Edwidge Danticat was born in Haiti in 1969 and grew up during a tumultuous period in the country’s history. By the time Danticat was four years old, both of her parents had left Haiti for the United States, but Danticat stayed with her aunt and uncle in Port-au-Prince, the capital. While there, she learned Haitian storytelling traditions, which is where Krik? Krak! gets its title. In Haiti, krik? is a request to tell a story, and obliging listeners answer krak. Danticat began writing stories as a child, and in 1981, when she was twelve, she joined her parents in Brooklyn, where she began speaking English instead of her native Creole (a blend of African dialects and French). After attending Barnard College, she went to Brown University to earn an MFA in creative writing. All of Danticat’s books deal with the Haiti that Danticat knew as a child, its tortured history, and the complicated politics that caused her to leave the country.
Danticat’s first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory (1994), is narrated by Sophie, a Haitian girl with a history that is superficially similar to Danticat’s own. Sophie is raised by her aunt in Haiti until she joins her mother in New York at age twelve. When Sophie finds out she was conceived when her mother was raped, their relationship, already difficult because of their long separation, becomes strained by issues of sexuality. Krik? Krak! (1995) was published next and nominated for a National Book Award. Danticat’s next novel, The Farming of the Bones (1998), concerns the 1937 massacre of Haitians who were trying to leave the Dominican Republic, an action ordered by its dictator, Rafael Trujillo Molinas. The massacre is also the subject of the short story “Nineteen Thirty-Seven” in Krik? Krak!. Recently, Danticat published The Dew Breaker (2004) about a man who used to be a torturer for the Haitian government and the many lives he affected. Danticat has also been involved with several anthologies of writings by diverse Haitian and Haitian-American authors. She often says that her voice is only one of many representing the Haitian people and refuses to be a spokesperson for the whole nation.
Haiti is on the island of Hispaniola, which it shares with the Dominican Republic. Columbus landed on Hispaniola in 1492 and claimed it for the Spanish, who imported African slaves to work on plantations. However, the Spanish population was concentrated on the eastern half of the island, and French pirates began conquering the western half. In 1697, a treaty gave the French possession of what is now Haiti. Producing abundant amounts of sugar, indigo, cotton, tobacco, and rum, among other things, Haiti quickly became one of the most economically successful settlements in the Caribbean. However, the profitable exploitation of slaves came to an end as repressed mulattoes and then black slaves began to revolt. In 1791, a slave named Boukman used voodoo priests and rituals to lead the first significant slave revolt. This set off a number of smaller revolts, leading to the revolution of the slave and General Toussaint L’Ouverture, who took control of all of Hispaniola, oversaw the end of slavery on the island, and established Haiti’s independence in 1804. Toussaint was killed by Napoleon, but Haiti remained independent. Its first ruler, Dessalines, made it a military force and executed the majority of the country’s white population.
Haiti’s former wealth all but disappeared, replaced by an extreme poverty and illiteracy that only worsened over the next few centuries. Early twentieth-century attempts by the United States to establish security in the country, including an American occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1934, failed. In 1957, a fraudulent election made a doctor named François “Papa Doc” Duvalier Haiti’s president. Duvalier became a despotic ruler and declared himself “president for life.” His tonton macoutes, a ruthless secret police named after a mythical Haitian monster, terrorized the nation, arresting or killing the government’s critics. Duvalier compared himself to both Haitian voodoo spirits and Jesus Christ, exploiting the country’s religious influences. He avoided deposition by the United States by opposing communism and allied himself with the Dominican Republic’s dictator, Trujillo (who in 1937 had massacred Haitians at the Dominican border). But while Duvalier’s political power and wealth increased, Haiti became the poorest country in the Americas. Duvalier stole as much money and land from his people as possible, using foreign aid money for his personal gain. The small percentage of educated Haitians fled the country for economic or political reasons.
When Duvalier died in 1971, his son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, continued his legacy of political tyranny and economic exploitation while making superficial reforms to improve Haiti’s international reputation. “Baby Doc” was deposed in 1986 because of opposition from both the Haitian people and the United States government. He left behind a power vacuum that resulted in military control, despite many attempts at democratic elections. In 1991, democracy seemed to be established with the election of Jean Bertrand Aristide. However, Aristide was overthrown months later by a military coup. In 1994, the United States government, under pressure from its Haitian citizens, restored Aristide to the presidency with threats of military invasion. Several democratic elections followed, but Haiti’s political status remains unstable, and its economic conditions are still the worst in the western hemisphere. Communities of Haitian immigrants and their Haitian-American descendants, including Danticat, remain in the United States.