2007 National Book Award Nonfiction Finalist Interview With Edwidge Danticat

Edwidge Danticat

Brother, I’m Dying

Alfred A. Knopf

Photo © Nancy Crampton.

Interview conducted by Jennifer Gonnerman.

JG: What was the hardest part of your book to write - and why was it so challenging?

ED: The hardest part was reading the government documents involved in my uncle's death.

Every encounter he had with a government official seemed so unfriendly, so distant, so cold. You have a feeling that no one was responding to him as a person, as a human being. It was also very difficult to write about my father's death. Obviously there was so much emotion involved.

I had been with my father just a few days before he died. This is not in the book but when I left him to return to Miami with my daughter before he died, he said to me, "When you come back, you might be able to see me, but I won't be able to see you."

Soon after that, he stopped eating and drinking and he died seventy-two hours later.

JG: What's the greatest personal debt you incurred while writing this book?

ED: I owe a great debt to the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center. They helped me get the government papers through Freedom of Information Act requests and even a lawsuit. I also owe a great debt to the lawyers who represented my uncle and cousin while they were in immigration custody. And of course I owe a great deal to my uncle and father. I feel like this book is a collaboration with the two of them.

JG: How long did you work on this book for - and how much do you think you ended up earning per hour?

ED: I worked on it for about two and a half years. I don't know how much I ended up earning per hour.

This book, I would have written for nothing.

JG: If you were a judge for this year's National Book Awards, what two non-fiction books would you have picked as finalists?

ED: Ummmm....I read more fiction than nonfiction, but I would have chosen the Arnold Rampersad book for sure. It's a wonderful book.

JG: What are three of your favorite non-fiction books of all time?

ED: James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families by Philip Gourevitch, Jamaica Kincaid's My Brother and Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking.

JG: Of all that transpired after your book was published, what was your favorite moment?

ED: At readings, people who have read the book bring me flowers and give me lots of hugs.

They say they feel like they're members of my family. Those moments are great.

JG: At your lowest moment, how many times a day did you check your Amazon rating? (Be honest!)

ED: I don't really do that. Honestly. I have a small child. When I get to the computer, I have to get to work quickly.

JG: What's the single best piece of advice you received while working on this book?

ED:Robin Desser, my editor, said, "Dig deeper. Go as deep as you can bear." She was right.

JG: What impact, if any, do you think your National Book Award nomination will have on your future work?

ED: I am lucky to have been nominated before, in fiction. I saw the impact then.

It makes people take you more seriously as a writer. I was twenty six years old when I was nominated twelve years ago. I remember suddenly feeling like a grown up because of it.

Jennifer Gonnerman is a contributing editor at New York Magazine. She was a finalist for the 2004 National Book Award for Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

Photo © Nina Subin