Color and beauty are seen as vibrant refuges for symbolism during times of crisis and rebuilding by author and proud Haiti and New York City native Edwidge Danticat.
ARQ: So my first question was about your latest project Girl Rising, where you’re working with young women in Haiti and trying to help them find an opportunity or a goal or something to guide them. Do you think that fashion has any role in building self-esteem and self-confidence?
Edwidge: One of the things that people who go to Haiti for the first time always tell me is, “Even in the poorest neighborhoods, you’ll see women and men who look so beautiful.” I remember, right after the earthquake, the girl we worked with on the film Girl Rising was living in a tent city and every morning out of the tent city you would see kids in beautifully pressed white uniforms. People are always struck by that, how beautiful people look even in the most difficult circumstances in Haiti, so I don’t think it’s frivolous at all. I wrote an article for Allure magazine after the earthquake that dealt a little bit with that. Beauty parlors, for example, emerged out of the tent cities; women who were in the tent cities were still seeking out places where they could make themselves beautiful, and they saw them as a kind of refuge, because even when you’d lost everything, you could still present a beautiful place to the world. So Haiti is not a place where people see beauty as frivolous at all. There’s a recent project that the government has done where they’ve painted these houses that are in a very poor neighborhood, but on a hill so that there’s a view defined. People agree or disagree with that. But it’s still a thing, like you can be in public transportation and it’s covered with beautiful paintings, so even when things are difficult, beauty has always been a part of Haitian life.
ARQ: You touched on the painting of buildings. Building and construction are obviously major issues in Haiti, especially in the last few years in the rebuilding. How important is it to balance the beauty of traditional Haitian style with modern building techniques and styles? Color would seem like a relatively easy and low-cost way to merge the two.
Edwidge: Well, this one is more sort of … you can look it up, it’s a place called Jalousie and it’s a very poor neighborhood on a hillside, and these things can always be debated because it is a surface solution, but it does have as striking look from afar. Then you wonder, “Okay, is that really changing the life of the people inside?” But visually it’s striking.
I think in Haiti, in particular, people moved away from the traditional construction methods because of hurricanes. So, for example, in the town Leogane, where my family’s from, when I went back after the earthquake to see some family members, maybe 90 percent of it was near the epicenter of the earthquake and something like 80 or 90 percent of the houses were destroyed, but the homes that I saw standing were the old-style homes. They were the wooden houses that sort of had a terrace, some of them were gingerbread style, and those, because they were built with very light materials, were still standing—and that was stunning. I think people had moved away from this type of construction because then they were fearing weather, so people started doing the cement houses, poorly built and without regulation. When they started talking about reconstruction, there was more talk initially in the beginning about rebuilding in the old Haitian way with lighter materials. I see people still rebuilding in the old style— they’re going back to concrete, so there’s that struggle. I think there would have to be a greater national effort to encourage people to get these models and make sure they’re also earthquake-resistant as much as hurricane-resistant.
ARQ: Some cultures seem to embrace vibrant colors rather than dull colors. I know you grew up in the New York area, and, as an example, New Yorkers seem to favor darker colors over neutral colors. They make a point about it, too!
Edwidge: Especially brooding girls at women’s colleges!
ARQ: That stands in contrast to Haitian culture, which embraces color and deploys it quite successfully, both on buildings and in fashion. Can you speak to the effect that you think using bold color has on a neighborhood or on a culture? Is it something that everyone acknowledges, perhaps the same way that New Yorkers say they favor neutral colors like gray or black?
Edwidge: When I lived in New York and I would get on the plane from New York and land in Haiti, I would feel literally like I had gone from black-and-white to Technicolor, especially in the winter. When you land in Haiti, the heat of the atmosphere and the heat of the colors immediately strike: the signs, the signs on businesses, the colors that buildings are painted in, the public transportation—it’s really just part of life. And there’s so much symbolism in color: for my New York days I wear a lot of black, and when I go to Haiti people always want to know if I’m in mourning. Because really, black is the color of mourning. You wear black when someone in your family dies. So they say, “Oh, I’m so sorry,” because I’m wearing my New York black. And even here, when I bring some of my clothes to the dry cleaner, they will say, “I’m so sorry, are you mourning?” Black is considered mourning and red is considered the color of victory.
When I was a kid in Haiti there was a whole range of symbols assigned to these colors, so if you gave your friend something yellow, that was sort of hopeful. There were really strong symbols attached to each color and you would offer something based on some emotion that you were trying to convey. So these colors were sort of weaved into the symbolism of daily life. And then you have those paintings, the murals and all these things. I often later on would think of it as sort of a way to keep back the other dark things, the hunger and political strife; I would see the day life was so full of color, it was as if that was trying to overcome all of that.
ARQ: How do you use color references in your writing?
Edwidge: Oh, a lot, I use a lot. And I didn’t even realize that I was using them until people would point them out. They would say, “You use a lot of reds, you use a lot of yellows.” I didn’t even realize that. But sometimes in my writing, I like to also borrow flora and fauna from other places; so I’ll have daffodils, but I’ll say, “It’s a tropical daffodil!” I try to incorporate the visual in my writing because there’s so much vibrancy; there’s so much visual in daily life. So if I’m writing about a place, usually the first thing I think is color. If I’m writing about the sea, I’m thinking, “What color is that at dawn? What color is that at dusk? What color is the sky at that moment?”
ARQ: There’s a lot more awareness.
Edwidge: Exactly, because you’re sort of in collaboration with nature—you have to be, it’s what’s giving you the signs. And I think part of it, too, is that it’s only on a level that, unless you’re discussing it, you don’t really think about. There are some things you certainly would not wear—red if you’re in mourning. You would never wear red to a funeral. That’s like saying, “I killed the person.” You can send messages with color.