In October 2003, Meridians hosted its first Caribbean Women Writers Series, Voices from Hispaniola: Haiti and the Dominican Republic, at Smith College. In order to celebrate Haiti's 200th Anniversary of Independence in 2004, authors representing both sides of the island spoke to the realities of the conjoined histories of Haitians and Dominicans from women's perspectives by reading from recent creative works and engaging in public dialogue on the current crises facing Hispaniola. Over a week-long period, members of the Smith community and public were treated to readings by Edwidge Danticat, a joint reading with Loida Maritza Perez and Myriam J. A. Chancy, and a closing reading by Nelly Rosario.
Edwidge Danticat is the author of Breath, Eyes, Memory (1994); Krik? Krak! (1996); The Farming of Bones (1999); After the Dance (2002); Behind the Mountains (2002), her children's book; and The Dew Breaker (2004). Loida Maritza Perez is the author of a novel, Geographies of Home (1999). Myriam J. A. Chancy is the author of Framing Silence: Revolutionary Novels by Haitian Women (1997); Searching for Safe Spaces: Afro-Caribbean Women Writers in Exile (1997); and the novels Spirit of Haiti (2003) and The Scorpion's Claw (2004). Nelly Rosario is the author of Song of the Water Saints (2002). By coming together for this set of readings, the authors sought to provide a forum for the productive exchange of imagined and real Dominican/Haitian realities and to celebrate women's voices from the beleaguered island by representing a small but forceful coalition of contemporary women writers from Hispaniola.
Interviews conducted by Ginetta E. B. Candelario, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Smith College, and further coordinated and assembled by the staff of Meridians.
Meridians: Your work explores profoundly ambivalent and ambiguous relationships among women kin, especially grandmothers, mothers, daughters, and sisters. Is there something about these relationships that is particularly revealing about the women of Hispaniola?
Edwidge Danticat (ED): I've always been lucky in that my family has been really supportive in the most important sense. In that if you need things materially, there was always someone to help, even if they didn't have too much themselves. My soul was also fed by family from the time I was a girl. My aunts told lots of stories. My grandmothers too. They were strict and distant in others places in life, but in that way, they were very giving, and there was a closeness we shared in being told and telling a story that didn't exist anywhere else.
Loida Maritza Perez (LMP): Yes, not only for the women of Hispaniola but for women in general. They are the purveyors of stories, the ones who pass down histories and knowledge to their daughters. It's not that men aren't storytellers. They are. Yet their stories tend to be limited to family gatherings. Women, who share chores and raise the children, pass on knowledge throughout the day. They therefore wield a lot of influence, not only by the stories they pass on but also by those they withhold. It is this selective sharing and willful withholding of certain histories which leads to many of the conflicts within Geoqraphies (Perez 1999). That Aurelia, the mother, silences her past and is ambivalent about her relationship with her own mother is what leaves her daughters at a loss. Any of them, whether it be Iliana, Rebecca, Marina, or any of the other daughters, would have fared better had they been armed with certain truths rather than shielded from them.
Nelly Rosario (NR): Definitely. I think that all family relationships do reveal a microcosm of the entire country or the entire community. And I'll speak from experience. It's hard to make absolute statements, so I'm basing [my words] on what I've seen growing up Dominican in the U.S. I think that there is a conflictive relationship within the women, particularly the love part comes in where, "We're all in this together." There's outer society that is antiwomen or, you know, obsessed with women on a physical level, but on a spiritual level, [that obsession] doesn't come through on a day-to-day basis, although, the whole idea of "mother" is a very powerful symbol within families.
I have seen very incredible relationships between women, for example, the other woman and the wife becoming very good friends, as in [the movie] Frida, (1) where the ex-wife of Diego and Frida become very good friends, or raising each other's children, friendships you would not expect between ex-wives and cunadas. (2) There's always that "you know, we're here, we might as well get along, what's the point of fighting?" But at the same time there's also the competitive edge, which I think is representative of women in general. My grandmother, for example, not liking the fact that her daughters-in-law would say, "I'm not cooking on Saturday, I don't cook. Yo no cocino en elfin de semana." (3) "Como que no concinan?" (4) It's not liking the fact the women after them have more choices than they did. "Well, I didn't have the opportunity, why should you?" A lot of times, mothers hold their daughters back, for fear of what they'll encounter out in the world if they're too headstrong. But as a country, we are extremely powerful women. Maybe not powerful in the external sun-way but maybe more like the moon-way, where it's a more contained power, especially in the realm of the household.
Myriam J. A. Chancy (MC): I suppose that I think that the relationship between women especially in Hispaniola tells a lot about how the nation is being changed by women's views. And part of the problem, I think, is that it isn't really reflected in sort of the upper crust, or the elite, that controls the nation-state. But by and large, especially for me as a Haitian, when I look at how women activists have been working with each other, sometimes across the border, but since '86, '87, especially amongst themselves, because the Duvalier regime (5) made it impossible to have those kinds of connections in an ongoing kind of way, that women are articulating a new sense of identity. That it is not only for women, it is for their male children, their husbands, for men, as well. But it is a completely women-centered sense of what the nation might become.
In my particular work, in terms of my creative writing, what has been interesting for me, or something that I've noticed, is that I tend to write about children or young people in their twenties who are reflecting back on their childhood, especially for those who don't have mothers. And I've been trying to think through why that is because I was raised with my mother. Although there was a disruption in my early years, which is normal in terms of the migrant sort of identity, the parents leaving to find work and then leaving the children behind, being brought back. I know that was my experience, and it may have been Maritza's experience as well. So that, I think that part of my identity is formed around this idea of separation from the mother. And my characters often have that same sort of feeling. In Spirit of Haiti (Chancy 2003), one of the main characters, who is a male character, in fact, is completely connected to his grandmother and trying to find ways to support her. And so in a way, I think I've evolved a sense of identity that articulates even for men a feminized sense of identity. That the intergenerational connection is formed by the mothers who may be absent and by the grandmothers. So that even a male, whether he's Haitian or Dominican, can have an identity that is formed around a female sense of his own identity.
Meridians: The ways in which women of Hispaniola map home, go home, and create home are themes that echo throughout your work. Tell me about that.
ED: Home, I mean, it is migration. We have so much in our background that gives us different definitions of home; our histories are complex. We cross borders to reach a neutral space. There are common causes, conversations like this one. More and more I see a kind of raised consciousness with people here and the young people …