'Create Dangerously' chosen by One Book, One Philadelphia

Edwidge Danticat
Edwidge Danticat
Posted: October 12, 2011

This year's choice for One Book, One Philadelphia is, in many ways, a perfect fit for the town and its students.

In just as many ways, it's a bracing, bold surprise.

Edwidge Danticat's Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work is the book, to be announced Wednesday morning by the Free Library and the Mayor's Office. In this, the 10th anniversary of the One Book program, Create Dangerously, a collection of essays, will be the gathering point for more than 100 panel discussions, films, musical performances, and other events throughout the city and its school district, as teachers and students read and create around the shared experience of the book.

The program runs Jan. 25 through March 17, 2012. The teen companion book is A Taste of Salt by Frances Temple, and the children's companion book is Running the Road to ABC by Denizé Lauture. Plenty of copies of all three books will be available via the Free Library system; thousands of readers are expected to join in.

Danticat, the much-garlanded Haitian American author, says she is "overjoyed" at the news - but also has a few "butterflies" about it.

"If it were a novel," she says, speaking by phone from New York, "readers could relate to a character or a situation. But this is a collection of essays, reflections about Haiti, politics, art, my experience. It's a little closer to the skin. People will be reading it all together, which is wonderful, but they may be asked to read it a different way than they normally might." She says she looks forward to visiting several times during the program, although no dates are yet firm.

Create Dangerously is part memoir, part profiles of courageous people who stood up to oppression, and part meditation on being Haitian, the immigrant experience, the plight of the artist, and the nature of creativity. Not to mention a lacerating account of the 2010 earthquake as both ecological and geopolitical disaster.

"Create dangerously," Danticat writes in the chapter of that name, "for readers who read dangerously. That's what I always thought it meant to be a writer."

"This is not only about writing," she says by phone. "It's about anyone who sends what they have created, what they have made, out into the world. It's an intimate challenge we all feel that we put something out there - will it be greeted with a slap or, worse, a yawn?"

And that is a message for students and teachers throughout Philadelphia.

"We try to select books that are conducive to creative, stimulating classroom programming," says Marie Field, chair of One Book, One Philadelphia, "and this book is - it's a little book that touches on a lot of important topics."

Siobhan Reardon, president and director of the Free Library, says the book was chosen "because it speaks to the diversity of the city." Former selections have struck the same theme, as with 2010's War Dances by indigenous American author Sherman Alexie, or 2008's What Is the What, by Dave Eggers, about Sudanese refugee Valentino Achak Deng.

Reardon says, "We look for books that will excite teachers and students, and get students to come out of themselves and think and imagine in new ways. This book really does all that. Even in the title, Create, she's encouraging people, empowering the reader to reach deep and make their voices heard."

Reardon also mentions the gallery of Haitian heroines and heroes in Create, "people who did not back down in the face of oppression," such as radio commentator Jean Dominique, slain for the opinions he expressed on the air at Radio Haiti Inter; Jan, his daughter and a novelist; writer Marie Vieux-Chavet, forced into exile in the United States because of her views; and Alèrte Bélance, a survivor of the maiming and torture policies of the 1991 coup d'état in Haiti.

"My idea," says Danticat, "was to examine the lives of these extraordinary people, some who were determined to make art as witness under very extraordinary circumstances, some who were trying to give truth a voice in spite of the danger."

In many places in the world, it's a risk to read, and a risk to write. "But you don't have to be in such a situation to create dangerously," Danticat says. "Every act of creation is a risk."

"She encourages readers," says Reardon, "to be bold."

"This book is ideal for the 10th anniversary," Field says, "because it celebrates the role of reading and the library in resistance in Haiti."

Danticat grew up in Haiti, separated from her parents, who had emigrated to the United States. At age 12, she, too, moved to Brooklyn - and she lovingly tells of her frequent visits to the library and how it opened her world.

"Immigrants live in the gray spaces," Danticat says. "You're always trying to understand your new home, and the changes in your old home. You're forced to take a fluid view of things. That has much in common with all writing, with all coming of age. I hope the readers of Philadelphia will connect with it."

Contact staff writer John Timpane at 251-854-4406, jt@phillynews.com, or @jtimpane on Twitter.

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