The New School’s Kelly McHugh-Stewart interviews 2018 NBCC Criticism Finalist Edwidge Danticat about her book The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story

I was drawn to Edwidge Danticat’s NBCC Award Nominated Book, The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story (Graywolf), from the second I laid eyes on it. The book is small, chic, but inside it’s jam-packed with advice for writing about one of life’s most difficult topics. She states in the book’s first chapter, “I have been writing about death as long as I have been writing,” and from her debut novel Breath, Eyes, Memory (1994) to her NBCC Award Winning memoir Brother, I’m Dying (2007), she’s proven one of the best ways we can understand death is through reading and writing about it.

The Art of Death is a masterful addition to Danticat’s body of work. From the painstakingly thorough reflection on her own mother’s death to the literature she so flawlessly references, I’ve yet to come across a book as helpful on writing about death as this one. I had the great opportunity to talk to Danticat about writing The Art of Death, returning to New York, her mother’s home, for the NBCC Awards, and about the importance of keeping the stories of our loved ones alive.

First off, how did this book come about?
The wonderful poet, Kima Jones, interviewed me then sent me the book, The Art of Recklessness. I read it and loved it. I had never heard of “The Art of…” series before, so I got every one of them and started binge reading. It was such a great series, and I thought that if you read the whole series it was like having an MFA. I knew I wanted to write something about my mother and thought this would be a good way to do it. I was at the airport in New York at the time and I wrote this one-page proposal. I thought, I have to do this, I want to do this, I need to do this.

I loved what the New York Times says about the writing in The Art of Death, how you write this book with a “reader’s passion and a craftsman’s appraising eye.” One of the first things that struck me was the amount of literature you reference throughout. Did you have these passages set aside beforehand, or did you seek them out in the process of writing the book?
After my mom passed away in October 2014, I was at this point where I felt empty. I had friends who sent me things: a book of poems by Lucille Clifton; C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed; people would also send poems and things of that nature. So I just started reading. Most of the books I mention I had read before, but I wanted to go back to them with my grief in mind.

Reading and rereading those texts, for me, was very comforting. I knew I was going to have to write about my mother in some way before I could write about anything else, but I didn’t want to write about it the way I did my father in Brother I’m Dying, then this opportunity came and I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to do it, to do something that had a very clear structure and at the same time: it would allow me to talk about my grief and some of the books I was drawing comfort from.

Of all the books you reference, do you have one you consider your favorite or found yourself returning to more often than others?
Definitely the Lucille Clifton poem I reference, “Oh antic God / return to me / my mother in her thirties.” A friend sent that one to me soon after my mother passed away. That one really, really, struck me because I was not with my mother for most of her thirties; she was here in the U.S. and I was in Haiti with my aunt and uncle. Reading it, I just had that longing doubly so.

To imagine my mother young, I felt like the whole enterprise was something that, ultimately I wouldn’t be able to have. I wouldn’t be able to have my mother in her thirties, but often, when writing something, having a task that you know is impossible and trying to get as close to something as possible is a wonderful challenge. It’s something that keeps the act of writing it fresh and exciting; you have a quest that is, maybe, impossible. I couldn’t get my mother back, but I felt like there were some things that I could memorialize in this process and then put her death in the company of these other deaths that are just as epic.

Death is one of those things that, it happens every single day, but when it happens in our life, it feels new, it feels like it’s never happened before.

Read more at the source: BKMag – Interview with 2018 NBCC Criticism Award Finalist Edwidge Danticat

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