March 14, 2012
Her first languages were Creole and French. At 12, she spoke almost no English. At 26, her collection of short stories, Krik? Krak!, was nominated for the National Book Award.
It’s mind-boggling to think of that trajectory — the speed, the apparent ease of transit. Joseph Conrad and Chinua Achebe come to mind: authors who also chose to write in a language initially not theirs, a language they had to woo and win. Unlike Conrad, for whom Polish seemed to have been a language held in abeyance, Achebe and Danticat have both found ways to keep their native languages active, in good working order. In a 1994 interview with the Paris Review, Achebe said that, while “the novel form seems to go with the English language, poetry and drama seem to go with the Igbo language.” Generic variability is one way of being bilingual. Danticat, meanwhile, not only actively supports Creole literacy programs but also writes occasional pieces in Creole for the radio. Krik? Krak! has been translated into Creole as well, also for the radio.
The radio. Not newspapers. Not TV. No, it’s the radio that matters the most to Haitians. In Dew Breaker, the preacher had to be killed because he had started a “show on Radio Lumière, so that those who could not visit his church could listen to his sermons before they went about their holy day.” These radio sermons were dedicated to “the ghosts of brave men and women in the Bible” — the likes of Daniel and Esther — “who’d fought tyrants and nearly died.”
There’s no reason why English should be the natural endpoint, or print its natural medium. Creole shows us a different trajectory — and a different mediascape.