During her talk, Danticat read from three pieces of fiction and nonfiction. The first, an essay, "I Want to Talk about Haiti," considers the struggles and resilience of Haitian people throughout history, from its indigenous populations, to African enslavement under French rule, the Haitian revolution, political turmoil, epidemics and the 2010 earthquake. What much of the world overlooks because of this one-dimensional view, Danticat said, is the great strength of the Haitian people, as well as the great works of art, music and literature the country produces.
Danticat's parents moved to the U.S. from Haiti when she was four years old, leaving her and her brother in the care of relatives for eight years while they began to build a life in New York. While the circumstances of her family's separation and that of Haitian refugees in U.S. detention camps throughout the past three decades differ, she reflected on immigration, detainment and the significance of food (the food of her childhood, the food served in prisons and campus) in a piece called "This is My Body," written for Plough Quarterly Magazine in January 2019.
"In the immigration detention centers that I have visited, for example, the subject of food often comes up," she read. "Many of the detainees see the terrible food they are fed at the most inconvenient hours, sometimes at four in the morning for breakfast and four in the afternoon for dinner, as yet one more way of punishing them...Meals eaten in desperation or under distress of course end up being memorable."
Danticat also read an excerpt from "The Gift," a story in her 2019 collection, Everything Inside, in which an artist wonders how to artistically and appropriately articulate tragedy and its aftermath in the wake of the 2010 earthquake.
During the talk's Q&A session, Danticat spoke about her journey as a writer, both as a vessel for the familial voices she heard as a child and also as an editor and translator, introducing other Haitian writers to the wider world through several anthologies.
While she grew up reading Haitian writers, the first book she read in English was Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
"It was the first book I read where I realized you could bare your whole soul in writing," she said. "I wouldn't have written Breath, Eyes, Memory if I hadn't read that book.
"All the mentors you need are in the library," she said to Emmanuel students. "I didn't have writers come to my high school to give talks. To me, writers were always abstract, but their work was very real."
Danticat is the author of several books, including Breath, Eyes, Memory, an Oprah Book Club selection; Krik? Krak!, a National Book Award finalist; The Farming of Bones, The Dew Breaker, Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work, and Claire of the Sea Light. She is also the editor of The Butterfly's Way: Voices from the Haitian Dyaspora in the United States, Best American Essays 2011, Haiti Noir and Haiti Noir 2. Her memoir, Brother, I'm Dying, was a 2007 finalist for the National Book Award and a 2008 winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for autobiography. She is a 2009 MacArthur fellow, a 2018 Ford Foundation "The Art of Change" fellow, and the winner of the 2018 Neustadt International Prize. She was recently named winner of the 2020 Vilcek Foundation Prize in the Arts and Humanities, given to immigrants who have made an exceptional contribution in contemporary literature.