“Claire of the Sea Light”
Edwidge Danticat’s “Claire of the Sea Light” appears in HAITI NOIR (Akashic Books), an anthology of contemporary Haitian literature edited by her. Danticat’s tale, written shortly after the country’s catastrophic 2010 earthquake, is the basis for her new novel of the same title (Knopf, 2013). The story opens with the sight of a rogue wave and goes on to explore a young girl’s personal relationship with her dead mother.
Danticat, a strong advocate for issues affecting Haitians, has written or edited eleven books, including two collections of short stories KRIK? KRAK! and THE DEW BREAKER. She won The Story Prize (2005), The National Book Critics Circle Award, and she received a MacArthur Award in 2009.
Danticat said this about her story: I had been on hiatus from fiction for about three years. Not from reading fiction, but from writing it. There was no particular reason. No, maybe there was. My life was overwhelmed by harsh realities that demanded to be dealt with, head on, immediately, in a factual way. First my uncle Joseph died after being detained by immigration officials in 2004. Then my father died of pulmonary fibrosis in 2005. Then I had two children, pretty much one after the other. Then an earthquake devastated my homeland and killed many friends, and four members of my immediate and extended family.
I didn’t have the distance and long periods to pause and ponder that it takes me to create fictional characters out of whole cloth, so I immersed myself into nonfiction–essays, memoir, even a bit of journalism–which it turns out I love just as much as I love writing fiction. I knew however that I would eventually return to writing fiction, but there was no rush and I didn’t pressure myself. In the process of writing nonfiction, I had discovered that this all falls into one continuum. In the end, I am a storyteller and rather than restrict myself in terms of genres, I will tell my stories however they demand to be told.
One day when I was least expecting it, however, an image of a beautiful child aglow by the light of the sea, came to my mind and I was halfway into her non-linear story when I realized I was writing fiction again. I know this might be read as an issues story, a “restavek” or child servant story, but all I know is that when I saw little Claire aglow, I just wanted to follow her wherever she led me. And having covered so many “issues” in my nonfiction, I always want to do something else in my fiction. I want to write engaging fictional stories that allow a child set aglow by the sea light to enter my life.
In writing fiction again, I have also become grateful for the safety net that making things up offers. Recently, I wrote an opinion piece in which I got a very crucial fact wrong about who was the first female Prime Minister of Haiti. I was so horrified and embarrassed by that mistake that it might keep me in fiction land forever. Fiction, of course, has its own risks, but I am glad that my hiatus is over and that this sweet girl, Claire, guided by the sea light, has led me back.