After high school, she earned a degree from Barnard College and a Master's from Brown University, where she wrote the thesis that later became her first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory. The book, very loosely based on her life, was published to critical acclaim in 1994. In 1995, when she was only 26, her second book, Krik? Krak!, was a finalist for the National Book Award and a recipient of the Pushcart Prize in short fiction. Danticat gained a much broader audience in 1998, when Breath, Eyes, Memory was chosen for Oprah's Book Club.

Reflecting on the historical dangers of being an author in Haiti, she writes in the epilogue of her short story compilation, Krik? Krak!: "In our world, writers are tortured and killed if they are men; called lying whores, then raped and killed, if they are women. In our world, if you are a writer, you are a politician, and we know what happens to politicians. They end up in a prison dungeon, where their bodies are covered in scalding tar before they're forced to eat their own waste."

Even though Danticat has never worried about censorship and persecution in the United States, she did feel the whip of political correctness in the mid-1990s when people read her words about "testing"—a custom where a mother periodically inserts her finger into her adolescent daughter's vagina to make sure she is still a virgin. Readers criticized her then for furthering the stereotype of Haitians as backward. "When I was younger, I was emboldened by naïveté. I felt like I could write anything," says Danticat. "Over the years, I've realized being a writer is an enormous responsibility. Now I'm more aware of the implications."

Danticat, who lives in Brooklyn and is engaged to be married, believes firmly that no one would have heard of her had she stayed in Haiti, where writers typically have to pay to get their work published at a cost she never could have afforded. "Sometimes I can't believe that I'm able to do this, that I can sit with my stories and express everything," she says, an infectious smile spreading across her face. "Just the act of writing is freedom for me. It's almost like flying."


Next Story