Edwidge Danticat is one of our great writers, equal fluent in the rigors of novels and short stories and essays and memoir. One of her most enduring themes, which surfaces in nearly everything she’s published, is death: see Brother I’m Dying, The Farming of Bones, Dew Breaker, Claire of the Sea Light. It’s especially appropriate, and especially satisfying, then that Danticat’s entry into Graywolf Press’s “Art of” series is also about this subject. The Art of Death is both memoir and literary criticism, a meditation on Danticat’s relationship with her mother and on the books that try to describe the experience of loss, the process of losing.
Extra Crispy: What did you have for breakfast this morning?
Edwidge Danticat: A big cup of black coffee.
Is that a normal breakfast for you?
Sometimes I also have oatmeal or eggs, boiled or scrambled, or—and this is something moms should really not do—whatever is left on my children’s plates after they’ve left for school or camp.
This book is a very intimate consideration of your mother's life, death, afterlife. Is there any food that particularly reminds you of her? What did you used to eat for breakfast together?
She used to make the best Good Friday lunch. It was our tradition. Fried snapper, white rice, white bean sauce, and a beet salad. She also made squash soup, the traditional dish for January 1st, which is Haitian Independence Day. She would save bowls of it for her sisters, my three brothers, and their families. Sharing food was how she showed her love for people.
The last few years of her life, my mother was living in New York and I was living in Miami. When I would visit her, she would make me boiled plantains with scrambled eggs and herring. Or spaghetti with herring—we sometimes have that for breakfast in Haiti. Or cornmeal with avocado, another breakfast favorite. When she was visiting with me, she’d never let me make breakfast. She’d make one of those dishes for everyone. When she got sick, it was sad to see her go from eating such solid get-your-day-going meals to see her barely manage to even drink the green smoothies I would make her or a quarter bottle of Ensure.
As you yourself write in The Art of Death, death is a subject you've returned to again and again. For the purposes of this particular volume, what did you learn about death by turning to art, and literature in particular?
When you are grieving you seek comfort wherever you can. Some people find comfort in food. Others find comfort in other ways. I found a lot of comfort in reading other writers and in writing this book. Both made me feel much less isolated and alone. I discovered or rediscovered that art, literature has incredible reach. You never know where your words will end up and what they’ll end up doing to, or for, other people. Each writer I read after my mother died felt like a distant loved one who’d taken me in and whispered words I needed to hear.