"HIDDEN LIVES, HUMAN POSSIBILITIES: Authors Present to Save Revolution Books"

Edwidge Danticat Speaks at New York's Revolution Books

Updated July 31, 2013 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us


"I'm so glad to be here at Revolution Books…When I first heard about this bookstore—well, we all have one of those teachers in high school, I had one who would take us, invite us, to demonstrations. 'You can go.' And he would give us newspapers, and one of them he got at Revolution Books, I think you were at a different location then. I remember reading the paper, there was all this talk of revolution in it. And I was just two years away, I had left the dictatorship [in Haiti] two years earlier, I was 14, and I was so afraid to take the paper. I said, you can walk around the streets with this? 'Yeah, take it, take it.' [laughter] He had gotten it at Revolution Books, that was stamped on the paper. So it has kind of followed me. I used to have many friends who have been to the bookstore… So it means a great deal to me, and I am one of many people who are concerned about what's happening to it."
—Edwidge Danticat at Revolution Books, July 24, 2013

Twenty-five years after Edwidge was given that revolutionary paper, a crowd filled the seats at Revolution Books to hear this now-world-renowned author. This night was the first in a new series hosted by the bookstore, "Hidden Lives, Human Possibilities: Authors Present to Save Revolution Books."

Edwidge Danticat is a writer who moved to the U.S. from Haiti at the age of 12, and in the past two decades has become beloved worldwide for her novels about the Haitian people (The Dew Breaker; Krik? Krak!; The Farming of Bones) and works of nonfiction (Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work; Brother, I'm Dying). Her work has received honors ranging from the American Book Award to Oprah's Book Club.

She began the night by reading a short passage from her upcoming novel, Claire of the Sea Light—the aftermath of the rape of a young woman, a maid, by the son of the household. A horrible and all too frequent and covered-up crime in the world today, but this time the whole town hears of it when the woman testifies on a local radio talk show. How the reader is told the story, and by whom, makes one rethink utterly the ways such acts come down through generations in class-divided societies—even as Danticat anchors every heart-crushing detail of her story in modern-day Haiti, a country where "hopes [have been] raised and dashed over and over again."

Edwidge Danticat brought her new novel and a lot more to the bookstore that night—her thinking, her experiences, her support. Revolution Books, the one place in New York City where you can find the books and the movement for revolution since 1978, is facing a financial emergency. The store's lease expired in March and it must raise $30,000 and enlist 50 new monthly sustainers by the end of September to keep the doors open. The battle is on, and this evening marked the beginning of something quite significant: prominent and beloved authors calling on their readers to come to the aid of this revolutionary bookstore so that it can remain in the heart of Manhattan, accessible to people throughout the New York metro area as well as people from all over the globe who visit New York.

The "Hidden Lives, Human Possibilities" benefit readings continue on August 21, with the novelist Walter Mosley. And on September 10, the historian Henry Wiencek will celebrate the paperback release of his controversial Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves. (More authors in the series will be announced soon.)

In introducing the evening, Andy Zee, the spokesperson for Revolution Books, spoke about the link between the lives of Edwidge Danticat's characters and hundreds of millions like them in diasporas from around the world and the "hidden life" that was on people's mind that night: "One story that we never would have known about—who would have known about someone named Trayvon Martin?… except that people took to the streets and forced a trial. And now we're living with this punch-in-the-gut of a verdict..."

He asked Edwidge about her novel The Dew Breaker: "There's this burden, this horror that people carry around—the main protagonist who's done awful things, but also other people who've witnessed things. There's a thematic of giving voice to what has been kept silent. And it seems to me that this has a lot of resonance with people who've lived through the kind of experience of Haiti… particularly after it had the first [successful] slave rebellion in history, the retribution and vengeance that first France and then the U.S. committed over and over and over again over two centuries has been extraordinary… Giving voice to what's been silenced and repressed is something you wrestle with in your work."

Edwidge: "I agree. This goes to this evening's theme of the hidden lives and hidden possibilities. The great disparities that exist even to this day always haunt me because you think of the people who often have the most powerful story to tell. For example, now you could have a great novelist in Cité de Soleil or in Bel-Air… without the possibility of being heard… There's always this feeling that's someone's been left behind. That a story that should be heard is not being heard… What's exciting now is that we have both inside Haiti and also in the different diasporas you have a whole other generation that is telling its own story. Before, it was always told through others. Probably the most hideous period was the U.S. occupation period when everyone who was a Marine ended up writing a memoir of their zombie encounters, 'I walked through the zombies.' When what they were really doing was wearing blackface and killing people in the night. Nobody wrote about that."

