My models were oral, were storytellers. Like my grandmothers and my aunts. It's true, a lot of people in my life were not literate in a formal sense, but they were storytellers. So I had this experience of just watching somebody spin a tale off the top of her head. I loved that.
The whole history between Haiti and the Dominican Republic is complicated. We share the island of Hispaniola, and Haiti occupied the Dominican Republic for twenty-two years after 1804 for fear that the French and Spanish would come back and reinstitute slavery. So we have this unique situation of being two independent nations on the same island, but with each community having its own grievance.
Sometimes we mask ourselves to further reveal ourselves, and it's always been connected to me with being a writer: We tell lies to tell a greater truth. The story is a mask; the characters you create are masks. That appeals to me. Aside from that, too, in the carnival the masks were beautiful, and offered a vision of Haitian creativity.
The whole military structure in Haiti that existed until the early 1990s was put in place by the American occupation. At the top there were Southern white officers, who led an army that crushed the indigenous resistance - the cacos. A high-ranking U.S. officer said when he arrived, "To think these niggers speak French!" Later, Haitian officers attended the notorious School of the Americas at Fort Benning. The threat from the U.S. is something that is always hanging over people's heads: If we don't behave, we'll have occupation again.
After the Dance was my first attempt at nonfiction. I'd never really participated in carnival, and I really wanted to go. It sounded like a wonderfully fun thing to do. And I wanted to write something happy about Haiti, something celebratory. And going to carnival gave me a chance to do that, because it is one of the instances in Haiti when people shed their class separation and come together.
When you write, it’s like braiding your hair. Taking a handful of coarse unruly strands and attempting to bring them unity. Your fingers have still not perfected the task. Some of the braids are long, others are short. Some are thick, others are thin. Some are heavy. Others are light. Like the diverse women of your family. Those whose fables and metaphors, whose similes and soliloquies, whose diction and je ne sais quoi daily slip into your survival soup, by way of their fingers.
I see the sharp inequality between how Haitian and Cuban refugees are treated in Florida. Both groups come here because their lives are equally desperate. But on arrival, the Haitians are incarcerated, and some are immediately repatriated, whereas Cubans get to stay and are eligible for citizenship.
It seemed from the media that we were being told that all Haitians had AIDS. At the time, I had just come from Haiti. I was twelve years old, and the building I was living in had primarily Haitians. A lot of people got fired from their jobs. At school, sometimes in gym class, we'd be separated because teachers were worried about what would happen if we bled. So there was really this intense discrimination.
That experience of touching down in a totally foreign place is like having a blank canvas: You begin with nothing, but stroke by stroke you build a life. This process requires everything great art requires-risk-tasking, hope, a great deal of imagination, all the qualities that are the building blocks of art. You must be able to dream something nearly impossible and toil to bring it into existence.
Jephthah called together the men of Gilead and fought against Ephraim. The Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan leading to Ephraim, and whenever a survivor of Ephraim said, 'Let me cross over,' the men of Gilead asked him, 'Are you an Ephraimite?' If he replied, 'No,' they said, 'All right, say Shibboleth.' If he said, 'Sibboleth,' because he could not pronounce the word correctly, they seized and killed him at the fords of the Jordan. Fourty-thousand were killed at the time.