Last night I heard Haitian novelist Edwidge Danticat read from her most recent novel, Claire of the Sea Light. I had not heard Danticat read before, but I became acquainted with her through her first novel Breath, Eyes, Memory—an Oprah Book Club selection—that I read some years ago. I am not sure what or who pointed me in Danticat’s direction, but I am guessing one of my colleagues from the predominantly Haitian high school I taught at while in Miami dropped her name. That was around 2004.
Danticat read two excerpts from her latest work, but what attracted me the most to her last night was her response to an audience member’s question: “What writer inspired you the most?” According to Danticat, various writers continue to inspire her quite often. However, she recalled reading Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings and claimed that Angelou’s barebones was an audacious endeavor that Danticat desired to achieve in her own work. She said that she hoped her readers would relate to Breath, Eyes, Memory in a similar fashion that many readers have related to Angelou’s 1979 Caged Bird. Danticat continued to discuss how her first reading of Angelou’s work required a young French/Creole speaking Danticat to use an English dictionary to decipher the content. The second time she read Caged Bird, while a high school student, she said, she was amused by Angelou’s courage to display herself publicly. Angelou wrote the truth about her experiences and she is still here, just fine, said Danticat.
And yes, she is.
Maya Angelou’s Caged Bird is the first autobiographical novel that I recall reading, and it inspired me just like it spirited Danticat and other writers and other women. My 7th grade English teacher gave me Angelou after I witnessed her delivering her Inaugural poem for President Bill Clinton. Angelou’s stature mesmerized me—so much so that my mother carried me to Pompano Beach, Fl to hear Angelou lecture. I went on to read all of Angelou’s five autobiographies and to read and collect her poetic works as well as her children’s stories and cookbook. I am. A Fan. So of course, when Danticat mentioned Maya Angelou’s well known works as one of her own inspirations, I immediately felt a spiritual connection with Danticat. Real story. I believe that every student should read Angelou’s Caged Bird—which is why I give copies to my college students, most of whom have not read it yet. Every student should read Caged Bird because Angelou’s audacity to publicly lay herself out is a freedom that frees others.
While talking about her work last night, Danticat revealed that many of her readers lambasted her Breath, Eyes, Memory because some of the scenes were contrived. However, I think (and I am trying to remember ten years back) that Breath, Eyes, Memory—albeit fiction—did accomplish that freedom of self that Angelou’s Caged Bird achieves. But because Danticat is not as widely read or anthologized as Angelou, critical discourse about Danticat’s work is minimal. So, while I am not a literary critic, per se, I think I might re-read both texts and attempt to make some critical comparisons and analysis. Perhaps my efforts will lead to an article that brings Danticat closer to the center of literary discussions. “Give yourself permission to write anything,” said Danticat. I will, and I will take that leap with her.