Job: Author of Breath, Eyes and Memory; Krik? Krak!; and other award-winning fiction
Born: Haiti, 1969
Arrived in America: 1981
Edwidge Danticat leans on the speaker's podium in the Coop in Harvard Square, arms crossed in front of her chest. Dressed in black, her tiny braids pulled back into two ponytails, the 33-year-old is regarded as one of this country's most talented young writers. Today she's been invited to read by the Boston Humanities Consortium, and the audience listens intently to her essay about a fire that killed two little boys in her Brooklyn apartment building many years ago. Like her writing, Danticat's speech is unadorned and lyrical, tinged not so much with an accent as with a lilt—a pleasing hint of her faraway beginnings.
Born in 1969 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Danticat was 2 years old when her father left the family and moved to New York for a better life. Luckily, she was too young to remember. When her mother joined him two years later, however, Danticat took in every wrenching detail—the silent ride to the airport and the sudden realization that she wasn't going with her. Danticat went to live with her aunt and uncle.
Nevertheless, on March 21, 1981, 12-year-old Danticat donned the yellow dress her mother had sent especially for the trip and boarded a plane. She had no idea the flight was only four hours, because New York had always seemed a million miles away. "I had a sense that America was this cold place where people worked really hard and that families went there to have something better for their children," she says.
Once in the United States, Danticat found herself suspended between two worlds. She was a quiet Creole-speaking girl in a raucous English-speaking country, and her parents labored long hours at menial jobs. There was a lot of resentment toward Haitian "boat people" at the time, and she was taunted at school, which pushed the already shy girl even deeper into herself. The ridicule, however, drove her to excel.
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."
Job: Founder of the African Women's Health Practice at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston
Born: Sudan, 1966
Arrived in America: 1984 Nawal Nour was born in Khartoum, in the startlingly lush area where the Blue Nile meets, and calms, the rapids of the White Nile. Her family lived in a low stone house amid acacia trees, surrounded by the bone-whitening heat of the Sudanese desert.
That heat slowed and gentled people, made them kind. Nour's mother, born in Rochester, New York, noticed the difference the day her fiancé—a Sudanese PhD candidate she'd met in London—brought her to his home to live with him. She learned Arabic, and by the time her husband had become the country's minister of agriculture, she was a professor of plant pathology at the University of Khartoum. When Nour was three, the family moved north to Egypt for nine years. As soon as they returned to Khartoum, Nour ran to the Nile at sunset, flopped down on the hot yellow sand, and watched the kites stitch up the sky. She was 12 and looked forward to wearing a uniform—pale blue, with a white belt and shoes—at her new, all-girls school. She didn't mind the British-colonial formality; what she couldn't adjust to was her Sudanese classmates' constrained lives. "You mean you can't go?" she'd repeat, bemused, thinking how her parents let her attend parties, take trips, explore.
The following Autumn, Nour listened to a handful of classmates talking about how they'd been circumcised that summer and how much it had hurt. "When was she going to be circumcised?" they asked. "I'm not!" she blurted. They shrugged. Nour had an American mother and dual citizenship; she lived outside their rules.
Her father also was different from most Muslim-raised Sudanese: He believed passionately in higher education, especially for his daughters. He said it would set them free. When Nour turned 14, the family moved again, this time to London, where she enrolled in the American School. Sitting on damp park benches, reading The Hidden Face of Eve and The Second Sex, she remembered the pain her Sudanese classmates had undergone. The most common form of female circumcision in Sudan was the most severe, during which the clitoris and labia are removed and the vagina is sewn nearly closed. She began to question why women had to suffer so. The search for that answer would set her life's course.
At 18, she came to the United States to become a student at Brown University. She went on to Harvard Medical School, receiving her degree in 1994 and a master's in public health in 1999. As a resident in ob/gyn at Harvard's acclaimed Brigham and Women's Hospital, she watched Western colleagues jot "normal external genitalia" in the charts of Ethiopian women, not even realizing they'd had their clitorises removed. Disturbed, Nour started doing research and applying for grants, and discovered that Massachusetts alone has about 7,000 immigrants and refugees who have been circumcised.
Today Nour spends hours talking with newly married African couples, explaining the 20-minute surgery that can restore a normal vaginal opening, much to the relief of the wives. Other cases require more extensive healing.
Although Nour has a great tenderness for the Sudan of her childhood, she also feels an Americanness so profound it surprises her. Here, she's found the sophisticated training, the resources, and the freedom she needs to influence policy in developing nations where many still believe that circumcision makes a woman more beautiful; or that the clitoris is poisonous and touching it can make a man impotent.