Haitian-born American writer Edwidge Danticat has written the latest installment in Graywolf Press’s “The Art of” series in which prominent authors meditate on how best to write about specific subjects or particular aspects of craft in creative writing.
In The Art of Death Danticat uses the theme of death to not only look at how other novelists, poets and essayists have dealt with death in their work but also as a way of writing around the recent death of her mother.
Danticat’s mother was diagnosed with late stage cancer at the age of 78 and chose not to have chemotherapy but to “leave it up to God.” Danticat weaves the story of her mother’s final weeks with other descriptions of death in literature, from Alice Sebold’s bestseller The Lovely Bones to works by Leo Tolstoy.
She makes a lot of stops along the way, exploring recent novels as well as books by established writers such as Toni Morrison and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The number of books Danticat dissects can be a little a little exhausting, but I never felt that she wasn’t making a good point and treating the authors fairly even when I hadn’t read the books being discussed.
Danticat moves thematically through different kinds of deaths and how they can be treated in fiction from the micro to the macro. She covers suicide, execution, death from accident and illness to mass deaths in stunning events like 9/11 or the Haitian earthquake of 2010 in which she lost close relatives.
In her 2007 memoir Brother, I’m Dying she wrote touchingly about the deaths of her father and her uncle. That is the only other book of hers that I have read but in The Art of Dying Danticat does mention that death is also a strong theme in her fiction.
“Writing has been the primary way I have tried to make sense of my losses, including deaths,” she writes. “I have been writing about death for as long as I have been writing.”
“The works I discuss here are novels, stories, memoirs, essays, and poems that, both recently and in the past, I have found myself returning to when living with and writing about death,” Danticat writes. “These authors have provided me with hints, clues, maps that I hope might lead me to some still-undiscovered and undefined ‘other side,’ which is often mislabeled as closure.”
Danticat quotes Michel de Montaigne who wrote that “Dying … is the greatest work we have to do,” adding that “yet we can’t get good at it by practicing, since we experience it only once.”
In the end she has to agree with Albert Camus that “In reality there is no experience of death.… it is barely possible to speak of the experience of others’ deaths. It is a substitute, an illusion, and it never quite convinces us.”
We can write about our reactions to the deaths of others and about our hopes and fears about our own certain demise and we can create elaborate fictions about what death might feel like. But, the truth is the actual act of dying is still a mystery which only gets solved when it is too late to be revealed.