University News

Novelist Danticat MFA’93 visits to discuss first-years’ summer reading

Contributing Writer
Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Playing into the same themes as Paul Farmer’s lecture on “Rebuilding Haiti,” Haitian-American author Edwidge Danticat MFA’93 spoke Monday about her novel — the Class of 2014’s summer reading —”The Dew Breaker.” Danticat’s greeting of “Ole,” meaning “honor” in Creole, set the personal tone for the event in a full Salomon 101.

“The Dew Breaker,” Danticat’s third novel and winner of the 2004 Story Prize, is set in Haiti during the dictatorial regime of Francois Duvalier. The title, derived from the Creole word for “torturer,” also refers to the central character in the novel. One of the many Tonton Macoutes who killed and tortured people under Duvalier’s administration, the Dew Breaker ties together the nine individual stories that make up the novel.

Danticat said she wrote the novel from several different perspectives because she “wanted to show the ripple effect of torture” and how the Dew Breaker “altered … lives forever.”

The main purpose of the event was “to make a case to you for (the novel’s) relevance to you,” Danticat said. She used the example of social media — without leaving the room, “we can all become torturers,” she said, adding “we should never underestimate that.”

Some students had already formed a connection to the novel. Saudy Garcia ’14 said “reading the book reminded me of my own culture in the Dominican Republic,” and there were many topics her “grandparents had spoken about.” Garcia asked Danticat if she believes the regimes in Haiti and the Dominican Republic are related.

“All regimes share those elements of wanting to silence people,” Danticat said. But all the voices that have been oppressed “can make great art,” from visual artists to singers to writers.

After reading an excerpt from the book, Danticat closed by explaining that there are two different kinds of dews — dew breakers, who torture others, and those who counter them, the dew masters or mistresses. She reminded the audience that it is a personal decision “which ones we will align ourselves with and which ones we will be.”

While First Readings for incoming first-year classes have been assigned since fall 2007, and authors of the selected novels have come to Brown since 2008, this is the first year that a celebrity sat among the students. Wyclef Jean, a Haitian musician and politician — and newly appointed visiting fellow in Africana studies — attended the lecture.

Dean of the College Katherine Bergeron also dubbed this year as “the most successful year yet” for the First Readings program.

From speaking in Creole to sharing stories from her past, the author’s personal touches throughout her lecture “really resonated” with Maiki Paul ’14, who described Danticat as a “soft-spoken but very powerful speaker.”

Overall, students seemed to have positive reactions to the reading. Rory MacAneny ’14 said “hearing her read it aloud brought clarity,” while Erika Larose ’14 said she could tell that Danticat “really believes in everything she wrote about.”

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