Arts & Culture

Writers confront oppression, grief

Contemporary writers Danticat MFA’93, Ward explore roles of race, memory in writing

By
Senior Staff Writer
Friday, November 20, 2015

“These writers work to humanize black lives,” said Director of the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice Anthony Bogues at the Writing for a Broken World event last night.

Just moments later, the writers he referenced — Jesmyn Ward and Edwidge Danticat MFA’93 — walked out on the Martinos Auditorium stage. Ward, an associate professor of English at Tulane University, is famous for her award-winning novel “Salvage the Bones.” After earning her MFA in Creative Writing, Danticat published a novel, “Breath, Eyes, Memory” in 1994, which was an Oprah’s Book Club selection in 1998. Both women have focused their writing on their experiences as women of color and their everyday lives.

The two writers began the discussion with thoughts on their racial identities. Ward is originally from Mississippi, where she said she constantly felt dehumanized. “Cultures have constantly told me that I was less,” Ward said in her opening remarks. “I wanted to speak against it with the hopes that my work would make people see us as human beings.” She added that as an artist, she has the power to humanize and create social change.

Growing up in Haiti during a dictatorship and immigrating to New York at the age of 12, Danticat said she also experienced similar treatment. As a result, she saod she used her pain as fuel to write about the truth. “I grew up in a time where they wanted to silence the writers. It reinforced the power of writing that there was a need to silence them.”

Dandicat said race has always been a subject of contention in the United States. Before the discussion started, Danticat shared her support for the Brown Coalition for Graduate Students of Color. Audience members gave a thunderous applause with her backing of the group.

Ralph Rodriguez, associate professor of American studies and English, moderated the conversation, seamlessly weaving the topics of discussion to create a cohesive and easy-to-follow dialogue. “There are these consistent themes of destruction, devastation and survival in both of your works. Where do these themes come from?” Rodriguez asked both writers.

Both Danticat and Ward both pointed to their personal experiences of grief as extremely influential in their work. Danticat said that grief is a powerful thing with a compounding effect. Writing her novel in the wake of her father’s death, she said every writing session felt like she was visiting her father. “Grief is just something you’re learning as you go,” she added.

Ward also spoke candidly about her grief, which grew into a major depression. “After my brother died, I was very despondent. The depression enlarged and bore down on the entire world.” Ward said she was determined to stay above suicidal thoughts out of respect for her family and her community. To do this, she got a tattoo on her left wrist of her brother’s signature. A year later, she got a tattoo of some of her brother’s last parting words: love, brother.

Depression “is something we struggle with, but we don’t talk about it. We don’t ask for help. People think that you should be strong enough to deal with it, but we need to talk about mental health issues,” Ward said.

During the event, Danticat and Ward paused to internalize the weight of their sentiments. Rodriguez quickly turned the conversation to the issue of race in the United States, a topic that impassioned both women.

“Right now, we are too emotionally invested in these myths we have about our history and our culture,” Ward said. She added that this issue has been ongoing for decades and the American public has been talked into believing these falsities. “There’s been this push to deny and forget. There’s also a desire to write against it.”

Danticat brought up a sharp observation: “Having a black president has silenced the conversation about race.” But she also pointed out the recent major contributions millennials have made in pushing to bring forth the issue of race. “Young people, because of ‘Black Lives Matter,’ have revived the notion that we need to have these conversations.”

To close the conversation, Rodriguez left the writers with one question: “How do we give voice to the silenced?”

“There is power in speaking and raising our voices,” Ward said, “We are important to this country.”