Masters of the Dew by Jacques Roumain (1947).

Appreciation of Jacques Roumain’s Masters of the Dew by Edwidge Danticat

This novel charmed Langston Hughes and Mercer Cook so much that when they visited Haiti in the 1940s they decided to translate it. Theirs remains the only English translation. This is the plot: A Haitian young man goes to Cuba to cut sugarcane in the 1930s. When he returns to his village in rural Haiti, he finds that a drought has ravaged the entire area and a Romeo and Juliet–type feud between the two most powerful families stands in the community’s way of finding a solution.

Like Romeo, the young man, Manuel, falls in love with the stunning daughter of the family that despises his and a battle ensues that results in tragedy, with some measure of hope. (To say much more would be giving away too much of the plot of this slim volume.) The book has often been called a peasant novel, but it is also an environmental novel, as well as a love story.

I read this book when I was ten years old; it was the first novel in which I recognized people I knew living in circumstances similar to my life and my world. It was also the first time that I realized books could not only help us escape but hold a mirror to our lives, to help us examine a problem and ponder —along with the characters —a possible solution. It was my first engagée or socially engaged novel, one that showed me that the novel could have many roles, that fiction could be used for different purposes without losing its artistic merit. It made me want to write the types of books that could inform and entertain as well as help others live, through a powerful narrative, a heartbreaking, painful, and even redemptive experience.