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Teaching Multicultural Literature : A Workshop for the Middle Grades
Workshop 1 Workshop 2 Workshop 3 Workshop 4 Workshop 5 Workshop 6 Workshop 7 Workshop 8
Workshop 4: Research and Discovery - An Na, Edwidge Danticat, Laurence Yep, and more
Overview
Authors and Literary Works
An Na
Biography
Work
Edwidge Danticat
Biography
Work
Interview
Pam Munoz Ryan
Biography
Work
Walter Dean Myers
Biography
Work
Laurence Yep
Biography
Work
Interview
Key References
Video Summary
Teaching Strategies
Commentary
Student Work
Resources
Interactive Workbook -- Explore two poems using strategies from these workshops. Go.
Channel-Talk -- Share your views on the discussion board. Go.


Authors and Literary Works
Biography

The life of Celiane in Behind the Mountains is drawn from Edwidge Danticat's own in many ways. Born in Haiti in 1969, Danticat came to the United States while the Duvalier regime ruled Haiti. Like Celiane's, Danticat's father was first to emigrate, moving to Brooklyn when she was two. Soon thereafter, her mother also moved, leaving Danticat and her brother in the care of their aunt and uncle. When she and her brother joined their family, when Daniticat was 12, they had two new younger brothers who had been born in the United States. "It was a big challenge for us to become a family again," Danticat writes in an afterword to Behind the Mountains. "My brother Kelly, who had believed himself the first-born, suddenly found his birth order usurped, and he did not like it one bit." Once in Brooklyn, Danticat felt lost, a feeling she draws on in her portrayal of Celiane. "It was all so very different. I didn't speak the language. I felt very lost and I withdrew into myself, became much more shy than I already was. I sought solace in books, read a lot, and kept journals written in fragmented Creole, French, and English."

The first book Danticat read when she came to the United States was Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. In an interview she recalls, "I was so struck by the level of revelation. It felt like she actually told everything, and I was overwhelmed and stunned by it. But it really opened up to me the possibility that it's okay to tell these kinds of stories, to be painfully honest in the things that you write... To this day I feel like that book allowed me to be a lot more honest in my work."

Some of the most important themes in Danticat's work come from her own life experience -- migration, the separation of families, and assimilation into a new world. Yet she feels that the idea of what it is to be an American is constantly changing, and that as a society we must make room for the voices of other immigrants. Each new wave of immigration brings a kind of person who has not come before, Danticat notes. "I think what 'multicultural literature' means has changed, just as what 'multicultural society' means has changed. There are many ... people who we haven't heard from before or we're hearing from now. I think it's important to have those voices heard."

Because she grew up under the Duvalier regime herself, it is important to Danticat to show the political realities of Haiti and how they affect ordinary people. Yet she also wants to illustrate the everyday lives of Haitian families, since she believes Americans often see news of Haiti only at moments of violent change or natural disaster. From that, she worries, readers might view Haitians as "a mass of people" rather than individuals. She reflects in an interview about Behind the Mountains:

I wanted both teachers and students to get a sense that there are people exactly like them in places like this. There are little girls who dream, who keep journals, who miss their families, who hope that their loved ones are safe... When you have an individual character, you can relate to that particular person and they introduce you to a place. I think that makes a connection. If you have a Haitian child in the classroom, you end up having a deeper sense of that person and where they come from. You can look at them as an individual and then, I hope, the book becomes a point of departure for conversation.

In a review of Danticat's novel, The Dew Breaker, New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani summarized Danticat's career as a writer of fiction:

In her earlier books Breath, Eyes, Memory, Krik? Krak! and The Farming of Bones, Ms. Danticat ... demonstrated an ability to use her lyric gift of language and her emotional clarity to show how the public and the private, the personal and the political are intertwined in the lives of Haitians and Haitian Americans, and to show how the past anchors and hobbles the present. The Dew Breaker ... is a tale that uses its characters' experiences as a prism to examine Haiti's own difficulties in breaking free from a centuries-old cycle of violence and vengeance that continues through today, a tale that simultaneously unfolds to become a philosophical meditation on the possibility of redemption and the longing of victims and victimizers alike to believe in the promise of new beginnings held forth by the American Dream.


Since she published her first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory (which she began as a high school student in Brooklyn), Edwidge Danticat has been hailed as one of America's most talented young writers. For that work she won a Granta Regional Award for Best Young American Novelist. Her collection of stories, Krik? Krak!, was a finalist for the National Book Award. Danticat won an American Book Award and a Before Columbus Foundation award for The Farming of Bones. She has received fiction awards from periodicals including Caribbean Writer, Seventeen, and Essence; a Pushcart Prize for short fiction; and a grant from the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Foundation.

Edwidge Danticat holds a degree in French literature from Barnard College and an M.F.A. from Brown University.

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