Questions from the audience went deep into Edwidge's method, her story ideas, the history and politics of Haiti. More than one person wanted to know how she can literally bear to write the stories of a people who have suffered so cruelly for so long.

"I always think it's a good thing that I'm not writing in public because it would be really embarrassing… I do a lot of crying in the writing itself, I do a lot of standing up and moving away from the desk, so that by the time it's on the page, I always say the words are my tears. But even with the most personal story, in spite of my anger, my grief, I want to do something artful. And to do that you have to have distance."

People asked Edwidge about her memoir Brother, I'm Dying, which ends when her elderly uncle flees to Miami from Haiti in 2004 and is sent directly to Krome, a notorious U.S. detention center. He was refused his medicine, interrogated without mercy, and died hours later, still incarcerated. A professor who had taught the memoir to 200 college freshmen said: "When towards the end of the book you ask 'would my uncle have been detained if he was anything other than Haitian,' …there is only one response that a reader could have at that point… You do lead a reader to that particular place but you do it in a way that's completely non-polemical…"

Edwidge: "Well, we love polemic at Revolution Books. [laughter] I think there's a place for it, but when I was writing this book it was in this very hostile-to-immigrant post-9/11 world…. Watching the whole Trayvon Martin thing, just watching that family, I kept going to back to that time, being part of a family where you've lost someone to a great injustice, and I completely understand the desire, you really want to make sure that doesn't happen to someone else." She told how they fought to get the documents on her uncle's case through the Freedom of Information Act. "I wanted to write the book in a way that their words themselves would indict them… You think at any moment someone could have made this turn out differently… someone who is thinking about humans as opposed to thinking of immigrants as pests. You are recreating [in your head] the whole thing with another outcome, but it never has one."

* * * *

Andy Zee spoke about the great urgency in saving Revolution Books: "I was smiling during Edwidge's description of being 14 years old, because I've seen the 14-year- old, and 40-year-olds, walk by this bookstore thinking, 'Am I really going to walk in that store that says revolution?' But once you cross that threshold it can open up a whole different sense of possibility… Because then we're not just talking about making life a little better for a few people somewhere while the majority of humanity is suffering. We're actually talking about changing the whole thing. And that's possible... at a moment when literally the planet itself is in peril..." He briefly encapsulated that because of all the contradictions embedded in this system and because there is a revolutionary theory in the new synthesis of communism developed by Bob Avakian; revolution for a whole new society really could be, here and around the world.

People hung out a long time afterwards, getting their books signed, meeting someone new, talking… could the world be different, and how? They wanted to know more about this bookstore. When asked by staff members to come to a dinner the next week to brainstorm on how to save it, many said yes. A Dominican woman we'd met a few days earlier at the Harlem Book Fair said that Danticat's novel The Farming of Bones "gave me the first true picture of what happened during the massacre of Haitians by then-dictator Trujillo [in the Dominican Republic]..." She offered to bring a Dominican dish to the bookstore dinner.

Someone who sustains Revolution Books every month emailed later: "Edwidge signed my book 'to my fellow shy revolutionary, in sisterhood' which is so funny and accurate in many ways. I often feel like I want to create more connections and be louder about this movement but struggle with the nature of my shyness."

A woman who'd recently joined the Revolution Books fiction book club and had been spreading the word about the event to news outlets and the Haitian community in Brooklyn, said afterwards: "I've been a registered Democrat my whole life, and most political discussions I have with friends are about fixing different parts of the system. No one thinks maybe we should have a different lens altogether, we should be talking about a different system…"

The bookstore raised $2,500 from the fifty people who came to this first night of "Hidden Lives, Human Possibilities." Some people who Revolution Books never met before bought $100 tickets and signed up that night to sustain the bookstore every month. The whole event, from the premium ticket prices to the special character of the evening, conveyed the emergency to Save Revolution Books—a bookstore at the center of building a movement for revolution that fills a great and urgent need in the world today.

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