For Edwidge Danticat, writing her luminous new novel, Claire of the Sea Light, was something of an exorcism of her own fears.
The story of a little girl in Haiti whose father, a widowed, poverty-stricken fisherman, is thinking of giving her away to be raised by someone else, it is the first novel Danticat has written since becoming a parent herself. (Her daughters are 8 and 4). "Being a parent," she says, "means having your heart walking outside you."
Born in Haiti, Danticat has lived in the United States since she was 12 years old, but she maintains strong ties to her native country, and all her books are set there.
Danticat, 44, has had a notable career since the publication of her first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, in 1994. Two of her books have been National Book Award finalists; her memoir, Brother, I'm Dying, won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize; and she was awarded a MacArthur "genius" grant in 2009.
Danticat talked about Claire of the Sea Light by phone from her home in Miami.
Where did the idea for the character Claire come from?
I was watching a documentary about people in Haiti who are alive but are unable to provide for their children, so they put them in orphanages. They sometimes visit them, bring them food and other things. So the children are in orphanages but the living parent still remains in touch. I had a friend who grew up that way, and he was later reunited with his family, as some of these children are.
But somebody in the documentary said these parents don't care about their kids as much. And as if in response to that remark, Claire emerged.
How did you approach writing about Nozias, Claire's father, who wants to leave their town to seek his fortune elsewhere?
(His situation) is a dilemma that's very familiar to me. When I was 2, my father went to New York to work. My mother went when I was 4.
My brother and I were brought up by an aunt and uncle, along with our cousins. I didn't grow up in a nuclear family per se. For us family was a big, messy, joyous, sometimes sad thing.
This happens all over the world, parents who find themselves in that situation. I was interested in what happens when politics or economics or some other factors determine where a child goes.
It's an apt metaphor that Nozias is a fisherman. It's like there's a lifeboat with one seat left. Does that seat go to him or to Claire? It's beyond personal desire for him, it's survival. He knows too well he could go out to sea one day and never come back. He wants to make that choice (about Claire's future) before someone else makes it for him.
Do you think the novel was shaped by your experience of becoming a parent?
Absolutely. I feel like my fears about parenting have been laid down in this book, that unspoken fear that I don't want to die and leave my children behind.
It's also a way of revisiting my childhood without my parents. Some of my friends said, "You've written a piece of your childhood with your father." When my father left I was 2, and I didn't remember him. I saw my father once when I was 7, and that was it until I was 12.
From 12 on it was a beautiful, wonderful relationship. I was my father's daughter, his only daughter.
I would say this book is where the voyage of my childhood meets the future of my hopes for my children.