Jana Evans Braziel & Nadège T. Clitandre (eds.), The Bloomsbury Handbook to Edwidge Danticat . London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2021. vii + 450 pp. (Cloth US$ 175.00)
Your president is assassinated. A magnitude 7.2 earthquake hits your country. A tropical storm makes it difficult to distribute aid. But in days rigid with heat, you build shelters, you locate lost loved ones, you think about the future and what you have to do to survive. (I thought I was tough because I was born in Detroit.)
The Bloomsbury Handbook to Edwidge Danticat celebrates both Danticat and Haiti, by noting all the ways people fight. Writing can make us stronger. With its rainbowed flights into story, the book is a tribute to Danticat and to Black women’s diasporic writing: Ntozake Shange, Paule Marshall, Alice Walker. Editors Jana Evans Braziel and Nadège T. Clitandre place Danticat within a tradition and remind us that Danticat is bold, experimental, and daring. They also show how, from Danticat’s first publication, her writing nourished us with the tenderness of a parent braiding a child’s hair. The book reminds us to read Danticat more carefully, more closely, and to develop a less innocent understanding of her work and the context within which she creates. Danticat has had a 20-year career, but she’s still young; she’s part of a tradition, but constantly investigating new ideas, creating new lines as affecting as the old. This book reminds us of how Danticat’s work coils its way through our imaginations; how it feels close to us and becomes the star that slips, slowly, through a hole in the roof. It is innovative; it’s bricolage. It’s work mesmerized by its journey—and its possibilities.
But sometimes it misses the point that Danticat is an Afrofuturist. This point is sometimes reinforced, sometimes hinted at, sometimes clarified, and sometimes circumvented. The point is always that Danticat writes toward the future, toward the gleaming places where our souls stand naked in the stream. As several scholars have noted, Haiti’s history has made it a threat for some and an inspiration for others (usually Black others). Haiti’s history makes it a fruitful space for thinking about Afrofuturism. Danticat’s willingness to delve into memory, to remove the halting, stilted way we think about immigration, race, class, and gender—as if these ideas are separate from each other and not part of the same large calabash—prepares us for thinking more deeply about the future, for developing wings. We know that even though we may face mountains and more mountains, historical memory can help us move out of old cycles of violence and play a new drum, with a different insistent rhythm. We can, Danticat suggests, all become Afrofuturists.
Braziel and Clitandre develop a visionary nonlinear chronology of Danticat’s work. The whole book weaves through a provocative exploration of ideas—the Black immigrant experience; the complexity of Black girlhood; socioeconomic class and domesticity as a reflection of class; the body as a source of pleasure, discomfort, and freedom; death as a place where freedom and fight can take place; spirituality and religion; our connections to a natural environment that gives our lives light, shape, color, and texture.
The collection includes noteworthy essays: in “Haiti’s Past, Present, and Uncertain Future,” scholars Megan Feifer and Maia Butler remind us that the questions Danticat poses create new codes and disciplines. They argue that Danticat wishes to remove us from previous ways of thinking and understanding and that her work offers moments of hope and walks into the dawn; the pain inflicted on the physical body (an idea explored in several pieces in this collection) reminds readers of what people can overcome, how we can all treat each other more gently and turn the sea a different shade. The essays that willfully explore Danticat and the praxis of the Afrofuturist terrain are the sharpest in the book.
The Bloomsbury Handbook to Edwidge Danticat avoids the trap that ensnares critics focusing on a particular element of Danticat’s work. Instead, it pays attention to the luminosity and scope of Danticat’s work. We see from reading it that Danticat talks about possibilities, that she interweaves and echoes the voices of those she loves. Many writers, myself included, have tried to replicate Danticat’s style, to mix burnished colors in the afternoon light. But Danticat’s powerful voice creates a permanent glow. The reason Danticat reverberates as a potent force is that she’s a third-wave AfroSurreal Afrofuturist who writes our loud screams and occasional sighs and whispers. That, and she writes from love.