Part Five

As I search what it means to be “Haitian,” I come across individuals whose gifts and talents in their respective fields give me the opportunity to experience the Haitian culture. In this series, I will feature seven individuals. Their life’s work not only help those of Haitian descent like myself reconnect to their roots but also introduce others – outside of the Diaspora – to the awe-inspiring beauty and wonder of Haiti.

3. Ms. Edwidge Danticat

Most of the books I read in grade school had children who did not look like my classmates or me on the front covers – for example, E.B. White’s “Charlotte’s Web.” On the front cover, was a small girl with straight hair holding a pig. My hair didn’t look anything like hers – it was puffy, black, and had the strength of steel. Although I could identify with the main character’s affection for her pet (I had a gold fish I had won at a school fair), deep down inside I knew the book wasn’t written for someone like me – a black girl from one of the roughest neighborhoods in Brooklyn, NY.

I discovered the liberating power of the written word when I was a high school student. One afternoon, I decided to pass the time at a neighborhood library.  Browsing the Young Adult Fiction shelf, I came across a book with a picture of a petite woman who looked like she could be any of my female relatives. I was immediately drawn to the book. Back then, I had a habit of testing whether a book would be bad or good by cracking it open to the middle and reading the first paragraph. If it piqued my interest, I would check out the book from the library and take it home with me. If it didn’t stir anything inside of me, I would quickly return the book to the empty space on the shelf.

That afternoon, I came across a book called “Krik? Krak!” written by Edwidge Danticat.

As usual, I opened the book to the middle. After reading a couple of lines, I was hooked. I couldn’t put it down. I finished reading that book in less than three days. I felt like Lazarus, when after being called out of the tomb by Jesus, walked out (or rather hopped out) despite being bound by labels – in this instance, death; for me, it was shame. My life would never be the same.

After reading Ms. Danticat’s book, I gained a sense of awareness of my Haitian cultural identity. The words on the page reflected my life story and the stories of the people I knew in such a personal way. It was familiar, and to think, people were actually interested in reading such stories made me proud in some way. Somehow, Ms. Danticat’s words instilled self-confidence in that teenage heart of mine that was already filled with anxiety about being a person of Haitian descent.

Ms. Danticat’s book was a mirror. It showed me who I was. It was a tool of freedom, giving me the permission to move in this world. Her words dignified my experience as a Haitian American. Her written stories reaffirmed that it was okay to embrace who I am and to share my stories.

I grew up at a time when it was taboo to be Haitian. Whenever someone found out where I was from, they would always respond with what they had heard in the news, i.e. “That’s the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.” I deflected their statements by focusing on the memories of visiting my grandmother when I was a child. 

Ms. Danticat’s book indeed changed the course of my life. I had something to look forward to – reading her next book. I no longer hid in the shadows of shame of being Haitian. I never knew how much of a burden it was worrying about what others thought of me, and how much space it occupied in my mind. Her words lifted the heavy burden of low self-esteem.

At the time, I didn’t think much about which college to attend, but I decided to follow in her footsteps as far as our alma mater – Barnard College of Columbia University. The only reason why I considered applying and attending Barnard was because she went there.

Cindy Similien-Johnson with Edwidge Danticat at the “Caribbean Feminisms on the Page” held at Barnard College (2015)

I had the opportunity to personally meet Ms. Danticat a couple of times. The one encounter that stuck out to me the most was when I had attended an event at New York University where she was giving a talk about artists creating dangerously.

During the Q&A, audience members were told, “Say your name, and then ask a question. Keep it short and simple.” I stood up to ask a question. She didn’t recognize me, but the moment I mentioned my name, Edwidge Danticat expressed delight, looked at the audience, and said, “She’s a writer.” I almost fainted in that moment. Here was my childhood hero acknowledging that I was a writer.

At the end of the event, I approached her. During our conversation, I shared that I had written a children’s book, “Haiti Is.” She told me that she had heard about it. Again, I almost fainted, but I maintained my composure. From the corner of my eyes, I saw that a long line had already formed behind me. The attendees were eagerly waiting with anticipation to speak to her. Before I left, she mentioned that wanted a copy of my children’s book. Luckily, I had a few copies in my bag and decided to gift them to her. In that split moment, as I was signing the book for her, I thought back to that time when I was a teenaged girl reading and re-reading her books in my bedroom to draw strength from them. And, here I was signing one of my books for her –  it was truly an emotional experience.

I remember leaving that auditorium, inspired and challenged to continue inspiring the next generation of Haitian Americans. We are now entering a time where some of the 2nd, 3rd, or even 4th generation Haitian Americans don’t have a direct connection to Haiti like I did with my grandmother.

Who will tell them about the stories of old, or show them how to measure salt in the palm of their hands to cook Diri Djon Djon (Black Mushroom Rice)? Who would remind them about our history? The answer: Edwidge Danticat and every writer of Haitian descent whose voices will continue to echo through eternity.

Words truly have power. Ms. Danticat’s books emboldened me to not be ashamed to tell my story. Words are mirrors. They are also tools of freedom – they liberate the soul. Words go to places where I will never go and reach the hearts of people I may never meet. Ms. Danticat, through her book(s), gave me wings to soar in my “Haitian-ness”; and, for that, I am forever grateful.

Cindy Similien-Johnson is the founder of CSJ Media Publishing, and author of the bestselling e-cookbook series and popular cooking classes, "Cook Like A Haitian." She's also the founder of the women empowerment grassroots initiative, Goal Chic.

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